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Rene Kinzett

100 days and counting!

August 18th, 2010 by René Kinzett

The nation celebrated today at the joyous news that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government had survived marked its first 100 days in office.

The first peacetime coalition government has come through an early Cabinet resignation; controversy over scrapping a pet project of the previous government; the intervention of the Sandal Brigade over “new” policy development and the question mark over whether the Deputy PM is “in charge” or “holding the fort” during the Cameron family’s fortnight on hols in Cornwall. All exciting stuff, but what do these last three and a bit months tell us about either the achievements of the Government or the future prospects for the Coalition?

Of course, the more observant will have noticed my deliberate mistake in the first sentence of the second paragraph. The Coalition Government is is not the first peacetime coalition administration on UK soil. The Scottish Parliamentary elections in 1999 and 2007 produced back-to-back Labour-Liberal Democrat governments and the National Assembly for Wales elections have resulted in “hung results” and there have either been minority Labour administrations or coalitions between Labour and the Liberal Democrats (2000 – 2003) or Labour and Plaid Cymru (2007, onwards). Each time during the period of a coalition, in both Cardiff and Edinburgh, the arrangements have lasted the course and seen the two parties through to the next set of elections. Indeed, the only times that administrations in Cardiff have looked week has been during the periods of Labour minority government. When Alun Michael was toppled as the first ever First Secretary of Wales, his successor Rhodri Morgan’s first act in office was to reach out to the Liberal Democrats to form a more stable administration until the next elections (and his second act was to change his job title to the more impressive “First Minister”).

In Scotland’s case, the incredibly stable arrangements between Labour the Liberal Democrats led to some interesting legislative reforms, including PR for local government elections and free personal care for the elderly. No matter what one may think of the shortcomings of the various measures enacted under that coalition, no one can doubt that it was a well managed and efficient operation, even in the face of some tough times and fierce criticism. It is only now, with a minority Scottish Nationalist Party Government in power in Holyrood that questions are being raised about the longer-term stability of an administration. As Jack Straw said today, it is perhaps preferable to be in opposition than scrabbling around for votes and with the ever-present fear of defeat hanging over you.

Given the experiences of our Welsh and Scottish cousins, what weight should be given to the soothsayers predicting calamity for the Coalition at Westminster?  I rather suspect that they will be proved wrong. The signs of unity within the Coalition are clearly visible and appear to be very strong indeed. There is a unity of purpose, aided by the Coalition Agreement, which gives a clear agenda for the Government. The memorandum issued by Cameron and Clegg the other week also shows that the number one concern facing the Coalition – the size of the budget deficit – is being pursued with vigour and in real partnership. The spirit of unity within the Coalition is also helped by a palpable “bond of trust” between the Prime Minister and his Deputy. Much nonsense can be written (and frequently is) about the Cameron-Clegg axis, from the psycho-babble of the Sunday supplements (all the “we’re all Clegerons now” lifestyle article rubbish) to the loud alcohol-fuelled rants of former high-fliers with a fixation on homo-erotica. But its not all pure Polly Filler drivel or Pub Landlord bile, there are serious criticisms of the Coalition, from both left and right, that we (who care for its future) need to take on board.

The right are concerned about the future direction of the Conservative Party, that “traditional” values are being drowned out by a soggy liberalism and that Ministers are weak-minded pawns of the all powerful cult of the Cleggeron. I find the criticisms from these quarters as, frankly, a bit rich. One only needs to look at the experiences of the left of the Party during the worst excesses of the Thatcherite purges to see how an all-powerful leadership can effectively silence and sideline a whole wing of a party. Ask our friend Jerry Hayes for a first-hand account from one who remained a vocal and popular exponent of an alternative vision of conservatism during Thatcher’s reign.

