Can the Coalition succeed? A response to David Marquand

Continuing OK's debate over the future of the Coalition.
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
17 August 2010

In his recent reflections on the Coalition, David Marquand argued three things but missed out one important factor. He expressed his strong doubts over whether Osborne's economic strategy would work but warned against easy leftist rhetoric suggesting the Coalition is evil as well as stupid in its approach. Second, he praised their 'Big Society" attack on statism and welcomed its implicit republicanism, despite its ambiguities. He saved his harshest words for third: both the Coalition and Labour want to return to "business as usual". What we need instead is a profound rethink of the terms of politics and consumption (and he recognises that here at OK we have been trying to start such a debate, see also the extract Tony Judt agreed we could run from his last book, and our two-front engagement with the central issue of gender equality and revolution and reform).

But there is another, underlying aspect to British politics that the Coalition has to address. Democracies everywhere struggle with the influence of corporate power. But this has come to a head in an acute form in the UK where the traditional legitimacy of the governing class and its code of 'honour' has been undermined (causes: Iraq, the banks, the nature of the EU, etc) and was brought to a head by the expenses scandal. 

How the Coalition responds to this will be hugely important to its success. Will it be be perceived as honest? This question is woven into its economic policies, presented from the start with such catchwords as "fair" and "progressive". Is the 'Big Society' for real? Or is it misleading - in effect a camouflage of centralisation?

The underlying British legitimacy crisis means that the normal margin, usually very large, that permits governments to get away with trickery and hypocrisy, has narrowed. Politics has not 'returned to normal' which in post-imperial Britain was always arguably abnormal. Indeed, the real challenge is whether or not through its reform agenda the Lib Dems can lead the UK into a 'revolution of the normal' (as I suggested, ever hopeful, just before the election).

This goes much further than the extremely welcome rollback of the database state and the referendum. It links with the integrity of their economic strategy. It demands a politics for England as well as for a 'Big Society' free of any location. And, as you say, it also involves being honest about what a sustainable society means. While they remain wedded to the preservation of the British settlement, the Coalition is unlikely to succeed on any front and this needs to be added as a fourth element to Marquand's three-part approach.

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