Nick Clegg: voice of opposition?
In a speech somewhat overshadowed by other events, Nick Clegg yesterday made a marked attack on the Conservative policy of a tax break for married couples. Perhaps emboldened by the Prime Minister’s recent actions, backbench Tory MPs have reportedly been increasing pressure for the manifesto policy to be enacted by the Government, a move that would clearly not meet with the Deputy Prime Minister’s approval.
The speech was supposedly designed to lay out Clegg’s political philosophy, but while the contents of the speech went much further than the comments on marriage, it is indicative of his present standing that his political voice is now heard only within the context of the Coalition. The issue at hand is, though, extremely important. Clegg may have entered government seeking Lords reform, changes to party political funding and a narrowing of inequality, but the austerity agenda to which he has so firmly tied his party will undoubtedly overshadow any of this. The effects of George Osborne’s economic policy will be felt well beyond the Treasury. What Conservatives may feel is merely support for the institution of marriage appears to others just part of a wider symbolic attempt to reinforce the traditional institutions of marriage, the family, the church and voluntary organisations as the role of the state is so brutally undermined.
Like Thatcher in the 1980s, recent indications suggest Cameron is intent upon pulling the rug from under our society, leaving individuals to turn to the family and its ‘traditional values’ for the support this Government deems economically unviable. The Big Society seems but a distant memory as funding is withdrawn, regulations are removed and the Right feels at home in Downing Street once more.
It is a strange irony that here the responsibilities of Government may prove less constrictive than the confines of opposition. As a recent leak of a Labour memo revealed, Ed Miliband and his shadow team are so keen to drum home their core message on the economy that there is room for alternative opposition to Cameron’s social agenda. With this speech, Clegg has indicated it may come from within the Coalition itself. As the row over the outcome of the EU summit revealed, there is no immediate threat of the government collapsing every time the Deputy Prime Minister feels it necessary to appease his own party faithful and emphasise differences between the Lib Dems and their temporary Tory partners.
It is important, however, not to reduce this particular debate to mere political manoeuvrings. Tax breaks for married couples are a controversial policy, and rightly so. When it was announced in the lead-up to the election it struck of a nod to the right of the Conservative Party, that Cameron was giving those who considered him too centrist something to assure their vote. That it has recently appeared a serious possibility even within the coalition is a sign of the ideological direction this Government is taking. Marriage can, of course, be a terrific force for good in our society. The arguments in its favour are well-trodden; stability, security, the values it instils. Yet it would be wrong to reward those who choose this route and not those who either choose to remain partners without the formality, or those who have no choice in the matter.
David Cameron may believe we are a Christian country, but as Clegg himself said, this policy frames marriage in a manner that is tragically outdated. What of civil partnerships? Are they not entitled to the same rewards simply because the state itself denies them the opportunity of marriage in this sense? Or single parents, are they to be labelled unworthy without regard for whatever circumstances may have left them in such a situation? Proponents of the policy argue that marriage is actually discriminated against by the tax system as it is, but even if this is the case the answer should not be to respond by providing it a moral standing above all other forms of union.
It will be interesting to see whether the recent upturn in Conservative poll numbers is a temporary response to the EU summit, or a resurgence built upon stronger foundations. Nick Clegg seems to have earmarked a new role in highlighting the unhappy nature of the political union that brought this Government together. It is unfortunate that the impact of his rhetoric is not similarly felt in Coalition policy, as David Cameron continues to undermine the modern foundations of our society.
Posted on December 20, 2011, in Coalition Government, Comment, Conservative Party, Liberal Democrat Party, Party Politics and tagged coalition, coalition government, david cameron, Ed miliband, George Osborne, Liberal Democrats, nick clegg. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.