Wednesday 29 April 2015

If the Old Pals Act looms again? Stay out...

The biggest constitutional crisis since the Abdication, says Theresa May. It isn’t that yet. Heavens, we haven’t even voted. But the various scenarios certainly point to confusion, as we know only too well.

So let's go a little further into this confused, post-election world.  What will the Conservatives do, faced with what they appear to be calling an ‘illegitimate’ link between Labour and their hated opponents in the SNP? There is no doubt in my mind what they ought to do, if the prospect is really as dangerous as they say it is.

They should hammer out an agreement with Labour for a government of national unity.

A week from polling day, that is hard to imagine. It is hard to see Labour MPs backing a Conservative-led government. It is hard to see Cameron serving under Miliband, but then Cameron will be gone if that situation arises.

That much is familiar. But what would the Lib Dems do in those circumstances? William Hobhouse has written a thought-provoking blog suggesting that PR should be a red line in any post-election negotiations.  The current system is justified on the grounds that it produces strong government.  It manifestly doesn't.

Given that it hasn't, and there was some kind of attempt at a government of national unity, there would be intense pressure on Clegg to take part. I hope very much that he would refuse. For three reasons:

1. The timid leading the dull.  A governing arrangement between Labour and Conservatives would not be difficult ideologically – there isn’t enough difference between them. But it would be a government of the bland leading the conventional, of the timid leading the dull. My goodness, it would be a Stanley Baldwin style 'safety first' government.  It would need an effective opposition.

2. A Scottish leader of the opposition?  If the SNP can’t be in government – though I don’t see why not – they can’t form the official opposition either. Nor should we allow Nigel Farage’s party to take on that mantle.

3. Articulate Liberalism.  The nation needs an articulate Liberalism. It would be time we escaped from the exhausting embrace of Whitehall, and set out to provide one. I can’t think of a more important task.

In the 1980s and 90s, when Liberals were turning a dull and semi-corrupt local government world upside down and inside out, they used to be opposed by a desperate series of local alliances between Labour and Conservative. The Liberals, and then the Lib Dems, used to call it the Old Pals’ Act.

That also seems bizarre looking back, but those were the days when Liberals projected something to say which could not be described as splitting the difference between the other two – and which could be seen as dangerous enough by their opponents that they had to unite in opposition.

If the Old Pals unite again, in a government of national unity to keep out the SNP – and they might – then there would be no useful role the Lib Dems could play inside such a horrific amalgam of a stultified, constipated establishment.

But an absolutely vital role outside it.

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