Some of us are still reeling. We were so sure that there would be a prolonged period of constitutional uncertainty following the UK general election that it has been difficult to adjust to realities that suddenly and dramatically shifted in character. Indeed, as for Republicans in last year’s presidential election, there was cognitive dissonance among some from the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats as they questioned both the 10.00pm exit poll and the first few results.
Although the left is now, just three days after the election, taking comfort from memories of John Major’s government as he wrestled with a narrow majority and the Eurosceptic “bastards”, the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act now gives David Cameron a lengthy period within which the UK can be reshaped. While the Europe referendum will occupy minds, there are reasons to think that we are set for radical economic and social reforms. This will be neoliberalism mark something or other, (where are we up to now?)
Europe aside, there is also the “Jockalypse”, as London Mayor Boris Johnson crudely termed the dramatic electoral gains by the Scottish National Party. Even however, at this very early stage, a Scottish strategy is taking shape on the Sunday talkshows as well as in blogs and tweets. The strategy draws upon the approaches adopted by Mrs Thatcher’s governments as they faced militant left-wing local councils in the 1980s.
The Greater London Council and the metropolitan county councils were abolished and the ill-fated poll tax was introduced. The tax (which while providing some rebates sought to equalize payments for local government services) contributed much to Mrs Thatcher’s eventual downfall.
The guiding principles behind the poll tax were to make payments for council services much more visible while at the same time curbing the redistributive effects of the taxation system. Increased visibility, it was said fairly openly, would encourage councils to cut services and seek efficiency savings so that poll tax increases would be minimized. If Labour councils failed to do this, there was a hope the electorate would turn to Conservative councillors who would curb the growth of services and offer a lower poll tax.
The poll tax was defeated by the politics of the late 1980s. There were widespread protests and deep anxieties among Conservative backbenchers. Sufficient numbers threw their weight behind Michael Heseltine’s challenge to Mrs T.
We now live in different times. There is just one Conservative MP who has to worry about Scottish electoral sensibilities. There are few impediments to reform particularly if it can be framed as a healing gesture that goes some way towards meeting SNP demands.
As with local government, the Scottish strategy will rest on fiscal visibility. The Scottish electorate can, it is increasingly being said (although not in such direct terms), be brought back to its political senses through full fiscal devolution. If the Scottish Parliament has full and visible authority over tax-raising and service provision, the SNP will take the heat for the tax rates that uncut services require. Scottish politics will thereby be pulled rightwards.
Can it work? If we return to the history of local government, and compare the political climate today with that in the early 1980s, the answer is undoubtedly yes at least over the long-term. Will it be adopted. Probably not. As the Daily Telegraph warns, there may be too many risks.