Well, as of this evening we now have a Conservative Prime Minister. And yet, I’m feeling rather content – even optimistic. Here’s why.
Since the Second World War, we have only ever had Conservative and Labour governments. In fact, until New Labour we usually had prolonged periods of Conservative rule interspersed with brief patches of Labour, but that’s just another reason why I am quite happy to have sat out on most of the twentieth century by virtue of not being born. It’s been a two-party system, with the pendulum swinging from one to another, and sooner or later every government must get so tired, weary and bloodied from office that it falls to the opposition. That’s just the way it is.
So imagine, back from the vantage point of the twentieth century, of being told that in the future there would be a thirteen year spell of a Labour government. That’s over a decade in which – for all of its shortcomings, which no doubt someone will now see fit to bring up – we got the minimum wage, record investment and delivery in schools and hospitals, a huge advance in gay rights, proper government restored to London, a big expansion in university provision and – thanks to an independent Bank of England – no ruinous inflationary economic cycles of boom and bust. (Ah – before you object – the credit crisis and subsequent recession was a quite different beast, no doubt leaving its own lessons to learn but not the same thing.) Imagine being told all this, and then being asked what you thought would follow. Well, another turn for the Conservatives, naturally. The pendulum swings back.
Except it hasn’t – not this time. I’m sure that most of the people reading this will share with me an intrinsic gut reaction against the sight of a Tory stride into Downing Street, even if deep down we recognise that the British Conservative party really is nowhere near as bad as some of its international equivalents. But, this time, he’s not walking in to lead a Conservative government but a coalition. Thanks to the Lib Dems, progressive politics now keeps a foot in the door.
The Lib Dems might now be able to act as a crucial brake on Conservative instincts. Thanks to them, we might yet avoid ludicrous fiddles to inheritance tax thresholds or marriage allowances. Income tax for the poorest might even be cut. Lib Dems will be in the Cabinet. Lib Dems might win us changes to the voting system to escape the deficiencies of first-past-the-post which brought us the two-party pendulum effect in the first place. Lib Dems in the government might just be a crucial signal to the rest of Europe that Britain is still engaged with the rest of the continent.
I say ‘might’, because they might not be able to achieve any of these things. Fair enough. But at least now we’ve got a chance – at least we haven’t gone back to a purely Conservative government by default.
And if the Lib Dems fail? Well, I happen to know of another party. It’s now in opposition, but with 258 seats in the Commons and millions of voters still loyal to it. It’s untainted by anything the government does from now on, but will soon have fresh leadership and a chance for renewal and new ideas. It’s the Labour party, and one day it will earn the support of the people to govern again.