George Osborne recently told the CBI the Tories had gone back to their Disraelian 'One Nation' roots while the Lib Dems had rediscovered Gladstonian Liberalism. So will this really be a Victorian coalition? And in what ways?
George Osborne's address to the CBI last week, while fairly predictable in most respects, was notable for one brief point he made. Gideon, no doubt bigging up t he merits of coalition government and the parties' common ground, appeared to su ggest both parties had spent the 2005/10 parliament rediscovering their nineteen th century roots. For the Conservatives, the middle-class brashness of Thatcherism had given way t o the far more aristocratic and Etonian niceties of Disraeli's 'One Nation' Cons ervatism, he said. As for the Liberal Democrats, Clegg's 'Orange Bookers' had je ttisoned the party's 'woolly' liberalism and social democracy, embracing that gr eat colossus of Victorian political history, Gladstonian Liberalism. Just imagine what that could mean, for a moment. The nineteenth century consensu s consisted of free trade, balanced budgets, low public spending, low taxes, sma ll government, responsibility and self-reliance. Where Gladstone and Disraeli di ffered in actual policy, these were not so highly irreconcilable (asthey were) t hat they could not be ironed out. We could, for example, be in store for a glori ous yet moral foreign policy, with a Liberal laissez-faire tempered by a Tory pa ternalism - though these may, admittedly, end up being the other way round. Whether this is the case remains to be seen, but it does pose some striking ques tions about why the Liberal Democrats exist at all. If the above description sou nds familiar, for example, it is because we have seen it before - it is essentia lly Thatcherism without the circumstantial things Thatcher had to do to reverse the post-war Socialist consensus (privatisation, trade union reform etc.) Indeed , in John Ranelagh's Thatcher's People (1991), Thatcherism was described as "ess entially common ground between Conservatives and Liberals in the nineteenth cent ury." If Clegg & co. have no issue with this then, it does bring one to question why t hey haven't simply joined the Conservatives. Their europhilia need not be an iss ue - they do, after all, have Ken Clarke in the cabinet. Lord Heseltine (another europhile and former National Liberal) was on TV only the other day describing how he used to tell Liberal voters the only difference between them was that Tor ies win. There are those Liberal Democrats, too, who have shown themselves to be far more at home with Labour and therefore completely undeserving of the word 'liberal.' It is perhaps not as well known as it ought to be that the Lib Dems are essenti ally a coalition between Liberals and Social Democrats (indeed, when the party w as formed in 1988, its first guise was as the Social & Liberal Democrats). These are political traditions from entirely opposing philosophical foundations. So where are we heading? Will British politics be 'coming home', with Liberals a nd Conservatives as the two major parties and Labour a distant third? I for one would be very supportive of such an outcome, where politics - as in the US - bec omes less a struggle over ends (socialism and capitalism) as means. Things could go either way, though. We may well see the disappearance of the Lib eral Democrats, with the Liberals in the party flocking to the Conservatives and Social Democrats to Labour. The latter in particular would not be all that surp rising (not least because Paddy Ashdown has long entertained the thought) - the Social Democratic Party was founded in 1981 because of Labour's then-leftward lu rch. But Tony Blair reversed this, realising everything the SDP had set out to a chieve with New Labour. It's aims have become redundant. The historic outcome of this year's election has reminded us that British politi cs is forever in a state of flux. The relative stability and predictability of t he last sixty (and especially thirty) years is by no means the norm of our polit ical tradition, as anyone familiar with nineteenth and early twentieth century p
olitics will know. It's very possible that 2015 may be an even more exciting ele ction year than 2010 and, given the political turmoil of that century, the coali tion may leave a very Victorian legacy indeed.