From September 2005 to November 2008 I was a supporter of a government party. Now again, I find myself in the position of government cheerleader. It is great to enjoy days like yesterday. Enda Kenny seemed quite comfortable in his new role. The speech from Simon Harris nominating him, who at 24 is the same age Enda was when he entered the Dáil in 1975, clearly meant a lot to him. Enda himself spoke well, and was able for the odd riposte across the chamber. Of course, supporting the government also means living with and in some small way answering for unpopular decisions. And though the people recognize that the new government can’t be blamed for why there are changes needed, the manner will not always be popular, and it might sometimes be the wrong approach.
As the campaign began in early February, I was reading David Laws’ recent book, 22 Days in May, his account of the negotiations between the Liberal Democrats and both of the two larger parties after last year’s election. Their choices were a minority Labour-LibDem coalition, supporting a minority Conservative government in a confidence and supply arrangement, or full coalition with the Conservatives. They explored all options, but given the perceived need for stable government, a full coalition with a comfortable majority seemed the safest and most likely option, whatever hesitance there was within their party to forming a coalition with the Tories after years of hoping for a centre-left alignment.
In the Irish situation, it was the largest party that had the advantage. Fine Gael came out of the election with 76 seats, short of the 83 required for a majority. As in Britain, full coalition was always the most likely given the perceived stability from a majority government. Unlike the Liberal Democrats, Fine Gael did not explore the other options at all. While it mightn’t have hurt to have tested the possibility of Independent support, coalition seemed the inevitable outcome.
I’m pleased enough with the Programme for Government, but it really is too early to tell it will be like. We will be able to start to judge by the summer, when we have seen the first initiatives from each Minister. But importantly, how well the new government be at renegotiating the interest rate on our EU/IMF loan, and whether Ireland will have to concede on our corporation tax base. This we cannot know from the Programme.
Fine Gael identified a reduction of 145 quangos through consolidation of functions. Let’s hope this is implemented. Both parties had clear commitments to political reform, which will be hard for them to avoid now, which will be at least one area that the new government should be remembered for. I look forward to the social reforms which are to be discussed in the Constitutional Convention, and I would hope to get involved if possible.
It is a compromise between two parties. Of course it would be, such is the nature of coalition. The number of voluntary public sector redundancies, is a compromise between the two manifesto commitments, as is the target itself for deficit reduction of 2015. Fine Gael measures on competitiveness are in the Programme, with the proposed lowering the 13.5% rate of VAT, cutting the travel tax and halving PRSI on low-wage workers.
Aside from headline economic commitments, any Programme for Government will have statements on some interesting side issues. In defence, it commits the government to “enforce the prohibition on the use of Irish airspace, airports and related facilities for purposes not in line with the dictates of international law.” Fair enough, there should have been checks on flights through Shannon to ascertain whether they were being used for transportation of torture victims. But I would also liked to have seen a review of our Triple Lock system, which deprives Ireland of an independent foreign policy by tying it to that of China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, through their UN Security Council veto?
On bioethics, there is a commitment to formalise parental responsibilities arising from assisted reproduction, something which is of growing importance to clarify. There is also a commitment to change organ donation from an opt-in to an opt-out system, which will be welcome to some, depending on its implementation.
So I look forward to these years, an interesting time for the politics of this country. Though it will all be to small avail if we cannot get a significantly better deal from the IMF and ECB.
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?
I had it in my mind from the middle of last week that my next entry would be on David Laws, but had thought to write little more than a few words on the praise he had been receiving from Tories. In Thursday’s FT, I read the comments of Edward Leigh, Conservative chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, who asked “Can I welcome the return to the Treasury of stern, unbending, Gladstonian liberalism?” and he he been described as an unreconstructed nineteenth century liberal. ConservativeHome reported on how Laws refused a potted plant in his office and cut the Treasury’s budget for potted plants. He also declined the use of the Treasury’s £100,000 limousine, which his predecessor Liam Byrne has used and which he was entitled to use, saying that with a London home, he wouldn’t need it.
Consider that much in assessing his character. He was not someone who went into politics for the money or the perks. He found himself tripped up by a form of words, not fully confident in himself that he could describe his relationship as that between cohabiting partners. They had been in a committed relationship since 2001, but did not outwardly live as a couple. When he first started to claim his rental allowance, it would seem fair that he would not have to detail his budding romance. At what point in the intervening nine years would they then have become partners as defined by the rules? My instinct would be some time before they moved house together, but considering how private they were, that even their family and many friends did not know, let alone his stated justification of separate bank accounts, I can understand how he felt they didn’t fit the description.
Yes, as a millionaire he did not need the money, but all MPs from outside London are as entitled to a housing allowance as their salary. And it should be said that had he acknowledged their relationship, he could have claimed even more from the exchequer through an allowance for mortgage repayments. He is not someone who set out to defraud the state.
That he was in the closet helps understand a lot of small things about his political career. He was offered a front bench position in the Conservatives by George Osborne, and could well have found himself as Chancellor of the Exchequer, but Laws likes to tell of how he told Osborne that “I am not a Tory”. A profile of Laws last week, before the controversy, gave Conservative support of Section 28 as his reason for not joining, a provision banning promotion of homosexuality and the “acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” in schools, introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1988 and supported by the Tories including David Cameron until its repeal in 2003. Of course, there are prominent openly gay Conservative MPs, such as Alan Duncan and Nick Herbert, both now junior ministers, but I’d imagine it was far more comfortable for him to be a closeted gay man in a liberal party than it would have been in a conservative party.
It also might have played a part in his ruling himself out of the 2007 leadership election, following the resignation of Sir Ming Campbell. After the leadership election of the previous year, in which the supposedly happily married Mark Oaten had withdrawn after controversy with a rent boy, and a second candidate Simon Hughes admitted that while he was not gay, he had had relationships with both men and women, Laws would have spurned such public scrutiny. I remember wondering during that contest in early 2006, whether I might find myself in some such situation later in life. Thankfully, I think I have now set aside that possibility.