For a brief period in the Summer of 2012, British national optimism had reached fever pitch. The greatest show on Earth, the Olympics Games, had come to London. Book-ended by a royal wedding and a jubilee, the whole accompanying carnival, from Danny Boyle’s slick opening ceremony to the Golden Hour, had given the country a renewed sense of confidence and reinvention. No one summed it up better than the Prime Minister himself:
“we showed the world what we’re made of, we reminded ourselves what we can do”. “Britain delivered.”
This was, beyond doubt, the Coalition government’s crowning moment. To know what happened to the UK in the 2010’s, And to understand how we went from the euphoria of 2012 to the anger and resentment of 2019, we need to understand why this Coalition succeeded, and crucially, how it failed.
A Political Earthquake
In April 2010, Britain was gripped by a political fever that was exciting enough for the country to forget about the Icelandic volcano that was grounding all the airplanes. The general election campaign had taken on something of a plot twist.
Going into the election, It was widely expected that we would be seeing a change of government. Gordon Brown’s Labour government was looking increasingly mismanaged and haggard in the aftermath of the Great Recession, and they were widely criticised for failing to prepare for it. David Cameron, despite having successfully rebranded the Conservative party with a friendlier, husky-hugging gloss, had failed to really convince as a future prime minister. Both parties however, along with the entire Westminster establishment, were overshadowed by the Expenses Scandal. The roll call of second-houses and duck-houses being bankrolled by taxpayers money seemed to undermine trust in the political class more fundamentally than any previous scandal. It was as if some innate Lockean contract between the citizen and parliament had been ruptured.
It was into this uneasy backdrop that the first televised election debate in Manchester took place, and into which Nick Clegg announced himself on the national stage. Looking back it can still be unclear whether Clegg’s performance was really that impressive or if the public were desperate for anything resembling change. Fervently making the pitch that “the way things are isn’t the way things have to be”, Clegg’s opening gambit struck a chord with those harbouring a deep sense of lethargy over the two main parties. At any rate, the Libdems were soon leading the polls, the phrase “I agree with Nick” was everywhere and formerly reticent journalists were now talking openly about hung parliaments and coalitions.
It didn’t exactly turn out the way we expected. Far from tearing up the political map, the Libdems actually lost seats, and the rushed coalition negotiations, which were pushed through by a civil service in a hurry to beat market uncertainty, did not leave them in a position of strength. Forced to renege on their pledge to scrap tuition fees, and row back from a commitment to proportional representation in favour of the “miserable little compromise” of a referendum on Alternative voting reform, the Libdems failed to leverage their negotiating position. This would set the tone for the five years of misery the party would soon experience.
Far from being the liberal love-in it initially appeared in the Rose garden, both coalition parties had accepted that a hard-headed prioritisation of cutting the budget deficit would put reform on the back-burner. Despite the government repeatedly urging the necessity of fiscal responsibility, the harsh societal side-effects of the coalition’s economic policy ensured that George Osborne’s chancellorship was for many summed up with one dirty word: Austerity.
Although the coalition never technically employed an austerity policy, the excessive spending cuts of over £30 billion to public services and local government between 2011 and 2015 were the longest and deepest since the aftermath of the Second World War. Supporters of the coalition can point to record levels of employment, a significantly reduced budget deficit and steady economic growth as evidence that they had achieved most of what they set out to do. But the cost of doing so was effectively an abandonment of the one-nation principles that Cameron had wanted to revive in his party.
Certain policies were so draconian that they certainly strayed on the wrong side of the line between harsh pragmatism and callousness. The 20% reduction in disability living allowance, a 60% cut to capital investment in affordable homes and the now infamous Bedroom Tax were accompanied with tax cuts for pensioners and the various other missteps in the 2012 “omnishambles” budget, with a tax on pasties attracting particular derision. The real crisis of legitimacy for the coalition’s policy, and Osborne’s own personal political nadir, came in 2013 when Britain failed to hold on to its AAA credit rating. In the run-up to the 2015 election, even the government’s own cheerleaders in the business community were beginning to feel uncomfortable when it appeared as if the UK was sliding into a double-dip recession.
