By Gergana Dimitrova
It has been one year since the Deputy PM Nick Clegg made the statement that “This is a different government, a different kind of government”. The year was more than turbulent for the first coalition government since1946. It was marked by draconic budget cuts, street riots and probably, another war in theMiddle East.
Shortly after the May 2010 elections, it became clear that none of the mainstream parties will be able to have a majority in the Parliament, and an unusual coalition between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats was formed. It showed that ideological difference was not a deal breaker for sensible political governance. It also showed the determination of two leaders ready to work together in a time of economic crisis.
The first and probably most definitive challenge for the new coalition government was the amounting 170 billion pound budget deficit. It was the reason for the severe budget cuts in several fundamental sectors.
First to ‘go under the knife’ was the welfare sector. The government slashed the child benefits and later on the housing benefits, in order to stabilize the fragile financial situation – part of the Labour legacy. The budget cuts, deemed ‘unsocial’ by many left wing supporters, were not designed to harm those in need. The government critics did not take into consideration the fact, that the coalition was burdened with the uneasy task to battle the biggest budget deficit for decades, in times, when recession was at its peak and economic resources more scarce than ever.
The rationale was the same behind the housing benefit cut and the reform of the judicial system, which would eventually lead to the relocation of many families on housing benefits, as well as the closure of 30 per cent of the Magistrates and County courts inEnglandandWales.
Despite the negativism, which these policies provoked, it was estimated that they would help raise more than £1 bn per year. A glimpse at the numbers reveals that in 2009 theUKrecorded a general government deficit of £159.2 billion, which was equivalent to 11.4 per cent of the GDP (Office of National Statistics 2010). In a situation like this, any government, regardless of its ideological reservations, would attempt to minimize excess spending.
After only one year in office, this government will be remembered for the notorious rise in the university tuition fees. The fees for EU and home students will rise to £ 6000, with an upper tier of £9000 ayear – a price which is expected to put off many high school graduates from going to university. So far only several universities throughout the country have announced an actual rise in their fees, but the policy provoked a wave of public discontent, which culminated during the student riots in November last year.
The reform created not only social tension, but made a new public enemy out of the Liberal Democrats and their leader Nick Clegg. He was adamant before the elections that rise of the tuition fees is out of the question. Due to their lack of political leverage however, they had to ‘trade’ the rise of the fees with another ‘hot potato’ issue – the electoral reform, which their leaderhip has been staunchingly proposing. Only several days ago howeverBritainsaid “No” to the Alternative Vote at a public referendum. It is now clear that electoral reform will not be happening, at least not for the next ten years.
On the foreign policy arena, there are many indicators that the political honey moon of the coalition government is a reminiscence of the past. 2011 began with a wave of social and political uprisings throughout the Middle East, which resulted in the change of political leadership inEgyptandTunisia.LibyaandSyriawere left divided between rebels desperately fighting for democratic reforms and the backward despostism of those in power.
Perhaps the most contentuous of all is the situation inLibya. TheUKhas been one of the strongest proponents of the enforcement of a no fly zone, and has openly supported the NATO attacks against the Gaddafi regime.
The big question everybody is asking is has theUKgone to war inLibya? Some experts give a positive answer, because in March theUSand theUKhitLibya’s air defense systems with 112 Tomahawk cruise missiles to prevent Muammar Gaddafi from attacking rebels. The missiles were fired from US andUKships and submarines in theMediterranean seaand hit 20 air defense and communication systems in the western parts of the country.
A second question, which inevitably follows the first one, is whether the Cameron-Clegg pact is making the same mistake as Tony Blair made with Iraq. Probably at this stage it is too early to create an absolute parallel between the two, but with the advance of the fights, the similarities betweenIraqandLibyaare growing more noticable. Whatever the outcome of the British involvement in Libya, the government should not forget that the place of Bush styled neo-conservatism is in the White House, and that Britain’s approach to the spread of democracy overseas in the post Cold War era has been more diplomatic than military.
In the dark light of these events, it is a formidable task to give a positive or negative review to the government’s first year in office. Despite its ideological differences, domestically the coalition has shown a lot of political sensibility and the will to implement policies quickly and effectively in order to battle the recession and pour money into the treasury. Abroad, the government’s actions have been anything but sensible, as far asLibyais concerned.
Regardless of the mixed reviews that this government has received for its performance so far, it is obvious that with an economic and social reform in its dawn, and probably war withLibyaon its doorway, the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition has another difficult year ahead.