In defence of liberal democracy

Only a legitimate government with a proper mandate and a commitment to the Union can prevent the fragmentation of our country

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The Independent Online

A spectre is haunting Britain – the spectre of its own end. Five years ago British democracy entered a new era. There was endless gnashing of teeth at the prospect of a first peacetime coalition since the 1930s, but disaster has been avoided. To the credit of its members, a coalition formed in the interests of the country has governed competently. It leaves a country more indebted and less influential, but stable and growing. That masks the scale of the choice facing Britain this week. At stake is the very idea of majority government, the union with Scotland, and membership of the EU. In other words, British democracy itself.

You wouldn't have guessed that from a data-driven, negative, and deeply uninspiring campaign. New ideas have been in short supply; fear has been the tool of choice; and because of our outdated electoral system, two-thirds of voters have yet again been ignored. This is a betrayal of the British people. This title believes they deserve much better. The Independent was founded on the principle enshrined in its name. We honour that again today, by declaring that we belong to no party or faction, act without fear or favour, and know our readers are wise enough to make up their own minds. That is why we will not be telling you how to vote.

A question of authority

On the question of democracy, however, we are not and will never be neutral: we believe it is precious, and must be revitalised. It is clear that not only our democracy, but our kingdom, is in some peril. It may be thought perverse for a paper with a tinge of republicanism to defend a kingdom; but we believe the union with Scotland is mutually beneficial, and crucial at a time of rapid global change.

Britain has entered a long period of relative decline, as emerging powers such as China and India acquire greater influence. To splinter our country, either through Scottish independence or withdrawal from the EU, would be fatally stupid. Moreover, the reputation of politics, following the Iraq War, the expenses crisis, and the financial crash, has sunk to a rotten low; and whoever forms a government in the coming days must at all costs be legitimate. That is not a question merely of numbers and seats. Rather it is a question of authority, and the ability to reflect the temper of the people.

As believers in pluralism, we have given plenty of coverage to minor parties - three in particular. The Greens have been a disappointment, offering an alternative to austerity that is economically illiterate. Ukip have contributed important ideas on freedom, but are essentially at war with globalisation and modernity, both of which we welcome. The SNP is an agent of change, with impressive leaders in both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. But they are a wrecking ball poised to hit Westminster and, unlike us, want to abolish Britain.

 

The main contenders

What of the main parties? Ed Miliband has had an impressive campaign. For several years, too, he has held the factions within Labour together, rightly highlighting inequality as a fundamental priority of the British people. He is clearly an economist who wants to use the state to break up monopolies and generate competition. Yet in key areas his policy prescriptions suggest a party unready for government. Tampering with tuition fees would harm universities while benefiting wealthy rather than poor students. Taxing property more is smart, but rent controls won’t work and a mansion tax is a centralising, blunt tool: much better to reform council tax instead. And though he is right not to flirt with leaving the EU, far too many businesses of all sizes fear Labour.

As for the Tories, an abiding irony of this parliament is that David Cameron, who wanted to be a social reformer, has been principally an economic reformer instead – with some success. Excessive austerity in the first phase of his reign, consistent failure to meet debt and deficit targets, and a worrying lack of productivity notwithstanding, Britain's economy is now growing reasonably well. Given the state of the Eurozone, creating two million mostly decent jobs is an exceptional achievement. Plans to create a northern powerhouse are also welcome.

This title has consistently argued that we would have liked much more to be done for the poor: the Institute for Fiscal Studies is clear they have fared worst since 2010. The young have been unfairly targeted to protect the old, the record on house-building is dire, and the NHS mismanaged. But, the economy aside, in one vital respect Tories deserve tremendous credit: a million more pupils are now at schools rated good or outstanding. This title cherishes education. Such success cannot be ignored.

Many of the good things the Coalition has done are owed to the Liberal Democrats. Nick Clegg may not personally recover from the tuition fees debacle, despite being right (eventually). But history will record him as the man who turned a party of protest into one of government. As a principled, effective politician who could hold another Coalition together, we hope he keeps his seat in Sheffield Hallam. He has confounded his Tory critics, held his party together, been a fine advertisement for a European kind of government, and championed the green agenda just as Tories abandoned it. On raising the income tax threshold, the pupil premium, early years learning and apprenticeships the Lib Dems have been a force for progress, and if he returns to government Mr Clegg should insist on being Education Secretary.

In office, but not in power

A hung parliament is certain this week. For all his talk of no deals with the SNP, Miliband is bound to rely on that party to get his legislative programme through. This would be a disaster for the country, unleashing justified fury in England at the decisive influence of MPs who – unlike this title – do not wish the Union to exist. If that were to be the case while Labour were the second biggest party either in terms of vote share, or seats – or both – how could Labour govern with authority? They could not. Any partnership between Labour and the SNP will harm Britain’s fragile democracy. For all its faults, another Lib-Con Coalition would both prolong recovery and give our kingdom a better chance of continued existence.

This title casts no vote. But we prize strong, effective government, consider nationalism guilty until proven innocent, and say that if the present Coalition is to get another chance, we hope it is much less conservative, and much more liberal.

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