Are British politicians cynical enough? I ask because it sometimes doesn’t look as if they are. Two items in the Sunday papers yesterday are relevant to this discussion about realism and ethics in politics. Secret talks
First, Andrew Rawnsley claims that before the coalition government was finally formed, the Conservatives were “shocked” to discover that the Liberal Democrats, whom they were trying to persuade to help them form an administration, were simultaneously already secretly in talks with Labour to see if they could form a partnership with them. Why the shock? Are senior Conservatives so naive as to think that Nick Clegg would not do such a thing? In a bargaining arena such as Westminster was in May 2010, you’re going to want to talk to everyone to see what deals there are, and of course you’re not going to tell anyone else what you’re doing.
I’m baffled. Whatever happened to the old familiar much-loved back-stabbing, ruthless and value-lite Conservative Party my parents always voted for? Are they serious? Perhaps Signor Berlusconi should be asked to send over a couple of his meccanici to give senior Tories a seminar on Machiavelli, the Italian grand master who wrote “He (the Prince) holds to what is right when he can but knows how to do wrong when he must” (The Prince; tr A Gilbert ch18). I thought Conservatives knew this.
The coming storm
The second item is the whole cuts story. Next month we get to hear which services and structures the coalition government is going to cut and by how much (it’s safe to predict that there will be some measure of gunshot damage to feet in that little list). The media talks all the time, this week especially, on how these cuts will inflict collateral damage on the LibDems-Conservative partnership, dooming the former to years in opposition when this coalition eventually collapses.
I think there will be a more intriguing and in its way welcome story: the widening cracks along primordial fault-lines in the Conservative Party as a political cult. On the one side, the anti-government ideologues such as John Redwood and Lim Fox; on the other, the ordinary people who vote Conservative because they vaguely think that is what middle-class people should always do. It is this latter group who will be astonished and then dismayed when the spending review details are finally published because it will then become only too clear that the cuts will affect everyone.
What do voters want?
For the first time in a long time, the storm of cuts will cause to expose what middle class British conservative voters really, really want, and it might not be the steely sub-neocon anti-statism purity at all. Machiavelli again: “So long as the great majority of [people] are not deprived of either property or honour, they are satisfied” (The Prince; tr A Gilbert, ch19). When was the last time the Conservatives risked the support of ‘middle England’ to such a degree, in the interests of sectarian purity?
As the Conservative Party moves to the Redwood Right, there will be plenty of people who will reconsider how they will vote next time out. With Labour in rehab, and the Greens too narrowly based, there is only one alternative: a party that blends fiscal responsibility with an intelligent, progressive, realist but ethical and public-spirited government-is-not-the-problem stance.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: the LibDems.