Barack Obama, having hit a new low in the polls, could lose his congressional majority later this year. Responsibility is relatively clear cut in a two-party system: Obama and the Democrats will ultimately own any defeat as much as they owned victory. The only blame they’ll be able to pass is among each other, or between the different levels of government they fully control.
This isn’t the case in Britain anymore. At least not since this past May. Ideological principles and boundaries have been declared old and stuffy. Mixing them all up into a big contradictory mess, then bamboozling voters, is the new thing.
The Deputy Prime Minster of Britain, Nick Clegg, whose Liberal Democrats party came third in the UK’s May election, now sits in the driver’s lap with his hands on the wheel. Clegg recently called his coalition government rule alongside David Cameron’s Conservatives a “permanent” change in party politics, replacing the “old duopoly” of two-party dominance.
It’s easy for him to protest against the traditional system, because he didn’t “win” in the ordinary sense of the term—although you’d never know it because Clegg secured enough seats in the election to “top up” either one of the two main parties (Conservative or Labour).
Clegg was then aggressively pursued, bedded—and the morning after, a new bipartisan ConDem platform was born of a union fuelled strictly by power. At least they were of the same species, if not ideology—although I doubt that would have stopped them. Not to say that real feelings won’t develop with time—but it was an arranged quickie marriage, born of concession between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
There was a better option. Having won the most seats of any party in the election, Cameron could have refrained from making political advances towards Clegg and publicly stated the following:
“As the party chosen by the people to lead this government in a fresh new direction, we are committed to working with ALL parties on an issue by issue, ad hoc basis to reflect the desire of the electorate to see their government working together to solve the serious issues of the country. A minority government result suggests that people are looking for greater cooperation in moving forward, not coalition alliances formed through ol’ boy politics and backroom dealings."
One night stands rather than a marriage would have resulted in transparent debates on each issue. The public would have seen each party’s position debated and defended before being subjected to roll call. But instead, the debate is happening behind closed doors, with no one really knowing how the sausage is being made, or who contributed which ideas.
David Cameron’s strength might very well be one of leadership, but it’s uncertain whether we’ll ever know it. According to an IPSOS poll three weeks before the election, voters considered the top issues to be the economy (55%), race relations/immigration (29%), and crime (25%).
Cameron and Clegg have since tackled one of those—the economy—by proposing to both cut spending and raise taxes (with a VAT set to jump by 2.5% to a 20% total). Is this the kind of predictable ideological bastard child we’re to expect from this union?
Not that they seem to know which spending to cut—or at least don’t want to give the impression that they yet know—which is presumably why they’re asking the public to tell them through a website. “Scotland is a luxury we can’t afford”, and “hold the 2012 Olympics at Walthamstow dog track,” and join “MY BROTHER DIED” are some of the illuminating contributions from the online intelligentsia.
To what degree any of it works remains to be seen. Coalitions have failed everywhere since the days of the First Triumvirate which blew apart the Roman Republic. Yet another is set to collapse around Chancellor Angela Merkel’s neck in Germany after less than a year in power.
The prognosis is typically bleak in Britain. Even in the best-case scenario, there is no long-term upside for Cameron: If the coalition becomes unpopular, voters aren’t going to be up for playing the same hide-the-salami game with responsibility that Cameron and Clegg are playing. Angry voters won’t have the patience to carefully separate the two parties if they go looking for heads to roll. And if it turns out to be a success, Cameron’s challenge will be in convincing voters to allocate him and his party sufficient credit in the absence of his coalition partners to accord him a full majority in the next election.
It looks as though the coalition is set to address the non-contentious common points first, perhaps to buy time and longevity. Then they’re going to fuss with the window dressing while the bulldozer revs up outside, bringing to mind Cameron’s promise to allow Clegg a referendum on Britain’s long-held voting system which has always worked rather well.
But a promise is a promise, and now the country is going to have to be dragged through this exercise because it was in the pre-nupt between these two. The same pre-nupt, drawn up over the course of a weekend, which miraculously reconciled the Tories’ immigration cap with the Lib Dems’ push for amnesty.
Good luck with that.