Britain’s new Liberal-Conservative coalition government seems determined to hit the ground running, yesterday releasing a 34-page policy program agreed between the two parties. According to David Cameron and Nick Clegg, “a combination of our parties’ best ideas and attitudes has produced a programme for government that is more radical and comprehensive than our individual manifestos.”
Time will tell how easy it is to swing the bulk of the Conservative backbench behind, in Cameron’s words, “a great reforming government”, but signs are good that the leaders are serious about the project. The previous day, Clegg outlined some of his plans for constitutional reform, promising “the most significant programme of empowerment by a British government since the great reforms of the 19th Century.”
Constitutional reform, of course, has been promised before: it was one of Gordon Brown’s first initiatives on coming to power nearly three years ago. Nothing much came of that, or of many previous efforts; as Clegg pointed out, “we’ve been talking about reforming the House of Lords for over 150 years”. But putting a Liberal Democrat in charge of the subject brings a new sense of urgency.
The most significant concession Clegg has won here is probably the introduction of fixed term parliaments: he promises to proceed with “haste”, and although the details of legislation will “need to be worked out”, the basic idea is that the House of Commons would have to vote with a majority of 55% or more to enable an early dissolution.
This has been interpreted by some as a move to entrench Conservative rule, but it is actually the reverse. It protects the Lib Dems against an early election in any of three scenarios:
(a) The government is travelling well, so Cameron decides he can do without his coalition partners and goes to the Queen for a dissolution; Clegg reads about it in the papers the next morning.
(b) The government is going badly, so the Lib Dems switch sides and vote with Labour to bring down the government. Instead of advising the Queen to send for Mr Miliband, Cameron decides to go to the polls.
(c) The Lib Dems succeed in forming a new coalition to put Labour in power, but Miliband (whichever one) then rats on the agreement and calls his own early election.
Without the new rule, all of those are possible, and in each case the voters would quite probably blame the Lib Dems for the instability. This way, they have a breathing space to demonstrate that coalition government can work and that they can use the balance of power responsibly.
On other matters, Tory resistance will be more significant. Clegg conceded that they would probably be on opposite sides in the proposed referendum on preferential voting, and even if it gets up it’s very much a second-best option from the Lib Dem point of view. Clegg’s own rhetoric — “millions of people see their votes go to waste” — points clearly to proportional representation as the solution, but that has had to be shelved in the interests of coalition harmony.
There are also clear differences about devolution: Clegg wants more power for the home rule parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; the Tories opposed home rule to start with and are still unenthusiastic. So far Clegg seems to have the edge there, but don’t be surprised if the Conservative backbench has something to say about the matter later.
Similarly when it comes to human rights: the Lib Dems are pro-European, and would like to integrate Britain further into the EU’s rights-protection systems; the Tories are reflexively Eurosceptic and had promised to repeal the Human Rights Act (this will now just be “investigated”).
But Labour’s record on civil liberties issues has been so egregiously bad that it hasn’t really been difficult for the partners to find common ground: scrapping ID cards, regulating CCTV, defending trial by jury, repealing unnecessary new criminal offences.
There may be tensions here in the future as well, but for now Labour is making it easy for them. Former home secretary Alan Johnson picked on the surveillance issue, saying that “the previous government’s law and order reforms had public backing.” In other words, they’re still believing their own scare campaign.