On Thursday morning, the Irish Independent led with a poll that showed 65 percent favour fixing the deficit through spending cuts than increases in taxation. Well, of course, no surprise there. Even aside from the impact of the Universal Social Charge, people don’t like paying taxes. They don’t mind public services, but don’t feel the marginal differences in changes to their provision. The Financial Times reported this week on a seminar with Denis Healey, Labour Party Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1974 to 1979, who was asked why he cut spending rather than increase taxed after the IMF crisis in 1976. His answer was simple, “Because spending cuts are less unpopular, of course. I’m not a lunatic, you know”.
What I wonder is how permanent a shift this recession and deficit crisis will cause in how people think about state spending. Is the era of big government over, or merely on standby? One certainty now is that there will a fundamental shift in the party system, with the consistently dominant Fianna Fáil likely to lose more than half its seats. This will have been a wasted opportunity if we don’t also take the time to consider that it was not just the personalities in Fianna Fáil that brought us to this position. Jason O’Mahony has warned Fine Gael to be careful that we don’t end up with the sort of people who joined Fianna Fáil in the past simply to be with the party of power.
But more than that, as a country, we need to think in economic terms about public spending, even after we finally feel that we have left this recession behind. I finished reading today 22 Days in May, the account by the Liberal Democrat David Laws of the negotiations with the Conservatives last year, and his brief spell as Chief Secretary of the Treasury. He was responsible, along with others like Nick Clegg, for moving their party in a direction that sought to face economic realities, downplay populism, while maintaining social liberalism. Throughout these negotiations, they stayed steadfast on social issues like a pupil premium in the capitation fee for poorer students. But as Chief Secretary, when it came to necessary cuts, universalist approaches were easy targets to be cut. He explains scrapping the Child Trust Fund, “No longer would we be conning children that they were richer, by going out and borrowing money to give them at age eighteen, after which they would have to pay higher taxes to pay off the public borrowing incurred to fund the scheme”. In short, “public borrowing is only taxation deferred”.
Despite the assumptions of Ricardian equivalence, this is easily forgotten. If politicians are responsible, they will remind the public of this in their rhetoric, that all public spending is derived from taxation, not a gift from the sky. Phrases such as “free fees” rather than “taxpayer-funded tuition” hint at money coming simply from a benevolent government. In some form, our mentality should change. Perhaps something simple to start like seeking to join gatherings such as David Cameron’s recent invitation to the eight Nordic and Baltic leaders, self-identification with the more sober northern Europe than the troublesome Mediterranean countries with whom we have been so tied lately in the global mind, could prompt such a discussion.
But of course, we live in a democracy, and politicians like to be re-elected. How long again, after a few years of sobriety, before we see a return to auction politics, each party trying to win most votes with taxpayers’ money?
The publication of the Saville Report yesterday marked an end for many in Derry to years of waiting to be vindicated, for it to be clearly stated on the public record that the 14 protesters shot dead on 30 January 1972 were innocent and had been unlawfully killed. The publication yesterday was followed by a humble apology from David Cameron:
But what happened should never, ever have happened. The families of those who died should not have had to live with the pain and hurt of that day – and a lifetime of loss. Some members of our Armed Forces acted wrongly. The Government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the Armed Forces. And for that, on behalf of the Government – and indeed our country – I am deeply sorry.
This is a significant admission of culpability on the part of the state in the actions on that date, and from the reception to the report and the state in Derry itself is a sign that it is one more step in the process of healing.
This report should also act a reminder to those of us who would condemn the actions of the IRA during that period. It is, of course, just to condemn those who took up arms against their fellow citizens, and the vindictiveness and the intransigence of those in the higher ranks of the IRA for many years, including the current leadership of Sinn Féin. And tribute must be paid to those leaders of nationalism in the SDLP, Gerry Fitt, John Hume, Seamus Mallon, Eddie McGrady, Mark Durkan and others, who consistently sought peaceful, constitutional and conciliatory approaches to settlement.
But in the context of Bloody Sunday, and perhaps more particularly of the Widgery Report which initially followed it, in which the army was exonerated, and accused of having “bordered on reckless”, that so many young Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland felt so alienated from the institutions of the state, with such a report that embodied the arrogant attitude that the state could do no wrong. At this distance, we should at least be able to comprehend and appreciate the part the British Army played in escalating the division and conflict in the years of the Troubles.
But most importantly now, while acknowledging the hurt of the past, Northern Ireland needs to move on to governing itself effectively, and it is thankfully managing to do so most of the time given the context of events like this.
Image from CAIN
This was a disappointing election for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. As David Schneider tweeted, “Was the whole LibDem thing something I dreamed in the shower?”. With 63 MPs at the dissolution of the Commons on 6 May, they returned with only 57. These included a few high-profile losses, such as Lembit Öpik in Montgomeryshire, one of the safest seats for Whigs and Liberals since the 17th century, and Dr Evan Harris in Oxford West and Abingdon, who was possibly my favourite MP, a strong voice for a clear scientific understanding of policy, a defender of free speech, and a clear advocate for of gay rights, beaten by Nicola Blackwood, a Tory who apparently has creationist beliefs.
