There can therefore be only two outcomes. Either Clegg blinks and accepts a “We’ll see, dear” fudge which would cause outrage in his party and his own political death or Cameron refuses the deal, demands a new general election and watches grandly, nobly and in a “statesmanlike manner” from the sidelines as Labour attempts to cobble together something with both the Lib Dems and the requisite number of independents and nationalists required to form a majority who could push through an Emergency Budget. Cameron would calculate that the press and public might well see him as the iron man of principal, with the most votes and the most ‘authority’. Clegg would be painted as an opportunistic spoiler: after all his party actually lost ground in the election. Brown, if he stayed, would continue to be portrayed as forlorn, desperate, blundering, out of touch, cynical, greedy, lame and fatally wounded. The media would, I think, successfully raise Cameron and the Conservatives in public estimation: “What principle! What courage! They were not squalid smoke-filled room negotiators, they didn’t strike ugly deals behind closed doors… they deserve the chance to run a stable administration without all this sordid horse-trading. They made handsome and significant concessions on issues that really matter, hospitals and schools, yet instead of seizing this historic opportunity to do something for the country the Lib-Dems insisted, at this time of economic crisis, to fuss about cosmetic changes to the constitution that no decent Englishman understands anyway… nasty European nonsense. Now we see Clegg for what he really is…” You can write the Telegraph and Mail leaders for yourselves. They will argue furthermore that if the Lib Dems and reformers get their way, then the kind of deal-making, compromise and gridlock that we are seeing now will become the norm after every general election and that, they will declare, is no way to run a whelk stall.
Within three months I imagine that any Lib Dem/Labour/Others coalition will fall, a General Election will be called, the Lib Dem vote will be decimated, the Conservatives brought to full power and Electoral /Constitutional Reform will be nothing but a wistful memory as those of us with distaste for conservatism hunker down for the duration. Demos, riots, overturned cars in the streets, many more homeless, infrastructure decay, a rise in crimes against the person and property, a happy time perhaps for the City and the secure middle classes, a dreadful time for the vulnerable, the disabled, the physically and mentally ill, the homeless and the poor. I remember the main feeling induced by living under Thatcher was shame. It was shaming to live in a country that could be so proudly, gloatingly unkind, so vulgar, shabby and ungracious in its attitudes to the outsider, the weak and the destitute. Goodness knows the Labour administration has been very, very far from perfect, but I think we will only appreciate the unheralded and uncelebrated good it did when the props it built up for the poor, the disabled and the disadvantaged have been kicked away.
This is the first occasion in my lifetime when true electoral and constitutional reform has seemed a possibility. We could, if Clegg keeps his nerve, guarantee a political system in which yoyo-ing between right and left ends and with it all the vindictive, ideological revenges and pendulum overcompensations wrought by the major parties each time they return to office. We could have a proper second chamber that is more than a clique of rubber-stamping apparatchiks. An Upper House should be composed of those who think long term. The Commons might vote to put up some smart wallpaper and do some attractive repainting, but the Upper House must be there to look at the damp coursing and the structure, to eliminate the ravages of short-termism. We could also conceive a constitution into whose genetic code a profound and thoughtful understanding of the competing demands of privacy and openness is written – for that surely is the issue in citizenship and government which will most demand attention over the next fifty years? Nobody intelligent or competent appears to be looking at these questions. The Digital Economy Bill shows how pitiful is the politicians’ understanding of the changes that are coming our way.
I want to write soon about Digital Inclusion, which I hope will become a great cause to which some of you might ally yourselves. These and many other issues are structural, deep and important yet consistently ignored by mainstream media: it is to a properly constituted Upper House that one looks for that kind of vital strategic planning. Of course such root and branch reform in governmental structures and electoral methods would require proper debate which would take up parliamentary time and a great deal of (no doubt necessary) public consultation. Working parties, fact-finding missions, amendments, variations, filibusters and vacillations will make it intensely difficult even to make the issue one for referendum.
The Conservatives would throw all impediments that could be found in the path of reform at the best of times, the current economic crisis can so easily be used as an excuse to do nothing constitutional. It is hard to be optimistic, even thought there are clear arguments for a simple implementation of the Australian system of preferential voting, also known as Instant Run-Off, that would hardly need a referendum or two years of committee. Australia has had their system since 1918 and it has worked well — infinitely better than ours has. But if there is one thing the British are good at it is shaking their heads and saying that a thing can’t be done. They forget that political will and commitment can make any problem disappear. Depression and War have proved that there is nothing we can’t do properly, amicably and promptly if we set out minds to it. But history has also shown us that our civil servants and politicians can outdo builders when it comes to sucking in breath, shaking their heads and saying that they can’t get the parts and that frankly it just can’t be done.