05.12.10

Don't Underestimate Britain's New Coalition

While Americans might find the sudden Conservative-Liberal Democrat marriage unbelievable, the union makes sense in less-polarized Britain. Clive Irving on why Cameron and Clegg are just what the country needs—and why their partnership will work.

It’s not surprising that American commentators are finding it difficult to understand the new politics in London. Just think about it: a political culture being able, almost overnight, to construct a new alliance of the reasonable center, free of ideological extremes and ready to face unpalatable reality. Keith Olbermann, for one, was waving his arms in comic disbelief last night at the sudden marriage of two parties, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, who only a few days earlier were antagonists.

But incomprehension is not confined to the U.S.

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Listening to some BBC reporters, and reading commentary in, for example, The Guardian, one gets the idea that they are all too eager to marshal a litany of reasons why the Grand Coalition will fail.

They don’t get it.

Like most of the rest of Western Europe, the Brits have become far less polarized according to old party dogmas. Thank Tony Blair for this. He crafted a viable new political center—partly from the moderate rump of his own party and partly by luring defectors from both the Tories and Lib Dems. That gave him his three electoral victories.

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Labour’s Highs and Lows
Under Gordon Brown, New Labour lost that ground. Some of the unreconstructed apparatchiks of old Labour regained influence in Brown’s circle and their ideas began to sound dangerously statist, arousing old memories of overmighty bureaucracies. Worse, Brown failed to get away with the idea that by managing his way out of the economic meltdown he was absolved of having helped to engineer it in the first place.

What Britain is interested in now is managerial competence. Nothing concentrates the mind like staring into a great, yawning black chasm. That’s the economy the new Conservative/Lib Dem alliance inherits and will have to manage. And in the way that the new Tory Prime Minister David Cameron and the Lib Dem Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg are presenting both themselves and their ideas, these two 43-year-olds look like just the kind of guys you would want to take over a sick company.

For sure, each of the coalition parties has its lunatic fringe. But the real dynamic that has magically materialized in the past 24 hours is the force of reason at the center. Cameron and Clegg were both able to confidently disregard the balking of their more extreme factions.

When you get a youthful, vigorous, and open-minded administration like this one, it makes its own convictions infectious. Cameron and Clegg seem particularly keen on sharing a libertarian instinct. For example, they have already agreed to shut down a really egregious and persistent project of the Labour government, a national ID card, an idea that always seemed strangely anomalous from people claiming to be attached to civil liberties.

For sure, each of the coalition parties has its lunatic fringe. But the real dynamic that has magically materialized in the past 24 hours is the force of reason at the center.

Labour’s final days were squalid and partisan. Clegg went through the obligatory motions of discussing a coalition with Brown, but the Labour hard-liners would have none of it. At one point it seemed that Brown was, with unseemly guile, trying to remain in 10 Downing Street. Yet nothing became the man more than the manner of his going, with a final speech full of dignity and self-awareness, a chastened man, gifted but also fundamentally unfitted by character for the highest office.

Behind those final days were the hands of two master stage managers, Alastair Campbell, Blair’s brilliant and malevolent spin doctor, and Peter Mandelson, who invented New Labour. All they managed to achieve was to confirm the contagious cynicism of their kind of politics, and the public recognized the smell.

New Labour is dead. But the New Politics has arrived, truly of its time and place, to meet the hour and the test.

Clive Irving is senior consulting editor at Conde Nast Traveler, specializing in aviation—find his blog, Clive Alive, at CliveAlive.Truth.Travel.