Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Cracks in the Coalition

It was inevitable cracks would start showing in the coalition as the Autumn Spending Review loomed ever more menacingly on the horizon, though some might be surprised the first significant public difference of opinion is between the Tories instead of their yellow bellied LibDem satraps. But given the nature of the first fracture I suppose it was inevitable.

One of the Tories' strongest suits has been their unqualified support for British militarism. Whereas Labour's record has never been one of principled anti-imperialist internationalism given the nature of the party and its support base, the influence of pacifistic, unilateralist and anti-militarist positions have ebbed and flowed and have tended to be (rightly or wrongly) associated with Labour's "ideological family".

This is not the case with the Tories. Where there has been episodic opposition to particular military adventures, such as Iraq, it has tended to be qualified in terms of pragmatic considerations rather than overarching principles. This is after all the party who last exercised an "independent" foreign policy by taking Britain to war over the Falklands, are most associated with Britain's nuclear deterrent, aggressively prosecuted the Cold War to its conclusion, and enthusiastically joined in America's assault on Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. And that's just the recent history.

So cuts to the military budget was always going to be a hot potato for the Tory party. This is the context for the leak of defence minister Liam Fox's letter to David Cameron. In the piece, Fox opines that big cuts could threaten front line morale and hit the Tories themselves: "I am concerned that we do not have a narrative that we can communicate clearly", he moans.

He is right to be worried. Since Blair's invasion of Iraq the Tories have opportunistically jumped on every logistical problem for political advantage. Not enough flak jackets to go around? A shortage of helicopters? Inadequate armour on APCs? No matter the issue, the Tories were over them like a rash trying to tap into the latent but widespread support for "Our Boys". So to be seen dismembering the armed forces is very dangerous for the Tories short and medium term electoral prospects.

But the issues Fox highlights are potentially more catastrophic than a set back at the polls. The Tories' obsession with the deficit was bound to cause ructions within capital itself. The financiers and their lackeys in the City were never going to be too concerned. Despite Dave's Big Society rhetoric it remains responsibility-free business as usual. On the other hand, for manufacturing and construction capital the Coalition's subordination of economic policy to deficit reduction was always going to drive parts of this sector, especially that dependent directly or indirectly on public sector spending, into some form of opposition. These cuts however are different. Not only do they threaten to upset British arms companies grown fat on decades of military Keynesianism, but shake up one of the key organic props of Toryism itself: the officers' establishment.

This is akin to New Labour's ill-thought attacks on its core support. By slashing spending here not only are the numbers of officers under threat but so are the cosy careers many can assume upon retirement in the arms industry. Tory MPs from a military background will not be pleased and many beyond their numbers will be subject to the high society pressure of esteemed brigadiers and colonels. While by itself it won't be enough to split the party, it could mobilise a back bench rebellion of sufficient magnitude to scupper Osborne's military spending plans and with it the whole edifice of the cuts programme. Using his own rhetoric against him, will party interest come before national interest?

Not many on the left will lose sleep over this. Despite claiming to be opposed to all cuts I can't see many Trotskyists marching for Trident or demanding the aircraft carrier programme goes ahead. And yes, one can sit back and enjoy the schadenfreude of the Tories fragmenting at the rate of their beloved cluster bombs. But we need to make clear our own positions on what is to be done about "defence": calling for the army's abolition and a workers' militia just won't cut it if we want to exploit the Tories' divisions to the full, let alone effectively tackle the persistent roots of British militarism.

Update: Duncan recommends Eric Joyce's shadow cabinet pitch as a means of thinking about Labour and the labour movement's relationship to "defence".


modernity said...


Didn't I suggest this a few months back?

It was always going to be hard for the Tories to keep it together for the full duration.

The LP should plan for an election sooner rather than later.

This is probably just the beginning, of the splits and tantrums within the Tories, that's excluding the problems that the Lib-Dems will bring to the issue, eventually.

Anonymous said...

I fear those hoping for the coalition to fall apart will be disappointed. The worse it gets in the polls the more determined the Tories and Lib Dems will be to cling together and stick it out rather than face an election.

We are likely to have Cameron for the full five years all the way to 2015. By that time the economy will most likely have recovered and the Tories will say they took the tough decisions necessary to clear up after Labour. Cameron could be with us for a decade

Phil said...

I broadly agree with what anonymous has to say, Mod. There will be cracks and Labour and the labour movement should do everything they can to exploit them and hasten the coalition's demise. But the Tories and LibDems will cling like limpets to each other to prevent that happening.

Boffy said...


I'm not sure the Coalition will hang together. if the Liberals figures for new members are true I suspect it represents new Right-wing members, of the careerist type. But, its clear that many existing members are deserting to Labour. In other words the Party is differentiating. The obvious conclusion of that will be for them to fuse with the Tories. But, if they get slammed in next years elections that process could run away with them. Some Liberal MP's might think they have a better chance with Labour.

Yesterday I wrote a blog about the Fear in international markets, of which todays news about Ireland is an example. Things could go quickly pear shaped, and under those conditions anything could happen. I doubt irish workers will sit back quietly whilst being asked to pay further for a bail out of the bankers, and that could spill over to the UK, as workers here begin to question more closely what the Cuts are for.

On the Tories and the Military. This happened under Thatcher. The State chose the rae where the Tories are weak, and once a special case had been made for one department, the others poured through the open door. I've seen the same happen in Local Government too as i've written before. Its a strategy.

In fact, I think the left should be concerned to oppose Cuts in Defence. We should not be any more neutral about the safety of young workers sent to fight in Afghanistan than we are about workers safety in a factory or toehr workplace. We should demand they have whatever equipment and training they need to ensure that safety, and demand they have full democratic rights to determine whether they have that or not, and to elect their immediate commanders.

That is one of the immediate demands we should raise to bridge the gap to the idea of a workers militia. The other demands we should raise I set out in my blog Proletarian Military Policy