Saturday, May 08, 2010

Some Humble Opinions On the British General Election and Aftermath

In the wake of a General Election result in Britain which has left the United Kingdom with a hung Parliament and plenty of political uncertainty, there is no small amount of discussion about what Conservative Leader David Cameron should do. Cameron has offered to make an arrangement for a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, a move that would have been unthinkable not 72 hours ago:

During one of the most extraordinary days in British political history, the
Conservative leader made an unprecedented “big, open and comprehensive offer” to the Liberal Democrats after the election ended in the first hung parliament for 36 years.
To the astonishment of many at Westminster and beyond, Mr Brown stubbornly refused to accept election defeat despite Labour losing almost 100 seats.

Instead, the Prime Minister attempted to woo the Liberal Democrat leader with a power-sharing offer of his own.

After a night in which the Tories had appeared confident of securing an overall majority, Mr Cameron looked shell-shocked as he addressed a press conference at which he outlined a ground-breaking and, until yesterday, unthinkable offer to the Liberal Democrats.

Mr Cameron, who had declared that Labour had lost its right to govern, outlined the areas of policy agreement between the Conservatives and Lib Dems, which offered “a strong basis for a strong government”.

The Tory leader made clear that while he was prepared to offer Mr Clegg concessions on tax, education, climate change and civil liberties he would not move on the crucial policy areas of immigration, Europe and the Trident missile system. He would also only offer the Lib Dems an all-party inquiry into electoral reform.

It has been established even by people within Gordon Brown's own Labour Party that the current Prime Minister is a selfish, arrogant, pompous jackass. He also has no real regard for the results of an election that, while not making the Conservatives the majority party, has clearly made them the largest one. It is as if the British electorate has said with a loud voice "we aren't yet sure if we want the Tories, but we are bloody sure that we don't want you, weasel."

Amidst the discussion of what the Conservatives are to do comes a rather frightening suggestion from former Conservative (defeated) cabinet minister Michael Portillo:

The prospect of ditching the Tory party Right wing is hardly dismaying. A new centre Right grouping (New Conservatives?) would probably find it easier to win under any system than the old Conservatives did on Thursday night. The British people have voted for new politics, and Cameron is poised to deliver it.
Portillo's idea of simply ditching the Conservative Party's actual small-c "conservatives" is workable only if the Conservative Party, which would then not have terribly many conservatives in it, is poised to accept that it may never have a workable majority again. Instead, David Cameron needs to ask himself why it is that his party did not win an outright majority:

Dave had to fight a widely despised Prime Minister leading a Government incompetent and destructive on a scale unseen in living memory. Seldom has there been a softer target; but seldom has one been missed so unnecessarily. With just 36 per cent of the vote, the Tories stood almost still since 2005. They are now on their knees to their other enemy, the Lib Dems.

It should not have come to this. As I rang round Tory MPs some were incandescent at the conduct not just of the campaign, but of the whole anti-core vote strategy that has alienated many natural Tory voters.

But let us not forget that the roots of this problem go back to 2005. The party has chosen to mimic and validate the policies of its opponents, with the result that the public found little to choose between the main parties. This was exemplified in the television debates, in which the leaders fell over themselves to agree not only with any contention put to them by the public, but even with each other.

The party spoke with a clear voice: the voice of neo-Blairism, of flannel, and not a voice of conservative principle. This should not have surprised any reader of this column, for I have long maintained that Mr Cameron is not a conservative. His slogans of social democracy – "hope, not fear" and, of course, "change" – simply presented a warm bath of sentiment to a people who wanted specific details of what would be done to rescue our country from the economic knackers' yard. No wonder it was so straightforward for him to hold out the hand of friendship to the Lib Dems: he almost is one.

The Tory Party needs to articulate not only policy differences with their Labour and Liberal Democrat opponents-something that they do seem to have done effectively when observed from this side of the pond-but real, clear, and sustainable philosophical differences. Some who are familiar with my personal political views and writing may say "now Oatney, it sounds like you are just saying all of this because you are a right-winger yourself." It is a fair point, but I'm saying it because it has a much larger and, in a sense, universal political application. If I have learned anything from my own interaction with politics and my personal political experiences it is that a political party needs both wings to fly. I have real differences with the moderates in my own Republican Party, but I am not so politically naive as to believe that life will become easier for us politically if we just throw the moderates out. You put far more pressure on your right leg when you cut off your left leg. Similarly, if Britain's Conservative Party makes the deadly mistake of cutting off it's "strong Right arm," it will be left with a weakened Left arm that won't look terribly much different to voters than Labour, or even the Liberal Democrats. Power means little to decent people without real principles behind it.

The well-exposed Conservative Member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan thinks that a deal for a coalition government with the liberal Democrats is a real possibility under the circumstances:

Is it possible to reach an accommodation with the Lib Dems based on fiscal tightening? I think so. The two parties are divided over timing, not principle. On the campaign trail, Nick Clegg claimed that deferring the cuts was a whizz-bang piece of Keynesian pump-priming. But he is privately aware that postponement will make the cuts more painful when they come – as the Greeks are now discovering. With polling day out of the way, Cleggie no longer has any reason to deny the truth.

Both parties, meanwhile, want to scrap ID cards and reverse some of the more statist legislation passed by Labour in the guise of anti-terrorism measures. Both agree that our political system needs renewal. Both want recall mechanisms, popular initiative procedures, reform of the Upper House, fewer MPs, a shift in power from Whips to backbenchers and from executive to legislature. These things would have a far more tangible and benign impact on our political system than proportional representation.

Proportional representation is the hue and cry of political formations the world over-both those on the Left and on the Right-that can't win a free and fair election if they tried to buy one. Britain's Liberal Democrats have proven that even with better political leadership, they still don't have anything remotely approaching the confidence of the electorate in that country, so proportional representation is their only hope to amount to anything. The Conservatives are right to resist the idea unless they want to be left trying to cobble together coalitions in future with the likes of the British National Party, which could win seats under a proportional representation scheme.

To govern as Prime Minister in the present, however, David Cameron will need a coalition with his other political rivals, the Liberal Democrats. The wise thing to do would not be to sell out on proportional representation, but to accomplish electoral reform in other ways, such as more even constituencies to give votes an equal weight. Oh, and a real referendum on membership in the European Union, one that Euro-skeptics may very well win, is something Cameron and the Conservatives should consider to make themselves truly distinguishable from Labour or the Lib Dems.

David Cameron has an excellent chance to use coalition government to show the British public why the Conservatives should again be given a chance to govern Britain outright-if he doesn't blow it.

Just a few humble thoughts from the other side of the water...

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