Strange bedfellows make for better government

Something strange is happening in Britain. When the Conservative Party failed to get an outright majority in the May general election, it was forced into coalition with Britain’s (distinctly left-leaning) third party, the Liberal Democrats, to take government. But here’s the strange part: the coalition seems to be working.

The Liberal Party in Australia should be watching this embryonic alliance closely. David Cameron and his Liberal Democrat Deputy PM Nick Clegg are getting along like a parliament house on fire. The two men are even proposing to address each other’s national conferences this year.

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It’s more than just a personal relationship. Surprisingly, the coalition seems a lot stronger than you’d expect from a marriage of convenience.

If it holds, the UK could see a dramatic ideological realignment. After all, 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.

Clegg is working on the Great Repeal Bill, a suite of legislation to clear away some of the restrictions on civil liberties, government intrusions on privacy, creepy government databases, and nutty nanny state laws that built up in the Labour government’s decade in power.

The government is eliminating the compulsory national identification card scheme. They’ve promised to stop detaining asylum seeker children. They’re talking about devolution, giving more power to local councils and communities, expanding school choice and pushing public sector reform.

Sure, there are big things the two parties disagree on. On immigration there is tension. But Labour has evidently decided disaffection with foreigners was the reason it lost government. So while Labour is going after British National Party types, the Liberal Conservative coalition can temper its own position.

It is early days for the Cameron-Clegg partnership. But it looks good so far. So if the Liberal Party isn’t paying attention, it should be.

When Malcolm Turnbull was rolled last year as Liberal leader, there was a minor sub-genre urging him to start his own party – a party for social liberals and economic dries. Sounds delightful. But not many of the people who proposed this new party would vote for it, let alone join.

Turnbull may be all loveable and cuddly on climate change and Bill Henson, but such a party would also have to be economically pretty dry. Imagine a party with an industrial relations policy to actually deregulate Australia’s workplaces, rather than, as with WorkChoices, just smack around trade unions a bit. Or one that wanted to do more horrifying things: privatise Australia Post, cut taxes, abolish the Australian Institute of Sport.

Of course, the chances of a breakaway party are pretty slim. But it is a central tenet of the Australian Liberal Party that it’s the party of individual freedom, small government and personal responsibility.

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.

Chris Berg is a research fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs and editor of the IPA Review.