The removal of property requirements as a barrier to electoral expansion, bestowed upon socialist politicians of the 19th century a timeless dilemma: To accept the road of parliamentary action, to use the new electorate to exact pressure on governments and gain concessions. Or stand apart from the inevitable compromises and half measurers of parliamentary democracy and wait for the proletariat revolution.
The moment of decision came for many when the opportunity to form a government arose. Would accepting a share in government implicate the socialists in repressive policies? In France, Millerand and Briand, socialists of the age, were portrayed as hostages to the manoeuvres of their political opponents. Accusations of betrayal were common. Yet, if one accepts parliamentary procedure, one cannot logically, refuse in the share of power and responsibility when it is offered.
The dilemma cuts across the political spectrum. The decision as to whether to compromise with opponents is as timeless as it is intractable. It is invariably unpopular and unrewarding. And it is as impossible to satisfy both French aristocrats and revolutionaries as it is to mollify the disparate branches of two very different coalition parties.
While neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats are contemplating revolution, both face the same broad dilemmas but from opposite sides of the political continuum. Clashes of party, personality and political philosophy make the Liberal Democrats volatile bedfellows for the Conservative party.
Yet the higher echelons of the Liberal Democrats can seem remarkably similar to that of the Conservatives, despite the clashes of opinion between them. Consider both Jeremy Hume and David Laws, ex The Economist writer and JP Morgan banker respectively. Perhaps ironically, it is these two men who have fallen from the top of the coalition, illustrating the unpredictability of coalition politics.
The tiresome marital metaphor is frustratingly apt, both Clegg and Cameron recognise their mutual need for one another in a marriage of necessity. While both men may differ on many a political point, there commitment to deficit reduction and economic recovery means that both find themselves inextricably tied in political wedlock.
It is indeed tempting to cite economic recovery as the defining factor of the coalition. Recovery vindicates the austerity inherent in deficit reduction, whereas recession affirms Labour’s calls for fiscal stimulus. Yet economics is not the science it is sometimes purported to be, arguments for and against the speed of deficit reduction can be supported by seemingly water tight theories and statistics. The coalition points to Hayek, low bond yields and experiences in Germany and Sweden. Labour alludes to Keynes, unemployment and the USA.
The powerful and substantial claims which can be made both for and against an economic policy make it both flexible and therefore adaptable, and most importantly, justifiable. The ease with which international factors can be cited for the misgivings of any economic policy makes pinning the blame for slow recovery on the coalition problematic. It is the unpredictable events which throw up unforeseen dilemmas which will define this coalition; not deficit reduction.
The events which have truly effected this government were far from expected. Consider Dr Cable’s remarks to The Telegraph, the subsequent transfer of power to Mr Hunt, and the ensuing political entanglement. Contemplate Dr Fox’s resignation and its impact on the backbenches. And finally, muse on how a seemingly uncontroversial policy to add more patient choice and doctor budgetary responsibility morphed into a public relations disaster for the conservatives and a defining issue for the liberal democrats.
The circumlocution which entered British political lexicon under Howard Macmillan when asked what could derail his government, “events dear boy, events”, remains the somewhat unsatisfying truth as to where the future of this or indeed any government lies. It is unsatisfactory as it cannot be predicted and therefore explained or anticipated; and yet, the underlying currents which facilitate such events can be recognised and analysed, even if the resulting waves prove unpredictable.
Few political forecasters envisaged the Arab spring, yet most would recognise a young and idle population, an inequitable and autocratic governmental system and Islamic pressures. Equally, with only a few exceptions, economists failed to predict the credit crisis and ensuing recession. However, the complexities and opaqueness of the financial system, coupled with its volatility, makes the occurrence of such events inevitable.
This is as true for politics as it is for demographics and economics. The events which shape the coalition are unpredictable, and therefore fascinating. Yet if one considers the underlying currents impacting on the coalition, it is possible to see how events may unravel.
The very style of Cameron’s leadership, closer to the chairman of a board than that of a ‘hands on’ prime minister, has led to a new style of political operation. Disputes are discussed at the cabinet, and sometimes on the airwaves. Furthermore, ministers have autonomy over their departments; consider the far-reaching and innovative reforms of Mr Gove in education or Mr Duncan-Smith in welfare.
While it is futile to predict events, one can see that the very structure of the coalition has allowed for radical and constant reform. Ministers have had tangible control over their departments without central political interference. This has led to drastic change and substantial reform, although it has also allowed for poor implementation and an eclectic mix of policy agendas.
It is the very nature of coalition government that diverse actors come together. Equally, over the next two years both parties will attempt to differentiate themselves and prepare for the next election.
The underlying currents of this government suggest that we can expect missteps and about turns, erratic policy changes and a lack of coherence. However we can also expect boldness and creativity, an indefatigable reform agenda and genuine compromise. This parliament will continue to be one of the most active, and although the next event can never be predicted, it should be suspected that it is never far away.