I didn’t vote Liberal Democrat for a Tory government. I voted Liberal Democrat because I wanted a Liberal Democrat government.
But I’m not naïve. Despite those heady days when the polls went mad, and a couple of secret what-if moments shared between me and the BBC’s election prediction applet, I never truly expected Nick Clegg to end up as PM. The most likely outcomes were always either a hung parliament or a small-to-workable Tory majority, with a faint chance – given the vagaries of our current electoral system – of a Labour minority government.
I would have preferred the Lib Dems to enter a coalition or confidence-and-supply agreement with Labour, if possible, and without Gordon Brown as PM. The election result made this unworkable: Labour plus Lib Dem still wouldn’t make a majority. There was talk of a “rainbow coalition” including every man and his dog, but such a government wouldn’t last the year. Not the best way to achieve anything.
So the only feasible outcome, discounting an immediate second election that nobody wanted and only the Conservatives could afford, was a Tory/Lib Dem agreement of some kind.
Not ideal. It’s no secret that I think David Cameron is a fake, a PR man. I think George Osborne will blunder his way through the job of Chancellor. I fear Cameron dragging back Tory grandees who still have a thing for Margaret Thatcher. I fear a return to the bad old days of Section 28 and the Poll Tax, albeit in different, better-branded forms.
But, but, but. At least we don’t have the “strong, stable government” that Cameron craved: a sizable Tory majority. That’s the goal of all parties, of course. They want to be in control, to use their electoral mandate to pilot HMS Britain to port or to starboard according to their manifesto or newspaper baron of choice.
People want “strong, stable government” too, but not in the sense that political parties want “strong, stable government”. Parties want power; people want a better life for themselves and their families and friends. People want governments that do the Right Thing. People want fairness, honesty, respect.
We’ve seen the results of the party political version of “strong, stable government” that large majorities give us – Thatcher’s divisive, dictatorial 1980s and Blair’s war-mongering, fear-mongering 2000s. In the last thirty years we’ve now had just two changes of ruling party, counting this one. Eighteen years of Conservative government – “strong, stable government”, gradually weakening and festering into corruption, sleaze, decay, a step too far, a change of leader, in-fighting, and back-stabbing – followed by thirteen years of Labour government – “strong, stable government”, gradually weakening into corruption, sleaze, decay, a step too far, a change of leader, in-fighting and back-stabbing.
I don’t want that again.
It’s my belief that a coalition government would never have passed the Poll Tax, or Section 28, or ID cards, or railway privatisation, or PFI, or the Digital Economy Act, amongst other bad laws. A hung parliament by definition means no party has a mandate to ram through its own legislative agenda: it must work with others.
A coalition government by necessity dulls the sharp edges of party purity and rabid dogma. Like the memento mori of ancient Rome, in a coalition government the leadership is constantly reminded of its own mortality, its own limitations. Instinct might drive Cameron right; Clegg’s reminding whisper should hold him steady: the desire to keep his job will be strong. Clegg can bring down the government, and Cameron knows it.
Joining a coalition doesn’t mean selling out and abandoning your principles: it means compromise. It means sacrificing some of your stuff to get some of your other stuff done – and at the same time stopping some of the stuff you don’t want done from happening. I’m sure I won’t like everything the coalition does – but then I never expect to like everything a government of any colour does.
I might be wrong. Perhaps the Lib Dems are walking, smiling, into an abyss and David Cameron’s perception filter has fooled them all. Perhaps we’ll suddenly be at war with Eurasia again. Perhaps Nick Clegg is actually a cyborg sent from the future to prevent John Redwood again from learning Welsh. I don’t know.
But right now it looks as though the Liberal Democrats finally have a chance to implement some of their policies. If we’re lucky – very lucky – we’ll change to a fairer voting system. And at the next election people might vote for what they want, rather than in fear of what they might get.