Strange bedfellows: dynamic tension

I don’t have time to make the point I want to make at any length, but Chris Berg reminds us that dynamic tension can be a good thing in government and is, I think absolutely necessary to really good government. He is optimistic about Clegg and Cameron in the UK and in their ability to deliver ‘liberal, conservative’ politics which is to say socially liberal, economically dry policy.  Time will tell, and those guys really do have some heavy weather to get through (though five years until the next election is a long time and – perhaps – time enough to allow the members of their party to allow their leaders to get through the political fire that they’re walking into).

It’s more than just a personal relationship. Surprisingly, the coalition seems a lot stronger than you’d expect from a marriage of convenience. . . . David Cameron’s project to soften the Tory image was about more than just looking green and modern.

No party calling itself ”conservative” will ever be a fully libertarian one. Social conservatives who’ve voted Tory forever would not look kindly upon mixing social liberalism (gay marriage, for example) with its Margaret Thatcher-style economics (lower taxes, smaller government). But while the Tories are in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the government could get close to that philosophical union. At their best, the Liberal Democrats are socially liberal and civil liberty-minded.

The dynamics of coalition with the Liberal Democrats gives influence to social liberals in the Conservative Party. It also gives power to those Liberal Democrats who want to cut down the size of government and deregulate.

So the coalition could be a generally centrist, modest and mainstream government, but one that cares about individual liberty – a new ”liberal conservative” government. That’s what seems to be happening. . . .

The Cameron-Clegg alliance is a real-world test of the marketability of a government that cares about individual liberty in both economic and social spheres. It’s a style of government with promise. The Australian population is becoming more liberal on social issues every year. Gender and sexual equality are no longer debatable. Even multiculturalism, so controversial in recent decades, is widely accepted.

Yet many on the Australian right believe the reason David Cameron didn’t win big enough against Gordon Brown to hold government on his own was because he was insufficiently conservative. He could have talked more about immigration, for instance. The lesson from Britain, they argue, is that Tony Abbott needs to tack right, and tack right hard, to be credible.

But the new British coalition could offer a very different example for the Australian Liberal Party. If Cameron and Clegg can make it work, the combination of social and economic freedom may not be such electoral poison after all.

I think the dynamic tension between the ALP, an enthusiastic Treasury after the disappointments of the Fraser/Howard years and the unions and to a lesser extent business in the pre-recession Hawke/Keating years was a foundation of its success and argued as much in this essay for the AFR’s Friday Review in early 2008. They achieved something that looked exceedingly difficult to achieve at the outset.  It would be nice if Cameron and Clegg could do something as wonderful. I think it’s unlikely, but stranger things have happened.

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Geoff Robinson
13 years ago

Berg’s argument is purely political one. There is as strong correlation between economic libertarianism and social conservatism in real world politics. Consider the US Republicans large unfunded tax cuts + support for torture.