But they also have a great opportunity, as no government can be formed without their support. They have a choice now between supporting a government led by David Cameron, or one led by a probably David Miliband, also supported by the SDLP, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and Sylvia Hermon. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that as someone who has in political allegiances has gone between the Progressive Democrats and Fine Gael that I would favour the former option. I see this as their best chance of affecting change in both policy and in the dynamics of party politics, as long as they ensure a place in cabinet rather than simply supporting the Conservatives in a confidence and supply arrangement.
The Conservatives are reluctant to move much at all on the question of electoral reform. This would be the best reason the Lib Dems would have to collapse negotiations, if they cannot secure a firm commitment on this. However, they should consider two things. The first is that a referendum proposed by a rag-tag slump coalition of Labour, the Lib Dems and a selection of regionalist parties would not be guaranteed to win. The second is that a successful and stable coalition agreement would seriously impair the Tories’ argument against proportional representation, whereas they could point to a Lab/LD/SNP/SDLP/Hermon coalition as exactly the kind of thing that would occur frequently under PR.
The change to the Tories
This leads onto the change they could affect in the party system. As referred to by Declan Harmon, Fianna Fáil eventually abandoned their core principle of opposition to coalitions. In 1989 the Progressive Democrats had had a poor election, falling from 14 to 6 seats. Its members were mostly composed of those who had a deep antipathy to the politics of Charles Haughey, who they were now supporting as Taoiseach. By doing so, they altered the presumptions everyone had about election outcomes and the formation of governments. The Tories know the importance of a stable government as a signal for the markets, and would likely not seek to collapse the arrangement over any frivolous matter. After a year of coalition, they would henceforth slowly begin to think less adamantly in favour of single-party government only.
I was talking to a friend this morning about the coalition who reminded me that they’re Tories, not conservatives. Of course there’s a difference, and there are many issues that I couldn’t trust Tory instincts on, be it Northern Ireland, their approach to families, or their commitment to gay rights (whatever about the optimism of Nick Herbert for his party and his likelihood of being a cabinet minister, there have been too many Lewises, Lardners and Strouds over the course of the election for my liking). But these tendencies would be less of a concern in coalition, and without them, the Tories would be in danger of regressing towards their
In government with the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats could ensure that they follow through with their claimed commitments to civil liberties. They could force them to confront more quickly questions like biometric ID cards, the national database, and the level of CCTV coverage in Britain. On immigration, they would propose the amnesty for long-standing residents proposed by the Lib Dems, but neither they pass the stringent caps proposed by the Tories. The Tories would continue for opt-outs on social provisions of the European Union, while not being as obstinate in practice as they might otherwise be. The social conservative wing of the Tories are pushing for a cabinet position for Iain Duncan Smith in return for agreeing to any deal with the Lib Dems. Fine, so long as in the next year or so he is whipped to go through the lobbies voting in favour of some measure on gay rights.
So yes, the Liberal Democrats will suffer some initial drop in support in they enter coalition with the Tories, just as the Green Party did here after 2007, both because of their government partner and the inevitable cuts to government spending. But in the long-term, because of the change they would make to British political culture, both by normalizing c0alition politics and making electoral reform easier to pass, and putting pressure on the civil-liberties-focused wing of the Tories, I think it would be the right thing for them to do.
The Times/Ladbrokes seat predictor currently put the Conservatives six seats short of a majority. Suppose this prediction is accurate. It ignores a few details about Northern Ireland. They predict a seat for Sir Reg Empey, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, standing in alliance with the Conservative Party, which really puts the those elected as Conservatives at 321. South Antrim should really have been coloured as blue as any Conservative predictions in Britain. They also predict a seat for Rodney Connor in Fermanagh–South Tyrone, who has pledged to take the Tory whip under a loose arrangement. Add to that then the four predicted Sinn Féin seats. By their abstention, they bring the figure required for a majority to 324, rather than the standard figure given of 326.
The Conservatives would then be only two seats short of a majority, and could very reasonably expect to form a government. But to be secure, to sure of not losing any confidence motion, especially if the predictions are a little high for the party, they could turn then to the eight predicted seats of the Democratic Unionist Party. They would most likely guarantee some measure of relief from the expected public sector cuts to Northern Ireland. It would be a major turn around in Peter Robinson’s fortunes, whose position was in doubt only a few months ago. It would also consolidate the Conservative government’s Unionist stance on issues of disagreement in Northern Ireland, which could potentially have repercussions for any further negotiations.
David Cameron has proposed a law that would force a general election within six months of the party of the prime minister changing its leader. This isn’t really how parliamentary democracy works. Margaret Thatcher was quoted recently giving her reason for not having a prime ministerial debate, “We are not choosing a president, we are electing a government”. The election on 6 May is not an electoral college system with 650 constituencies voting for Brown, Cameron or Clegg. In Britain, the prime minister is chosen as whoever can command a majority of members of the House of Commons. For it to be defined otherwise would be a major departure, and out of step with traditions across Europe. Gordon Brown held his mandate subject to the MPs, as did Tony Blair and every prime minister before them. As the list of prime ministers shows, there have been several occasions over the centuries where a retiring prime minister, from the three parties, was succeeded by his successor as party leader without any general expectation of an impending general election.
