The latest post in a series on the Lib Dems in government. It’s been quite a difficult one to write, because uncovering the motives of senior Lib Dems is a difficult business. Still, here’s my take on why, perhaps, the Liberal Democrats have been more accepting of the spending cuts being introduced.
It’s nice to know that Andrew Rawnsley is writing the same thoughtful, well-connected pieces under a Con-Lib coalition that he was under a Labour government. I don’t mean that ironically; he is one of my favourite columnists. This the main argument of last week’s effort:
The explanation offered by the Cameron inner circle is that they have learned the lesson of Tony Blair’s first term. They concluded – as indeed did Mr Blair – that he had wasted much of his early period in office by failing to conceive and execute radical reform quickly enough, especially in public services. Wittingly or not, David Cameron is going to the other extreme. This government is trying to run before it has fully learned how to walk.
There are, it seems, two other major mistakes New Labour kept making in government that the Lib Dems would do well not to repeat. At the moment, it seems they are carrying on those errors. Both help explain, in my view, why not enough is being said from Liberal Democrats, in government or outside, about the impending spending cuts.
The Liberal Democrats can try to brag about their influence all they like, but however laudable plans to increase the income tax threshold are – and it’s probable such a scheme would not have been introduced under a Tory-only administration – the emergency budget was emphatically a Conservative budget. It was also wrongheaded in its thinking. The proposed cuts in public spending, 25% across most departments, do not have to be made so soon. Furthermore, the scale of them – £40bn more than the cuts Labour proposed, which Alistair Darling said would be more “tougher and deeper” than Thatcher’s – is potentially catastrophic.
These sorts of cuts were not talked about by the Lib Dems during the election campaign, in public anyway. They were not advocated by Vince Cable, who since joining the government has been venturing into TV studios and QT appearances looking like a man constantly having to explain why he left his wife for her sister. Cable warned in January of the dangers of cutting early:
The time to start cutting the budget deficit and its speed must be decided by a series of objective tests which include the rate of recovery, the level of unemployment, the availability of credit to businesses and the government’s ability to borrow in international markets on good terms.
It is much harder to know exactly where Nick Clegg stood, and stands, on the nature of spending cuts, because he is a much more slippery character to pigeonhole than Vince Cable. If Nick Clegg were a Thatcherite obsessed with power, he would surely have joined the Conservative party when Lord Carrington was finding jobs for him in the early 1980s. He is therefore less Tory, and less of a bastard, then some left-wing critics give him credit for. However, his position on cuts is complicated.
In March, in a speech that makes for cringing reading now, Clegg attacked talk of premature cuts as “economic masochism”. Then after the election he claimed it was a conversation with Mervyn King, governor of the bank of England, that was his road to Damascus moment:
In an Observer interview on 6 June, Clegg described his conversation with King on 15 May. “He couldn’t have been more emphatic. He said, ‘If you don’t do this, then because of the deterioration of market conditions it will be even more painful to do it later.'”
Now, in an interview for Five Days that Changed Britain, Clegg says he was persuaded of the need for cuts in…March.
Asked by BBC political editor, Nick Robinson, if he had changed his mind about cuts this year during the five days of negotiations, Clegg said: “I changed my mind earlier than that … firstly remember between March and the actual general election … a financial earthquake occurred in on our European doorstep.”
Pressed on why he failed to convey this to the electorate prior to them casting their votes, Clegg said: “… to be fair we were all … reacting to very, very fast-moving economic events.”
It’s all a bit like a Fawlty Towers episode. The bit where Basil has had to lie, and then has to lie to cover up the initial lie, and then both lies are shown to be baloney so he comes up with a new lie, and so it goes. Until the vase is smashed.
I’m not even sure Nick Clegg knows when he changed his mind. Perhaps he did change his mind some time between March and election day. Perhaps, like most Britons, he bought into the right’s narrative that We Need Cuts and Cuts Are Inevitable, and his limp attempts to save face just got bazookaed out of the water by Mervyn King. It’s perfectly possible; this is Nick Clegg we are talking about, not Superman.
Regardless of the political positioning, the Lib Dems are part of a government that is going to shrink public spending dramatically, with significant consequences for all in Britain, and especially the poorest. It seems to me that the Tories want to cut public spending so dramatically for ideological reasons. So did Vince Cable, way back in January, also in the article I linked to above:
This tired repetition of the Tory line leads us into a very undesirable debate in which the speed and the extent of deficit reduction is being decided not on the basis of how the economy is looking and performing, but on the basis of political soundbites and dogma.
