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A muddled verdict from Britain

By Harsh V Pant
Last updated on: May 07, 2010 14:58 IST
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David Cameron does not have enough votes in British Parliament to activate his agenda. But what he has indeed done is to bring the Tories back from oblivion to the centre of British politics and reminded us that ideas do have a place in politics, writes Harsh V Pant 

One act of the play is over even as another has begun in right earnest.

The UK is staring at its first hung parliament with the Conservatives having won the most MPs in the general election but falling short of a majority. David Cameron is tantalisingly close to entering 10, Downing Street, yet Gordon Brown continues to occupy it at least of now.

The Liberal Democratic Party has emerged as the kingmaker and its wooing by other two parties has begun. What is not in dispute, however, is that the Labour Party has been roundedly defeated with its lowest vote share in decades.

Brown's unpopularity has a lot to with the Labour debacle. Yet Brown, whose party has got 251 seats so far, is expected to make an offer to Liberal Democrats, who have so far won 54 seats, to try to form a coalition government. 

He has underlined: "My duty in all of this is that there be a stable, strong and principled government and to play my part in making that possible."

Meanwhile, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said the situation was "fluid" but the Tories had the first right to seek to govern. He has said: "It is vital that all parties, all political leaders, act in the national interest and not out of narrow party political advantage." His view is that the party with the biggest mandate -- in terms of votes and seats -- should have the right to seek to govern first.

Though Brown will desperately try to hold on to power, this is a sad day for him. It is indeed true that a man who so desperately wanted to be the prime minister of Great Britain got his wish only to be shown the door in less than three years by the British public.

The one aspect about British polity that this election absolutely makes clear is the dislike that the figure of Gordon Brown generates among ordinary Britons. And despite the attempt by Britain to get over Tony Blair, what is also clear is the dominance of this much maligned political figure.

Blair has loomed large over these elections even though he is nowhere to be seen. He looms large in the absence of leadership in the Labour Party rank and file. He looms large in the way Cameron has redefined what it means to be a Tory in contemporary Britain. He looms large in the way the newest kid on the block, Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, caught the attention of those who are fed up with politics as usual.

Cameron, in particular, has made no secret of his admiration for Tony Blair. He has accepted that he was as excited by the arrival of Blairites to power as the Labour Party supporters. His attempt to shift the priorities of the Conservative Party to the centre is straight out of Blair's rule book. Blair changes the face of British politics by rescuing his party from the extreme left. Cameron, if he gets elected, would have done the same by loosening the grip of extreme right on his party's agenda.

Cameron's central intellectual and political philosophy has underlined the need to rescue what he calls as the "broken society" in Britain. His country, according to Cameron, is suffering a devastating crisis of authority, leading to a dangerous public contempt for politics. The only way trust can be restored in politics is from the local community on up.
The task for conservatism then is to restore and create human associations and elevate "society and the people who form it to their proper central and sovereign nation."

This is politics on a grand scale, something we are not accustomed to witnessing in today's sound-byte culture. This was also very risky: it was never entirely clear if the British public will easily comprehend a seemingly complex intellectual argument. But it has also been mightily interesting. Though Brown has complained that policy issues are not being discussed by the media and his opposition, Cameron has redefined the very parameters of this political debate. The Tories have a meta narrative from which their specific policies on economy, immigration, health etc emerge. The Labour Party has a range of policies sans any larger coherence.

At a time when the British public is overwhelmingly skeptical and wary of the promises of the politicians, Cameron has promised to take power away from the politicians and put it in the hands of people.

Cameron's progressive conservatism is a mix of Edmund Burke and Alexander Hamilton. A la Burke it reminds people that the world is infinitely more complex than we can know and therefore scepticism should be the norm when handing too much power to the government. Yet, a la Hamilton it is optimistic that limited but purposeful government intervention can indeed enhance opportunities and social mobility.

Cameron has by no means won the argument and he does not have enough votes in parliament to activate his agenda. But what he has indeed done is to bring the Tories back from oblivion to the centre of British politics and reminded us that ideas do have a place in politics.

Britain is facing an economic crisis of a proportion it has not witnessed in a long time. A strong government was needed, something that the elections have not thrown up. The markets have indicated that would prefer a Conservative government even without a simple majority. But whichever combination comes to power, difficult economic decisions will have to made to cut down Britain's fiscal deficit.

On foreign policy, there are fewer disagreements between the Labour Party and Conservatives. The Conservatives however have explicitly talked of a strategic partnership with India and unlike Labour their foreign policy priorities are more likely to be governed by balance of power priorities.

The Tories will also be interested in bringing the troops back from Afghanistan at the earliest but they have a less rose-tinted view of Pakistan compared to the Labour Party. They are a proponent of a more muscular foreign policy but they will be constrained by the dire financial straits Britain find itself in.

It remains unclear what combination of parties will rule Britain over the next five years. But what is certain is that Britain has entered a entered a period of political and economic uncertainty.

The writer teaches at King's College London.

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Harsh V Pant