The more virulent attacks on the Coalition have come from those eager to underline the brutal effects of the austerity programme. Following the introduction of the Welfare Reform Act in 2012, the number of children living in relative poverty began to increase for the first time since 1998. The use of foodbanks had more than doubled between 2010 and 2015 and homelessness had increased by more than a quarter. Cameron’s delicate juggling act between social and fiscal responsibility was beginning to inexorably slide away from him.
The Big Society
This was the kind of “bitter medicine” Cameron and his ‘Notting Hill set’ never really wanted to prescribe. The “big society” conservatism Cameron had previously championed was not allowed to fully flourish in an environment that necessitated ruthless economic pragmatism. For people like Steve Hilton, who had worked with Cameron to modernise the Conservative Party’s “nasty” image, the coalition was beginning to look like a series of lost opportunities.
For the Liberal Democrats, the damage of coalition has been considerably worse. After the ignominious defeat in the AV referendum, the loss of two key cabinet allies in David Laws and Chris Huhne, and the irreparable harm of the tuition fees U-turn, any real influence Clegg had over Cameron or the public was rapidly evaporating by the middle of 2013.
What the Libdems did however manage to achieve was to keep the coalition’s reformist impulse alive. In 2015, Clegg and his allies were quick to point out the efforts they had pushed through to enhance social mobility. The Pupil Premium, the Green Investment Bank, and the re-establishment of the link between pensions and earnings could have given the party much needed wiggle room with voters who may have wavered over the coalition, if the Libdems had ever got the credit for them. Even Clegg’s crowning achievement, taking 3 million of the lowest earners out of income tax entirely, didn’t gain much traction with those who had already branded them ‘quislings’ and more aware of their musical apologies than their track record in government.
When the day of reckoning finally came for the Libdems on Election Night 2015. It was, ironically, the Conservatives who had reaped the benefits from the government’s unpopularity. Angela Merkel had advised Cameron before the 2010 election that “the little party always gets smashed” in a coalition agreement and the Tories took that message to heart. Lynton Crosby’s election strategy was never predicated on a head-to-head contest with Ed Miliband’s Labour. The Tories were instead able to form their majority by carving up their own coalition partners. Seats like Yeovil, Wells, and Twickenham, many of which had been Liberal strongholds for decades, suddenly found themselves in blue hands. Although the party has somewhat got back on its feet over the last four years, make no mistake, it will take generations to recover from Coalition.
Cameron may have had cause to regret employing such a brutal strategy. It has become increasingly clear since that Cameron was relying on his coalition partners as back-up just as much as they were his fall-guys. Cameron often needed Liberal support to fend off his own backbenchers, particularly on contentious social issues and Britain’s relationships in Europe. Without the Liberals to support him, Cameron’s majority turned out to be a poisoned chalice. The internecine warfare between the tory camps suddenly garnered new parliamentary significance, and the Prime Minister’s attempts to resolve these conflicts has launched us into the constitutional crisis we are now all too familiar with.
The Coalition’s legacy has long divided opinion. For some of its most ardent critics, the issue is clear cut: The Lib-dems enabled the Tories to enact the most brutal and uncompassionate reorganisation of public welfare since the 1980’s. But it’s not clear how much of this was by design. When Gay Marriage was finally legalised after decades of campaigning in 2014, some began to wonder exactly what the Coalition could have achieved had the circumstances been different. The marriage between the Conservative Party’s pro-business leanings and the liberal reformist impulse could have radically transformed the country for the better. But the marriage was an unhappy one, and like many western governments in the 2010’s, it was straightjacketed into certain policies by market forces far beyond its control.
This philosophical failure of the coalition has done more than most to launch the UK into its current state of chaos. There is only question we need to ask of it now: what if?