This interview was conducted prior to the election on the 8th May. Technical issues mean it only appears now.
The 2015 Election campaign has been criticised as being too boring/negative; how do you think it’s been so far?
DG: It’s been a very long campaign, which is the product of having a fixed-term parliament. Personally, I think the campaign is too long. When you have to manage a campaign, which is spread not over 3 weeks, but effectively over 6 weeks; it’s very easy for a degree of lassitude to creep in. People begin to wonder if they’re losing the will to live, as they get bombarded from all political parties with their messages.
Politicians feel obliged to go out and spread their message, but that isn’t to say the electorate start really to listen or become focussed until much closer to the election. So it’s really too early to say that political parties, including mine, have managed this campaign well.
We are in a curious period of politics, and I think communicating with the electorate has become extremely difficult. That is probably the fault of politicians. I think the levels of cynicism and distrust of the political process are at a very high level. One could try to analyse what’s caused that, which may go back quite a long way, certainly before 2010. I am of the view that the cynicism is partly a distrust of the more presentational style of politics, which was of course Mr Blair’s speciality. Everything was reduced to soundbites in order to persuade people to accept things. But that era has run out of steam and isn’t working anymore. However, it’s difficult for politicians from all parties to find a new discourse to really drill down into the core of the debate.
One of the problems is that the differences between the mainstream parties are nowadays quite subtle ones, which isn’t to say they don’t make a considerable difference. If you adopt an economic policy that involves a few billion pounds more borrowing, the long-term consequences can be quite profound. But having a debate on that is very difficult to do. There may also be a slight unwillingness by politicians to engage with what the real issues are, as they instead prefer the peripheral issues, which they think may tempt the electorate a bit more.
I happen to think this is a hugely important election, with the added ingredient that countries with weak government tend to be at a disadvantage. We could find ourselves waking up on the 8th May discovering that it’s almost impossible to put a government together.
Question: So if the electorate returns an indefinite result, what is the solution?
DG: If that happens, there is a real possibility that we’ll end up with another election within twelve months. I know that with the Fixed Term Parliament Act that doesn’t happen in quite the same way that it used to; in the old days the PM could have discretion to go to the Queen and ask for Parliament to be dissolved. In reality, if a government can’t survive a vote of no confidence and a new government can’t be formed within 14 days, we’re going to end up with another General Election. This emphasises the uncertainty involved. Obviously, I’m committed to try to get the Conservatives elected with an overall majority.
Being party political for a moment, I think Labour’s alternative vision of deferring getting the deficit down to zero and continuing accumulating debt for the sake of some short-term spending promises is a very bad policy indeed.
Except of course Labour would argue that those ‘short-term spending promises’ are hugely worthwhile, for example, to avoid greater cuts to vital public services, and since the Conservatives aren’t fully disclosing where many cuts would come, some would argue you aren’t helping the public make an informed decision anyway.
DG: I’m certain Labour would argue that their short-term commitments are worthwhile. I personally rather doubt it because I don’t think that they will make a substantial difference. I think my Party has indicated fairly clearly how it intends to clear the deficit; in particular in how it will try to reduce the welfare burden, which at the moment is £220 billion.
A figure which includes tax credits for working people and ring-fenced benefits for the elderly.
DG: We have clearly shown the areas that we aren’t going to touch, including disability payments and pensions. We’re looking broadly at working-age benefits, which we indicated in the Manifesto. So I think we’ve given a fairly clear indication of how we’d go about it. Of course, your opponents will always say you haven’t given enough detail, just as we turn round and say that to them.
Doesn’t the leaked document in The Guardian today (30th April) imply that you would consider drastic cuts without telling the electorate?
DG: I think they’re a side-show. That was a paper prepared for the Liberal Democrats when they were in office. I know from my time as a minister that all kinds of papers are created. If you ask civil servants for option papers, which is the nitty-gritty way to formulate policy, all sorts of things will be thrown up; some of which the public might regard as appalling or outrageous. However, that doesn’t mean that ministers should have a look at it.
