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Chapman’s News & Ideas Reflections on the Revolution in England (and, oh, yeah, Scotland)

Our friend A. M. Radcliff offers this amusing assessment of the recent election. It is rendered even more delicious when one realizes the serendipity of yesterday’s Gospel reading in the Church of England (and throughout much of the liturgical Christian world) was John 15:13.

Greater Love

“Greater love hath no man than this: that he lay the down the lives of his friends for his own”.The words were famously used in the House of Commons to taunt the then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1962 (when, in an episode later called “the night of the long knives’, he suddenly sacked seven ministers in his cabinet in an effort revive his faltering fortunes).

There is now a peculiar spice to these words, not only because they were delivered by the late Jeremy Thorpe MP. (Who, as it happened was later accused and put on trial for attempting a real murder of which he was ultimately acquitted). But also, because he was speaking as a Liberal MP, and taunting the then Conservative Prime Minister. This resonates now, as it can well be argued that the current Prime Minister –again a Conservative— has just won his election victory at the cost of sacrificing some 49 former friends. Only this time, the victims were not fellow Conservatives but rather his former coalition partners in the Liberal Democrat Party.

Having gone into coalition with the Government for five years, the party has now been savaged by the electorate, which reduced their number of MPs from 57 to 8 (even though they got 7.9 % of the national vote while the UK Independence got 12.6% but only one seat as their vote was too widely but thinly spread). It may seem a cruel paradox that the electorate penalized the Liberal Democrats for propping up the last Conservative government while increasing its support for the Conservatives themselves. This points to a critical error of judgment by the Liberal leader Nick “calamity” Clegg (as he was once known and will no doubt be again hereafter). After all, if you have been part of a government it is hard to run in the subsequent election a campaign attacking it. Was it not predictable that the electorate was likely to conclude that if you are going to support a Conservative government you might as well be a Conservative and so preferred to vote for the real thing instead?

The Liberals tactic of suggesting that their future role could be to mitigate the extremism of either main party, with whom they were however open to negotiating a new coalition, inevitably ran the risk of seeming unprincipled. Their moralizing tone was also undermined by Mr. Clegg’s infamous willingness to abandon a pledge, made in the 2010 election campaign, to scrap all tuition fees for students, since, once in government, he agreed to charge them up to 9000 each a year instead. His suggestion that his party could give a heart to a future conservative administration or a mind to a Labour one, now looks unfortunate, for the electorate as it turned out wanted neither, though in a rather different sense it did claim his head, since Mr. Clegg has now resigned, just like Mr. Milliband the leader of the Labour Party and Mr. Nigel Farage that of UK Independence Party who failed to win his own seat.

The larger story is, however, that of the Labour Party and the rise of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP). For here again, it was a coalition, or rather the mere idea of one, that proved Labour’s undoing. Historically, the Labour party has for many decades been disproportionately strong in Scotland, which, like much of Wales was seen as a Labour heartland. Indeed, without Scottish Labour MPs, the Labour Party could not have formed governments in the past. And here, David Cameron’s ill managed entanglement in the snares of the Referendum in Scotland, has born unexpected fruit, for the electorate it seems had grown tired of being presumed upon by a Labour party which they saw as very London based. While many leading Labour figures, such as former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, have founded their careers in Scotland, the impression was allowed to grow that their main focus was in the south. Despite losing the Referendum, the SNP gained massively from its campaigning and publicity and thus became a natural home for those who wanted to protest. Moreover, it preached a siren message that it would extract ever more funding from England in return for supporting a Labour Party which could no longer take power without it. This was doubly lethal for Labour, as it encouraged its former supporters in Scotland to leave while frightening English voters back to the Conservative party for fear that they could otherwise end up with a government effectively controlled by a small minority of Scottish Nationalist MPs.

Ultimately, the Labour party ended up routed in Scotland while also losing any claim to be a national party in the rest of the UK, where its support is now limited to the north and certain urban areas. Many forget that from its origins the Scottish National Party has had roots in the extreme left, so it was only natural that they would see their best ally for a coalition as the Labour Party, in what they described, with joyful anticipation, as a unity of progressive politics. They failed to see that this would be a hug of death for the Labour Party nationally.

The problem now for the SNP is that, while they have 56 of the 59 seats in Scotland, (with just 4.7% of the British vote) without a coalition they can make much noise but wield no power. And they do not seem to want another Referendum yet, which might in theory secure such power, as they realize they would probably lose it. So the only way now for them, in terms of popular support, is probably down, since they face massive expectations upon which they simply cannot deliver. Yet, over the long term it has to be a danger to the Union if they are enabled only ever to complain and never be held responsible for the politics of grievance which has served them so well.
Nonetheless, since they won such a high percentage of the Scottish vote, they will be a problem for Mr. Cameron, who may be faced with the temptation of having to give Scotland even more autonomy than he promised in an ill considered panic in the last days before the Referendum. The danger here is that, if he gives full fiscal independence and removes all the subsidies from England he will be seen as exacting revenge, and will thus fuel secession, but he cannot be put in the position of being blackmailed into writing the Nationalists a blank check. Perhaps however, it was a telling image the day after the election when, in an official ceremony to mark VE day in London at the Cenotaph, the SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, lined up dutifully with all the other party leaders to lay a wreath. Does this evidence, even now, the power of the “Establishment” to subsume those who would repudiate it? It is rumoured that Mr. Cameron has already been on the phone in extensive conversations with Mrs. Sturgeon, but she may be wise to beware his bearing gifts, after all, look what happened to his late liberal friends…

