Saturday, 8 May 2010

When you dine with the devil, take a long spoon

The results of Thursday's British General Election continue to fascinate and entertain.

I’m wondering whether we’re about to witness what I’d think of as a ‘Ramsay MacDonald’ moment.

Some of us are longstanding supporters of the British Labour Party. I say this with some pride because it certainly isn’t easy. The Labour Party does everything it can to put us off giving them their support, like having senior figures describing themselves as ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich’, which is an interesting re-interpretation of the principles of egalitarianism that are supposed to inspire the party, or going to war in Iraq for no better reason than being told to by an American leader who combined deeply right wing views with unparalleled incompetence.

To those of us who maintain our tribal loyalty to this difficult party, the name ‘Ramsay MacDonald’ has powerful echoes even today. He was the first Labour Prime Minister. In office in 1931, he decided to form a coalition with the Conservatives and headed a government in which they had a majority of the ministers. This action split the Labour Party and left the Conservative Party, the Tories, in power either alone or in coalition until 1945.

Curiously, this wasn’t the first time in the century that a party of the Centre-Left had split itself over collaboration with the Tories, leaving them the ultimate victors. In 1906 the then Liberals (today’s Liberal Democrats being essentially their heirs) formed a government with a colossal parliamentary majority. In 1916, in the middle of the First World War, with the government failing to impress, the Prime Minister Asquith was toppled by his Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George, who formed a coalition with the Tories, splitting his party in the process. That government stayed in power after the war, until 1922 when the remaining Liberals were unceremoniously dumped by their Tory ‘partners’.

Getting into bed with the Tories doesn’t seem to be designed to do much for the health of progressive parties in this country. On the other hand, it does the Tories a world of good. I once had the ‘privilege’, if that’s the word I’m looking for, of having lunch at the Carlton Club. This is one of those leftovers of a bygone age, a gentleman’s club where members can lunch, dine or even stay the night. The Carlton Club is the one particularly favoured by the Tory Party, another leftover of a bygone age which, like the Club itself, continues to thrive to the despair of the rest of us.

As I was being shown around, I was told with pride ‘we have the portraits of all the Prime Ministers on the walls’.

I looked around and spotted a few gaps.

‘Surely only the Tory ones?’ I asked innocently.

‘Prime Ministers are Tories,’ I was told with all the charm that real smugness can inspire.

Sadly, the implication of what he was saying was right. For 66 of the 100 years of the last century, the Tories were in power, alone or with a partner. The other 34 years were shared by the other two parties, Liberals and Labour.

Today we’re contemplating a landscape in which the Tories have more MPs than any other party, but lack a majority. In coalition with the Liberal Democrats, they would have the votes to form a majority government. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, is in negotiation with them. He knows, however, that there are huge areas of disagreement between his essentially progressive party and the Conservatives. He knows that he will have terrible trouble selling a coalition with the Tories to his fellow party members. He could even split the party and find that he has given the Tories a huge hold on power, for the sake of little more than a brief period in a seat at the cabinet table.

Will he do it? Will he resist? Think Lloyd George, Nick. Think Ramsay MacDonald.

And a postscript

There was a portrait of Margaret Thatcher in the Carlton Club when I went there – naturally: for most Tories, she remains one of the iconic leaders of their Party. But she herself was only granted the status of ‘honorary member’ – it really was a gentlemen’s club. Only in 2008 were women given the right to become full members (if I can stretch the word ‘right’ that far).

And another

It’s a curious reflection on British attitudes that since the election commentators have been regularly saying that the only two-party coalition that would command a majority would be one between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. This is patently untrue. Another that would have a massive majority would be a coalition between Conservatives and Labour. I don’t favour it, in particular for the reasons I’ve mentioned, but it’s fascinating that no-one in Britain even considers the possibility: after all, there have been two such coalitions in the past, and Germany was most successfully run by an equivalent ‘Grand Coalition’ of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats from 2005 until just last year.

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