The media are still captivated by Britain’s new coalition government and especially the “double act”  at the top between Conservative David Cameron and Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg. Can the partnership work?

Unquestionably their two parties share a deep and historic enmity, compared to which the Labour Party is a recent upstart. The bloodshed of the 17th century flows between them; on one side the “blessed King Charles the martyr”, on the other “the good old cause, for which Hampden died in the field, and Sidney and Russell on the scaffold”.

But as many have pointed out, Cameron and Clegg are also very similar political animals. In age, background, style and tastes, they resemble each other much more than each resembles many in his own party; their easy personal chemistry is not just a matter of show. Were it not for the different coloured ties, it would often be difficult to tell them apart.

Those on the left of the Lib Dems are understandably upset at the coalition deal. But they have to come to terms with the fact that Clegg’s options were extremely limited, given the near-impossibility of putting together a stable majority without the Tories. And as I keep pointing out in relation to Australia’s Greens, if they aspire to serious influence as a third party, they have to demonstrate some flexibility: they can’t afford to be seen as just a permanent auxiliary to one of the major parties.

More interesting is the relentless hostility towards the Lib Dems from certain sectors of the right. At one level, this is not a surprise, since the Lib Dems are in many respects a left-wing party: pro-environment, pro-European, hostile to military spending, strongly supportive of civil liberties, gay rights, and numerous other progressive causes.

But the hostility comes from many people who regard themselves as free marketeers, and who claim to regard the Lib Dems as supporters of “big government”, saying they have betrayed their Gladstonian heritage of low taxes and fiscal responsibility. The evidence for this claim, however, is desperately thin: whatever else can be said about them, Clegg and his closest colleagues are free marketeers through and through.

As Helen Dale put it prior to the election:

“Make no mistake: given power, the Liberal Democrats would engage in a ‘bonfire of the quangos’ the likes of which Britain did not even see under Margaret Thatcher. Their manifesto is riddled with ‘abolish’, and ‘decentralise’. Many Labour voters (and people on the left generally) still do not appreciate that the Liberal approach to achieving fairness and reducing inequality is via a small state and a steep reduction in income tax.”

What’s going on, it seems to me, is the old bait-and-switch trick on the right: redefining “freedom” to mean support for vested interests — “pro-business” rather than “pro-market”, “private enterprise” rather than “free enterprise” — and ignoring or being positively hostile to the claims of freedom in other areas. Even when they claim not to care about cultural issues, their distaste for liberalism is tribal, not rational.

The hostility towards the Lib Dems is in fact strangely similar to the hostility to Cameron within the Tory Party. Cameron’s attempts to drag the party into the 21st century have made him many enemies (including those who sometimes call themselves Thatcherites, forgetting that Thatcher in her day was a ruthless moderniser), and the coalition with the Lib Dems has given them more ammunition; Paola Totaro’s report this morning notes that “some of [Cameron’s] right-wing colleagues … have already started muttering about his agenda.”

Don’t be surprised if Clegg and Cameron find themselves on the same side in cabinet more often than not.

Peter Fray

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