Dominic Lawson: Not such unnatural bedfellows

The idea that the Lib Dems can't work with the Tories can only have been based on a misunderstanding that they are still led by Charlie Kennedy
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The Independent Online

Over the past few days – before the slow-motion resignation of Gordon Brown – it was all smiles and expressions of mutual respect between the top-level negotiating teams of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Below the salt, however, all has not been sweetness and light.

The letters columns are full of outrage from Liberal Democrat voters at the prospect of their party's leadership doing a deal with the Conservatives. Meanwhile, Conservative Party workers are finding it hard to hide their fury at the idea of their party sharing power with the Lib Dems. Such feelings run highest in the south-west of England, where battles between the two parties' teams of voluntary supporters have long been characterised by an intensity that has not stopped short of violent abuse.

The present, apparently paradoxical, situation can be compared with what happens at professional football matches. Throughout the game itself, the players kick lumps out of each other, cheered on by ferociously antagonistic bands of supporters who see their own side as uniquely virtuous and the opponents as beneath contempt. Then, when the game is over, while the opposing groups of fans are still chanting abuse at each other, the players line up to embrace. It turns out that they have much more in common with each other than their supporters are prepared to admit or even believe.

If that seems too removed from the world of debate to be properly analogous, recall instead that marvellous Bateman cartoon which shows two lawyers arguing against each other in court with unstinting ferocity, their wigs almost falling off with the violence of their disputation. The next scene shows the two lawyers arm in arm walking off for a drink together in the pub.

Anyone who has spent time in the House of Commons will recognise that phenomenon. There is a high degree of camaraderie between many MPs of opposing parties, which might surprise a public whose main impression of the Palace of Westminster is the highly unrepresentative shouting matches of Prime Ministers' Questions. One gets a glimpse of something similar when in the hospitality room of a BBC news programme. The MPs invited to debate a contentious matter are generally very chummy with each other both before and after their on-screen confrontation, which betrays no sense of their private conviviality.

This is as it should be in a civilised society. Just because one might have very different political views to someone else, that should never mean there is no room for friendship. However, some sharp-eyed academic observers of British politics argue that in the post-ideological era, what remains of political battle is simply a surface conflict between identical middle-class elites of only notionally different outlooks.

This is the view of Dr David Runciman, who argues that British politics now closely resembles its form during the 18th century, echoing Lewis Namier's analysis of the battles of that time between the Whigs and the Tories. Namier wrote that the apparent conflicts of principle between those two great parties were illusory, and that this was just a battle for power between cliques: "the political life of the period could be fully described without ever using a party denomination."

Gordon Brown went out of his way a few years ago to attack what he termed "the Namierist view" that politics was no longer about the battle of ideas. Brown has been one of the last of the tribal politicians, whose loathing for his opponents is visceral: not for him the friendly chat with his opposite number behind the Speaker's chair. Unfortunately for the Labour Party, Mr Brown's tribalism did not rest with his desire to destroy the Tories – it included the urge to crush anyone in his own party who stood in the way of his absolute personal control, even if they shared his political ideals. Leave aside the fact that Labour and the Lib Dems do not have enough seats between them to command a majority in the House of Commons, Brown's personality made him uniquely unsuited to running a cross-party administration that requires collegiate agreement – as he now seems to have recognised.

Even before Mr Brown's statement of resignation, commentators of the Left seemed shocked that Nick Clegg should be negotiating a deal to allow the Conservatives to govern the country. They argue that such a Conservative-Lib Dem pact would be a grotesque mésalliance, whereas an agreement with Labour would be a natural marriage between "progressive" parties.

They had not been paying attention to what the Lib Dem leader has been saying, not only during the election campaign, but for years. In June 2008 I interviewed Mr Clegg for The Independent on Sunday. He told me that "the Conservatives and Lib Dems see much more clearly than Labour that the great sea-change in British politics is that the experiment in big government has failed, it hasn't delivered the more socially mobile, socially just, society that it purported to and in any event can't be sustained financially in the way it has over the past few years". He added that he favoured "an aggressive tax-cutting approach".

Even before that, Clegg had called for the "closing down" of the "industrial welfare state" and he has long advocated plans for market-based reforms of the public services – including the NHS. Add to that the fact that such colleagues as David Laws, Vince Cable and Chris Huhne had in 2004 published the "Orange Book" similarly advocating market solutions to a range of issues which Labour regards as the prerogative of the state, and you can see the idea that the Lib Dems can't work with Cameron's Conservatives can only have been based on a misunderstanding that they are still led by Charlie Kennedy.

Yes, there are a large number of Conservative Party members who still regard the Lib Dems as dangerous lefties. Some also believe that the best course for the Conservatives would be to give no concessions to the Lib Dems and allow them to form "a government of losers" with Labour, which would inevitably disintegrate under the pressures of dealing with a structural deficit of almost Grecian proportions; but in David Cameron they have a leader who regards such analysis as politically self-indulgent as well as unpatriotic. He is of the Tory tradition which regards the party's raison d'etre to be the securing of political power, and thus to govern the country: he will do what it takes.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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