Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Tories can reap the 'peace dividend'

While some political arguments never quite go away, recurring down the years in different forms and different contexts, there are others that are very much of their time.

An example is the issue of trade union power, and specifically whether it could legitimately be exercised to thwart the will of the democratically-elected government of the day.

This issue dominated British politics from the late-1960s to the mid-1980s, and was responsible during that time for bringing down at least one Labour government in Jim Callaghan's and one Conservative one in Ted Heath's.

It was eventually resolved by Margaret Thatcher's defeat of the National Union of Mineworkers in the 1985 strike, resulting not just in the marginalisation of the unions but the end of an entire way of life for many mining communities.

Yet to listen to this week's Trades Union Congress in Manchester, you could almost be forgiven for thinking the nation had undergone some kind of collective Life on Mars-type experience.

We learned that the TUC is planning a series of public sector strikes designed to get the government to think again about its spending cuts programme.

There is certainly an argument to be had about whether the cuts are going faster than they need to. There is a related argument about their legitimacy, given the Tories' failure to win an outright majority in May.

But turning the whole debate into a re-run of the 'Who Governs Britain?' controversies of the 1970s hardly seems the best way for the unions to try to win public sympathy for their cause.

Another ancient political argument that seemed to have been settled long ago was the one about Britain's independent nuclear deterrent.

This, too, was a battle that raged during the early 1980s, helping to split the Labour Party in 1981 when the pro-nuclear SDP broke away in dismay at its drift towards unilateralism.

The issue was seemingly put to bed when Labour then proceeded to lose three elections in a row before Tony Blair came along and wiped out all semblance of the party's pacifist tendency – and how.

But by a supreme historical irony, that bit of Labour which broke away to defend the nuclear deterrent has ultimately morphed into that bit of the Lib-Con coalition which now wants to ditch it.

Of all the many issues on which the two sides of the coalition disagree, this promises to be one of the most toxic, with many backbench Tories seeing the renewal of Trident as an article of faith.

Delaying the decision until after the next election will undoubtedly save a few bob – but it is also sure to re-open the debate over whether we should have a nuclear deterrent at all.

Yet for Prime Minister David Cameron, there is a rare political opportunity here – so long as he can square his backbenchers.

For if any government is going to radically reshape Britain's defence capability – and reap the potential 'peace dividend' in terms of savings - then this one is probably best-placed to do it.

Labour could never have abandoned Trident - for the simple reason that it would have brought back all those fears that the party could not be trusted with the nation's defences.

But the Tories, who have never had that problem, might just be able to.

By the same token, the Tories will find it much harder to reform the welfare state – something Labour really should have done in its first term when Mr Blair was carrying all before him.

For Mr Cameron, cutting Trident, and maybe finding a less costly form of nuclear deterrence, could prove to be the easy bit.

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1 comment:

Oli Parker said...

"Labour really should have in its first term when Mr Blair was carrying all before him."

I was under the impression that it was during Labour's spell in power that they caused the problems with the welfare state, which the Tories are now having to put right.

I was also under the impression that creating a burgeoning welfare state (and a bloated public sector) were key to Labour's hold on power, as it was from these areas of the electorate that Labours votes came.

Interesting comments otherwise Paul - keep it up!