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Not so rosy: the legacy of the Coalition government There were five mistakes made during the Cameron-Clegg years that we simply cannot afford to make again

In the rose garden, everything changed. Credit: Christopher Furlong - WPA Pool /Getty Images

In the rose garden, everything changed. Credit: Christopher Furlong - WPA Pool /Getty Images


May 11, 2020   7 mins

It will be 10 years ago tomorrow, in the rose garden of 10 Downing Street, that two men stood side-by-side. David Cameron, the Conservative Prime Minister, in his blue tie; Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat Deputy PM, in his yellow tie. Together, with studied ease and joshing humour, they launched the first British coalition government since the war.

It was Clegg, the junior partner, who said it best: “Until today, we have been rivals: now we are colleagues… This is a new government and a new kind of government. A radical reforming government where it needs to be. And a source of reassurance and stability, too, at a time of great uncertainty in our country.”

The Coalition government even had an official colour, a soft green— a mix of the two party colours, as if the Cameron and Clegg ties had copped-off and had a baby. 

There were those who said it wouldn’t last, that a coalition of mismatched parties (a big one of the centre-right, a small one of the centre-left) would soon collapse. And yet it lasted a full five years — Tories and Lib Dems referring to one another as ‘honourable friends’ for the duration of the parliament.

But where’s the legacy? David Cameron had 10 years as Tory leader. Six years of them as Prime Minister. In George Osborne he had a politically-potent, but loyal, deputy — not to mention an heir apparent. Together they swallowed up the Lib Dems, wrecked New Labour and won the first Conservative majority since 1992.

Clegg may have been doomed from the start, but the future should have belonged to Cameron and the Cameroons. Yes, at some point, they’d have lost power — in a true democracy political ascendancies eventually and inevitably descend. But usually they shape what comes after them.

Thatcherism left its mark on Blairism, which in turn influenced Cameronism. A new broom may set out to sweep away the legacy of what came before it; yet there’s still a connection — a negative example which the incoming regime seeks to define itself against.

But with the Cameron-Clegg years there isn’t even that. Unless you look very hard, the Coalition years are unusually — almost freakishly — disconnected from what happened next. It’s almost as if they didn’t happen at all.

*

Though they were the big beasts of their era, Cameron and Clegg can be seen as an evolutionary dead-end — the last of a line wiped-out by a series of cataclysmic events.

Occasionally, in the history of a nation, there will be an upheaval of such magnitude as to completely redefine the politics of the present. The future is severed from the past — rendering what happened before irrelevant to what happens next. What’s so extraordinary looking back across the last decade is that three such upheavals stand between 2010 and 2020.

The first was the election of 2015 — which ended the Lib Dems as a serious force in British politics. What was literally a party of government is now a joke party of the loony centre. Vince Cable once remarked that Gordon Brown had gone “from Stalin to Mr Bean”, but little did he know that the Lib Dems would go from Vince Cable to Layla Moran.

The second upheaval was Brexit — which ended David Cameron as a serious force in British politics — and George Osborne too. If you look at their record, there is everything that the two amigos achieved over their political careers. And then there is them losing the 2016 referendum. The latter stands beside the former like the White Cliffs of Dover against a sandcastle.

Now, it is Brexit’s turn to be overshadowed — and by the tiniest of things, a virus. Looking back on that scene 10 years ago, what better setting could there have been than a rose garden? Because it all seems so impossibly, heartbreakingly, quaint.

*

And yet those years aren’t entirely without significance. As well as the fateful promise to hold an in/out referendum, there are other threads that still connect the past to the present: consequences of the Coalition that we still live with today. Here are five of them.

 

1. The Cameroon style of government

To be fair, this was a continuation of the Blair-Brown style of government — i.e. an over-centralised, headline-obsessed, PR-driven operation, that treats the Cabinet like middle management.

All governments need strong leaders, but good leaders allow the most talented individuals in their organisations to thrive. Bad leaders stunt the growth of those closest to them, and sideline those who refuse to be smothered.

For instance, no one doubts the dominant role that Margaret Thatcher played in her time as Prime Minister, but, contrary to the sexist stereotypes, she did not emasculate the big beasts in her Cabinet. She certainly fought with them (in Michael Heseltine’s case, to the death); but, to this day, Heseltine, Howe, Hurd, Major, Clarke, Lawson and Tebbit are seen as substantial figures in their own right.

It’s telling that the two figures who managed to emerge from the shadow of Cameron and Osborne — Theresa May (for a while) and Boris Johnson — were those who’d managed to maintain their distance from the leadership without being thrown out altogether.

