What we learned from last night’s BBC documentary on the formation of the first peacetime coalition government for almost 80 years is that in times of crisis, the state will always step into the breach and bang heads together.
We’re not talking about any old state here but one that promoted the development of capitalism in the 19th century along with a colonial empire that made Britain the pre-eminent imperial power. A key role of the capitalist state is ensure a continuity of political power. Parliamentary government is essentially the public façade of the state, the mechanism by which it expresses itself, and seeks democratic legitimacy and authority.
Well before the May 6 general election, there was a real probability that Britain was heading for a hung parliament, with no single party able to command a majority. Public disdain for all the major parties was self-evident, especially as they were tip-toeing around the big issue of public spending cuts. The election itself was a fraud because no party was prepared to own up to what it would do if elected.
Senior civil servants under cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell (aka GOD) began planning for a hung parliament well before the election. In Five days that changed Britain, a documentary about the formation of the coalition by BBC political correspondent Nick Robinson, O’Donnell is frank about his intentions.
He wanted a coalition government with a comprehensive agreement on policy to take office as soon as possible. During the week of the inconclusive election, there were riots on the streets of Athens as Greece’s debt crisis went from bad to worse. Eurozone leaders met at the weekend to work on a bail-out for Greece and to defend the euro. The financial markets were on edge.
O’Donnell told Robinson: “What might have been a minority government wouldn’t have had the strength in parliament to pass the tough measures that were needed to get us through this problem [Britain’s public debt crisis]. So the key issue then was that the markets would really make us pay a price on a Monday morning by selling our debt [government bonds]. And that would have been a real problem for the country.”
O’Donnell thus acknowledges two related issues: global financial markets make and break governments; the role of the state is to help create the conditions through which the markets that finance state borrowing can be appeased by spending cuts. The net result is to sustain the capitalist economic and financial system at all costs. Here the state is true to itself.
Of course, O’Donnell wasn’t the only factor in the emergence of the Lib Dem-Tory coalition. David Cameron seized the opportunity to put “national interest” above party politics with decisive leadership and engineered a coup against his own right wing at the same time. Nick Clegg did the same against his left wing to get into bed with the Tories rather than New Labour. Both men deceived their parties during the negotiations facilitated by O’Donnell’s team, as the documentary shows.
All this makes the coalition government fragile and somewhat unstable at a moment when it tries to impose the largest cuts in public spending ever seen in Britain. Behind the scenes, other areas of the state are preparing for all sorts of eventualities and scenarios in the event that the coalition fails to deliver. That is why fighting the cuts also means taking on the state in a struggle for power itself which would enable us in turn to deal with financial markets. Taking part in the campaign to create People’s Assemblies thus become more important than ever.