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UK General Election: Get Ready for Positive Inertia

April 20, 2015
Ramsay MacDonald

Ramsay MacDonald, leader of Britain’s last peacetime National Government (1931-1935)


This morning I read in the UK Times that the Scottish Nationalists, if they hold the balance of power after May 7th,  would use their power to veto line items of government expenditure in future budgets. Specifically, they will vote against any Finance Bill that provides for the continuance of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Also on the SNP agenda – if not explicitly stated – is another referendum on Scottish independence.

They won’t succeed with the former, and they won’t bring about the latter. What they could do is to trigger a form of politics not seen since the Second World War: “national government”. Not a formal arrangement wherein the two largest parties come together at a time of national emergency as was the case in 1931 and 1939, but something more fluid and subtle.

I use the nuclear question and Scottish independence as two stand-out issues on which either party, Labour or Conservative, might seek the support of the other in order to override the ambitions of the SNP. The independence issue is fairly straightforward. If the government required an act of parliament to authorise a new referendum, the two major parties could simply bring the measure down on a free vote.

The continuance of the nuclear deterrent is less simple. Government expenditure is rolled up into an all-encompassing annual budget. If, say, the SNP threatened to vote a Labour Finance Bill down if it included expenditure on the Trident nuclear programme, they would get a more sympathetic ear among Labour members of parliament than among the Conservatives. But Labour, in its manifesto is “committed to a minimum, credible, independent nuclear capability, delivered through a Continuous At-Sea Deterrent”. So its MPs would be unlikely to join the SNP in torpedoing the Finance Bill on the issue. If the SNP delivered on its threat, and the Conservative opposition also voted against the Bill for its own ideological reasons, an amended Bill would have to be brought before Parliament.

At this point, to save the nuclear deterrent, Labour would need to reach an accommodation, not with the SNP, but with the Conservatives, who would no doubt insist on watering down those aspects of the Budget that they most disliked as the price of their support. And if the Conservatives formed a minority government, the same dynamics would apply vis-a-vis Labour.

So it’s easy to see a scenario in which the two main parties would work together to defeat attempts by minority parties – the SNP and UKIP being the most likely actors – to introduce measures that they considered would be against the national interest.

The result would be de facto government by broad consensus – a government based on national unity if you like, rather than a government of national unity. Measures on one party’s agenda that were supported by the SNP would be enacted regardless of the opposition’s view. But where the SNP pushes too hard, the government could turn to the opposition for support.

You could argue that this situation would lead to horse-trading, slow decision-making and inertia, particularly on matters of spending. Some would say that this would be bad for business confidence, therefore for the economy and ultimately for Britain’s international reputation.

Not necessarily. The essence of modern democratic politics is the promise of change for the better. The problem is that the first part of the equation doesn’t always result in the second. No party will be elected on the basis of keeping things exactly as they are. So even if they believe that this is the best course – as the Conservatives do with the economy, for example – they still feel compelled to come up with eye-catching new policies to counter those of their opponents. The result is what we see in the political manifestos: commitments to a whole bunch of changes that may or may not improve the state of the nation even though they appeal to sections of the electorate that they wish to target.

The major parties make these promises in full knowledge that if they have to form minority governments, which is highly likely this year, all bets – and all promises – are off. So in effect the promises are meaningless. They are, in fact, aspirations.

So if we end up with a parliament after the election that can only enact measures that have broad cross-party support, is that such a bad thing? If a new measure is proposed, tested and scrutinised without regard to party allegiance, will that not ensure that only the most important and urgently-needed measures will make the cut? That will depend on the ability of the parties, their members and their managers to step back from their allegiances and vote instead in the national interest.

I believe that there are times when it does no harm to slow down the pace of legislative change. If we end up with a government that can introduce only the most self-evidently needed changes, the country will not be the worse off, even if the politicians and civil servants find themselves with more time on their hands than usual. In many situations they will need to work to achieve objectives within the existing legislative framework. A few years of positive inertia, in other words.

Not for ever, you understand. There are times when radical action is required that will not be agreeable to both major parties. But if we have a few years of government by national consensus, followed by a majority government in the following election – whenever that might be – it’s reasonable to expect that the party with the strongest arguments will carry the day, and thereby be in a position to make major changes.

Am I ridiculously naïve, unrealistic, hopelessly optimistic? Maybe. I’m not a professional politician or a political analyst. But I’ve lived through enough election campaigns as frenzied as the current one, only to see normal service resumed after the excitement has died down.

As long as the new parliament, and whoever ends up governing us, retains a measure of common sense, we’ll get by. So I for one will not spend the next three weeks in a lather of anxiety while the politicians – nervously eyeing their future employment – campaign until they drop.

Whichever way things go on May 7th, the following month will be extremely interesting.

From → Politics, UK

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