Mike Finn: Grand ambitions and coalition realities

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BRITAIN’S first peacetime coalition government since the 1930s came into being owing to perceived political necessity, but this did not prevent it from setting high ambitions. If David Cameron goes down in history as a significant premier, so too will the administration that he led.

The ambitions, however, might be the “catch” in terms of any verdict on the coalition’s place in history. Both in terms of vision and operational considerations, the coalition enunciated grandiose ideas of what it might achieve. Its two leaders espoused the virtues of “a new politics”; they were clear that the unexpected union of the two parties might yield possibilities and opportunities greater than those available to a single party.

This was, on the face of it, a bold claim – the equivalent of claiming that the coalition was the best of all possible worlds. It also had a ring of truth; both Cameron and Nick Clegg were undoubtedly happier working with each other than with the right and left of their own parties respectively.

Beyond the nebulous, the specifics – which animated the original coalition documentation – were clear: eradicating the structural deficit within the life of the Parliament; establishing firm control of public finances and restoring the economy to growth. They were fundamentally economic in focus; not unreasonably so given the undeniable crisis in the economy and the public finances which the coalition inherited.

Although the blame game would continue ( and still does ), the reality was that the crash of 2008 was a global event, more or less accentuated in the UK by the centrality of financial services within the economy and then by government policy and spending (and probably in that order).

The Government was successful in at least some of its ambitions here – critically restoring the economy to growth – but not without failure in some significant areas. Double-dip recession was an unwanted perceived “reality” (although later figures implied the UK had just missed it) before growth returned, and by pre-crash standards growth remained anaemic.

The coalition oversaw an expansion in jobs and employment, but was criticised for the extent to which under-employment – the scourge of the British labour market in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – returned through zero hours and fixed-term contracts.

At least for a time, the Opposition was able to make headway through rebranding the economic situation as a “cost of living crisis”, highlighting the problems which employed households were facing in terms of rising energy bills, the impact of inflation, and the reality of wage freezes – especially in the public sector. The economy recovered, but it did so slowly, and not all felt the benefit of it. More worryingly, the Government’s pledge to eliminate the structural deficit was downplayed and then largely forgotten), replaced by an emphasis on a “long term economic plan”.

Although it seemed that the public accepted a measure of retrenchment given the international financial crisis, it was not clear that they accepted the full implications of the cuts. This led to charges of ideologically motivated state shrinkage by post-Thatcherite Conservatives and Orange Book Liberals, especially when juxtaposed with Iain Duncan Smith’s crusade to cut the welfare bill.

This was a charge that resonated, especially when funding cuts to local government hit public services. The Big Society, it was alleged, was no more than a rhetorical smokescreen for privatisation and cutbacks. The departure of key adviser Steve Hilton robbed the Government, and Cameron personally, of the one figure who might have been able to translate such policies into a meaningful agenda.

The commitment to international development (notably the 0.7 per cent of GDP) was maintained, and Britain continued to show leadership in this area, especially in response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Constitutional reform, however, was a damp squib; Lords reform failed due to coalition politics, the British Bill of Rights – which both parties had promised, but by which both meant very different things – came to naught, the referendum on the alternative vote was lost – not least because of the powerful late intervention of the Prime Minister. The balance sheet of constitutional reform paled by comparison to the early Blair years, and fixed-term parliaments, a long-term Liberal Democrat commitment, were only enacted owing to the political expediency of “locking in” the junior partner to the coalition.

As with health, the coalition created space for a strong Minister to create a distinctive legacy in education – 
although the Liberal Democrats had precious little say in it, save tokens such as free school meals and the nomenclature of the pupil premium. Michael Gove was probably the most successful Minister in terms of carrying forward his personal agenda.

The coalition’s net effect was profound, but not always in the ways it intended. It did not achieve its economic targets, although the Government was brave in staying the course on austerity and eventually confounded the IMF. It did not achieve much at all on constitutional reform, and its huge impacts on the NHS and the education system were divisive (and in the first case, increasingly disowned).

In foreign policy, the relationship with Europe deteriorated significantly, but more owing to domestic dynamics, while the Prime Minister advocated an interventionist stance in Iraq and Libya but could not carry the House (or the country) over Syria in 2013.

The coalition did not turn out to be the weak entity many had expected. This had its price. Some of the most devastating effects were on the parties themselves, raising the possibility of a split on the right for the Conservatives and annihilation for the Liberal Democrats. The real “net” coalition effect was far more significant than usual, with the creation of four-party politics at Westminster, a legacy with unknown yet potentially far-reaching implications at home, and abroad.

• Mike Finn is an academic at Liverpool Hope University and co-author, with Anthony Seldon, of The Coalition Effect 2010-2015 which has been published this week by Cambridge University Press, price £17.99.