David Cameron (left) and Nick Clegg: Conjoined
Back in Britain in the late-1980s, I was a supporter of an organization called Charter 88
, which advocated for institutional and constitutional changes in the U.K., such as an independent judiciary, proportional representation, and a written Bill of Rights. The organization took its inspiration from Vaclav Havel's Charter 77
, which had called for a free and democratic Czechoslovakia.
Like Charter 77, Charter 88 felt that overhauling the institutions of state would at once guarantee basic rights and freedoms, and in turn encourage more liberty. It felt that the oppressions of the state and the dead hand of tradition and custom had to be done away with, and institutional power restrained. Perhaps not surprisingly, given my inclination toward restraining government and enshrining individual freedom in written form, I ended up in the United States.
I did, however, continue to vote in the U.K. (by proxy mainly) until 2005. The political party most closely associated with the impulses behind, and policies stemming from, Charter 88 was the Liberal Democrats, and consequently I have supported the Lib Dems ever since. Unlike the Conservative and Labour parties, who have enjoyed and favored strong central government, the Lib Dems have supported local government and what might be called the European project. I liked Labour efforts to support the National Health Service, welcomed the devolution of power to Scotland and Wales, and supported Labour's commitments to Europe in the form of the adoption of the social charter
It is, therefore, with mixed feelings that I look on the decision of the Lib-Dems to enter a formal coalition government with the Conservatives. Both parties have made compromises and recognized the exigencies of coalition government—a sign of political maturity that Charter 88-ists such as myself welcome, given our dislike of the childish, adversarial, binary politics of the old parliamentary system. A partially elected upper house and the alternative vote
are weak forms of constitutional change, but they will make Britain's parliamentary system somewhat fairer, and I see them as steps on the way to wholesale parliamentary reform.
I hope that having the Lib Dems in a coalition will rein in the Europhobic and reactionary tendencies of the Tories; I hope it will enforce compromise and cut down on grandstanding. Of course, coalitions are potentially unstable, and there could be another election in six months. But I sense that the issues facing Britain are so serious that the parties will be forced to knuckle down. We'll see.