After 100 days in power, it doesn't look as if the coalition government in the U.K. is taking the necessary steps to restore faith in the system.
Is the United Kingdom's coalition government working? After its first one hundred days, that is a reasonable question to ask. A more significant question is: will the coalition survive?
Many of the doubts, and in many cases incredulity, that were expressed about the coalition when it emerged after the general election could be explained by British insularity. Coalitions are for other countries and are un-British, the argument ran. That is not the way we do things here (and by implication, we are the experts, and the way we do things here is the right way) was the kind of opinion frequently expressed.
It is of course sheer nonsense. Coalitions are commonplace in many countries. Sometimes they work well, sometimes badly, but there is nothing inherently unworkable about them.
Looking for change
The background to the British coalition was that the electorate not only wanted a change, after 13 years of Labour government, but it had become disillusioned with politicians for many reasons, notably the expenses scandals involving many members of parliament. There was a real sense that people wanted a different way of doing things.
Interestingly, Baroness Shirley Williams, a highly respected politician who has long been a key figure in the Liberal Democrats, interviewed by The Guardian to mark her 80th birthday, referred to the public anger that she had noted during the election campaign, and to positive feelings about coalition. “I thought it was almost a last call for democracy to work.”
The fact of a coalition government, then, should have come as no surprise. The question whether it is working is not straightforward. It has taken, or announced, a number of extremely radical steps. Given the dire state of the country's finances — and of course the finances of many other countries — that was to be expected.
What is at issue is not that some radical steps were necessary but whether some of those taken are the right ones. In particular, will they win public support? Some of them are certainly contentious. Changing the way in which schools are run, and the way in which new schools can be established; changing the organisation, and responsibilities, in the National Health Service; setting up a scheme for local commissioners with power to appoint, and dismiss, police chief constables — these are some of the more controversial policies.
They all involve aspects of the public service, and a related radical policy is severe cutting of public service staffing. Given that many of the jobs currently done by public servants will still have to be done by someone, such wholesale cutbacks may well not achieve what is undoubtedly needed financially, and they will certainly produce discontent, and kill motivation.
If I am right about this, the country may enter a period of extremely stringent cuts to services, accompanied by an increase in unemployment, and a widespread sense of grievance. Successfully facing, and defeating, an economic crisis requires a feeling that all are pulling together. Achieving that will certainly not be easy in a society in which the disparity in earnings between those at the top and “ordinary” people is great and has been growing. In that context, it is worth noting that both David Cameron, the (Conservative) Prime Minister and Nick Clegg, the (Liberal Democrat) deputy Prime Minister, are wealthy. A call from them for all to pull together as financial stringency gets tougher will not necessarily get a positive response.
A further element in the coalition conundrum is that stresses and strains obviously exist within, and between, the two parties which form it. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have many ideological differences, and the need to work together in spite of them can be a very positive factor in moving away from the negative yah boo style of which the electorate has tired. A notable example of this is that decision to hold a referendum on a change to Britain's voting system — a sop to the Liberal Democrats by the Conservative majority partner in the coalition.
Nick Clegg, writing in The Observer, is confident that the coalition will endure for the full parliamentary term, and carry out its five-year plan. His confidence is encouraging, but if disaffection grows in the ranks of the two coalition members, and if within the electorate generally tough measures produce widespread discontent, the confidence might not reflect the reality.
I am not in the business of making political predictions, but as I observe the situation, it seems to me that the coalition's long-term survival is very much an open question.
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org