Democratic republicanism marks the end of Thatcherism

Anthony Barnett analyses the nature and prospects of the extraordinary coalition now setting out to govern Britain for five years

This week’s creation of a Conservative led coalition with the Liberal Democrats has brought the period associated with Margaret Thatcher after her election in 1979 to an end. The UK will continue to play its part in global capitalism but a new kind of domestic politics is on offer. One way of describing it, uncomfortable as it may be for me to report, is that the transition from New Labour to a Tory led coalition promises a distinctly more progressive government in the UK. If indeed the Coalition agreement is carried out, then the new government will be to the left of its predecessor by being:

  • tougher on the bankers
  • more focused on helping the very poor
  • more democratic
  • ending New Labour’s assault on liberty
  • Europeanising Westminster politics
  • implementing greener policies
  • reintroducing cabinet government

This is relative praise. It remains a Tory government. The new coalition says it is planning to stuff the House of Lords with 200 cronies to secure its majority there, who will stay for their lifetimes; it will not investigate our use of torture; it says it will ask the British people to decide on how we vote yet, despite language about ‘grown-up’ politics, it will treat us like infants and not permit us to consider a proportional system. And, of course there is the famous chasm between words and deeds.

However, for those of us involved with the Convention on Modern Liberty, especially my Co-Director Henry Porter who led the way in campaigning against New Labour’s transforming the British state into an instrument of hi-tech despotism, the coalition’s programme is a triumph, as he has rightly claimed. First for what it delivers, in rolling back ID cards, the National Information Register and the promise of a Great Repeal Bill. Second, for prevailing not least thanks to the Guardian/Observer, over the Murdoch press and the BBC – which refused to report on civil liberties as a serious issue and still doesn’t. Third, in terms of political culture that the Convention plugged into – the latent energy of collaboration and constructive discussion of differences, as against tribalism. The first press conference of Prime Minister Cameron and his Deputy displayed an embrace of this culture proclaiming it as a different and better way of doing things.

It is. We will see whether they can continue to embrace it. This be Britain. Our political class is exceptionally determined and flexible. Can pluralism really be proclaimed by scions of perhaps the narrowest and most homogeneous elite in the world? Our liberty may have been saved for the moment, which is a great achievement. Our so-called democracy is merely being modernised – and in a fashion designed to pre-empt the real change the document proclaims. First, liberty had to be saved and this seems to have happened. Next, liberty needs to be secured. Which means it needs to be grounded in law-based democracy and breath in the open air. If it remains in the secretive hands of the UK state it won’t be long before it once again needs life-support.

The Coalition agreement says that a referendum on the electoral system and reform of the Lords will finally happen. These impact on the heart of British power so long protected by New Labour. Yet the way in which their reform is being proposed is designed to close down democracy under a verbiage of declarations about ‘new politics’. Can the obvious incoherence open the way for something better? A lot of campaigning will be needed to achieve this. Yet an unprecedented opening has occurred. A leading Lib Dem blogger, James Graham, expressing pride in his party and disappointment in Labour’s arrogance, politely signaled his determination:

“Enthusiasm amongst the public for genuine voting reform is growing exponentially. I hope the Liberal Democrats in government will not begrudge the fact that many of us will not take this lying down, and use every measure at our disposal to force parliament to offer the public a proper choice.”

Replacing Thatcherism

The centerpiece of what has happened, however, is the transformation of the Tory Party. All those cheap and lazy jibes about toffs taking us back to Thatcher-style polarisation have been shown to be so much vapour. On the contrary, what Cameron has done is to return Toryism to its one-nation Whig tradition. He has broken the spell that Thatcherism and its conviction politics has had over his party since the coup that ousted her in 1990. And his combining with Nick Clegg could break the grip of Thatcher’s wider political culture over British politics as a whole. Her sense of principle and belief in British institutions had long been eviscerated by New Labour, leaving behind only her legacy of macho bullying and devious cunning personified by Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell. Now they too have been swept away.

