In hindsight the most important trend in politics over the last decade has been the rise of nationalism – and the backlash against internationalist liberals, inevitably styled an “elite”, as if all political movements were not led by elites. In Britain did the Coalition stood firmly against this trend.
In this third article of three reviewing the Coalition, I will look at its record on the business of politics itself. In the first article I looked at the record on the economy, in the second I looked at public service reform. In my choice of three topics I am leaving quite a lot out. On the environment and energy, the Coalition made a decisive move towards renewable energy, perhaps its biggest single achievement; on civil liberties it rolled back, slightly, the heavy-handed approach of its predecessor; a notable achievement was the implementation of gay marriage; in foreign affairs there was an intervention in Libya alongside the French which met its short-term aims but left a mess; apprenticeships were given a major lift, but further education colleges (i.e. not universities) suffered neglect. There was a rather pointless reform of policing, though whether this, and austerity measures, led, eventually, to a rise in crime is a moot point. I would rather blame the dismantling of so much civic infrastructure run by local authorities, which the Coalition started, but which its successor doubled down on. A rather mixed record then, but perhaps not too bad by the standards of five-year terms.
But what of political reform? How much were we aware in 2010 of the rising tide of populism and nationalism? In 2009 the political establishment was rocked by a scandal over MPs’ expenses. This distilled a growing disillusionment with the way politics was run, after the wave of enthusiasm that greeted the “New Labour” victory in 1997. Politics seemed to be run by an out-of-touch elite of professionals, whose competence was thrown into question by the global financial crisis, which struck Britain particularly hard, and whose rotten moral compass was now exposed.
But the new kids on the block thought they could get beyond that by deposing the old Labour regime and its nannying ways. Liberal Democrats were especially hopeful that the experience of coalition politics would demonstrate a new, more transparent politics, that would help build confidence. Politics was indeed more transparent, but nobody thanked them for it. Indeed the Lib Dems’ entry into government to most people showed the unaccountable elite at work; the Lib Dems seemed to be enjoying their time at the top table too much, feeding the narrative that they were putting their careers before the country. The ambiguities in the electoral coalition that brought the Lib Dems their substantial presence in parliament were exposed cruelly. The party’s popularity was in free fall before a spectacular U-turn on student tuition fees dealt the party a blow from which it still hasn’t recovered.
The weakness of the Lib Dems did for most of the constitutional reforms that the party had hoped to push through. A referendum on adopting the Alternative Vote for parliamentary elections was lost heavily as their Conservative coalition partners mobilised against it, doing long-term damage to the whole prospect of electoral reform. Reform of the House of Lords disappeared as the political establishment cold-shouldered it. The Lib Dems extracted limited revenge by stymying a Conservative project to equalise constituencies to their advantage. This left the Fixed Term Parliament Act, implemented mainly to stabilise the coalition, in which it was mainly successful. This legislation has few friends these days, but it is still there. It’s value was shown last year when it briefly empowered parliament against a mandate-less government.
More positively the Coalition progressed the development of City regions, taking on more devolved powers, and coordinating local councils. This project was led by Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, and Conservative minister Greg Clark. This was a process started by Labour – but the government limited council’s ability to raise revenue or borrow, which are the key tests for meaningful devolution.
In broader politics Labour started its long journey down the far-left anti-austerity rabbit hole, leaving the field clear for the two most important developments: the rise of Scottish nationalism, and theBrexit movement, led by Ukip. Both would dominate politics for the rest of the decade. The Coalition found itself on the defensive on both counts, but kept both at bay.
In Scotland the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) surged to victory in the Scottish elections of 2011. The Coalition accepted this as a mandate for a referendum on Scottish independence. Was this a mistake? It did not help to heal the rift between Scotland and England. I suspect Coalition leaders accepted the SNP government’s moral case; neither party had any appetite for a prolonged battle over whether such a referendum should take place, and in the event the main victim was in fact Labour. The referendum took place in 2014, and the unionists won. But the battle energised the SNP, whose dominance of Scottish politics continues to this day. Many see Scottish independence as an inevitability. I am not so sure, but coherent opposition to the SNP seems to be a long way off.
In due course the battles over Scottish independence would be dwarfed by the Brexit movement. This movement successfully channelled dissatisfaction with the Coalition and its liberal leadership in a way Labour could not, as the previous Labour government was seen as part of the problem. The battle was fought on two fronts. First was within the Conservative Party. While its leader, the prime minister David Cameron, had a strong grip on the parliamentary party (helped by the presence of Lib Dems in coalition), the Brexit movement gathered strength at grassroots level. Second was the rise of Nigel Farage’s Ukip. This quickly replaced the Lib Dems as Britain’s third party in opinion polls, and gnawed away at the Conservatives’ local base. The only way that Mr Cameron had found to keep the movement in check was the promise of an EU referendum, knowing that he could rely on the Lib Dems to veto it. At the same time his chief electoral strategy was to destroy the Lib Dems at the next election. The 2016 referendum was where this strategy ended up.
Looked at with hindsight the Coalition’s battles with nationalism look like a moderately successful rearguard action. They succeeded in delaying their enemies but without any ideas on how to stop them. What if Mr Cameron had narrowly won that referendum in 2016? It is hard to think that British politics would be anything other than very ugly.
Liberals have now developed a much better understanding of the problem: the pressures on small towns and the countryside, of economic growth that bypasses most people. But answers? We have made little progress since Coalition days, having preferred to rally around opposing Brexit. With the nationalist takeover of the Tory party now floundering, and with the old-fashioned leftism of Jeremy Corbyn defeated, this is surely the moment to do better than that. But new liberals will not look back on the Coalition government of 2010 to 2015 as a template.