Mr. Cameron, however, clearly does face major problems. He is committed to a referendum on the European Union, but hopes it will leave the UK still a member. Given his shaky recent record with referenda, there has to be some doubt as to whether he can easily achieve this. And one of the reasons that the EU views such votes with disapproval is that, when asked, European electorates have a disconcerting habit of voting the “wrong” way (As the saga in Ireland when they had to keep on holding referenda until the Maastricht treaty was finally approved illustrated.) The European establishment is also disinclined to make concessions, in return for a reluctant UK membership, but without them Mr. Cameron will lack the basis upon which to argue that we should stay.

Domestically too, the Tory reputation for managing a sound economy means that many of the cuts needed to reduce the dangerously high level of national debt will now have to be implemented. Yet during the election campaign, in response to ever more rash pledges by Labour to protect spending, the Tory Party also “ring fenced” all manner of budgets. So where are the cuts to be found, unless the areas that remain unprotected are to be utterly savaged in ways that are politically unfeasible? This connects closely to one of the subjects most notable by its absence from the campaign, which is that of what Britain’s future place in the international polity of nations should be.

Britain, like the United States, has perhaps sunk to its lowest ebb of international engagement for decades and this has unquestionably cost the country something in terms of its international status. But changing this policy would mean expensive commitments not least in terms of the military spending needed to underpin a truly global reach and how is this to be done? The government hope must be a sustained revival of the economy, but with a stagnating Europe and rather fragile global context is that realistic? The rapid rise in the value of Sterling after the election result can only make our exports less competitive and a low employment recovery will be politically dangerous. The old adage of the Stock Exchange to “sell in May and go away” could prove dangerously prophetic of tough days ahead.
But with all this said, a victory is a victory (even if the party only secured 36.9% of the national vote against Labour’s 30.4%) and no matter how incredulous much of the media commentariate was, at the result of the election– so dramatically not anticipated by the vaunted polls– Mr. Cameron is now secure in Downing Street, without the need of a coalition (though over time his majority may become more fragile and its small size could tempt disaffected MPs to be much more assertive as he will need every vote). But it is over two decades since the Tory party has enjoyed this level of success, so this is unquestionably no mean achievement.

What now remains to be set out is just what kind of Tory philosophy Mr. Cameron espouses. Hitherto, he could always say that his options were constrained by the coalition, but what will he now do to demonstrate an approach that is truly distinctive? In recent years, since the time of Mrs. Thatcher, we have seen the rise of a pragmatism largely unburdened by philosophical or ideological commitment. Mr. Blair was an exceptionally successful exponent of this and it allowed him to escape the shackles of prior Labour Party commitments to real socialism and such things as the State ownership of the principal means of production, which he found entirely embarrassing. Is Mr. Cameron merely a more completely market-oriented version of the same thing? It has seemed for some time as though being Conservative merely means a belief in free market capitalism (which is ultimately a form of liberalism ironically) allied with social libertarianism. This is somewhat different from the historic roots of what it meant to be a real Tory. It would be an irony indeed of Mr Cameron were ultimately to be the heir of Blair and thus Labour’s last gift to the nation.

Then again, if, as seems likely, the more traditional socialist edges that occasionally slipped out from Ed Milliband – who was after all the scion of a truly hard core Marxist – now disappear from Labour with him, what will be left truly to separate the parties? Must it only be pragmatic diversity on this or that issue of the day?

These comments opened with the theme of political assassination and, surprisingly, it has still yet further salience in that, the now former leader of the Labour Party, Mr Ed Milliband, only ascended to his position by ruthlessly defeating his own elder brother David, in the vote to lead the party after the electoral defeat of Gordon Brown. This act of fratricide is one from which neither the watching nation, nor the bonds of family affection have it seems ever quite recovered and it underpins a running theme in comments made about his leadership, namely that voters felt he had “trust issues”.

Now he will, ironically, be further remembered for an eccentric decision to have carved on a massive tablet, of the finest limestone, the vaguely worded pledges he wanted to make in the election campaign. An aid went on to stress, unhelpfully, that while carved in stone the pledges were not necessarily entirely unalterable…. Another failed Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, was famously described as having penned, in his Party’s then manifesto, “the longest suicide note in history” Mr. Milliband can only hope that he will not cap this by being remembered for producing an eight foot high tombstone for Labour. Yet even that may still look better than the fate of the Liberal Democrats who seem at the moment, however grateful Mr. Cameron is for the memories, to be headed for an entirely unmarked grave