As the Conservatives and Lib Dems prepare to go their separate ways, Bill Jamieson wonders if the deal served any real purpose
Unfolding now in Westminster is a very different politics of separation to what we are used to here. After three and a half years of coalition, of awkward compromise and a fractious fusion of wills, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have now embarked on the creation of distance and a separation of the ways.
The UK general election is too far away for a staking out of formal dividing lines. But there were clear signs from both camps in the past few days that such a pulling apart cannot come a moment too soon.
The Liberal Democrat rank and file have regretted almost every moment of their bondage to what they see as the Dark Matter of the Right.
For their part, the Conservatives have despaired at the continuing frustration of their plans by the Lib Dems. It is time for distance to lend enchantment. Certainly little else seems likely to achieve it.
Just over a week ago came signs of an increasingly restive Nick Clegg, keen to stake out the key lines of difference between his party and the Conservatives. Now an interview David Cameron has given to the Spectator magazine indicates that he is of like mind. He has called for “more accountable, more decisive and active government”, code words, apparently, for an informal co-ordination of a coalition split.
And there was an intriguing reference to the existence in his possession of a “little black book” of policies that the Liberal Democrats had blocked, “which will form the next Tory manifesto”.
What for Cameron are frustrations are for the Lib Dems, proud boasts. Its list of achievements in government include blocking “inheritance tax cuts for millionaires” and stopping the Conservatives from “bringing back O Levels, a two-tier education system and blocking “profit-making in schools”.
Conservatives had also been prevented from altering childcare ratios, allowing bosses to fire workers “at will”, scrapping housing benefit for young people, “ditching the Human Rights Act, and weakening protections in the Equalities Act.
The Lib Dems further claim they were instrumental in blocking the continued use of vans displaying posters that told illegal immigrants to “go home”, and preventing changes to constituency boundaries designed to make them more equal in size. Added to this list of Lib Dem achievements and Tory frustrations has been the party’s continuing support for the green energy programme – contemptuously dismissed by the Prime Minister, according to reports, as “all that Green crap” he was now keen to get rid of.
He believes the Conservatives could go further on welfare reform, sharpening work incentives and getting people out of poverty. He says “he can see very clearly now what needs to be done in terms of our relationship with Europe, in terms of the European Convention on Human Rights and the way the Human Rights Act works”. And he believes he could move faster and further in building a pro-enterprise economy, backing entrepreneurship and cutting business taxes.
This, to put it mildly, is a rather different direction of travel to that on offer from Labour and the SNP in Scotland. For on these issues they do seem, if not “Better Together” then much closer on issues such as welfare and spending than the Lib Dems and the Conservatives.
There is now a widespread view that the Westminster coalition has served its purpose. “Moderate” Lib Dems congratulate themselves that they have put the interests of the country before their party, while “moderate” Conservatives believe the coalition made it possible for unpopular but vitally necessary measures to be taken.
Today, there is a sense that the moment of great crisis has passed. The pound did not collapse. The markets held their nerve, the economy was rescued and is now recovering, the budget deficit is falling. What need now for further spending cuts and “austerity”? It’s “job done”.
Indeed, for many Lib Dems there was no need for cuts of any sort. We can now return to political status quo ante: two rival left-of-centre parties competing with the Right on who has the most attractive doggie bag of treats and benefits – and of course ensuring a rout of those forces beyond the Right, the maniacal riders on the ninth outer circle of the Inferno – Ukip.
But how much scope do the parties have for this politics of distance – and a return to the familiar manifestos of retail, happy-go-lucky giveaway politics? Strip away the Ed Balls-baiting of last week’s Autumn Statement and there are some ominous pointers governing both this separation and any separation that Scotland may embark upon next September.
Between now and 2017-18, even assuming the economy lives up to the latest and more encouraging growth forecasts, some £361 billion will be added to the total of public sector debt. Indeed, by that time, the debt total will have risen to £1.57 trillion, up from around £760bn in 2010.
And how severe has the “austerity” been exactly, from which conventional retail politics is so desperate to escape? Of course those non-ring-fenced government spending departments have suffered, and many have been affected. But between 2010 and 2018, the cumulative real terms reduction in public spending is just 3.4 per cent. And this is over a period when our total indebtedness has doubled.
Those who dismiss such figures as alarmist, or of little significance for the real economy, overlook the impact that the rising bill for debt interest will have on government budgets. This is set to rise from £46bn currently to more than £70bn in 2016-17 – more than the current annual budgets at Westminster of the Home Office and the Department for Education, which between them spend around £65bn a year. And it is comfortably more than double the annual budget of the Scottish Parliament.
Has the coalition served its purpose? It would appear, on these figures, to have been an opportunity almost entirely thrown away. Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne ducked the tough choices. Firmer action on public spending in 2010-11 might have spared us the prospect now of a debt slavery stretching out as far ahead as we can see.
The Chancellor can claim we may be in sight of a “small surplus” in 2018-19. All this means is that the amount by which we are adding to the debt total each year has ceased to climb: the debt itself has reached colossal proportions and, of course, will need to be serviced and repaid.
The Cleggies and the Cameroons may quibble and squabble about their points of difference, their distinctive approaches and their separate ways. But on this perspective, the politics of distance looks about as meaningful as a Punch and Judy show.