The dilemma which still confronts the Liberal Democratic party is, do they want to be in coalition or do they want to be in government?
To understand that question, it is important to understand the British way of government. Our whole system is based on there being a single, unified, government of ‘her majesty’s ministers’ led by the Prime Minister that commands a majority in the House of Commons. Cabinet takes collective responsibility for governing, whilst individual ministers answer to the House of Commons for specific issues. the civil service has ‘no constitutional personality separate and apart from that of the government of the day’. All this pushes any government towards unity and uniformity – in recent years this has taken the form of collective “lines to take” advice for all Ministers on any and every topic that might get posed to them.
Liberal Democrat ministers already sound like they have gone ‘native’ in government – I have heard interview after interview in which they talk about the Government in collective terms.
But this is a very uneasy conversion. Some are clearly ‘restless’ and more concerned with making clear that this is above all a Coalition of two distinct political Parties. Vince Cable’s speech at their Conference was very much in the Coalition direction, whilst Nick Clegg’s was very much of the Government variety.
Some have argued that maintaining a distinct identity, and keeping score of Lib Dem successes inside the Coalition, is mistake and one that Nick Clegg began to make early on, but has now baked away from – instead celebrating the Government’s (collective) successes. Whilst I think this shift has happened, I’m unconvinced it is in the Lib Dems long-term interests. What the electors want from a Coalition is surely not some juvenile love-in but an adult partnership, which recognises the differing interests of both Parties?
Short-term, the love-in, ‘we’re all in this together’ strategy (for which read – the Coalition parties are in this together) may help sell the Coalition idea, but over five years it risks subsuming the Lib Dems into the inevitably dominant Tory project.
The Lib Dems urgently need to find a way of living inside a Coalition whilst maintaining an independent identity. They could do worse than start by sending emissaries to Europe to look at how minority parties fare in such situations. My guess will be that it’s not simply a question of Lib Dem policy, but of the need for systemic changes in the whole way Government works – including the civil service. In most countries where coalitions are a normal part of politics, the relationship between the (coalition) government, the civil service and the parliament is radically different to ours.
There is little sign anyone yet even recognises the problem, and therein lies the trap for the Lib Dems.