Thursday, 29 July 2010

A Tale of Two Parties

No, not those two parties, but the other, more long-running coalition in British politics - that between the Liberals and the SDP. In recent weeks, the polling share of the Liberal Democrats has been subject to scrutiny and usually proclaimed in tones of doom and gloom. Although my trawling of Political Betting has yet to unearth the article I read earlier, some polls are suggesting that the LDs have shed almost 50% of their support. Bad news? In my view, only for 50% of the party.

As I have blogged before, the coalition was always going to be a watershed moment for the Liberal Democrats. They had never been in power - the old Liberal Party that held office during the early decades of the last century was such a different beast that the Liberal Democrats cannot truly be considered much of an ideological successor to it. During long years of opposition elements of the party developed quite a taste for it, and they became the catch-all recipient of 'plague on both houses' protest voting. This broad coalition was far too fractious to survive exposure to responsibility.

Given this, the days after the general election were not only a pivotal moment in British politics, but a critical phase in the internal battle in the heart of the Liberal Democrats. Power has given the party an opportunity to develop a solid base amongst the electorate, which may shape the role and fortunes of the party for a long time to come. This was not lost on either side, which explains why the likes of Vince Cable appeared so desperate to secure what appeared to be a deeply impractical - if not impossible - coalition of every non-conservative party in parliament. However the "Orange-Book" Liberals, including Nick Clegg, were able to seize the initiative and, assisted by the parliamentary arithmetic, took their party into coalition with the Conservatives.

Since then, the Liberal Democrats have lost roughly half their support. Although clearly this is a picture painted in rather broad strokes, nonetheless it does not appear unreasonable to suggest that it is the left-of-centre support of the party that has eroded. Right-0f-centre Liberal Democrat voters can't have been disappointed by the election of a Blue-Gold Coalition. Rather, their seeing the Liberal Democrats taking tough action on the deficit and reigning in the extremist elements of the Conservative party may well have strengthened their support.

On the other hand, left-of-centre support for the party appears to have haemorrhaged. The post-election Labour recovery has hardly been at the expense of the Conservatives. Once stung, twice shy - left-leaning LDs may find it harder to tempt their voters away from Labour in future. This is why the poll rating are suched mixed news for the party. For the right, they represent a possible new dawn - a solid electoral base of their own a governmental record to boot. For the left, on the other hand, it represents potential annihilation. If the Coalition government lasts the full five years, and Osborne's cuts are as tough as expected, the Liberal Democrats may never be able to define themselves as a left-wing party again. Might the party's left-wing members follow their voters back to the Labour Party?

This leads into another common theme in recent dicussions of the Liberal Democrats - could they split? Leftwing social democrats like Vince Cable, Simon Hughes et al could probably find safe Labour seats if they so chose, and it isn't difficult to imagine several left-LD's crossing the floor as the cuts start to bite and their poll rating mines the depths of oblivion. As for the right, David Davis has been heard talking of a possible non-competition agreement between the Conservatives and rightwing Liberals.

The Conservative Party has had similar multi-party arrangements before - right up until the mid-sixties the Conservative parliamentary group was a mess of people who stood variously as Conservative, Unionist, National Liberal, Liberal Unionist and even Progressive. Additionally on three earlier occasions in British history the right wing of the Liberal party has merged with the Conservatives (only once, under Peel, has it been the other way round). If the same thing happens again, with the Cleggite Liberals striking a deal with the Conservatives, the 'new politics' may instead come to resemble the very old, more fluid politics of pre-WWII Britain.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

"The Big Society" - as I understand it.

Over the past few months, I have read an awful lot about people not understanding what the Big Society is; and, to a certain extent, I'm with them. Therefore I thought that I'd try to clarify 1) what I think the Big Society is and 2) what has made it come across so muddled.