The legacy, here, is that the Cameroon style of government has persisted, albeit under the new management of the May and Johnson regimes. At a time in our history when we need a government led by giants, we have a ministerial team of ever-diminishing stature.

 

2. The tuition fees fiasco

Tuition fees: the original sin of the rose garden. Though first introduced by Labour, they were tripled by the Coalition. That was despite a very public pledge, made by the Lib Dems during the 2010 election, to vote against any rise in fees. Cleggmania, if you remember that such a thing ever existed, was swept along by a tide of student support. But once in power the Lib Dems not only voted for the increase, but implemented it as part of a Tory-led government!

Politicians break promises. We all know that — and we expect it to happen. But this was on another level. The Lib Dems’ reputation was destroyed and has never recovered.

As for the funding of higher education — student numbers have swollen and as a result so have the pay packets of vice chancellors. The student loan system, however, is a shambles. An IFS report from last year found that approximately half of all loans are written off — the taxpayer picking up the tab. This accounts for 90% of all government spending on higher education — a subsidy for failure that rewards the courses and institutions that make the least contribution to their students’ future prospects.

It’s an absolute mess that loads young people up with debt, while still leaving taxpayers on the hook. And, of course, those responsible — the fat cats of the higher education establishment — get paid regardless. The whole thing is morally bankrupt — and the current crisis is pushing it ever closer to financial bankruptcy too.

 

3. Breaking the housing ladder

Having alienated the young with its tuition fees policy, you’d have thought that the Coalition might have won them back by making homeownership affordable again.

Not a bit of it. In 2010, poleaxed by recession, the big housing developers were on the floor. The Government could have dictated terms — putting an end the landbanking scam, for instance. Instead, ministers rescued the sector without reforming it .

The Coalition’s flagship policy was ‘Help to Buy‘ — basically a mortgage subsidy that only serves to pump more finance into a rationed housing market. The impact on prices was entirely predictable. So, 10 years later, Generation Rent is still struggling to get on to the housing ladder. With the oldest millennials now hitting middle age, they face a lifetime of exclusion from the property-owning democracy. Good luck getting them to vote Conservative!

It’s not that nothing has been achieved. There were some useful reforms to the planning system and, more recently, the excellent work of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. But these have been initiatives of the Department of Communities and Local Government (latterly, the Department of Housing, Communities and local Government). The policies that really count were — and still are — dictated from the Treasury and Downing Street. And those power centres are still dedicated to the protection of the landlord class.

What a shameful legacy.

 

4. Austerity the stupid way

It has to be said that the Coalition government was not dealt the easiest of hands. Like the Obama administration in America, they came into power with the consequences of the Global Financial Crisis to sort out.

With its outsized financial sector, the British economy was in a vulnerable position. Add to that a hung parliament plus the Eurozone crisis gathering momentum just over the Channel, and it is clear that the new government absolutely had to establish its credibility.

As the Left always pretends to forget, a mountain of public debt doesn’t just allow a country to spend more than it earns, it makes it deeply dependent on the confidence of its creditors — i.e. the international money markets. As events would prove, the loss of that confidence would have dire consequences elsewhere in Europe.

As painful as austerity has been the UK, it could have been worse. Just ask the Irish or the Italians or the Greeks. And yet while he had no choice but to rein in spending, George Osborne made some unforced errors.

For instance, he ruthlessly exploited public support for curbs to social security. It was right to encourage people off welfare and into work, but lasting harm was done by underfunding vital reforms like the introduction of Universal Credit.

Another false economy was the decision to implement Labour’s planned cuts to capital spending (infrastructure, etc). Failing to mend the roof when the sun’s shining (the charge that the Coalition levelled at Labour) is certainly irresponsible, but failing to fix it when it is raining is even worse. In fact, downing tools at a time when the economy has lots of idle capacity is simply perverse.

The recovery was undoubtedly delayed as a result. And the work that could have been done was added the country’s backlog of necessary infrastructure improvements. That’s an especially big burden on those parts of the country that have suffered decades of under-investment.

Goodness knows what the Covid-crisis will do to it, but the current government’s “levelling-up” agenda is just what Britain needs. But we needed it 10 years ago too.

 

5. The three horrible aitches

As if to make up for their early mistakes, Cameron and Osborne went on to develop a penchant for really big infrastructure investments — promoting the three horrible aitches: HS2, Hinkley Point C and Heathrow expansion. The political advantage of these massive projects was that with their very long lead-in times, big announcements could be made years, even decades before the bills become due.

