There are those that claim that those of us that object to the government's policies on issues such as Europe, the ECHR, electoral reform, elections for the House of Lords, and fixed term Parliaments are stubborn oppositionalists who had become so used to complaining about government during Labour's long term in office that we have forgotten that power inevitably involves compromise. We are so keen on a purist approach to the Best that we are unable to see, appreciate and support the Good. We should get behind the government instead of sniping at it, or at least shut up on the few minor issues with which we disagree and focus on the big things the government is achieving in areas such as tackling the deficit.
That may be true of others – I'll let them defend themselves. But for some of us that way of expressing the matter just completely misunderstands the nature of our criticisms. To see why, let's contrast these constitutional questions with the deficit reduction programme. I am a big supporter of the deficit reduction programme – in print; on television and radio. It isn't precisely what I would have done with a free hand. I'd have cut spending earlier and back-loaded the tax rises. I'd not have raised VAT, but basic rate income tax instead. I'd have cut NHS and schools spending and not cut defence spending. I'd also have sought more flexibility to maintain fiscal policy – being able to institute temporary tax rebates as a tool of macroeconomic management.
When appropriate, I point out how the programme might have been done better in the first place, and where it might be improved even now. But I completely appreciate the political realities here, and I am even broadly sympathetic to our making compromises to the Lib Dems (e.g. forwards-loading tax rises and back-loading tax cuts) to reflect the fact that we did not win a majority. Overall, the deficit reduction programme represents 85% of what I would have done – and that's about as good as anything gets in politics. I fret about the other 15%, but that doesn't mean I don't support what has been done.
Many of us would prefer things were a little different on education or welfare. I would like to see schools permitted to make profits; and I would approach the issue of welfare reform from a completely different (insurance-extending, rather than means-test-extending) angle. But I mainly shut up about welfare reform and broadly support the education reform programme most of the time – of course, raising honing/improvement suggestions when appropriate or when I'm asked.
Thus, criticisms of the Coalition's programme are not across-the-board sniping. They are focused heavily upon certain constitutional issues (Europe, ECHR, Lords, etc.). Why is that? Why can't we just shut up about those, as I do with welfare reform?
The reason is that the Coalition's constutional reform programme isn't simply imperfect. It isn't that it's quite good but could be better. It is that what the Coalition is doing (and not doing) is precisely what I am involved in politics to oppose. I have been arguing against British entrapment in the Single European State, against an elected Second Chamber, against proportional representation, against the doctrines of Human Rights for more than twenty years. I did so when these were ideas of just the Liberals and Social Democrats; I did so when they were propagated by New Labour; and I continue to do so now the Cameroons advance them. The Coalition, with its constitutional reform programme, makes itself my political enemy. I am not simply disappointed that it isn't doing things exactly as I want. Rather, it is trying to do exactly what I am in politics to object to.
And I, as others do, see myself as the guardian of a treasury of tradition and practice passed down through centuries. I am not intimidated by the thought that it's just me, today, that believes these things. My allies lie in the soil, with their wisdom encoded into the habits of the world. Mine has been the position considered wise for hundreds of years – why should I care if some small men think it foolishness now?
Furthermore, on these matters I care only a little about electoral advantage today and tomorrow. I care much more about the welfare of my country and the world for the centuries ahead. Lib Dem constitutional concepts, for all their alleged "modernity" have been tried and failed around the world countless times, leading to death and destruction and oppression on a horrible scale. They are dangerous. The British constitution has maintained peace and liberty and promoted prosperity for more than three hundred years. It has evolved gently and (usually) wisely, reflecting evolving social and international challenges and the evolving beliefs of the British establishment, keeping our people safe and promoting our values around the world.
Lib Dems tell us that our ways of doing things are worse than those elsewhere, that we are obsolete, that we must be modern, that our established practices and traditions are indefensible in today's world. They would fuse us into the Single European State – indeed, into a World Government if they thought it practical and achievable. They would abolish our monarchy, abolish our unelected upper chamber, abolish our Established church, introduce voting for just about everything, impose their equality nostrums. They would make us subject to "international law" and forbid us from fighting wars to protect the weak and innocent and oppressed unless we had "approval" from World councils. And when they had reinvented us as an island version of France or Germany, they would be amazed when, like France and Germany, we fell victim to dictators and revolutions. They would break our country up into autonomous regions and then be amazed when those regions did not get along and ceased to be keen to subsidise one another.
The Coalition's constitutional programme does not involve pragmatic compromise, of the sort every sensible government requires to make one day pass to the next. Rather, it involves surrender of our history and traditions for their replacement by a completely alien constitutional theory, a different and totally incompatible vision of Britain's future in the world.
The problem with the Coalition is not that it's a coalition. It's that it's with Lib Dems. What Lib Demmery is fundamentally about is a constitutional vision, just as that is what traditional constitional Conservatism is about. No compromise is possible with a Lib Dem on the constitution. It isn't a matter of a Good way versus the Best way. There is only their wrong way or our right way.
I have argued against the Lib Dem wrong way on these matters my entire adult life. I'm not going to stop arguing against it just because my own party has forgotten what it exists for and become the ally of all that it exists to oppose.