Honour among thieves
Recent frictions in the Tory-Lib Dem coalition are an object lesson in the cynicism of bourgeois politics, argues Paul Demarty
The world’s eyes were on Stratford, watching thousands of athletes run, jump and swim their way into history (or oblivion, as the case may be). Yet no physical feat is wondrous enough, and no ceremony sufficiently spectacular, to dissolve the odour of cynicism and hackery hanging over Westminster these past few weeks.
The coalition government, while hardly fatally undermined in the short term, is sailing into choppy waters. The Liberal Democrats are aggrieved that the miserable concessions extracted from the Conservative Party in the agreement that sealed their partnership - centrally, varying levels of support for utterly trifling constitutional tweaks - lie, today, in ruins. For the Tory right, meanwhile, even that fig leaf of compromise is too generous to Nick Clegg. Dissatisfaction grows every day with David Cameron and George Osborne - and the malcontents are emboldened by various similar misgivings in the bourgeois press.
Cameron, in particular, feels the breath of Boris Johnson down his neck. It is now beyond any doubt that ‘BoJo’, the buffoonish mayor of London, has his eye on the top job - and he is making influential friends. The Murdoch press, bent on revenge for the Leveson inquiry, never misses a chance to embarrass Cameron and give a platform to Johnson’s half-baked views (the latter’s criticisms of the BBC represent the quid pro quo, which Murdoch assures us he never seeks). He did not hesitate to make hay while the sun shone over Stratford either: though the Olympics contract was won under Tony Blair and Ken Livingstone, and Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony was widely perceived as leftwing, Johnson remains the politician with the clearest ownership claim over this circus.
Both partners, then, are feeling the pinch. The public at large have taken notice. Only 16% of people, according to a recent Guardian/ICM poll, reckon the government will last a full term.1
The spark, this time, has been that old and persistent antagonist to Liberal governments in this country - the House of Lords. Lords reform was in the coalition agreement - and, unlike the alternative vote system, the Tories were supposed to support it. Still, getting Tories actually to support anything that runs the risk of conceding half an ounce of democratic initiative to the British people is a hard sell: and Clegg cannot be accused of failing to make the effort.
His plan - a new Lords, 80% elected and 20% judges and bishops, with proportional representation given on the basis of party lists and 15-year terms - would hardly make for a tectonic shift in the British constitution. Clegg’s and Cable’s predecessors, Asquith and Lloyd George, took on the Lords in 1910, and divested them of the right to veto any law more than three times, or filibuster it for more than a few years. Clegg proposes nothing more radical than a more even apportionment of cushy upper house seats to brown-nosing hacks.
All too much for the right wing of the Conservative Party, of course; the timetable proposal for Clegg’s bill fell before the threat of a mass rebellion in the parliamentary Tory Party, and Cameron has washed his hands of it. It just will not happen, he says, shedding a few crocodile tears.
Clegg, for his part, was having none of it - and promptly withdrew his support for constituency boundary changes, that would reduce the number of MPs by 50 - the largest part of whom sport red rosettes. This change was originally tied to the AV referendum; but Tory MPs were formally allowed to oppose AV, and the ‘no’ camp included most of the government front bench.
Any declaration of principled support from Tory grandees for this boundary change bill should be treated with the utmost suspicion. The supposedly ‘unfair’ distribution of seats is based on the number of registered voters in a given constituency. Those constituencies with lower registration rates tend to be in poorer areas, where large numbers of effectively itinerant residents never stay in once place long enough to show up on the electoral roll. The changes are a more diluted form of the ‘anti-voter fraud’ laws being rushed through by Republican legislators in American swing states. Still less principled, however, is Clegg’s reverse-ferret on the law. Canning it amounts to an act of pure, cynical revenge.
So much, then, for the carefully cultivated nice-guy images of both leaders. Cameron pitched himself as a new kind of Tory - the compassionate conservative who loved the NHS and urged people to ‘hug a hoodie’. He made endless Blairesque promises to “fix broken politics”, end the cheap point-scoring from the Commons floor and provide honest leadership to a battered nation.