The Vision: In my view, the 'Big Society' (or 'strong society', as it might have been better labelled) is Cameron's attempt to invoke the spirit of the pre-war years - before the statist socialists of the post-war Labour governments (backed up by their post-war consensus Tory opposites) castrated the voluntary element of British life. Other people have studied this process (and if this were a researched piece, I'd have gone back and re-read them, but ho-hum)*; but suffice to say, there is a body of opinion that believes that the increase in state intervention that swept the masses off their feet in the mid-twentieth century is either unable or unwilling to set them back down again. In short, the Big Society is an attempt to inject some of the Victorian ethos of community, self-help, volunteering and charity that more than a half-century of statism has eroded.

The Problem: Can you seriously imagine David Cameron espousing 'Victorian Values'? After all the rebranding work he's done? It's so old-school Tory. Contrary to those on the right, I am of the opinion that Cameron is actually a Conservative but, much as it might please the likes of the Telegraph and the Mail, a strategy of 'Victorian Values' isn't viable for a Conservative of Cameron's ilk. It sounds scary and unreformed - the left can gleefully point out that the Victorian era was the age of chimney sweeps, workhouses**, poverty etc. Getting stuck in a pitched battle over which bits of the Victorian age he wanted isn't something Cameron would have wanted on the eve of an election. Instead, we got 'The Big Society'.

Even after the election, the problem with implementation persists. Because liberalism (and I consider small state/strong society to be liberalism, as long as 'society' doesn't trammel individualism) requires being... well, mean. People will only stand on their own two feet if the state stops carrying them. Encouraging volunteering requires slashing state provision; why would you volunteer otherwise? Granting freedom to people should also mean giving them responsibility - and thus the risk of negative consequences. In an era when state help is viewed as an entitlement by many, governments are simply too afraid to give people responsibility.

This is less of a problem for Labour, which values equality over freedom (more or less), but it presents a major problem for the Conservatives. They're all for giving people freedom (social-conservative dinosaurs excepted) - but giving people responsibility invariably elicits howls of "heartless Tories!". It's why Cameron continues the Labour habit of fetishising spending on 'our' NHS rather than results or seriously considering structural reform. Government 'goodness' is measured in the volume of money - other peoples' money - you pump into stuff.

Which is where the problem with the Big Society comes in. The self-help, mutual, community ethos of the Victorian era existed because people thought that if they wanted something done, then the responsibility was theirs to do it. Rich people gave to - and actively participated in - charities to help the disadvantaged. Poor communities banded together to do various things and bonded in doing so. The problem with trying to bring this sort of thing back is that the general view now is that these things are the job of the state. If there's a problem, big or small; or a community, however small that wants something, that is the job of the state - "What we pay our taxes for".

Before the Big Society could be properly implemented, Cameron would first have to tell the nation "No, this is not what you pay your taxes for anymore". He would have to radically redefine the role of the state, creating one with a much smaller purview and much lower tax and spend turnover. Then, having slashed taxes to match, he would have to persuade people that they were capable of helping themselves - and that they should. The leftist orthodoxy that if someone is without the state they are 'alone' would need to be confronted head on. How callous and Thatcherite and evil that could so easily be painted as being; not the image of modern 'compassionate Conservatives' that the Cameroons were aiming for.

These major issues aside, there's no denying that the Coalition has muddied the waters further. Much as I admire it, a coalition that contains Vince Cable and John Redwood is not one equipped to challenge nearly a century of government orthodoxy on such emotive territory at a time of national crisis. I'll admit that watching Vince Cable on Question Time defending things like the Free Schools policy is a treat, but the Conservative's partners need to be handled with caution and respect if the coalition is to work. If Cameron's lucky, he'll somehow manage to absorb the Orange Bookers, making it the third time the Liberal right has joined the Conservatives. But until another election delivers him a majority, he has to keep the SDP on board, and the big society doesn't have much of a hope.

In short, Cameron couldn't sell Victorian Values before the election and he cannot implement them after it. Don't feel too sorry for him - 'Big Society' is still a terrible name.

