LONDON — This summer I am interning for Simon Hughes, Deputy Leader and Member of Parliament for the Liberal Democrats. This is a particularly exciting time for the UK’s third party, and it is a particularly exciting time for British politics in general. After the 2010 general election left no party with a clear majority, the Conservatives entered into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. This time in British politics has been marked by a series of firsts: the election resulted in the first hung parliament since 1974, the first full coalition since the Second World War, and the first time the Liberal Democrats have been in government. In this blog, I will chronicle what I observe working in Westminster during this historic moment. I hope to write about the state of the coalition, the new identity of the Liberal Democrats, and the new government’s policies and reforms, among other topics.
The other day, I heard something rarely heard in a Liberal Democrat office: praise for Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. Granted, the praise followed his eloquent and appropriate public apology for Bloody Sunday. Nonetheless, as I’ve more often heard my colleagues insult the Conservatives than praise them, I felt the occasion noteworthy.
This exchange is perhaps indicative of the change brought by the coalition. The most exciting possibility the coalition offers is a time for Britain’s leading political parties to set aside their differences. From my time working in Westminster, I’ve observed a partisan system that is particularly rigid and insular. In my office, jibes at other parties’ MPs and their staff are commonplace, sometimes at the expense of sincere analysis of competing ideologies and policy. On a more macro level, Members of Parliament are expected to vote consistently along party lines at the risk of being ostracized by party ranks. This dangerously creates a system in which independent thinking is discouraged in favor of blind partisanship and tribalism among party members.
But now, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives — longtime opponents — are on the same team, if at least on the same side of the House. No longer can Liberal Democrats or Conservatives respond to each other with knee-jerk disapproval. For perhaps the first time, the parties will be forced to confront each other for what they are. And Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have more in common than they realize, although prejudice and a culture of partisanship have long fostered hatred between them. Their central ideological similarity is their desire to shift power away from the centralized state into local councils and charities. As The Economist article “Servants of the people” noted:
The two parties share not only a few policy specifics—something that is true, after all, of the Lib Dems and Labour, or indeed the Tories and Labour—but also an underlying critique of the British state, which both see as uniquely centralised by Western standards. “Freedom, fairness and responsibility” were the soporifically banal themes chosen for the speech by David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, and Nick Clegg, his Lib Dem deputy; “giving power away” would have been more fitting.
Along with their critique of the state, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives agree that civil liberties, eroded under Labour government, must be restored. They have already scrapped ID cards, and they plan to extend the Freedom of Information Act and roll back the National Identity register, among other reforms. Of course, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are ideologically distinct — they disagree on many issues, notably nuclear policy and attitudes towards the European Union, but new times call for new compromises and cooperation.
Though this coalition offers an exciting chance for new politics and reform, the government will ultimately be judged by the people on how it deals with the current fiscal deficit. Unpopular budget cuts will be necessary, and the public will not respond well. People will undoubtedly be watching closely this Tuesday, when Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announces the budget. Yet although the days of this coalition may be numbered, one thing is sure: the next five years will be fun to watch.