However, this also provides plenty of time for costs to be revised — which they have been, in the usual upwards fashion.

The horrible aitches are obvious white elephants that should have been shot by the Coalition. Instead, they gained such momentum, that the more sceptical May and Johnson administrations felt unable to stop them. Coronavirus may put to a halt to Heathrow (indeed to whole swathes of the aviation industry) — but it looks like we’ll be paying billions-and-billions for HS2 and HPC for decades to come.

This will be the longest lasting and costliest legacy of the Coalition years.

*

I’ll admit I’ve been accentuating the negative. There were some positives: the Govian reforms to education; the devolution of power to English cities; a pretty good climate change policy. But I’ve focused on the mistakes because they were avoidable.

It’s not like we can afford to make them again.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago

Good article. Yes, it was mostly a total disaster, but you can say the same of every British government since Thatcher. When the student loans bonanza was first announced most of us realised immediately that it was nothing more than a license for every child, however dim, to enjoy three years of fun and games at the tax payer’s expense, while the universities would become immensely rich.

Gove’s educational reforms were indeed very welcome, and he was the first Education Secretary in my lifetime o improve standards in this area. But I have no doubt that the teaching unions will soon reverse his reforms.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Let’s hope this present synthetic crisis destroys most of these parvenu Universities and those who serve in them. We can no longer afford such luxuries, and in particular the new breed of grotesquely overpaid Vice Chancellors.
Turning Polys into Universities at the stroke of a pen was hubris in the extreme.
Now let Nemesis wreak her brutal vengeance, whilst the rest of us applaud.

David Bell
David Bell
4 years ago

The Lib Dem’s died in the coalition because they made a habit of promising different things to different constituencies and when they entered government their hypocrisy on such issues was exposed. Never forget Clegg promised an In/Out referendum on EU membership in the 2010 manifesto then voted against it while in government. The LIb Dem’s have been unable to break out of the metropolitan bubble that burst during their time in government. This was obvious in the 2017 and 2019 General Elections where they tried to “Out EU” everyone else by actually insulting leave voters (Bollox to BRexit was their EU Parliament election slogan but it’s shadow was visible in the General Election). Who will forget Swinson’s appearance on the Andrew Neil show where she claimed she could be PM! The coalition destroyed the Lib Dem’s as a brand and the party may have to disband and reform under a different name for them to shake the smell of arrogance.

Cameron’s biggest mistake was the Fixed Term Parliament Act, not because of the trouble it gave Johnson but because it allowed the coalition government to survive for 18 months longer than it should have done. The government had run out of idea’s in early 2014. In the normal course of events a new mandate, under a new manifesto, would have been sought in May/June 2014. How this would have changed British politics is anyone’s guess but the last 6 years would have been very different, that is for sure!

Peter KE
Peter KE
4 years ago

The article is too generous to the coalition era. Many more major failures and of missed opportunity occurred.

1. failure to reduce the size of the state civil service and quangos.
2. continuing to complicate the tax system rather than simplify.
3. not tackling the cost base for business – business rate system, employer national insurance etc. should all be abolished.
4. allowing the chinese to trade unfairly and be to involved in UK society.
etc….

John Alyson
John Alyson
4 years ago

I would argue that the cameron-clegg years are not uncoupled with what happened next…difficult to see how Brexit would have happened without them.

juliandodds
juliandodds
4 years ago

Some excellent points made here. I would add a Sixth. In 2011 under the coalition government the Pandemic Influenza preparedness Strategy was created. This is what formed the basis of our herd immunity strategy which has lead to the situation we now find ourselves in. The plan states that when a new virus comes it will come fast and we will not be able to stop it. Expect up to 50% of the population to be off work and 250,000 to 315,000 to die across all age groups. We will surge the nhs and try to cope but expect capacities to be overwhelmed within a 15 week period. This I believe to be the biggest legacy that the coalition government gave us. It is clear that Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance as well as all the scientific and clinical staff that contributed to it at the time and since in numerous reviews all continue to believe in it. If the vaccine doesn’t come wihin 5 years they may also be proved to have been correct.

AC Harper
AC Harper
4 years ago

You could make an argument that despite the modern fascination with the left/right divide in politics it is actually the historical divide between the two middle classes that is important. The two middle classes being the Clerisy and the Yeomanry. The Clerisy – a group that makes its modern living largely in quasi-public institutions, notably universities, media, the non-profit world, and the upper bureaucracy, and the Yeomanry – small business owners, minor landowners, craftspeople, and artisans.

