May 12, 2010
Here on the tea-drinking, Marmite-spreading side of the pond, everyone has been in a tizzy for the past few days about the sensational outcome of the General Election last Thursday--no less sensational for having been widely predicted. With the voting public of the UK having developed a thorough contempt of Gordon Brown and Labour’s dismal record of nine years of licking America’s boots, yet unable to forget the deep hostility to the Tories that they contracted in the ‘90s, they found themselves seeking to steer between Scylla and Charybdis. Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrat party set out to occupy that strategic position between the two monsters, and thought they were poised for a breakthrough election, but failed dismally, winning only 57 of the 650 seats despite 23% of the popular vote. The result, generally anticipated but still quite disconcerting when it happened, was a Hung Parliament, the first in 36 years--meaning that no party had a majority, even though the Conservatives had managed to beat out Labour by a margin of 305 to 258. The options at this point were four: 1) the Tories could form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats to form a solid majority government; 2) Labour could form a coalition with the Lib Dems and a couple other minor parties to form a slight majority government; 3) no coalition would be formed, but Labour would defiantly cling to power until it became too unpopular to continue to do so; 4) no coalition would be formed, but Gordon Brown would resign, and David Cameron, the Tory leader, would become Prime Minister and run a minority government until it became too unpopular to do so.
Clearly option 1 was the most desirable, and yet seemingly quite difficult to achieve, since the Lib Dems and the Tories occupied rather opposite ends of the political spectrum. And so an odd drama played out over the last five days, as both parties grovelled at the feet of Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, despite his terrible showing in the election. Finally, last night, having wrung generous concessions from the Tories (the deputy prime ministership for himself, and five other cabinet positions for the Lib Dems), Nick Clegg threw his lot in with David Cameron, giving the UK its first coalition government since WWII and its youngest prime minister in 198 years.
As someone who has just been reading with interest Philip Blond’s Red Tory [I should clarify to American readers that, everywhere outside the US, “Red” equals left-wing, and “Blue” equals right-wing], I can’t help but be intrigued and excited by this outcome, and disposed to be much less cynical than normal. Does this coalition of Liberal Democrats and Conservatives suggest the possibility of a genuinely Red Tory agenda, the best of both left and right--social conservatism and fiscal responsibility combined with anti-nationalism and anti-corporatism? Or will it mean rather a Blue Liberal agenda, the worst of both worlds that we saw with Labour--market libertarianism and social libertarianism, expensive welfarism co-existing with unprincipled corporatism? Only time will tell. Of course, more likely than either is that the alliance will prove impossible to maintain, and will break down within a year or two.
In any case, however, as an American who is accustomed to the unseemly spectacle of Republicans and Democrats refusing to ever even vote for the same bill, it is an exciting and refreshing prospect to see such historically-opposed parties uniting to actually form a single coalition government! It’s as if McCain had won the election and then invited Al Gore to be his vice president! So, although opportunities for cynicism abound, I insist on seeing the bright side, at least this once.