Thursday, 13 May 2010

Power, principle and political promiscuity

The debate on the UK's shiny new coalition government has employed lots of imagery relating to male/female non-platonic relationships - flirting, jumping into bed together, a loveless marriage etc - but is the new relationship likely to last after an initial one-night stand, a subsequent whirlwind romance and now perhaps something of an arranged/forced/shotgun marriage rather than something born of a deep and lasting love? Will they stay together for the sake of the kids, or will it be more Kramer vs Kramer rather than a match made in heaven?

The Lib Dems have certainly conveyed the impression of political promiscuity, having had a brief fling with Labour after a holiday romance with the Conservatives, before returning to the latter and tying the knot after a mere handful of dates and concluding that David Cameron's chat-up lines were preferable to Gordon Brown's.

On the other hand, all the parties have been trying to jump into bed with each other, and it all reminds me of municipal politics in Dundee, where power, status and a few bob extra for a convenorship often seems more important than principle. Yet despite the odd spat and the usual partisanship, underneath it all there seems little to separate the political groupings other than the party label and, for example, the SNP's rise to power in the city seemed to offer little more concrete than the hope of more cash from Holyrood because of Nationalist control, thus crude pork-barrelling rather than anything more principled. But when all's said and done, on substantive policy matters the council seems fairly consensual.

Of course, on the national stage there's a lot more at stake and there's lots more in terms of policy and differences thereto, thus the potential for the sleeping around to result in a messy divorce.

But there's nothing wrong with the rhetoric of "balanced", "productive" and "co-operation" used by Alex Salmond to describe the Scottish Parliament under his minority SNP Government when proclaiming the virtues of the possibility of a hung parliament at Westminster, and Messrs Cameron and Clegg have predictably used similar terminology to describe their own nascent coalition.

That is, there's nothing wrong with the language of consensus if there's substance behind it rather than mere rhetoric. And, of course, Mr Salmond's "co-operation" perspective on Holyrood is perhaps best juxtaposed beside the reality of the yah boo politics on display at FMQs. And there's surely been nothing particularly "productive" about the SNP administration because - and ignoring the substantive merits of its policies - its lack of a majority means that it has been unable to implement most of its flagship manifesto promises. And the other parties - for their own reasons - haven't wanted to precipitate an election, hence a large degree of political paralysis.

Of course, the Westminster coalition will enjoy a healthy majority, and to that extent it can be assertive and productive, but of necessity such an arrangement means that some policies will have to be abandoned by both sides, while others will have to be watered down substantially.

Thus will Cameron's coalition government enjoy sufficient strength and purpose to tackle the UK's myriad problems? It seems unlikely that an administration at Westminster as substantively anodyne as the one at Holyrood would be able to operate for long without precipitating some major event, such as a fundamental crack appearing in the coalition and thus perhaps leading to another election.

Indeed, Clegg and Cameron's display of bonhomie and backslapping at yesterday's al fresco press conference - a sort of cross between Bush and Blair and Ant and Dec - just seemed too good to be true. Like Jordan and Peter Andre getting together after their Australian jungle capers, you just know that it'll all end in tears, and the likes of the jokes about what the politicians have said about each other in the past will eventually be replaced by something less friendly.

The problem is, of course, that politicians tend to say one thing to one audience and something else to another, and one thing at one time and another thing later.

For example, despite Alex Salmond's fine words about consensus and compromise in relation to a hung parliament, it should be recalled that a mere six months ago he was hoping that the Westminster could be "hung by a Scottish rope" in the event of the SNP holding the balance of power.

Thus it should be hoped that the reality of the Conservative/Lib Dem agreement reflects the rhetoric of consensus rather than that of conflict. But while Ant and Dec might get on famously, the contestants in the jungle proper are set on a collision course - indeed, the contrived and artificial jungle scenario invites that inevitability, despite the initial atmosphere of congeniality and co-operation.

The political Ant and Dec may get on well and have much in common as regards personal background and policy, but their MPs, wider parties, grassroots members, activists, supporters and voters aren't perhaps such natural bedfellows.


Scottish Unionist said...

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Not a Village in Westminster said...

Intrigued by Scottish Unionist's fluidity in foreign languages!

That aside, excellent post as always - apologies for my absence from your cadre of readers, real life has been in the way.

The coalition is intriguing, fascinating and, like most celebrity relationship, tantalising precisely because it is a trainwreck waiting to happen. I think the Tories, once they get over their natural propensity to look down at all the other parties, will be the happier - they are in Government and it doesn't look as if their policies will be changed terribly much.

The Lib Dems, however, may wake up nursing a hang over and realising that they've made fools of themselves. There will be the flurry of emails apologising for the behaviour, blaming it on drink and promising to never do it again, but the others will never be able to look at them the same way again.

Such is the price of becoming 'easy'!

Stuart Winton said...

Thanks Jamie; the accepted wisdom seems to be that it will fall apart, but stranger things have happened I suppose, and of course there are lots of examples from local politics and abroad of stable coalitions, but there's more at stake at Westminster, perhaps, and our politics seems more adverserial here than abroad, but we'll no doubt see in due course.

And, yes, it's nice to see that the fake Scottish Unionist has increased his level of fluency.

Not a Village in Westminster said...

I think the coalition will actually hold, the Lib Dems in particular cannot afford for it not to. They have risked a lot for this so need to be able to show demonstrable benefits to take to the electorate.

The initial period of the Government is likely to be difficult with the choices they are making so by the time things potentially calm down we'll nearly be at the next election date anyway.

On the election day itself, it is worth nothing that it will be scheduled for the same day as the next Scottish Parliamentary elections bar one. This could make for a very interesting election contest if they go ahead with it - voters have shown that they understand the difference between Holyrood and Westminster, but would this continue in the midst of a potentially bitter election and potentially resurgant Labour Party?

We certainly live in interesting times, as the old Chinese curse said.