The new Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition (sorry, as it says on the front of the booklet, Coalition) government has finally published its programme, 9 days after reaching the first initial agreement. Nearly 16,000 words over 36 pages outline what the government intends to do in the next five years. (You can read the document here, and the initial document here.)
The initial document was constructed in a hurry to demonstrate how much the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats had in common in order to validate the idea that they could form a coalition. David Cameron was desperate to become prime minister – his career was hanging by a thread – so he was willing to make the necessary concessions to the Lib Dems. Nick Clegg was desperate to get into government – the alternative was a chaotic and stumbling agreement with an unwilling Labour party – so he was willing to reciprocate.
If the 7 page document looked thin, we were told that there would be a longer, more comprehensive document in due course. It has arrived.
Naturally, I turned first to the section on Europe, only to find that it was the same as the one in the initial agreement. The only addition is the commitment to support the further enlargement of the EU, but this is a largely uncontroversial position in British politics and barely needed to be stated. The commitment to a referendum on further European treaties is framed in order to exclude enlargement treaties, regardless of the illogicality pointed out here.
Why is there nothing more on Europe added in the past 9 days? I think the answer is that the negotiators knew that it was one of the most tricky subjects, one where the failure to reach agreement would sink the idea of the coalition, so they dealt with it first. Less controversial matters could wait.
On the subject of the British constitution, there are a lot of proposals for change, but regional government for England is not one of them. The regional idea has been roundly discredited by the past Labour government’s mishandling of it. That is a pity. Instead, there is a boost for local government in a number of ways: taking planning back from the regional level; creating directly-elected mayors in further English cities; giving councils a general power of competence. Quangos like the Standards Board will be shut down, with the idea that errant politicians should be accountable at the ballot box and not to officialdom. There will be an elected House of Lords, which is welcome, but the idea of that the second chamber of parliament should have a role in defending the rights of local, regional and devolved government is not taken up.
The issues of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland remain as they were in the initial agreement: a commitment to devolving more powers and a commission to examine the West Lothian question.
And on global affairs, the nice words about reform of the UN Security Council and other global institutions remain, safe in the knowledge that the crucial steps that make such reform possible will go untaken.
Still, compared with the nightmare visions before the election of what William Hague as foreign secretary might aim to do, this coalition (sorry, Coalition) document represents considerable improvement. The Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have brought together their different traditions and prejudices and found something that looks like agreement. The last words in the document, at the bottom of the back page, say “The material used in this publication is constituted from 50% post consumer waste and 50% virgin fibre.” Yes, that’s a fair description of the ideas, too, as well as the paper they are printed on.