Drowned out by the cynics, disbelievers and the plain ignorant, there is a sense that actually, maybe this new politics, this apparent attraction of opposites, could really work. Certainly there is a level of positive momentum going on in Westminster that those of us on this side of Hadrian’s Wall would be best to at least listen to, if not get behind, because while we are still blindly voting against a woman who left active politics nearly 20 years ago, while whinging on about the unfairness of it all, there is a degree of progressive politics, an attempt to make things work differently and cooperatively, going on down south that we will become increasingly isolated from. Basically, the train is about to leave the station with Scots still standing on the platform, whining on about the fact that we are a special case, that the fare is too high, the train’s late, the conductor doesn’t like us and it’s all someone else’s fault, anyway. The idea that Liberals could get into bed with Tories is painted as some obscene, unnatural act but on many things the parties agree and as Sir John Elvidge reminded me in an interview some months ago, most politicians, no matter what their particular leanings, want the same things; an educated, healthy, wealthy and just society.
They may differ on how that is achieved but the goals are pretty much the same. So for Clegg and Cameron to find a shared agenda, which is what coalition is about, is not so hard to believe. Indeed if the Lib Dems can smooth out some of the Tory sharp edges then even we resolutely left-wing Scots should celebrate a return to a more paternal, wet Conservatism that is more about helping people out of a situation than just keeping them more comfortable in the hole they are in.
Already we have seen enormous concessions to the Liberal Democrats’ raison d’étre, with an agreement to hold a referendum on electoral reform. In addition, an abandonment of the Tory’s inheritance tax plan, a raising of the basic income tax threshold and, significantly for Scotland, a pledge to no longer detain children of asylum seekers at Dungavel are all on the agenda. It’s a list that is already adding up to a fairly attractive package even before the tantalising prospect of more powers for the Scottish Parliament. But still this will not be enough. Labour is squealing that the Lib Dem vote is haemorrhaging as supporters abandon ship to Labour in protest that Clegg could cosy up to Cameron. But for God’s sake, grow up; coalition politics is pretty well all the Scottish Parliament knew until three years ago.
A Labour/Lib Dem alliance may on paper appear a more workable arrangement but if they were that alike, why bother operating as two parties in the first place? Coalition is a system based on different political parties engaging in a mature fashion that allows them to find common ground for the common good.
And it works. The Labour/Lib Dem coalition that lasted eight years passed one of the most far reaching pieces of legislation – the smoking ban – under this apparently unworkable, new form of politics. Countries throughout Europe don’t just make it work, they make it thrive.
Labour may think it has a monopoly on the left but it doesn’t and while it may be a cunning plan to get Scotland behind a rally call against ‘cuts, cuts, cuts’ that is, frankly, as shallow a message as ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out’. It’s a national embarrassment that we can be so easily led by such simplistic jingoism.
Yes, Thatcher has every reason to be reviled in Scotland but only as much as in any other area of the UK where her divisive policies wreaked destruction on communities and lives but she is long gone and we are where we are, and where we are is deeply in debt. No government, devolved or otherwise wants to be in this position, but we need to be realistic about the situation. The standard SNP response of more borrowing, more spending, more free money, is just so old fashioned. And when the Governor of the Bank of England says we need to start making cuts now, not when it’s politically expedient, then we should listen. Cuts are required and whether they are considered Tory, or SNP, or whoever’s cuts, they are down to one issue and that is an excess of public spending in the last 13 years by a Labour government which ramped it up to mind-blowing levels and called it investment. We now have a structural deficit of £80bn which wouldn’t even be dented by cancelling Trident, never mind a little tinkering at the edges. Massive savings need to be made otherwise it won’t be a crisis marked by the ATMs being devoid of money; it will be about teachers, nurses, policemen and public sector workers finding their pay packets empty and the gates to the schools, hospitals and local authority amenities firmly closed. And while the parties in opposition – Labour and the SNP – regroup, ready to work out the dynamic of how they now engage in Holyrood and who they rail against to further their cause at the stump in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections, they should consider the fact that because of the success or failure of their own particular arguments and campaigns in the 2010 General Election, they were in no position to demand a seat at the table of the UK Government.