In his magisterial introduction to Britain Since 1918 David Marquand identifies four shaping traditions in British politics. They are all forms of democracy. They cut across left and right. Most of the major political leaders and all the big parties have combined different strands. They are: Whig imperialism, tory nationalism, democratic collectivism and democratic republicanism.

Churchill, for example, was ‘Whig imperial’: his was a one-nation, consensual, great-British politics appealing to all classes. It was built upon to create the welfare state by the ‘democratic collectivism’ of Attlee’s post-war government. When the stifling consensus politics that resulted collapsed in the 1970s, it opened the way for Thatcher.  She used ‘Tory nationalism’ to draw upon Churchillist themes thanks to the Falkland’s war. But in fact she broke both the wings of the post-1945 settlement: Whig imperialism, scorned as wet and liberal, and democratic centralism including its trade union base.

Her election in 1979 was thus a true turning point for the UK. After 1997 Blair and Brown proved to be Thatcher’s “sons” as Simon Jenkins documented. They oversaw many humanizing reforms, and tried to heal the social wounds of Thatcher’s divisiveness, but were unable to offer a coherent alternative to her Tory nationalism. Instead they sought to protect their efforts at social improvement by outbidding her search for national greatness: backing globalisation and finance capital by giving the City of London an even bigger bang than she did, and outdoing her belligerence by going to war even more often and doing so illegally as well. Looking back one can see that the many good things that have happened since 1997 were achieved despite the core project of New Labour not because of it. That core project was to climb on board the neo-liberal engine of global finance and military supremacy to ensure continuity in office.

David Cameron’s stated aim was to carry on this tradition and at the same time persuade both his party and the country that the Conservatives had returned to their inclusive Whig tradition. In other words, to be even better at providing Thatcherism with a human face than Blair and Brown. But the still ongoing great financial crash put an end to this vainglorious ambition. Instead, Cameron has seized the opportunity offered by a hung parliament to reshape the nature of his party and the country’s politics. It is a turning point as sharp as 1979. It deposits New Labour into its Thatcherite dustbin. It demonstrates what realignment really means.

While everyone has been talking about Nick Clegg as a ‘kingmaker’ who had to decide which suitor to back, the game was really changed by Cameron’s vision. He could have decided to govern as a minority party and offered the Lib Dems concessions to ensure its survival, until he could call another election, perhaps on the basis of re-drawn constituencies that eliminated the bias against his party, to sweep back to power on a majority. This is what the Labour’s leader Harold Wilson did in 1974 when he had a hung parliament and, in effect, after 1964 when he had a majority of just six. Had Cameron played the usual game he would have exploited the Prime Minister’s powers to call an election to bring back one-party government as usual.

Instead, he used the financial crisis to chose a strikingly different course: that of a full coalition which has given itself a fixed term of five years, long enough to impose economic cuts and (he hopes) recover from the deflation his programme is likely to cause before going to the country.

Cameron did this for at least three underlying reasons. First, the Union. The swing to the Conservatives in England would have given the Conservatives a comfortable majority of seats under the UK’s first-past-the-post system (although they have only 40 per cent of the votes, a fact that underscores their opposition to fair voting). But Scotland swung the other way, towards Labour. It had been clear for some time that this was happening. While Conservatives gained support South of the border, it was anti-Tory sentiment that was growing to its north (even if the SNP was not benefiting). For public sentiment to move in diametrically opposite directions means fundamentally different political dynamics are at work. The starkest way of putting this from the Tory point of view is this: if they want to be sure of governing with a stable majority under first-past-the-post they would have to get rid of Scotland. If they wanted to preserve the union they would have to go into coalition with a Scottish party. Whether or not it succeeds, the deal with the Lib Dems is an attempt to solve this problem as Gerry Hassan shows. It gives the Coalition 12 Scottish seats and 36 per cent of the votes (similar to Labour’s total in the UK after the last election). Without them a Tory minority government would have held just one constituency out of 59 and lacked all legitimacy across the northern part of the Kingdom.

