Saturday, 8 May 2010

The success of an agreement lies in the Yellow Tory

>Notwithstanding the original notions of “Red Toryism” in Canadian federal politics, which have been around since the 1960s, its existence as a political philosophy in Britain is accredited to Philip Blond, founder of the think tank ResPublica. He bases his Red Tory thesis on the communitarian tradition and civic conservatism, along the lines of Edmund Burke and his “little platoons”. Mr Blond finds in these foundations the building blocks for the “true spirit of Cameroonian conservatism”. I do not disagree with him. I was heartened when during the election campaign David Cameron pronounced himself a One Nation Conservative, implicitly bypassing the bastardised ‘Conservatism’ of Mrs Thatcher during the 1980s, which was wedded more to an ideology of neo-classical economics than any sound Conservative philosophy. A return to true Conservative traditions of family, community and nationhood is welcome and Philip Blond spells out a convincing and radical argument for it in his recent book, Red Tory. >

However, since the 2010 General Election has produced Britain’s first hung parliament since 1974, the game has altered somewhat. The importance of the Red Tory hypothesis remains true but as David Cameron and Nick Clegg negotiate their way towards what I hope will be a productive alliance, we need to explore a separate (complementary, as opposed to replacing) conception: the “Yellow Tory”.

The label may sound as oxymoronic as Mr Blond’s. Yet I hope that it has the same ability to stick in people’s minds and beneath it is a sensible, straightforward construct worth considering: there is enough common ground between David Cameron’s Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats for a coalition (whether formal or informal) to work. Indeed, there exist already a number of what I would term Yellow Tories within both parties.

Take the recent Conservative Party “Contract”, essentially a bullet-point précis of the party’s manifesto. The only points on which I can envisage any fundamental Liberal Democrat resistance are immigration and the tax break for married couples and civil partners. I chose the latter policy because Nick Clegg spent much of the second television debate trying to ridicule it; moreover, ‘favouring’ certain people in society probably strikes most Liberal Democrats as illiberal, regardless of the substantial evidence in support of the policy. On immigration, the Conservatives are the only major party to propose a cap, whilst the Liberal Democrats offer a drastically different solution. The two parties agree on strengthening borders through a National Border control agency / force. Yet the Liberal Democrat manifesto will “allow people who have been in Britain without the correct papers [i.e. illegal immigrants] for ten years, but speak English, have a clean record and want to live here long-term to earn their citizenship.” I believe that this amnesty policy, and the fallout from Mr Clegg’s obfuscations in the final television debate, has been a significant factor in the Liberal Democrats’ poor performance in the election.

The rest of the “Contract” is easy reading to Liberal Democrats. The right to sack your MP? The Lib Dems will “put trust back into politics by giving you the right to sack corrupt MPs”. Reduce emissions and build a green economy? That is one of Nick Clegg’s preconditions to a deal. Fight back against crime by cutting paperwork and getting more police officers on the street? The Lib Dem manifesto promises “3,000 more police officers on the beat” and the reduction of “time-wasting bureaucracy at police stations”. They also propose elected police authorities. In addition, they would scrap ID cards. Is this all sounding familiar?

Moreover, what Liberal Democrat could argue that it is right to cut the number of MPs by 10 per cent? (Aside from them having an even smaller talent pool to draw from.) Or cutting ministers’ pay by 5 per cent? Giving local communities more powers? Making government more transparent? Cutting wasteful government spending? Get Britain working by giving unemployed people support to get work? Raise standards in schools? Increase the basic state pension?

Even on issues where there is disagreement, much of this is cosmetic. Could Liberal Democrat MPs or supporters really be upset if the Conservative commitment to increase spending on health every year is fulfilled? Would acting now on the national debt be such a crime?

Of course, there is massive friction over Europe, foreign affairs / defence and electoral reform. Yet if we are to push forward with an inclusive, progressive Britain, fronted by new politics and a desire for change, these issues need not be insurmountable.

On Europe, I actually believe that the Liberal Democrats have the more sensible perspective. David Cameron is right to say that he should stand up for Britain’s interests in Europe, as Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy do for France and Germany. The party is right to emphasise that the European Union should be a focal point for open markets and not federal control. Yet Mr Cameron was wrong to throw red meat to the 1922 Committee in abandoning the EPP. With the need for greater co-operation on defence and security issues, why “re-evaluate our position with the European Defence Agency” in the negative way described in the manifesto? Yes, more funding and support needs to be given to our incredible Armed Forces after more than a decade of revolting neglect by Labour, but the moment is approaching where co-operation on large defence projects and exercises with European / NATO partners will be financially necessary. The Liberal Democrats rightly want to “reinvigorate Franco-British and wider European defence co-operation to ensure procurement costs are kept low.” David Cameron is correct to cry foul about the way in which the Lisbon Treaty was passed but the party refuses to consider that, stripped of the federalist excesses of the European Constitution, it is a necessary piece of legislation for a greatly enlarged EU (mercifully this was tacitly recognised by Mr Cameron’s abandonment of any referendum commitment once it was passed). I also truly, truly believe that it is madness to rule out joining a single European currency under any circumstances. What is the point in doing so? A time may come when it does make political and economic sense to do so. This is the Liberal Democrat policy. Moreover, they would hold a referendum. Trying to brand Nick Clegg as a man who will kill the pound is disingenuous. The Liberal Democrats can perform an important role in dampening the rabid euroscepticism of the Conservative MPs and framing a more positive, realistic and productive relationship with Europe.

