Britain’s post-election intrigue came to a conclusion yesterday with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats announcing a coalition government. What seems remarkable to me is how much the Tories conceded — the Lib Dems (whose party color is yellow) will get several cabinet ministers, including LD leader Nicholas Clegg as deputy prime minister, Parliament will sit for a fixed five-year term, and at some point there will be a referendum on the alternative vote.
Both parties are for scrapping the national ID cards introduced by Blair. The Conservatives will proceed with plans to introduce tax breaks for married couples, though the Lib Dems are not bound to support the effort. (Tories are similarly free to oppose the alternative vote itself once it goes to a referendum.) Lib Dems go the Tories to accept tax breaks — or rather, no taxes at all — for Britons earning less than 10,000 pounds, while the Lib Dems have forsaken their opposition to spending cuts this year. Clegg’s party will also put their liberal immigration policies on the back burner for the sake of coalition. All told, not a bad package.
On the other hand, personnel is policy, and there’s plenty to worry about there. Michael Gove, the new secretary of state for education and one of Cameron’s closest parliamentary pals, is a neocon who admires Tony Blair’s foreign policy and has declared, “Our education agenda is the Obama education agenda.” Then there’s Cameron himself. As Geoffrey Wheatcroft writes:
… there has been one bewildering volte-face after another, now hugging hoodies, now tough on crime, now promising to favour the family through taxation, now changing his mind. To begin with he tried to present himself as “Blair’s heir”, perhaps egged on by Michael Gove, one of his closest front-bench associates and the man who once wrote, “I can’t fight my feelings any more: I love Tony.” Perhaps Cameron finally worked out that, whatever Gove may think, most ordinary Tories – and other citizens – had come to detest and despise Blair.
And Cameron’s sheer lack of judgement has been alarming. Only the week before last he flew to Belfast to strike a deal with the Ulster Unionists, a crazy mission. Worse still – the worst single moment in his party leadership – was the summer before last, when Cameron flew to Tiflis during the conflict between Georgia and Russia, and said that Georgia should be admitted to Nato immediately. Apart from the fact that, as plenty of us guessed at the time and has since been confirmed by independent observers, Georgia was not in the right, Cameron’s words meant, if he was serious, that he was ready to send the Coldstream Guards to fight and die for South Ossetia. Did he mean it?
One might hope that the Lib Dems, the only (big) British party that opposed the Iraq War, will tame whatever global democratist impulses Cameron might have. But don’t bet on it: I suspect the reason the Lib Dems have been the most antiwar party has nothing to do with fundamental principles and everything to do with never having held political power, which has a way of making foreign interventions (and support for U.S. interventions) seem realistic and necessary.