Monday, 27 April 2015
A fractured Parliament could be an opportunity for a more adult politics
British politics is in a muddle. It has not been so unstable since the confusing 1920s, when Labour and the Liberals competed to be the main anti-Conservative Party on the left, and when the Liberals propped up a Labour government (even though it had come second in the December 1923 election) - a period that only came to an end in a dire economic crisis and an all-party National Government.
But perhaps there's an opportunity here. For 'Westminster', that much-maligned clique of 'politicians' and 'governors', to acquit themselves well.
For it's becoming clear that the House of Commons (above) that will be returned at this General Election will be a mixed bag indeed. We know - or think we know - a lot about what's likely to happen. The Conservatives will very likely be the largest party. Labour will make some progress in English marginal seats, particularly at the expense of the Liberal Democrats. The Scottish National Party will wipe most of their opponents off the map - and possibly, given their polling strength, off the face of the earth.
But that'll mean that politicians will have to act like grown-ups. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats might well not have enough votes to govern any more, except as a pair - though regular readers will know that this blog believes that a continuation of the current coalition is the most likely outcome of this election. They may have to call in Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionists, and perhaps 'phone the United Kingdom Independence Party for some help once in a while. On the other hand, it may be that a Conservative-led administration just can't emerge from the House of Commons, because there are 323 or more Opposition MPs dedicated to blocking them. Then Ed Miliband, Labour's leader, will just have to take up the burdens of office, even though Labour are some way shy of the Conservatives' seat total - and whether he likes it or not.
Now let's not get carried away. All parties are not equal. The Liberal Democrats' alliance with the Conservatives has seen them acquiesce in all sorts of needless cruelty. The Work Capability Assessment that has seen thousands forced to work beyond their physical and mental capacity; the disability benefit 'reforms' that have gone so spectacularly awry that thousands of Britons have been left waiting for what is rightfully theirs; the Universal Credit welfare system that is such a disaster that its death will swiftly follow the General Election; the 'bedroom tax' that has cut people's income just because they have a spare room (and can't find smaller accommodation, even if they try). This Government's treatment of working people has been worse than disdainful. It's been nasty, brutal, intimidating and swaggering. It's one of the reasons they're struggling with actual voters - a revelation that would help the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats no end, if they just opened their eyes.
Turning to other parts of the Commons, the SNP's economic prospectus is deeply injurious to their credibility - and they know it. It's such thin stuff that they've been trying to get away from it themselves over the past few weeks, downplaying all talk of Full Fiscal Autonomy or Responsibility for Scotland with the vague assertion 'well, it'll take years anyway. Why worry?' Any rational economist can only despair. But their very realism in this respect gives grounds for hope. The SNP know that Full Fiscal Autonomy isn't happening, and that they need to de-emphasise independence as well until they can win a Scottish General Election in a year's time. They may not even go for a second independence referendum (which they may well lose anyway) during the lifetime of that Parliament. In the meantime, both the SNP and the other Nationalist parties can all get on with some actual governing - including widening the base of the Scottish economy so that it doesn't depend on oil, gas, whisky and banking.
We could go on. No doubt we will. But even though potential partners may be few and far between (the Liberal Democrats have announced that they don't want to work with the SNP and UKIP, and Mr Miliband has ruled out any talks at all with the SNP) accommodations of some sort - even if implicit - will have to be reached. Money Bills have to be passed. Civil servants have to be paid. Threats to peace and security have to be met. The country has to be governed.
It need not be an existential crisis, as the more excitable elements of the press have pretended. We've been here before, between 1976 and 1979 - a period of some achievement (and, in the end, some disaster) when the UK came back from the IMF loan and the sterling crisis of 1976 with some vigour and vim. Jim Callaghan wouldn't have had any truck with curling up in despair, washing his hands of leadership, or getting his hands dirty with a load of behind-the-scenes deals (please pick the image and metaphor you like the best). And neither should we.
We should plunge out into our new politics with enthusiasm, saying 'well, the people have dealt us this hand - let's get on with it'. If there is a Labour-led government, for instance, why not have MPs from different parties on different Cabinet Committees? Why not stop pretending that the next stop is an overall majority (because without Scotland, in Labour's case it almost certainly isn't)? Why not inch forward, vote-by-vote, measure-by-measure, argument-by-argument? Let's face it, it's not as if we need more legislation anyway. Why not try to make the United Kingdom work, including the SNP and other Nationalists as the legitimate British parties that they are and always will be? It's got to be better than the hateful-in-tooth-and-claw attack dog politics we've seen from the Conservatives in recent weeks, including the poisonous attacks on the SNP that seem likely only to hasten the end of the Union itself.
This more mature, more kaleidoscopic, more adult politics would send a message. That even in these twilight days, with the United Kingdom in what may be its dying fall, the British can still do things right.
Let's hope we can manage it, shall we?