* Nick Cohen's book "What's Left?" spends some time examining the way that a new breed of 20th Century socialism eroded the culture of self-reliance and self-improvement that had been the working class's in the 19th Century. James Bartholomw's book "The Welfare State We're In" is a key book on this subject and a very engaging read. I've even linked you to the bookshop!

** I'm aware of the irony that towards the end of his reign Gordon Brown actually proposed bringing these back himself, in a shiny modern form.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Letter to a Tory

I have just finished writing this letter to one of my MPs:

"Dear X

I was dismayed to read on the Spectator's website today about Vince Cable's planned introduction of a graduate tax. This is a terrible university funding policy that harshly penalises those who work hard for good degrees in order to subsidise the mass-consumption of low-value HE certificates in the name of social engineering.

I understand that your hands, like those of Mr Cameron and the party as a whole, are tied by the coalition agreement and the necessities of the grim times in which we are living. Nonetheless, I would be very grateful if you could raise and keep in the minds of policy makers the concerns of those aspirational students who will already be emerging from university with their fair share of the debt burden without having the burden of others thrust upon them too.

Kind Regards,"

Euch. I can't quite put into words how angry the introduction of a Graduate Tax (and more broadly, the presence of Vince Cable in a Conservative-led government) makes me. The Graduate Tax is proof positive of Vince's 'I'd be in Labour if it wasn't for the Loony Left running London when I moved there' credentials. The idea that the more use you make of more degree, the more you should pay to support those who won't, is abhorrent to both conservative and liberal thinking. Fraser Nelson's idea is what I would have hoped to see: an admittance that not everyone needs a degree, and a re-calibration of HE in line with the radical recalibration of compulsory education being enacted by Michael Gove. Instead, the coalition brings in a disjointed policy of radical reform on the one hand, and punitive taxes to subsidise the status quo on the other.

Another reason to vote 'NO' in the PR referendum.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Total Politics Blog Awards - Roll Up and Vote!

Click here to vote in the Total Politics Best Blogs Poll 2010

For the few agog for my next post, I'm debating doing either strikebreaking or the enforcement of property rights - probably tomorrow.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The Dark Consequences of Permanent Realignment?

In pro-Coalition circles, there has been some excited talk in recent weeks about the prospect of a permanent realignment of British politics. Fraser Nelson is one of those examining the possibility of an outright Liberal-Conservative merger of some kind or other (the fourth in British political history, if I recall correctly).

As a liberal conservative, I’ve been delighted by this news. A party that absorbed the liberals from the Liberal Democrats whilst ditching the nutty far-righters in the Conservative Party would be a potentially fantastic one - all very exciting.

But are the cheerleaders of realignment (myself amongst them) overlooking a potential ramification of the Conservatives shifting liberalwards – the consolidation of the far right? Peter Kellner, head of the YouGov polling company, argued thus to me the other day. His argument ran that an exodus of Tory right wingers (of the sort that proposed the alternative Queen’s Speech) from the party could combine with UKIP (and have “elements of the BNP fold into it as well”) and form a new party. Such a realignment could allow a "critical mass" to build up on the hard right of British politics – and there’s only so far that a ‘far-right fringe’ can grow before it isn't a fringe any more.

Is this scenario likely? I can’t be sure. As long as the merged 'Liberal Conservative Party' was a direct continuation of the Conservative Party, I think that a new right-wing party might struggle to gain traction in true blue heartlands. Similarly, I can’t see a party led by ex-Conservative ministers and the likes of Farage and Pearson winning in the urban areas targeted by the BNP and other such (British) nationalist groupings. Also, could old Thatcherite ex-ministers and pseudo-socialist BNP populists comfortably cohabit within one organisation?

However, nationalism is an odd beast and if there’s one thing these various groups would have in common, it would be British nationalism. It could work, and if it did it would be a party with reach in the shires and the cities. Could the new era of coalition politics herald a consolidation of the right into a 'national party'?

