Despair and the national interest

The General Election has passed, the waters have closed over, and we have a coalition government. Without wishing to make a habit of it, since it shows a worrying understanding of how the Liberal Democrat mind works, we called the outcome of the Conservative-Lib Dem talks correctly.

I have spent much of the week in despair. I’d fully expected Labour to lose the election and had anticipated a Conservative government. That the Tories didn’t win an outright majority gave me some cheer, but this was soon overtaken by the prospect of the Liberal Democrats entering into an arrangement with the Tories to enable what has since become a coalition government to form.

Even so, and though now knowing how Conservatives felt in 1997, I take the wider points that many friends and colleagues have made about the outcome – the absurdity of the other options available to the Lib Dems (which I accept, for example never supporting the idea of a Lab-Lib pact); it’s all being in the ‘national interest’ – and will wait to see if the arrangement does indeed temper the tendencies of the Tories.

That phrase ‘national interest’. At a basic level I can understand what it means; it’s inextricably linked to the current financial situation the UK finds itself in.

But I also hesitate at its use.

Surely the national interest depends on what you think is in the interest of the nation? To take a topic I know well: social care. Labour proposed a model of collective responsibility for meeting social care needs in the future, based on the same model as the NHS. The Conservatives proposed a relatively small one-off payment which means that individuals take only personal responsibility for their own care.

In how they suggest we face the challenge of an ageing population both of these proposals take different views of what is in the national interest.

And this is right: for what is politics but the offer of competing visions for achieving what a party thinks is best for the country?

But ‘national interest’ as a unifying cry that everyone can fall behind in order to support a coalition between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems? I’m not so sure, and already find things that make me wonder about the difference between ‘national interest and ‘party interest’ (doctoring the constitution to create a 55% dissolution threshold, opening up the Olympics budget for cuts).

We are, as they say, where we are. Since it is closest to what the electorate said it wanted, it is right and proper that the Tory-Lib Dem coalition has the chance to implement its programme of government for its vision of the national interest. Beneath the eye-catching proposals of the next few weeks will be the detailed work towards what will really matter: the Queen’s Speech and the Budget.

Before then, the silence that seems to have fallen over fellow Labour supporters on Twitter and in the real world will continue. The chatter instead will be focused towards Labour’s own renewal, where we face a fundamental choice between differentiating ourselves from the Tory-Lib coalition on the centre ground of the ‘new politics’ (a Miliband-type approach) or setting out a stall built on dividing lines as Opposition (a Balls-type approach).

I advocate the former and, after quietly watching quietly waiting for the current government’s vision of their view of the national interest to take shape, hope that Labour’s voice grows strong enough once again to advocate its vision of the national interest for this great country.


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Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

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