In one of the most perceptive commentaries on the outcome of the recent general election in the United Kingdom, Anthony Barnett (openDemocracy) describes it as marking the end of Thatcherism.
After defeating the tired Conservative government, which itself had been in power for 18 years, Tony Blair’s New Labour continued the Thatcherite policies for 13 more years after the 1997 election. Blair was an admirer of the ‘Iron Lady’. Labour’s economic policies, presided over by Blair’s chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown, contributed to a widening gap between rich and poor, despite an array of stealth taxation and the much publicized objective of reducing the gap. The defeat of Brown brings the New Labour project to an end.
The indecisive result of the May 6th election, in which no party won an absolute majority, a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats (successor to Britain’s old Liberal Party) has formed a new government. Some progressives are lamenting a liberal force in British politics entering a marriage with the party associated with harsh economic policies in recent memory. They are warning that the Liberal Democrats will have to pay a high price for their decision. The prospect of being power for the first time since 1945 was certainly very tempting for the Liberals.
But, as Anthony Barnett argues, what we have is a ‘distinctly more progressive government’ in the United Kingdom. Labour’s re-election under Brown would have meant a continuation of the same failed policies at a time of unprecedented economic and social problems. The British electorate could not make a clear decision about who should govern. But the people clearly did not want the old order to continue.
The two coalition partners are having to compromise on policies. But the Liberal Democrats, despite their 57 seats out of a total of 650 seats in parliament, will have 5 cabinet ministers and nearly two dozen in junior posts. The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg is the new deputy prime minister, working with the Conservative prime minister David Cameron.
Liberal Democrats in the cabinet are: Nick Clegg (deputy prime minister), David Laws (treasury secretary, in effect deputy chancellor of the exchequer), Vince Cable (business), Chris Huhne (environment and climate change) and Danny Alexander (Scottish Secretary).
The appointment of Kenneth Clarke, an old stalwart on the Conservative Party’s liberal wing, as justice secretary will be welcomed by many people across the country who have been highly critical of the erosion of civil liberties. And Baroness Warsi, the first Muslim cabinet minister, becomes the Conservative Party chairman. Her appointment is intended to assure Britain’s Muslim community.
The new coalition government will be tougher on the bankers and more focused on helping the very poor with the promise to gradually raise the limit at which people begin to pay the income tax. It is committed to ending Labour’s assault on civil liberties, although, like President Obama, it will not investigate Britain’s use of torture since 9/11. Some kind of electoral reform re-enters the arena of constitutional debate. And the introduction of greener policies is in prospect.
But the most pressing task for the new government is to deal with the economic crisis. Public expenditure must be cut drastically. The consequence will be many government workers losing jobs. It will add to the unemployment and social discontent. The Conservative-Liberal government says it is committed to governing Britain for the full five-year term of the current parliament. There is a rocky road ahead.