Friday, 2 July 2010

Welsh-Language Courts? Ngwrthddadl!*

Unionist Lite recently covered a story about the final rejection by the government of proposals to implement bilingual juries in Wales, and Plaid Cymru's subsequent tantrum. So, ever one to run with someone else's story, I looked into it.

The move was part of the Welsh Assembly Government's plan to resurrect Welsh. Taken from the above-linked PDF:

"Results from the 2001 census show that some 21% of the population in Wales said they were able to speak Welsh, compared with 19% in 1991.These results come in the wake of the launch of the Welsh Assembly Government’s National Action Plan for a Bilingual Wales, Iaith Pawb (A Language for All), which sets out a policy of supporting and promoting the language.The scheme, which received cross party support within the Assembly, sets out the vision for Wales “to be a truly bilingual nation… where people can choose to live their lives through the medium of Welsh or English…”."

For the strong-stomached amongst you who enjoy following Nationalists down the rabbit hole, the full text of this particular plan can be found here.

Unionist Lite already covered the legal aspects of this, and I do not intend to repeat him. But outside of the purely legal context, the special treatment of the Welsh language - and this court's idea provides only one example - is deeply lamentable.

For a start, look at the numbers. Even now, after decades of nationalist agitation to resurrect what divisions they can between the peoples of the UK, Welsh speakers amount to 21% of the population. Even this number can't be taken straight - what exactly does being able to 'speak Welsh' entail? It has been taught (universally) in schools up to the age of 16 as a compulsory language - does this figure span those with GCSE level competence, or those taught it but who never use it?

Even when taken at face value, 21% is not a lot of the population, but if a fifth of the Welsh population couldn't interact with the rest of the United Kingdom that would be a serious problem (and a Plaid wet dream). Thankfully, this isn't so - the number of monoglot Welsh speakers is infinitesimal. The vast bulk can speak English - the tiny minority who can't aren't nearly numerous enough to warrant purpose-designed, Welsh-language trials, certainly given that there are probably immigrant communities who don't speak English larger than the Welsh-monoglot constituency and they have to make do. The only justification for Welsh-language courts is nationalist ideology, and I'm relieved the government has rejected it.

In my research** for this piece, I was reminded again how bizarrely the principal political parties (the word unionist is a tad redundant in the Welsh context) have acted with regards to the language. Plaid Cymru striving to resurrect a venerated division is understandable, but why on earth have Labour and the Liberal Democrats (and probably the Tories, not that we've been relevant in Wales until recently) have thought it was a worthy goal? Why is a bilingual Wales something non-Welsh nationalist parties would want? I honestly don't know.

Bilingual roadsigns are a fantasic waste of time and money. If you don't speak English at all, then you are far more likely to hail from some distant land than from the valleys - Welsh-language road signs are completely redundant. Likewise the fantastic extravagance of producing ALL Welsh Assembly material in Welsh. Hopefully, this nationalist indulgence will be cut soon - a way for the Welsh Assembly to cut public spending with the absolute minimum of harm.

The European Union has played its own role in this sorry saga. The European project is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) and most ambitious unionist projects going. Its advocates consider themselves rational, cosmopolitan human beings who wish to overcome the bitter divisions of Europe's past - or so I thought. But then something like this comes along. The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which aims to "to protect and promote historical regional and minority languages in Europe." Why on earth is the resurrection and maintenance of even pettier nationalisms than those that currently plague them on the agenda of European unionists? That isn't rhetorical, answers welcome.

I fear that this is another manifestation of the unionist ideological malaise that I wrote of earlier. I would hope that the Conservative & Unionist Party in Wales would vote to make Welsh a non-compulsory school choice. I would hope that supporting some form of common (second?) language would be considered a vital step in creating a lasting European Union. I'm resigned to the fact that in both cases the unionists probably lack the courage to do the deed - but I fear the possibility that they lack the conviction also.

**By "research" please read "trawling PDFs that made me cry".