The Tories are able to use the huge deficit built up by Labour, the vast majority of which was due to having to bail out the PRIVATE SECTOR, let’s not forget, as an excuse to cut the size of the state. And the Lib Dems are supporting this…why, exactly? That’s what I hope to explain in the rest of this post (yep, afraid it’s another long one).
1) A dual monarchy
Many commentators, including Andrew Rawnsley and also Andrew Marr, in his History of Modern Britain, noted that New Labour governed a bit like a dual monarchy. Gordon Brown had unprecedented control over economic powers, leaving Blair to engage in foreign affairs as the way to make his mark on his Premiership, which was an area where he felt free of the shackles imposed by Brown on domestic spending. It feels like a similar sort of split for the coalition governing.
It’s easiest to see this in the position of Nick Clegg: as Deputy Prime Minister with special remit for constitutional reform. The compromises that the coalition government has had to face don’t seem to be on specific policies most of the time, but instead they are compromising on the delegation of policy areas. So, for instance, economic and welfare policy seem to be mainly Conservative areas, whereas Constitutional Reform and Civil Liberties seem mainly Lib Dem areas. In civil liberties, of course, a lot of the stuff the Lib Dems want to abolish (such as ID cards) the Tories would want to as well. The same is true to the halt of the third runway at Heathrow. On the other hand, the Lib Dems consented to a cap on immigration from outside the EU, which Clegg knew (and explained in the TV debates) would be worse than useless as a solution to the “problem” (sic) of immigration. In the constitutional reform bill the Tory plan for equalising the constituencies has squeezed in (more on that in due course) whereas Clegg has already described AV as a “miserable little compromise”. PR it ain’t. Apart from these small compromises on policy areas, however, the main compromises seem to be in the delegation of major policy areas.
It is in economic policy that the main popularity test of the government will be, though, and here the Lib Dems have had depressingly little to say. Perhaps this is just because the Tories have 306 seats and the Lib Dems have 57: it’s just a case of the dog wagging the tail.
2) The George Bush effect
I’m not talking about Dave’s “foreign policy gaffes” here. My copy of End of the Party is at my parent’s house, so again I’m quoting from memory. Essentially, Tony Blair’s dealings with George Bush followed this sort of logic:
a) I must stay close to George Bush. That way I have more influence over him.
b) George Bush is closest to those who are most loyal to him. Therefore I must stay very loyal to Bush and make sure I don’t criticise him at all.
So when people like Christopher Meyer wanted Blair to use his “considerable influence” (you are permitted to laugh at this bit) over Bush, there wasn’t actually any influence over Bush in practice, because Blair was so fixated with the idea of constantly agreeing with Bush to stay loyal, and therefore close to him. Since only if you were loyal and stayed close could you have any influence. It’s a vicious circle of non-influence.
The Lib Dems seem to be in a similar position with this coalition. With the possible exception of Simon Hughes, they seem to think if they keep quiet and say nowt then they will get rewarded with the odd bone of constitutional reform and “influence” over other policy areas. Perhaps they are just sucked in by the glitz and glamour of power, just as Toby and Simon were by America in In The Loop. However, I think there’s a slightly more serious problem: dissent is being seen as a problem, rather than as an inevitability of coalition government.
3) Splits in the coalition
An entry in Robin Cook’s diaries (and again, I’m quoting from memory) was about how over one weekend there were two people from the Foreign office (including Cook himself) giving interviews on the Euro. Cook and the other person who’s name escapes me met each other and checked to make sure they were saying exactly the same things in the interviews they gave that weekend. Needless to say, Cook was bemused and baffled on the Monday morning to awake to headlines proclaiming “Government split over Euro”.
In that entry, Cook makes the interesting point that three or four decades ago independently-minded ministers such as Tony Benn or Enoch Powell were appointed to government because, as independent thinkers, they were more likely to come up with an interesting take on a complex problem. Cabinets benefited from the presence of independent minds, rather than being stuffed with “yes men”. Now, because of the 24-hour media, everyone is fixated with being “on message”. Hence the need for the Malcolm Tuckers of this world, to make sure that these minsters “walk the fucking line”.
Perhaps, then, the Lib Dems are almost too scared to show dissent. If they do it in public, the press will seize on it and proclaim “coalition split” and will start speculating about its imminent downfall, etc. If this dissent is merely aired in private, chances are it will be leaked anyway.
The Lib Dems obviously have to accept the decision in Cabinet, as they bear collective responsibility. But they need to fight their corner, against spending cuts and the more regressive Tory policies. They should not be worried of press speculation of “coalition splits”. For a start, the country needs the Lib Dems to stick up for better policies. It would also do the Lib Dems more harm in the long run were they not to speak out, as they would then get painted as Tory stooges, which is much more damaging electorally. They need to keep a distinctive identity, and campaign against cuts.