If Danny Alexander could prove this was a paper privately created three weeks ago for George Osborne, then there might be more credibility to it. But, as I say, it’s been immediately pointed out that this was a document created for Danny Alexander at his request, to look at the available options.
The truth is that Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have co-operated very closely on debt reduction, which isn’t to say that we agree on many things. It’s a bit risky to turn around, wave a piece of paper around and say “this shows the secret agenda”, when in fact you yourself are part of that agenda; especially when that agenda has never been carried out.
So as someone who has been part of the Coalition for five years, how do you think it’s gone? Has it gone how you and your colleagues had expected?
DG: I didn’t know what was going to happen when we went into coalition. In some ways, it has worked rather better than I thought it would. My personal view when we started was that there was a real possibility of it stopping around nine months before the General Election. It seemed possible that the Lib Dems might wish to distance themselves in the final stages. That hasn’t happened.
I think it didn’t happen because we’ve been working very well together and adjusted the constitutional niceties. In the old days, you had collective responsibility and ministers didn’t criticise each other. Since starting the Coalition, we’ve got used to the idea that you can say things contrary to the opinion of your partners; providing you don’t undermine the existing policies that you’ve agreed to.
When I ran the Law Office, I had one Liberal Democrat working with me, Lord Wallace, and our relations couldn’t have been better or more cordial. Looking round the cabinet, at the relations between various ministers, the level of mutual respect was extremely good.
As we touched on earlier, British politics seems to be in flux at the moment, where do you see our political system heading in the future? Towards a more multi-party system, or is this just a temporary blip before we return to old two-party politics.
DG: I’m not sure. I can’t work out whether the old system is gone or if it’ll shortly return. It’s worth bearing in mind that the two-party system hasn’t been around for ever. If you go back to before the Second World War, minority governments were quite common. So we seem to get phases. Maybe we are just heading towards a phase that is very different from what we’ve been used to. One can point out that this isn’t an immediate, transient aberration, because the two-party system has been under increasing pressure for nearly forty years. It was starting with the Liberals reviving and then the Social Democrats when they appeared.
You can have multi-party party politics, but the real question is about what constitutional adaptations you have to make to accommodate such a change, if it is to work properly. There has been a tendency to under-estimate the profundity of the changes that have come about as a consequence of Labour’s decision to start devolution.
Do you think that was a mistake?
DG: That is a very difficult question to answer. It is clear that Labour did it in a way that showed profound ignorance of the dynamics that were going to be released. Partly because they laboured –excuse the pun- under the delusion that they would be able to maintain their strong majorities in Wales and Scotland.
So, quite frankly, the way they ran the United Kingdom in the immediate aftermath of devolution was a bit the same way as the Soviet Union used to run; party leaders would talk to each other and fix decisions behind the scenes. This meant a lack of proper constitutional mechanisms for defining roles. Labour’s position in Scotland has now been hollowed to the point where they could be completely destroyed, at least for the foreseeable future. So there has been a degree of irresponsibility, which some of us pointed out to them at the time.
I certainly wouldn’t say they were wrong to decide that Britain should have a devolved structure of government. The problem that we have is that no-one has really sat down and tried to work out what people want, how it can be delivered in a structured way that commands confidence and respect, or how to prevent it disintegrating into a conflict that fuels Scottish independence. We’re not there at the moment. This is going to be one of the very big questions, irrespective of the outcome of the next election.
Linked to that, you have the issues of European Union membership, the referendum and the discomfort held by some people of sovereignty being undermined in different respects. We are in a period of quite substantial constitutional evolution, with unpredictable consequences. As a unionist, believing profoundly in the rule of law, I have some confidence that we will come out of this process, as a United Kingdom, and we will prosper. I’m an optimist. Not a believer in doom and gloom.
To read Nouse’s review of the event click here.