Saturday, May 7, 2011

Thursday, May 5, 2011 - UK

The only minority administration I have lived under was of 1985-87 in Ontario, Canada. David Peterson’s Liberals headed the government with some help from the left-of-centre New Democratic Party (there was no formal coalition). It remains the best government of which I have personal experience. In the 1987 election, Ontario’s Liberals won a substantial majority, dined out on the proceeds and eventually lost public support.

One hopes that Scotland’s SNP with Alex Salmond does not follow a similar pattern. Minority government has worked well for Scotland. It remains to be seen whether the SNP will be able to maintain its discipline and the allegiance of the electorate now that it fully controls the legislative agenda.

In its leader, of course, the SNP has the most charismatic politician not just in Scotland but in the whole of the United Kingdom. An important part of Salmond’s armory is that he - and the party he leads - offer a strong vision of where they are heading and what they stand for. Unlike the hapless LibDems, they have shown themselves unwilling to compromise on their fundamental platform. When, for example, Salmond stated that there would be no student fees in Scotland, he stuck to it. Margaret Thatcher had a similar reputation for “not turning”. The electorate responds favourably to politicians who mean what they say.

Although I would prefer Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom, were I living in Scotland I would certainly have voted for the SNP not just because of the clarity and strength of its campaign, but also in the light of its record in office, and the fact that its position on issues such as student fees, the NHS, Iraq, and climate change reflect my own more than that of any of the three major UK parties. I admit to feeling a little envious of the Scots that they have a party so willing to stick to principles that the LibDems and the Labour Party, in particular, have been so ready to traduce for short-term political advantage.

The Tories will be quietly congratulating themselves on Thursday’s results; possibly even salivating over the prospect of an eternity of Tory governments once the constituency boundaries have been re-drawn. Scottish independence,moreover, could cement Tory hegemony in England for the foreseeable future, which is why I wouldn’t take Cameron’s vow to fight for the UK entirely at its face value. If he “loses” Scotland, he will gain England as compensation and, for the time being, Wales and Northern Ireland also; though if that happens Wales may also start to think the unthinkable.

The LibDems have evidently preferred power to principle. Their justification for compromise on fundamentals has been that they have joined with the Tories “in the national as to clean up the financial mess left by the Labour Party”. This mantra - repeated already so often that it has ceased to have any resonance or meaning - is neither credible nor adequate as an excuse for the transformation of the LibDems under Clegg into servants of an extreme right-wing Tory Party that is openly committed to the wholesale privatisation of the public realm.

Thursday’s election has made clear the extent to which the LibDems have forfeited public trust. They will likely not regain it while Clegg remains leader. They have been thoroughly outmanoeuvred by Cameron and Co. - not least least on electoral reform. AV - on which much of the party’s hopes came to rest - was never a LibDem proposal. It was, as Clegg himself admitted, “a miserable little compromise”, satisfying to no one and vulnerable, therefore, to attack from both left and right of the political spectrum (though it is questionable whether the old Labour hacks who supported the “No” campaign represent anything that could be remotely described as “left”). Miserable little compromises are not the stuff of which successful leaders are made. The contrast with Alex Salmond is stark. This electoral disaster for the LibDems begs the same old question that has haunted them since their launch in 1988: What on earth does the Party stand for?

What of the Labour Party? Under Blair and Brown, it turned to the extreme right as an apostle of neo-liberalism, thereby (among other things) granting the banks free reign to impoverish us, making ruinous PFI deals with the private sector, and placidly presiding over the continued evisceration of our manufacturing industry; and it turned to the far left by passing anti-terrorism legislation so draconian and all-encompassing that almost anything more dramatic than breathing could (and still can) result in arrest. Much of the good that the last Labour Government may have done in restoring our NHS and investing in education has been clouded by its anti-libertarian record, its foolish engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its subservience to the interests of capital. Leaving the issue of authoritarianism to one side, we might well ask if any significant difference exists between the Labour and Conservative Parties on any of the fundamental issues that matter to the electorate. If, as I suspect, the answer is ‘No’, we are left with the same question we have posed with respect to the LibDems: what on earth is Labour for? Ed Miliband has so far failed to offer a credible reply. For the moment the Party offers no sign of the vision and drive so evident in Alex Salmond’s SNP. Unless Labour rediscovers its raison-d’être, those who continue to believe in its founding principles, as I do, had better start looking round for an alternative party.

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