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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.

Phew! The LibDem Conference isn’t so woolly after all!

May 16th, 2010 by René Kinzett

Great news from the Liberal Democrat Special Conference which this afternoon backed the deal brokered by Nick Clegg et al to join the Liberal Conservative Coalition Government.

The past image of the woolly-jumpered, sandal wearing and bearded old Liberals pontificating for days of painfully boring debate and torturing their Party Leadership with motions to abolish the Monarchy, outlaw meat-eating and give cats the vote were brought to a welcome end today by a quick, sensible and important decision.

The Liberal Democrats and their predecessor parties have not had a sniff of real power since the falling out between David Lloyd George and Herbert Henry Asquith in 1916. So the prospect of Liberal Democrat policies transferring from the never-never world of the Party’s Manifesto to the Statute Book was an opportunity that no rational person could rally pass up. Unless you are Charles Kennedy, of course.

I wrote about the common approach between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats with regard to civil liberties and a wider liberal agenda over on WalesHome and I really do believe that with this vote at today’s Special Conference, seals the deal on a full five-year progressive coalition.