Second, Europe. Cameron, in good Whig-imperial fashion, wants to make sure British political influence is exercised in international circles. With an Obama administration opposed to the UK playing the role of offshore rider to American exceptionalism, the new Conservative leader needed to reposition the Tory party in the EU, where it had become dangerously isolated. As the most pro-European party with deep connections into the EU (both Clegg and his colleague Chris Huhne now Environment Secretary, are ex-MEPs) a coalition with the Lib Dems transforms the European body language of a Tory led government. If by your partners you shall know them, then the Conservatives partnership with the Lib Dems easily overrides their European Parliament alliance with the rightist fruitcakes of ECR, and Cameron’s government can now network into Brussels with ease thanks to its coalition partners.

Third, domestically. Cameron set out to ‘detoxify’ the Tory Party and to stop it from being hated for the nationalism, xenophobia, racism and homophobia with which large elements of the electorate associate it. The electoral imperatives were evident in the election, where the loss of the gay and ethnic votes especially across London helped cost the Conservatives their majority. (The same calculation has been made in terms of the more measurable UKIP vote, however Cameron did not want to lead a party that would appeal to such ‘toxic’ supporters and would have lost by far-greater numbers had he done so.) Today, the Chairman of the Conservative Party is a woman Muslim. She will attend Cabinet. This would have been unimaginable fifteen years ago. On its own, such an appointment can always carry the flag of tokenism. In association with the larger coalition, it reinforces the spirit of creative inclusion Cameron seeks. It will reassure fearful voters, that Tories can be normal as the rebarbative legacy of Thatcherism is put to rest.

The defining nature of the state

There is another domestic element to Cameron’s coalition politics. It reinforces his vision of the state. There have been many expressions of disappointment on the left about the failure of Labour and the Lib Dems to get together in a progressive alliance. But there seems to be a blithe presumption among Labour supporters that the intrusive role of the state is a matter of little importance, perhaps they have been watching too much BBC. The power and nature of the state is a matter of cardinal importance all the more so if you are committed to extensive government intervention. Labour’s presumption of the state’s essential benevolence in their hands did them great damage before. Only after 13 years in the wilderness following their 1979 defeat, did renewal get serious when Brown in 1992 came to the view, set out in his Charter 88 Sovereignty Lecture, that Labour had to accept that the state is a “vested interest”, and that as such it was felt to be a threat, one which Thatcher had exploited in her popular call for freedom.

Labour’s commitments to a Human Rights Act to protect citizens from the state, and freedom of information to ensure the state’s accountability, began from the argument Brown set out. Alas, it was lost in the presumptions of high office. Today, Labour’s retreat from that commitment to constitutional democracy seems to have penetrated throughout the party. In his initial announcement that he is standing for the leadership to replace Brown, for example, David Miliband declared the need for deep “social and economic” change but not for political reform. Let’s hope it won’t take Labour another ten years in opposition before they wake up.

At the start of the election campaign there was a debate between the three candidates for Chancellor. They were asked if the cuts that would have to be introduced to bring down the deficit would be more severe than those imposed by Mrs. Thatcher in 1979. Their answers were “yes”, “yes”, and “yes”. But whereas her cuts were accompanied by a political assault on prevailing culture of compromise and inclusion, the cuts which are now about to take place will be presented as a dose of wartime medicine, a cost we must all share thanks to Labour’s recklessness, while the most vulnerable, as spelled out in the Coalition agreement, are protected. There will be job losses alright, as there would have been under Labour. But the political ideology that will accompany them will be that of coalition not conviction.

Of course, it may not work. Decades of economic stasis may lie ahead. George Osborne may do everything he can to resist EU regulation of hedge-funds, protect big banks, reproduce ambitions of British exceptionalism and Atlanticism. But unlike Thatcher he does not have North Sea oil revenues to fund such policies and he is part of a government seeking from the start to ensure that cuts do not create lasting unpopularity, the poor are enabled and manufacturing supported. A different kind of political leadership is being proposed for the UK at the end of neo-liberalism than we had to endure at its launch thirty years ago.