Foreign affairs and defence are trickier, yet I maintain they are doable. Yes, the Liberal Democrats appear to be closer politically to Europe, whilst the Conservative Party sees the United States as the more natural ally. Yet David Cameron has been markedly critical of Tony Blair’s relationship with the US. The Conservative manifesto describes championing “a distinctive British foreign policy” and “deepening our alliances beyond Europe and the United States”. There is a not-so-veiled dig at the former Bush administration: “torture is unacceptable and abhorrent, and we will never condone it”. ‘Special’ relationships are not exclusively American and the party wants to “establish a new special relationship with India”. Above all, “we will maintain a strong, close and frank relationship with the United States”. I doubt that a Cameron premiership and Obama presidency will be marked by the sort of intense friendship between Thatcher and Reagan, or Blair and Clinton / Bush. Even the connection between the Conservative Party and its traditional allies, the Republicans, are fraying. The ascendancy of Barack Obama was greeted with joy and admiration by the likes of David Cameron and Boris Johnson. Since that 2008 election, the Republicans have veered rightwards and now seem a million miles away politically from the Conservative Party, many of whose MPs if transplanted to America would sit more easily alongside Democrats.

The biggest dividing line on defence is Trident. The Conservative manifesto says “we support the decision to renew Britain’s submarine-based nuclear deterrent, based on the Trident missile system.” Alternatively, the Liberal Democrat manifesto says “no to the like-for-like replacement of the Trident nuclear weapons system” and that “we will hold a full defence review to establish the best alternative for Britain’s future.” They support multilateral nuclear disarmament (who does not?), not unilateral nuclear disarmament. They are not saying that Britain should, here and now, scrap our nuclear deterrent. I agree with the Conservative Party position but there are many in this country who do not. Indeed, Lord Guthrie, the former Chief of Defence Staff, as well as other retired top brass, have questioned the need for a “direct replacement”. Why not at least explore, in the defence review, what Nick Clegg calls a “cheaper and better” alternative? If one cannot be found then we stick to Trident. This is another sensible Liberal Democrat policy that has been somewhat misrepresented by both the Conservatives and Labour. In this environment of more consensual, coalition politics, I am certain that an agreement can be reached between Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg about our nuclear deterrent.

Naturally, the greatest obstacle to an agreement lies in electoral reform. The Conservative stance is clear: keep the first-past-the-post method of electing MPs. It usually produces stable parliamentary majorities and squeezes out extremist smaller parties like the BNP. It maintains the constituency link between the electors and their member of parliament. It permits the electorate to throw out an entire government and replace it with a wholly new one, such as in 1997. Granted, it is not truly representative and it produces safe seats in which many people feel disenfranchised. Yet the system has disadvantaged the Conservative Party more than most for many years and we still defend it because its downsides are better than those of more proportional systems. The Liberal Democrats’ preferred scheme is the Single Transferrable Vote (STV), which is supposed to provide proportional representation via multi-seat constituencies. It has operated in Scotland since May 2007 and is also used in Northern Ireland. It is not inconceivable that the Conservative Party could go some way towards STV and still avoid full-blown PR. Something that Mr Cameron could suggest on top of his offer of an inquiry into electoral reform is this: call another general election halfway through the new parliament and if it does not produce a stable parliamentary majority, it triggers a referendum on proportional representation. It is sensible and conservative with a small ‘c’. We have a strong parliamentary democracy that has given birth to many other strong parliamentary democracies around the world and we should not make wholesale changes on the whim of a hung parliament that was always likely. Due to the massive victory achieved by Tony Blair in 1997, and in spite of the steady chipping away at his majority in 2001 and 2005, it was always going to be an enormous arithmetic leap to elect a majority Conservative government.

As for other Liberal Democrat policies on electoral reform, I see no reason why they cannot be accommodated. David Cameron has indicated that fixed-term parliaments should be looked at. Both parties’ manifestos contain mention of strengthening the House of Commons and the better scrutiny of bills. I still believe a written constitution is unnecessary but I have no major objections to it; moreover, it does not have to be done straightaway. The Liberal Democrats want a fully elected House of Lords. The Conservatives will “work to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber”. Safeguarding the current system of electing MPs in return for a fully elected and proportional House of Lords is hardly a big price to pay. The same could be said for reducing the voting age to 16 – even doing so, I very much doubt that many 16-18 year olds would vote anyway.

Overall, I have actually surprised myself in researching “Yellow Toryism” just how similar are the proposals of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. It is becoming increasingly the case that, aside from a handful of fundamental dividing lines described above (do forgive me, I’m sure the keen eyed can pick out some others), the modern Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg are proposing very similar visions for Britain. Even the two party leaders look and sound similar and come from not dissimilar backgrounds. I would almost go so far to say that what separates Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, particularly at a grassroots level, is cultural as opposed to ideological. We contest similar constituency battlegrounds across the United Kingdom (though the Liberal Democrats tend to do better in urban areas and Scotland). Is there really a huge amount of difference between a Cameroonian Conservative and an Orange Book Liberal Democrat? I really do not believe so. Put the two together and you have yourself a Yellow Tory, the existence of which will guarantee the future of stable, productive co-operation between the two parties in these relatively uncertain – yet exciting – times for British politics.

1 comment:

  1. A great post and hope you don't mind me referring to it on my blog:

    The Yellow Tory – Support For A Con-Lib Coalition

    I think it is time for a change in politics and I am hopeful that Clegg & Cameron can deliver it.