Now look at our recent Prime Ministers…
Thatcher – Yeoman
Major – Clerisy
Blair – Clerisy
Brown – Clerisy
Clegg – Clerisy
Cameron – Clerisy
May – Clerisy (last gasp)
Johnson – Yeoman

So, the Clerisy pro international, identifying with brother bureaucrats, desiring greater common purpose between countries, and therefore pro-EU.

Yeomen pro Country, identifying with brother businessmen, desiring sounder finance and free trade, and therefore against ever closer union with the EU.

Interpret the Cameron/Clegg years through this prism and their achievements (or not) seem more explicable.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago
Reply to  AC Harper

An accurate analysis for the most part, although I’m far from convinced that Johnson is a Yeoman. We shall see.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
4 years ago
Reply to  AC Harper

This division between Clerisy and Yeomanry (which you seem to have borrowed from an American writer named Joel Kotkin) is interesting, but it surely misses out one big sector of the middle class – those who work for, but do not own, large private corporations (surely these days the largest group of the three). I’m not sure this group can be mapped conveniently onto medieval categories, so let’s call it the Corporacy.

These people are in an intermediate position between Clerisy and Yeomanry – they work for large organisations, but in the private rather than the public sector; their jobs are less secure than those of public sector workers, but more secure than those of small businessmen; they are in favour both of social and economic liberalism (whereas the Clerisy are socially liberal but economically statist, and the Yeomanry are economically liberal but socially conservative). Some of their aspirations are conventionally capitalist (home ownership), but they are much more likely to commute to work by public transport than by car, since they live in suburbs and work in city centres. Like the Yeomanry, they participate in the market economy, but unlike the Yeomanry, they don’t aspire or expect to own their own businesses. Like the Clerisy, they are used to being managed.

It was this group, surely, which was the key consituency both Blairism and for Cameronism. In that period, political parties largely assumed that the Clerisy would vote left and the Yeomanry right; they competed for the swing votes of the Corporacy. John Major was a member of the Corporacy, not the Clerisy; he worked in a bank. Theresa May, too, worked in financial services and was a member of the Corporacy, though her private values were more those of the Yeomanry – as witness the fact that she saw Brexit mainly as an opportunity to end freedom of movement, rather than to withdraw from regulatory alignment with the EU.

I’m also going to question the idea that the Yeomanry really benefits from free trade. Most Yeomen are emotionally in favour of free trade since they are themselves traders; but in a pure free trade system, the Yeomanry is always going to lose out to the Corporacy. From this reason, Yeomen usually benefit from some kind of protectionism and at times explicitly demand it (I remember, for instance, how the small traders of Penrith were vehemently opposed to the opening of a Sainsbury’s in the town centre). Using slightly different terminology, I’ve often thought the modern Conservative Party depends for its victories on the support of both the grocers and the accountants, but it never actually gives the grocers anything in return for their support. This was the case even in the Thatcher years: the grocer’s daughter governed in the interests of the big corporations.

I wonder if there wouldn’t be scope for a political party uniting the interests of the Clerisy and Yeomanry against the Corporacy. In a medium-sized, well-educated city like Oxford, for instance, the main customers of the Yeomen who run the stalls in the Covered Market are educated members of the Clerisy; members of the Corporacy are more likely to shop in supermarkets. As I see it, a party could emerge uniting the Clerisy and Yeomanry against free trade and in favour of the kind of interventionist government that could support both the public sector and the small trader against the big corporation.

On a final note, it’s worth noting that the divisions are not absolute, and that some professions have shifted from one sector to another. Universities used to be much more like Yeoman enterprises: the old model of an Oxbridge college, with a small body of students and with individual teachers given radical autonomy to pursue their own research and to teach their own syllabi, has increasingly been supplanted by a model in which the university resembles the Corporacy, functioning as a market enterprise “selling” a degree to students – and with managerial staff given enormous power. The equation is inexact, but I think we should question the idea that the modern, partly privatised, university is straightforwardly part of the Clerisy, as it no doubt was before the introduction of tuition fees.

William MacDougall
William MacDougall
4 years ago

For good or ill, they cemented social liberalism into the “conservative” party, with for example gay marriage and the kind of transgender nonsense that Julie Bindel complains of in a current unherd article.

John Thorogood
John Thorogood
4 years ago

Give me a break. Rubbish climate change policy that has baked in corruption, financial conflicts of interest at the highest levels and grossly inflated electricity prices. Thieving money from the poor and handing it to the rich. Despoiling our countryside. All for what? Massive economic self-harm in pursuit of a non-problem. It is weather, the expected recovery from the Little Ice Age. The null hypothesis has yet to be disproved.