In his overview of the crisis, The Spectre at the Feast, Andrew Gamble warned of the threat of a new populist Caeserism. Instead, the far-right have been comprehensively defeated in the election despite the alleged softness on immigration of Cameron’s ‘progressive conservativism’. A civil war has been taking place in Britain’s main governing party between Tory nationalism and Whig imperialism. Now the latter has turned itself into what can be seen as Whig Europeanism by allying with the Lib Dems at the same time as seizing office, the ultimate prize in Tory eyes from whatever wing of the party you might be. It seems to me that a comprehensive victory has been achieved and that the Tory hard-right, even with the support of the Sun, will not find it easy to recover. The question for Nick Clegg is whether the exercise will leave him as merely the civilising agent of the Tory party, to be cast aside when the job is done, or whether he will reform the British state as well.

If not Thatcherism then what?

The reform of the state is likely to prove the most significant fault-line in the Coalition. Cameron is a constitutional conservative who wants to modernise the status quo but not alter it. Clegg proclaims we have a “rotten system” and wants a constitutional democracy to replace it completely. The awkward compromise is symbolized by the commitment to have a referendum on changing the electoral system to the Alternate Vote system, which is even more majoritarian than first-past-the-post. To give you a notion of how bad it is, one need merely say that it was originally dreamt up to assuage Labour’s right-wing.

There was a small but telling evidence of the tension in Cameron’s speech outside No 10 on becoming premier after kissing the Queen’s hand. He wheeled out the usual clichés. One of the tasks that we have is to rebuild trust in our political system. Yes, that is about cleaning up expenses, yes, that’s about reforming Parliament and, yes, it’s about making sure people are in control and that the politicians are always their servants and never their masters. But suddenly, towards the end, the new Prime Minister put it differently:

“I want us to build a society with stronger families and stronger communities, and I want a political system that people can trust and look up to once again”.

“Look up to once again”. Perhaps he was under the influence of having just got back from kneeling before the monarch. It was surely how in his waters he would like things to be. Not at all with the people “in control” – rather that we dock our forelocks and gaze upwards in good old pre-democratic trust. Well, it ain’t going to happen. It is neither a master-servant relationship nor a deferential one that is needed, it is democracy. And democracy demands a democratic constitution.

Here, the attempt by the agreement to preserve yet transform could prove a minefield for the coalition – and a glorious opportunity for those who do indeed seek a Clegg-proclaimed overthrow of a “rotten system”.

The Coalition agreement says there will be a commission to consider the ‘West Lothian question’. That is code for the English question – should there be an English parliament or assembly? The agreement also commits the Coalition government to examining “the case for a United Kingdom Sovereignty Bill to make it clear that ultimate authority remains with Parliament”. That’s an idea to create a constitutional check, as the German’s have in their constitutional court, on any extension of EU powers over the UK. But the German court gains its judicial authority from the basic law – the country’s codified constitution. The agreement states there will be “a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation”, that means reconstructing half of the UK’s parliament.

Clegg will be in charge of political reform overseeing, it seems, three separate major committees, one looking at the internal national question, a second at the UK’s sovereignty in Europe and a third examining the nature of parliament. He is smart enough to join the dots if he wishes, his party has long called for a new overall settlement, and anyway there are not enough constitutional experts to go round unless the same faces to bob up in each committee giving separate evidence!

The Tory negotiators doubtless thought they were being clever pushing the issues into newly created cobwebs. We will see. The decrepit nature of the old order that Cameron is seeking to refresh rather than replace is evident in Coalition agreement’s assertion that they will legislate for a fixed term parliament in a way that will “provide for dissolution if 55 per cent or more of the House votes in favour”. This peculiar assertion is unenforceable. Suppose the Commons votes by a simple majority to dissolve the government? Will its decision be defied? The Commons can’t bind itself in this manner; this is what it means to have a merely parliamentary rather than constitutional sovereignty.

People are right to see the 55 per cent proposal as a fix. It is especially inappropriate coming from a coalition that seeks to preserve majority rather than proportional voting and whose Conservative partners advocate winning elections by one vote whatever the proportion! If they knew that he was attempting to ensure his Coalition remains in power even if it loses the confidence of the Commons, generations of Cameron’s Conservative predecessors would be rotating in their graves – were it not that their corpses are in as bad a condition as the British constitution itself.

