Political Promise

Cometh the hour, cometh the…Liberal Democrats?

In Uncategorized on March 9, 2010 at 11:15 pm

Britain’s political geeks seem to be working themselves up into a lather about the forthcoming leadership debates; apparently it’s a great leap forward for British democracy, a chance for voters to engage with the political process and for the leaders to debate the big issues in front of millions, not just us losers who watch Prime Minister’s Question Time every week.

What a load of guff. I’m afraid, as you may be able to tell from the previous sentence, the whole prospect leaves me cold. With the notable exception of David Dimbleby’s Question Time, the standard of political debate and discussion in this country is pretty low. Either we have the yah-boo circus of PMQs, or the meaninglessly bland sound bites trotted out the rest of the time by political figures in all three major parties. Given the strictly regimented format of the planned debates, I’m pretty sure the debates will end up in the latter of these two categories. 90 minutes of Brown, Cameron and Clegg bleating about change, fairness and hard working families. We’ll all have fun drowning in warm, fuzzy, meaningless platitudes. I can hardly wait.

There’s a lot of chatter about the debates being ‘game-changers’; politicos are getting giddy with excitement, dreaming up scenarios of Brown landing a gladiatorial knock-out blow on Cameron, or vice versa. Again, although we may all hope for something like this to happen, the history of election debates in other countries, namely the USA, tells us that they don’t really make a big difference to the overall outcome. Brown has been a key figure in UK politics for twenty years, and Cameron has enjoyed incessant media coverage since his swift rise to the post of Tory Commander in Chief. The important election issues have already been covered adnauseum. What new things can three debates tell us? The candidates may achieve a brief bounce or bungee jump in the polls, but normality soon restores itself and the polls straighten out again.

The real interest lies in the direction the polls are pointing us; the strange and mystical land of a hung Parliament. This leads us nicely to British politics’ half-forgotten man and his half-forgotten party, or Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats as they are alternatively known. Clegg will be the real beneficiary of the debates, if he plays his cards right. It will be one of the few occasions where he receives equal billing to Brown and Cameron. He has a fantastic opportunity to play them off against each other, let them fight to the death, and stake out his claim for a credible ‘third way’ in Westminster politics. Although they get little attention, the Lib Dem policies of lower taxation for lower earners, economic regulation and political reform are sensible and workable. The Lib Dems are likely to lose seats to the Tories in the South West, but are in a position to gain in Scotland, Northern England and the Midlands. Every Lib Dem seat gained or retained makes a hung parliament that little bit more possible. A good showing at these debates could give Clegg a hefty nudge towards becoming a kingmaker in Westminster. For the first time in 90 years, the Liberals could actually be part of Her Majesty’s Government, in coalition with either Labour or the Tories.

Although a hung Parliament puts the heebie-jeebies into the financial markets, it may actually be a healthy outcome for British politics. Sensible decisions will have to be made about how to deal with long term debt, but with the Lib Dems as part of a governing coalition we could actually see some decent electoral and parliamentary reforms passed, and a halt put on the legislative garbage that the over-powerful Labour Governments of the last 13 years have pushed through Westminster.

Although I won’t hold my breath for scintillating political banter, it would be a wonderful irony if these Presidential-style debates increased Clegg’s support and promoted the power of (a hung) Parliament, keeping the legislature relevant in an age of increasing executive power.

Michael Watt

  1. […] Tony Phyrillas wrote a very interesting post today.   Here’s a quick excerpt:This leads us nicely to British politics‘ half-forgotten man and his half-forgotten party, or Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats as they are alternatively known. Clegg will be the real beneficiary of the debates, if he plays his cards … […]

  2. Great piece – The questions surrounding the Liberal Democrats at the moment are the most fascinating ones. Will election debates in Britain elevate the prospects of a 3 party system? Would the Lib Dems go into coaltion with either the Tories or Labour? We know they said no to the SNP in Scotland. Perhaps to keep their ticket clean for Scottish Labour in the future.

    Coalition did wonders for Scotland. It’d be healthy for Britain given the current circumstances. Compromise and consent. Not the domination that comes with landslide victories.

  3. Cheers for the comment Matthew.

    I admire your faith in coalition government. There are good examples (Germany) and bad examples (Italy) of the practice abroad. I think it could work here because other state institutions are fairly strong and stable. I think it would be popular with the public as well, people like to see sitting down and reaching agreements, rather than shouting at each other.

    Are our politicians gorwn up enough to make it work. There are a few articles in the press that are worth a read regarding this – Matthew Parris in The Times and Fraser Nelson in the Guardian. Another problem would be the reaction of the money markets, they fear uncertainty.

    Also, as resident of Edinburgh, in what sense has coalition ‘worked wonders’ for Scotland? The current government is a minority administration.

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