Michael Dawson
Michael Dawson
4 years ago

I concede that it’s much easier to agree that something was really bad than to agree on what should have been done in its place. Having said that, this country does seem to suffer from governments that persist in doing quite stupid things and rarely seem to do anything most people would see as positively beneficial. HS2 and Help to Buy, mentioned by Peter, are two very obvious bad ideas. The spread of smart meters is another, but by rolling the suppliers’ expenses into general energy prices, the full cost of this nonsense is harder to detect.

Fiona Cordy
Fiona Cordy
4 years ago

The Govian reforms to education a positive? Haha, that’s funny one.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago
Reply to  Fiona Cordy

English kids have started to creep up the international league tables in maths and reading skills following Gove’s reforms. Scottish and Welch kids, however, continue to fall down the league tables because those education systems did not adopt his reforms.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Astonishing really? In the Good Old Days (GOD) the Scotch had a fantastic educational system and performed accordingly.
Now, thanks to political dogma, cant etc, and off course the dreadful Comprehensive system they have thrown themselves into the cesspit of mediocrity. Of all the self inflicted wounds the Scotch have executed in recent years this must take the biscuit!
As for Wales, the poison of socialism runs so deep that it is impossible to eradicate. Why on earth the English taxpayer is expected to fund this nonsense is beyond me. Victor’s guilt perhaps?
In the GOD academic ability was the path to success. Sadly, as this present synthetic crisis has so aptly demonstrated, the majority of the population are very sadly, brain dead bedwetters.
Vae victis.

hijiki7777
hijiki7777
4 years ago

It is hard to argue that Gove’s education reforms worked. The Tories lost interest and May tried to revive Grammer schools instead. Gove himself is one of the most unpopular government ministers. Labour could easily revert it all back again and hardly anyone would complain.
I would add to the list the failed war in Libya which everyone seems to forget about.
I notice there is no mention of global warming, an important issue that every government should be judged by.

Will D. Mann
Will D. Mann
4 years ago

It’s not yet clear that Brexit will be less damaging than Corona virus as far as the long term prospects for the economy are concerned.

As we are likely to get both we will have to see how fast we recover compared to other countries.

T J Putnam
T J Putnam
4 years ago

Mostly correct and fair comment. But all this pales compared to the Lansley ‘reforms’ if the NHS which really let in the termites, e.g. in the CCGs and have made it near impossible to function as a proper public service, as we now see in inadequate responses to the virus crisis. Look behind the testing, care home and PPE failures, Lansley is there.

Howard Medwell
Howard Medwell
4 years ago

An interesting article, but I think it overstated the role of the individual in history. The key element in recent British politics is the extent to which politicians can convince at least part of the electorate that the system can guarantee them long-term economic security.
Mrs Thatcher did this with home-ownership, which benefitted a far higher number of people than the 2 Million or so who bought their council houses. Tony Blair surged in her wake, paring off a fragment of the City’s profits to finance a few high-profile reforms.
But since 2008 the system cannot offer much financial security, except to ageing owner-occupiers, so politics has been a matter of steering discontent.
Labour tried this with Corbynism. The Tories have been more successful with Brexit, which Cameron enabled, to his old school chum’s advantage.
Johnson’s successful resuscitation of the Conservative Party as an electoral machine, and the demise of Corbynism, might have led, once Brexit was done and dusted, to a new placidity, with a “One Nation” Tory Party facing a re-Blairized Labour Party, but then… Events, dear boy, events.

Russ Littler
Russ Littler
4 years ago

Try faux pas number 11. Cameron, Obama, and five eyes, agreeing to secretly spy on the Trump campaign and his incoming administration, in order to frame him for “Russian collusion” all courtesy of ex MI6 agent Christopher Steele (who compiled the phoney dossier).. Well, Trump now knows the whole story, so I guess Boris has two options. He either does some serious grovelling in order to get that trade deal, or he continues down the globalist EU path, which would be political suicide.

Tony Hay
Tony Hay
4 years ago

How about summing it up as a complete lack of political nous? When the Conservatives brought the increase in tuition fees proposal to cabinet they fully expected the LibDems to say no – it was a manifesto front page red line. If the LibDems had said no, the Conservatives would have withdrawn it. No one has ever explained the LibDem reasoning for this stupendous mistake. The next staggering mis-calculation came when Cameron put a Brexit vote on the front page of the 2015 Conservative manifesto in the certain knowledge that they would remain in coalition and the LibDems would veto it … Celebrate or weep, depending on your view on Brexit 🙂