Winds of change in UK

The lies and misrepresentations by the British ex-prime minister Tony Blair led the nation into the long and destructive war with Iraq. Now we all know that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. The evidence that he had was bent almost out of recognition to the true facts.

By Jonathan Power

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Published: Thu 29 Apr 2010, 9:56 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 8:41 AM

The cost in lives torn asunder in Iraq was immense, and only a handful of Iraqis thought they were better off with the war than without it. There may have been a dictatorship that was cruel to those that opposed it but most people, if fearful on occasion, had a peaceful life, law and order, food in the shops, functioning schools and a health service. That unnecessary carnage is on many people’s minds as Britain prepares to vote in its general election. Blair led the charge but his cabinet (with one major exception, Robin Cook, the leader of the House of Commons and former minister of foreign affairs) and the party supported him.

Nevertheless, the state of the economy is the number one issue, according to the polls. Prime Minister Gordon Brown is convincing—no one intellectually outshines Brown when it comes to economics and finance. He argues that the great recession wasn’t his fault and the UK was one of the two important countries that led the fight to mitigate it—the other being the US. The Conservatives argue they would have done better and not run up such debts on out-of-control social expenditures as Labour did, thus giving the country not enough room for manoeuvre when the crisis hit. The Liberal Democrats successfully steer a middle way, taking the best arguments from the Conservatives without falling into their trap of promising over large cuts in government expenditure.

Most of the lower working class, at the bottom of the social pyramid, will vote Labour. But the upper working class and the lower middle class are where the swing votes lie. The Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, a grocer’s daughter, knew how to reach these people.

The Conservative leader, David Cameron who led a spoilt life at Eton and Oxford and still comes over as a bit of a “toff”, is way out of touch with this grouping. He will lose most of its vote. Frustrated, they are starting to move into the Liberal Democratic camp. Before Labour’s rise to power in the 1920s the Liberals often formed the government. In the 1960s and 70s the number of seats they held was in single digits. But over the last twenty years they have grown steadily to become a powerful third force. If they can capture say half this grouping it is conceivable they could win the most votes—but not seats as the Liberal vote although in the aggregate is strong is more thinly spread than the two major parties.

This is where we return to the anti-war faction, made up largely of the educated middle class. They have not forgotten the war. They understand that Brown was too loose in his economic policies before the great recession struck. However, many may relegate the war to second position in their minds and vote Labour again. They feel that Brown is a safe pair of hands. But for a majority the Liberal Democrats may appeal more because they are the only party that was against the war, is against overdoing the connection with the US and is vigorously pro European Union and would seek to strengthen it. It favours the Euro, the common European currency that the UK has always rebuffed despite Tony Blair’s sympathy for it. This portion of the well-educated bloc, by and large, is cautious about a commitment to war and is convinced that government cuts shouldn’t fall disproportionately on the social and health services. Of course they don’t want to see their own tax burden increased but there are many other ways of increasing the revenue that the government needs to run down its debts. Taxes on tobacco, drink, petrol, cars and air travel could be increased if they were raised immediately after the election when unpopular measures are easier to get away with. Then they could save a lot of money by getting rid of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, clearly a Cold War anachronism. There is a need to prune the bureaucracy. Not least taxes and their abused exemptions could be increased on David Cameron’s class. Raising death duties and closing its loopholes would be a popular step.

All this said there is no chance that the Liberal Democrats even with great success at the polls could form a government on their own. Yet to enter a coalition would lead them to betray all they have fought for over decades. They should stay out and force the two major parties to form a grand coalition. They agree on more than they disagree.

The Liberal Democrats leading the opposition would have a field day. They should bide their time until the Labour-Conservative coalition falls apart in two or three years and then force a new election. Then they would have a chance of becoming parliament’s largest party, able to dictate the terms of a new coalition.

Jonathan Power is a London-based foreign policy commentator

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