Yet he is here engaged in the same game he has been playing all along (with the strategic leadership of George Osborne) - playing the loony right of the Tory Party off against his Lib Dem coalition partners. His Pilate-style response to the failure of the Lords bill is this classically-educated Eton boy’s attempt to steer the course between Scylla and Charybdis once more.
He has, in fact, done a fairly good job of it on the whole. His time in government has seen the world teeter on the brink of economic meltdown almost constantly, and also - in the form of the Murdoch scandal - the most serious blow to the establishment’s legitimacy for many years. He has been more successful than John Major in holding it all together, under far more dire circumstances. Yet it is a cynical game of divide and rule, whose moves take place in the back room and whose object is nothing more than to hold onto power for its own sake.
As for Clegg, the story is even more dire. The appeal of the Lib Dems centres on their relative disconnection from the Labour-Tory tit for tat, and founded firmly on the luxury of opposition. But they clearly employ the same sort of cynicism as everyone else. Clegg is utterly reliant on Cameron; killing this bill redresses the balance somewhat, reducing considerably the probability of an outright Tory victory at the next election. Cameron can no longer afford to rush things; and if the coalition finally collapses, Clegg may hope he has a second bite of the cherry with Ed Miliband.
Speaking of ‘Red’ Ed: he hardly comes out of this affair with reputation enhanced. Labour political strategy at the present time can be summarised simply: oppositions do not win elections, but governments lose them. The government is weaker by the day; the gloomy economic outlook and the fallout from Osborne’s austerity programme mean that the Tories will have an uphill struggle to reverse this trend. And so, the argument goes, all Labour has to do is not say anything that will alienate the ‘middle classes’ (read: the big and financial bourgeoisie, who hold the opinions of every ignorant petty bourgeois in their back pocket), and attempt to nudge the coalition onwards to its inevitable demise.
Ed Miliband cannot have had any principled objections to the Lords reform. It is exactly the sort of tinkering that the Blair government enacted. Yet Labour chose to oppose it on cynical tactical grounds, in the hope that its defeat would sow discord between the factions on the front bench.
To give the devil his due, it has paid off beyond the wildest dreams of those miserable technocratic hacks that come up with Labour Party strategy these days. Not only are Clegg and Cameron throwing sharp objects at each other: the sharpest of all is the scrapping of boundary changes, which benefits Miliband directly. The fallout will continue into the autumn. Cameron is expected to announce a cabinet reshuffle that will principally benefit his own right wing. Danny Alexander, the appointed Lib Dem underling at the treasury, is expected to titillate the audience at the party’s Brighton conference with a speech excoriating the environmental record of his boss, Osborne. The centre cannot hold forever.
Given all this backstabbing, manoeuvring and treachery, it is worth remembering that there are points of principle here. The proposed Lords reform is a monstrous fraud even by the standards of a huckster as grubby as Nick Clegg. It merely takes the abject and obvious cronyism of the current set-up and conceals it under the most feeble pretence at a democratic process. A 15-year stint in the upper chamber (15 years!), with all the material and personal privileges that accrue to bogus nobility, would still function as a kind of retirement gift to the most craven and obsequious nonentities in politics, together with donors and other outliers of the Westminster racket.
A gold watch is more than most of the rest of us expect upon retirement - and it is more than these creatures deserve. The only democratic solution to the ‘problem’ of the Lords is its abolition: together with the monarchy, the judicial power and every other obstacle to popular sovereignty.
Nothing is more alien to the slick young company men that sit on the Commons front benches than any notion of democratic principle. One recalls Hunter S Thompson’s memorable description of Richard Nixon’s political methods: “He had the fighting instincts of a badger trapped by hounds. The badger will roll over on its back and emit a smell of death, which confuses the dogs and lures them in for the traditional ripping and tearing action. But it is usually the badger who does the ripping and tearing … Badgers don’t fight fair, bubba. That’s why god made dachshunds.”2
No better characterisation exists of the political bankruptcy of the bourgeois parties today.
1. www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/aug/12/ coalition-government-brink-collapse-voters.
2. www.theatlantic.com/magazine/ archive/1994/07/he-was-a-crook/8699.