New politics even worse than the old

Allister Heath
IF that’s the new politics, I already miss the old kind, warts and all. What we witnessed yesterday was embarrassing: groups of exhausted men meeting in secret locations in Whitehall; behind-the-scenes discussions about the future of the country, with everybody tearing up their manifesto promises; and all the while Gordon Brown, who has been humiliatingly rejected by the electorate, remaining defiantly in power, clinging on as long as possible, his lame duck Chancellor somehow supposed to represent us at crucial EU bailout talks. Nobody is happy: not the Lib Dem voters who backed Nick Clegg’s party because they don’t like the Tories; not the Tories who backed David Cameron’s party because they loathe the Lib Dems.

Britain is rudderless at a critical time: Greece’s troubles are merely the start of a great sovereign debt crisis which could destroy the Eurozone. So much for those who actually campaigned for a hung parliament: let us hope they have learnt their lesson. Unless a deal is cobbled together soon, the lack of a legitimate government will start to spook the markets and precipitate a sterling crisis. We should be all right this morning: there is progress towards a possible coalition and both Tories and the Lib Dem have emphasised the need to tackle the public finances; the latest news on the Greek bailout may also cheer traders up. But if a workable deal isn’t struck by Tuesday panic will start to spread.

There are several core policies that the Tories must not compromise on: they must start cutting spending this year, not wait until next; they must not put up capital gains tax (currently at 18 per cent, but the Lib Dems want a top rate of 50 per cent); they must retain Britain’s nuclear deterrent; they should not ditch their schools reform policy; they must remain sceptical of the EU; and last but not least they cannot accept proportional representation. Some of these red lines may of course derail any deal with the Lib Dems – but there are many other issues on which they can compromise or already see eye-to-eye; it is vital that they stop a Labour-Liberal-Scottish Nationalist-SDLP-Plaid Cymru-Green coalition. The policies of such a grouping would be unimaginably bad; and because it would represent a coalition of the losers, it would have no political legitimacy, especially not in England, which voted Tory on Thursday.

For the real constitutional crisis is not that Britain has a first past the post, constituency-based system; such a mechanism works adequately in other countries, including the US. The real issue is that it is time for a devolved English parliament – the UK should become a federation, with the national authorities responsible only for defence, foreign policy, border controls and the central bank. Everything else (including full tax raising and spending powers) should be devolved to administrations in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which would all be responsible for their own budgets and would no longer be able to rely on handouts from other parts of the UK. Under the current system, Scottish Labour MPs vote on English laws, while English MPs don’t vote on Scottish laws, thanks to our absurdly one-sided version of devolution. Taxpayers in London and the Home Counties are funding huge amounts of government spending in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. It is time for a constitutional revolution – but not of the kind that Labour and the Lib Dems are dreaming about.