The Lib Dems and Conservatives: abandonment and entrapment

Splittism is a core media theme, and the Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition government in the UK provides plenty of fertile ground for stories of this type – coalition divided over policy x, splits emerge over policy y, risks for coalition over policy z, resignation threats, end of the love affair, and so on.

I tend not to wander too much into British politics, but how this coalition relationship is unfolding and playing out offers some striking parallels with my academic interest in coalition politics between developing countries.

Jack Snyder, in discussing alliance politics in modern European history, describes the security dilemma that alliance partners face – facing the competing pulls of entrapment and abandonment. Within the alliance, partners constantly face the twin worries of being dragged by alliance partners into conflicts over interests that are not shared (entrapment) and of being abandoned by the other (abandonment). This seems to be a dilemma because fear of either abandonment or entrapment leads to courses of action that increase fear of the other. Worried of abandonment, one country strives to increase the level of commitment between alliance partners to reduce this worry – and in doing so, increases the risk of entrapment. Vice versa, fear of entrapment leads one country to dilute the commitment involved – and in doing so, risks devaluing the alliance and thereby increasing the prospect of abandonment.

There are academic caveats to be made in liberally borrowing concepts designed for particular theoretical contexts and assumptions – but something about this entrapment-abandonment tradeoff seems to ring true in how the coalition government partners seem to be working with each other. (There probably is a parallel concept in studies of domestic politics – but hey, ignorance is bliss).

The Tory/Lib Dem leaderships seem to be most concerned about abandonment – hence the keenness in demonstrating how well they are working with each other, the willingness to borrow each others’ ideas, and perhaps even, as Nick Clegg has it, to swap ministerial roles to demonstrate cooperation. And one key theme of the conferences was the pressing demand for some signs of independence from the membership and grassroots in fear of entrapment – hence wanting to put party-distinctive stamps onto the government’s programme, unease at manifesto promises being watered down and longstanding policies revised, and wanting ministers to more publicly express disagreement.

Caught in this dilemma, continual tension between the two parties should be relatively unsurprising. The Lib Dems in government need to placate right-leaning Conservatives so that the latter’s fear of entrapment does not lead to calls to give up on the coalition. Similarly, Conservatives in the government need to be sensitive to the unease of left-leaning Lib Dems who might similarly think that the coalition isn’t worth it.

Kerfuffles over child benefit for the Tories, and tuition fees for the Lib Dems (still ongoing), also chime with a recent column by the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland on how exactly this reassurance by coalition partners takes place:

“A generation of political leaders now believe what one Lib Dem junior minister told me during his party’s do in Liverpool: “True leadership means challenging and confronting your own party.” That was the lesson taught by Blair, scorched into the mindset of the political class by his rewriting of clause IV: real generals prove their worth by antagonising their own troops. That’s why Nick Clegg gained plaudits for extolling the virtues of so-called free schools and academies – hours after his party conference voted against them. That was why Ed Miliband was damned the following week for saying too much his party actually agreed with. And that was why, if you believe the initial firestorm over child benefit was not entirely an accident, Osborne was quite happy to anger the Mail and the Telegraph, core elements in the Conservative coalition. He was only doing what Blair taught a generation of politicians to do: prove your mettle by sticking it to your own supporters.

“For Cameron and Clegg, this has tended to come with the territory: the very act of forming a coalition was hard for hardcore Conservatives and Lib Dems to swallow. Automatically, a press corps conditioned always to be on the lookout for a “clause IV moment” praised the two men for their courage, even though their respective parties had precious few options for resistance.”

Sticking it to your own side, then, is a way of signalling: reassuring the other side that their fears of entrapment are misplaced, and attempting to shift their burden of fear towards abandonment rather than entrapment.

For the moment the calculus by the respective leaderships seems to fear abandonment as the greater risk, rather than entrapment. Both Clegg and Cameron have staked their political careers on making this coalition work: the cost of abandonment (a snap election and political opposition), even while of a low probability, far outweighs the cost of entrapment (implementing policies not favoured by the grassroots). This week’s spending review announcements, as politically difficult as they are, will reflect this.

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