Here in Ireland, Éamon de Valera was succeeded by Seán Lemass in 1959, Lemass by Jack Lynch in 1966, Lynch by Charles Haughey in 1979, Haughey by Albert Reynolds in 1992 and Bertie Ahern by Brian Cowen in 2008, on each occasion as part of the succession of the party leader. We would find similar patterns in parliamentary democracies across Europe.
As a Conservative, David Cameron should have a solid reason for proposing a departure from this constitutional convention, rather than merely sniping at Gordon Brown’s cowardice (and ultimately poor judgment) in not calling an election in the autumn of 2007 as he had strongly considered.
Of all parties, the Liberal Democrats would be the party in Britain I’d feel closest to. Of course, this is not the 1920s, this is not a three-cornered contest, and there is no immediate prospect of any Liberal Democrat becoming prime minister.
So it is between David Cameron and Gordon Brown for prime minister. I would not always naturally support one of Labour or the Tories over the other. At the moment, I do feel that after thirteen years in which they oversaw the onset of recession, a slow recovery and a deterioration of public finances, the Labour Party do not deserve another five years in office, and certainly not under Gordon Brown. But in any case, this election campaign has not been as exciting as perhaps it could have. Despite the dissatisfaction with the government, there has been no strong public wave behind the opposition, as there was in 1979 and 1997, in part because the expenses scandal hit both large parties in near equal measure.
But there are cultural reasons I’d be cautious to support the Conservatives. I think their decision to leave the Group of the European People’s Party, the European Parliament group of most conservatives and Christian Democrats like Nicolas Sarkozy or Angela Merkel, to form the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, was misguided. They confined themselves to an alliance that does not blend well with David Cameron’s attempts to portray the Conservatives as a more modern party, with parties with reservations about homosexuality. I don’t doubt that the Conservatives have changed as a party, on this and other issues, but the votes of their MEPs show the dissonance within the party and how Cameron himself has difficulty maintaining the more progressive image.
Having said that and despite his previous adamant opposition to repeal of Section 28, which forbid promotion of homosexuality in schools, I don’t believe gay people have any serious reason to concern from a Conservative government under David Cameron. I would not consider it the most unlikely thing if legislation to allow gay couples to marry was introduced by the Conservatives. On the most recent gay issue in the campaign, I would actually have to agree with the substance of Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling’s comments. I think there is less freedom in the country if a private B&B owner is told he must rent his rooms out to a gay couple against his wishes, even if such an owner shouldn’t be let anywhere near a major party ticket.
As The Economist wrote a few weeks ago, the Conservative approach to social issues is misguided and often presumes the most dire and exaggerated situations. Their marriage incentives seem well intentioned, but the wrong approach; it is true that children generally fare better if their parents are married, but funding married couples, including many who are financially secure, seems a strange waste of resources, and it discriminates against those children who have had the misfortune to be born to parents who have since moved apart. It was a small mistake in the course of the campaign, but the fact that the party got the figure of teenage pregnancies wrong by a factor of ten earlier this year shows how out of touch they can be at times.
On the North, the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force banner has come to little, with Ladbrokes currently predicting no Tory or Ulster Unionist candidate to be elected (The Times is using their predictions in each constituency on a great gadget on their site). Their strongest chance is in Strangford, the seat left vacant by Iris Robinson, but even there they give the DUP’s Jimmy Spratt a 50% chance of victory. And in Fermanagh–South Tyrone, both Unionist parties stood aside in favour of an independent, Rodney Connor, ending David Cameron’s hope of a Tory-backed candidate in every constituency. Overall as yet, Ladbrokes predict no change in Northern Ireland. Depending on the balance of the major parties in Westminster, the seats here could be of importance.
In his memoirs, Liberal Democrat Shadow Chancellor Vince Cable talks of trying out the various parties when in Cambridge. Of the Conservatives, he writes, “Whilst there was a liberal veneer, I knew, because I had seen it first-hand, that their activist base depended on the energies and prejudices of bigoted people like my father, whom they were only too happy to use.” This is still true of the Conservatives. They appear more nice and friendly, but there is still the lingering tolerance for groups like the Young Britons’ Foundation, as long as they stay in the background.
A tight Conservative majority would give inordinate power to such fringes of the party, as John Major found after 1992, so I think if they are to have a majority, better it be higher than the four seats currently predicted on the Times site. But I would still look forward more to a hung parliament, where the Liberal Democrats could exert influence in their more sensible social policies and approach toward the European Union. Depending on their strength, they might even manage to secure electoral reform, which Gordon Brown talked of this week, presumably in the hope of their support. Which party should lead, will then depend very much on the division of seats.