Amid all the inevitable post-election Westminster (and now post-budget) manoeuvring by politicians, parties and commentators, ‘the narrative’ and its perpetual reconstruction has remained in strong competition for reporting space with… well, specific, identifiable policy announcements or cuts. The latter have been unveiled first in dribs and drabs, then generically, but mostly the details await the spending review in four months time.
In a delightful press conference on economy and home affairs a couple of weeks ago, Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills, Vince Cable, widely recognised as one of the least-spun and most straightforward members of the Cabinet, let the cat out of the (admittedly transparent) bag. “We’re making it up as we go along,” he muttered, after a miscued introduction by Home Secretary Theresa May.
This is undoubtedly true, both for good and ill. Though much was made of the tensions and differences between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats immediately after the announcement of the new coalition government, subsequent investigation has shown that their common interests are equally strong.
Deputy PM Nick Clegg has even said that the emergency budget on 22 June 2010, widely criticised as an assault on the weaker members of society by anti-poverty, green and faith groups, was an expression of “core liberal values”. Chancellor George Osborne, equally, has talked of “a progressive alliance” – despite being previously thought of as a (practising) Thatcherite. Fresh vision or bad faith?
There is certainly a pragmatic twist to all this ‘new politics’. The Cameronistas have for months been tempering market enthusiasm while building social concern in order to steer the old ‘nasty’ Tory party to electorally favourable ground in a broadly liberal society. The Cleggites, on the other hand, have been wanting to show they can be tough cutters as well as caring sharers.
This means that reforming instincts about democratic change and the taming of the database state have been able to come to the fore in a way that would not have been possible with a singular Conservative administration. But it also means that some quite vicious public spending cuts from Posh and Clegg, hitting those nearer the bottom than the top of society, will also be massaged and disguised with ‘compassion-speak’.
Which is where ‘the narrative’ becomes so important once more. The advent of a coalition administration breaks both the rulebook and the lexicon of post-war British politics – in Westminster, at least. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been pushing against the old duopoly for a few years now, but the London-based commentariat and broadcasting giants have been slow to perceive the full significance of this. Until the UK electorate delivered what would previously have been considered an unexpected verdict.
Since the new arrangements do not render themselves instantly recognisable or comprehensible in the language of the old, the analogy-generators quickly got to work: is Lib-Con consorting a ‘match made in heaven’ or are we Con-Demed to a mere ‘marriage of convenience’? The jury has been out in many media watering holes. Judgement was being reserved until after the June budget statement. Immediately that arrived, with cuts ahead of what even Tory prognosticating had proclaimed ‘necessary’, the assessment began to emerge that the right had retained its identity and teeth in liberal clothing.
The debate will go on. What we can be sure of is that although the term employs that misleading definite article, ‘the narrative’ is no such singular thing. It is actually a series of different stories about ‘what is really going on’ each competing with the other for oxygen and dominance. But in the absence of a ‘normal’ two-party slugfest, and in the presence of surprising consonances as well as contradictions in the new coalescing environment, we are likely to have to go on re-writing the political thesaurus. Is this real change or an old style Pas de Deux? Almost certainly a bit of both.
Meanwhile, Labour’s Harriet Harman, relieved of government responsibility, and not pressed as hard as she might have been about the fact that 20 per cent cross-departmental cuts were proposed by Labour before the Coalition Con-Demed us to 25 per cent, was able to revive some left-leaning rhetoric for her denunciation of the budget. Whether ‘Next Labour’, under a Miliband (probably) but with space for a cosy Abbott, will see some revival of left-right politics remains to be seen.
Those who feel excluded by the corporate posturing in Westminster (which includes Greens, civil society advocacy organisations, the nationalists in Scotland and Wales, progressive faith groups, and others besides), now have to decide how to configure themselves for a different kind of push against the dominant assumptions of Conliblabism.
The environment, social justice, regional and local issues, and political reform are established agendas. The newer and equally important one might be to go for the jugular - the economy and governance itself, and come up with some really radical thinking to demonstrate that we are not at the end of history or (to paraphrase Francis Fukuyama paraphrasing Mary Shelley) in 'the last administration'.
There are many humane, forward looking, hopeful alternatives. The question is how to make sense of them, put them together, and give them some political traction.
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is substantially adapted and revised from his latest Westminster Watch column in the Christian social and cultural comment magazine, Third Way (http://www.thirdwaymagazine.co.uk/).