Cliff-hanged

May 11, 2010

- Professor Christopher Harvie is a historian, teacher, political writer and SNP MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife. He is the author of “Broonland: The Last Days of Gordon Brown.” The opinions expressed are his own. -

I

Outside 10 Downing Street at 7.29 on Tuesday evening, Gordon Brown announced his resignation as UK premier. Off to the Palace, where he would ask Her Majesty to send for David Cameron, ending five cliff-hanging days – or inaugurating many, many more?

On Monday morning Cameron’s Conservatives and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats seemed to be engaged, about to form a coalition. By the evening they’d called it off, and when Brown announced his resignation as Labour leader, though not as Prime Minister, this gave the impression that a ‘progressive coalition’ of Labour/LibDem/SNP coalition was now a runner, under someone else.

Only for Clegg to turn up later and announce that the Conservatives were prepared to hold a referendum on a ‘fairer voting system’, their non-negotiable demand. The ‘progressive coalition’ vanished, as did Premier Brown.

II

It was not unknown for the Tories to become reformers to ‘dish’ the opposition. Disraeli, their greatest peacetime leader, had done so in 1867, going further to enfranchise the workers than his Gladstone, his Liberal opponent, was prepared to do. Had the toff outmanoeuvred the would-be radical?

But that was long ago, during Britain’s imperial zenith. This was in the middle of an existence-crisis of the state itself, in constitutional as well as financial terms. In which investment bankers marketing dubious products fought it out with expense-fiddling MPs as monsters of greed, while ‘non-England’ appeared increasingly mutinous. David Cameron looked to benefit by a clean break, yet in the polls still rarely rose above 40 percent. Blair in 1997 had been on 62 percent.

III

One innovation, in a TV-obsessed public, played a fateful role. London parties and media collaborated to launch the UK’s first ever leaders’ debates, three in all. Nationalists (in government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) talked of ‘a kick in the polls’, effectively eliminating them from the main stage. Yet it gave the chance for the public baptism of the unknown quantity, the young LibDem leader Nick Clegg.

Clegg’s TV performance was competent and charismatic. ‘Cleggmania’ set in, but it followed a precedent older voters would remember, when an earlier centre-left alliance’s votes nearly overtook Labour in 1983, but did not reach the vital 30-plus percent when the breakthrough would register as seats gained. Good polls needed to be followed up by well-planned tactical voting. This didn’t happen sufficiently, and the LibDems actually lost seats.

Yet suspicion of Cameron had grown, particularly of his dependence on ‘anti-social finance’ – notably donations from offshore bankers – for the funds which would win him many marginals. Such successes were not enough to offset the blemish, and the suspicion that ‘swivel-eyed Thatcherites’ still lurked behind the cosmetic surgery to his party. In his apparent coup over voting systems, Cameron has apparently broken away from them by ditching the Tory view that the two-party system was central. Or has he?

Conservative leaders can usually steer their party quite autocratically; LibDems are fastidiously hyperdemocratic. There may be revolts on both sides, with the LibDems bound to at least argue into the night.

IV

Could the system have survived Brown? And which Brown? The once-convincing radical who tried to purchase social reform by a Faustian pact with ‘more perfect markets’? Or the man saddled with the imperial past, backing the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, continuing the UK nuclear deterrent, failing to play a European role? Did the flaws register at this level, or was he – as a vast literature of blogging and commercial autobiography and gossip insisted – a Downing Street Iago in a crumpled blue suit?

Or was there in his fraught relationship with Tony Blair a miscalculation which hit at the centrality of the British cabinet. The 1994 Granita pact divided government into ‘Tony’s things and Gordon’s things’ and they couldn’t be knit together again, as power ebbed from Whitehall, to Brussels, Edinburgh, Cardiff. This weakening coexisted with the influx into the ‘Liechtenstein on the Thames’ of great wealth from the Middle East, Russia, India, China, unaccompanied by much respect for morality. The expenditure cuts demanded by Cameron stem directly from finance run out on control.

Tonight the fall of Brown was emotional. Tears were shed. The wealthy, who surfaced little as an election issue, still laugh all the way to the bank. Where else?

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