I also want to reassure the right that they really have nothing to fear from Cameron and Coalition. For what we are witnessing is nothing less than the strange rebirth of liberal conservative England (with apologies to George Dangerfield) and the Conservative Party returning to its traditional place as the champion of moderate, considered and pragmatic polices. Championing evidence-based policy making over policy-based evidence making. Dealing with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. Treating all communities equally, with tolerance and respect. Governing in the interests of the nation, not the Party. Indeed, it is the mix of election winning strategies from Disraeli, through Baldwin and Churchill, from Macmillan to Major. Even Thatcher, who the right hold up as their patron saint, would be on the modernising wing of the Party if she was now a young politician on the rise. For her legacy, although objectionable to some, was a product of its time and she a creature of her surroundings. Transplant the young Maggie to today’s scenario and you would not get a hair’s breadth between her and Cameron or, dare I say it, even Clegg.  The rejection of ideology, the embracing of pragmatism and the rethinking of traditional One Nation values through the Big Society theme are all part of Cameron’s agenda to take the Conservatives back to the future and to firmly re-establish ourselves as the natural party of government.

The rolling back of the Surveillance State (as big an enemy today as the excesses of the Welfare State tackled by Thatcher), the triumph of liberty over suspicion and the reawakening of a spirit of responsibility and inter-dependency are all, for my money, the most exciting things to come out of this Coalition thus far. From scrapping ID cards, getting rid of the National Identity Register, abolishing the “ContactPoint” child database and even the outlawing of the clamping of cars on private land are welcome early initiatives from the Coalition. The revolution in terms of school organisation with the introduction of Free Schools, bringing real choice and diversity of provision into every community (in England only, sadly), is to be much celebrated by those that matter: parents and children and opposed by the vested interests of the teaching unions, and Labour (and possibly even Tory or LibDem) local government barons. Ken Clarke’s sensible hand on the tiller as Lord High Chancellor will ensure a more just and equitable administration of justice that we’ve seen from a hoard of reactionary and populist Labourites. NHS reforms, led by the eminently fair-minded Andrew Lansley will replace bureaucratic mess with simple, streamlined administration of our health service and put it back in the hands of doctors and patients. Clegg himself has been given the task of dragging our creaking constitution into the 21st Century, renewing trust between the governed and the government, establishing a more democratic Upper House, offering the voters the chance to chose a new electoral system and handing back powers from Whitehall to town and shire halls.

I was also interviewed on BBC Radio Wales “Good Morning Wales” programme at the ungodly hour of just gone 6am, so for those not wide-eyed enough at that time of the day, or else don’t have ready access to the delights of the public service broadcaster for Wales, please feast your ears on this  and listen in from 8min 10sec.

As much as I am, obviously, greatly impressed with the clear purpose, conduct and future prospects of the Coalition, I do feel that there is most definitely a role for the progressive wing of the Conservative Party to keep a watch on developments, especially as we head towards the spending review announcements planned for the autumn. Organisations such as the Tory Reform Group (for which I serve as Deputy Chair in Wales) will need to keep a close eye on the effects of cuts in public spending on the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. At the very start of this Coalition and during the election campaign, Cameron pledged that it would be those with the “broadest shoulders” who would bear the brunt of the cuts and that the very poorest would be protected from the worst effects. Policies such as limiting public sector pay freezes to those who earn over £21,000 are laudable, but it won’t be until sometime into next year that much of the impact of spending decisions will be felt. It will then be for the Tory Reform Group and others to be less the Cameron Cheerleading Team and more critical friend, watching out for the poor, the sick and the old. Ensuring that our guiding principles remain in tact and that the Coalition stays the course until the general election of 2015.

The Coalition has some real challenges to face. Next year’s referendum on electoral reform; the elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly; the legislative battle over equalising constituency sizes; and the reforms to the calling of general elections through Commons votes of no confidence, all offer early and serious pitfalls. However, if the same degree of common purpose and commitment to the national interest remains as strong, there can be little to doubt that this Coalition will stay the course and really change Britain for good.

The natural affinity of Liberal Conservatism

May 17th, 2010 by René Kinzett

This article originally appeared on WalesHome…

THE NEW Liberal Conservative Coalition Government has put forward its proposals for a far-reaching programme of constitutional reform and the restoration and protection of civil liberties.

Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have historically been opposing forces in British politics, disagreeing on issues such as electoral reform, devolution and House of Lords reform over the past 100 years or so. To observe some of the ways in which those who articulate the starkest differences between the two parties behave, one could be forgiven for thinking that the lines of conflict as drawn down by William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli are as relevant now as they were in the 1850s. Gladstone described the fault line in Victorian politics thus:

“Liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence. Conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear.”