Not for the first time, British power is advancing with great élan while its lumps are falling off.

The Coalition is an inventive, refreshing response demonstrating the agility and inventiveness of the British political élite. It is progressive on the environment, stopping the third runway at Heathrow and ruling out further runway expansion at Gatwick and Stansted as abruptly as it is putting a stop to ID cards. It signals a welcome attempt to shift our political culture. One already much scorned by the media, which is evidence that it is attempting something very positive. We will be a freer people because of it.

But it is also an exercise by a narrow and manipulative political class to stay in control. They have protected our liberty but seek to rein it in. They will offer the choice of a new electoral system but want to limit what we are allowed to consider to only one ridiculous option. They seek to foist an undemocratic second chamber on us for decades to come (which they will become members of) but say we can’t even participate of the deliberations as to how it will be replaced.

But we are a people who will never again “look up” in trust to our political system, as David Cameron wishes. The “Freedom or Great Repeal Bill” the Coalition agreement promises should be linked to a Democracy Bill that will give the people a genuine choice over how we vote for our politicians and open out a popular, deliberative process for deciding on the role and composition of the House of Lords as part of a democratic constitution.

The Tory election Manifesto is entitled Invitation to Join the Government of Britain. It opens by declaring:

“Real change comes when the people are inspired and mobilised, when millions of us are fired up to play a part in the nation’s future. Yes this is ambitious. Yes it is optimistic. But in the end all the Acts of Parliament, all the new measures, all the new policy initiatives, are just politicians’ words without you and your involvement”.

To which I say, “Let’s get stuck in”. Let’s accept the invitation. Let’s become part of the Government of Britain! When I first saw it I thought the Manifesto invitation was a cynical exercise in PR designed, in truth, to lower trust in politics even further, if that were possible. But that was when it was a programme for single party rule. The Coalition alters the chemistry. There really is a party going on. It shouldn’t be limited to public-school boys. And, we have an invitation…

Added to which is the possibility of an entirely new dynamic. When Labour has put through its reforms after 1997, from a Human Rights Act to parliaments in Scotland and Wales, it was opposed by a backward-looking, uninspired Conservative opposition that wanted to limit the impact of change as much as possible. In 2010 the Coalition has set out a programme of political reforms that are at once radical yet limited, a dangerous combination. If Labour, already nominally committed to introducing a written constitution, were to settle on an imaginative new leader, then the Coalition may find itself up against an opposition that demands greater democracy and participation, triggering a race for reform.

It is the reforms themselves, the achievement of constitutional and national democracy in the framework of the EU that will be decisive. The forces of authoritarianism in the parties, the state and the media are still intact. We glimpsed their visage when John Reid and David Blunkett, two of Labour’s most repressive Home Secretaries, denounced any idea of Labour making a coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

Can the dark forces they represent be beaten? A generation who has grown up under New Labour is already organising around demands for fair votes and, in effect, modern democracy. They mobilised under the purple colour of suffrage to demand that Nick Clegg not sell-out on PR in the negotiations. Never before has a modern British political leader been forced to come out and address a demonstration he didn’t call or help plan. It’s a new politics indeed when the chant for fair votes takes to the streets. As Tory nationalism is replaced by the Whig Europeanism of the new Coalition government of Britain, Labour’s democratic collectivism may well prove to be a spent force. But a new kind of opposition is being organised, democratic republicanism. It has already challenged the Coalition to deliver on its promise of change to the way we are governed. It is unlikely to be fobbed off with gimmicks designed by the political class to keep control in the hands of… the political class. If this is the outcome of the Coalition then the demand for democracy will find another home. And the Liberal Democrats, who despite all their boldness, youth, concern for fairness and desire to work in the national interest, stand for reform or they stand for nothing, will be destroyed.

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Created 05/13/2010 – 22:58

Anthony Barnett is the founder of and the editor of its UK section, Our Kingdom.

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