For his part, Benjamin Disraeli could never resist the temptation to get under the skin of his more straight-laced opponent:

“The difference between a misfortune and a calamity is this: If Gladstone fell into the Thames, it would be a misfortune. But if someone dragged him out again, that would be a calamity.”

But Disraeli also had a serious mission on his hands: to make the Tory Party electable, to seek new supporters among traditionally anti-conservative groups and to prove that the Party was capable of representing and understanding the interests of the whole of society. Sounds familiar? Much like the reforms, re-branding and ‘decontamination’ mission of David Cameron, Disraeli’s efforts were based in the basic principle of the protection of the vulnerable and the desire for both social mobility and improved conditions for the poorest in society. One of Disraeli’s most powerful quotes comes from his novel Sybil which studied the horrific conditions of the English working classes, published in the same year as Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. The novel was also known as “The Two Nations”:

Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets. The rich and the poor.

Sybil gave us the term ‘One Nation Toryism’ and Disraeli set his sights on transforming the forces of conservatism (which he had famously derided by describing the concept of a Conservative government as “an organized hypocrisy”) and creating the new movement of Refoming Toryism. His battles with Gladstone over the Reform Bills of 1866 and 1867 ended with Disraeli’s Government finally getting a Reform Act onto the statute book in 1867, a more radical package of measures than proposed by his Liberal counterpart. Disraeli’s social and industrial policies were also welcomed by the embryonic representative organisations of the working classes.

David Cameron has used his own journey to ‘liberal conservatism’ to press for a realignment in British politics and soon after he was elected leader of the Party, he reached out to Liberal Democrats in a speech in Bath, a call which I had already answered having made the switch myself from the Lib Dems to the Conservatives four years ago. Ironically, it was Tony Blair who had originally set himself up as the architect of a ‘new politics’ and set up a joint Labour-Lib Dem Cabinet Committee to look at issues like electoral and Lords reform. Blair’s dream of a Labour-Liberal Democrat realignment (wanting to make the 20th Century the “radical century”), based on his previous discussions with Lord Jenkins and others, was broken up on the rocks of Labour’s unexpectedly huge Commons majority in 1997 – he simply did not need the Lib Dems and his party told him so.

Cameron, for better or worse, is not in the same position as Blair in 1997 and needs the Liberal Democrats in order to provide the nation with a strong, secure government. However, I am somewhat taken with the idea that Cameron is not displeased with this situation as it really means that he can head the Liberal Conservative Government with the kind of policies and approach to the key social, political and economic questions he was promising as party leader. I note that my colleagues on the right of the party are keen for Cameron to nip this kind of argument in the bud, but I rather think there is a lot of truth in the assumption that the new Prime Minister can get more of his own agenda through the party as part of this coalition government than he could in a Conservative minority scenario. Simply put, the Prime Minister is not a prisoner of the right of the party and he is clearly relishing the prospect to be one of the most reforming national leaders in the last 100 years.

Thus far, the criticisms from the left have been obvious and predictable. To believe some of the worst cant and hypocrisy from left-wingers, one might imagine that the 1997-2010 Government was a paragon of reform and that the 2010 Labour Manifesto contained further steps towards a utopia. When, in the last 13 years of Labour government, was it acceptable to liberals or socialists that ID Cards should be brought in? When has it ever been in the Liberal handbook to extend CCTV and collect DNA samples for a national database from the innocent?

The Liberal-Conservative coalition can hold its head high with such proposals as the extension of the Freedom of Information Act, the ending of storage of emails and internet records without good cause, the protection of the principle of trial by jury and the restoration of historic freedoms for the right to peaceful protest. The erosion of ancient liberties and the encroachment of the surveillance state have been some of the worst aspects of the Blair and Brown years. Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are able to agree on so much with regard to civil liberties as we approach the issue with similar principles, centred around the rights of individuals, a rejection of top-down government and a recognition that society and the state are not the same thing.

Historically speaking, the partnership between Conservatives and Liberals in Parliament may at first glance seem odd, almost impossible. But a greater study of the development of the Conservative Party, a deeper understanding of the principle of reforming One Nation Toryism and the approach to politics and society taken by David Cameron over the past five years, clearly shows that this Liberal Conservative Coalition has every chance of making a lasting impact on British society and the body politic.

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