It has been a disorientating week. The advent of a Conservative government is enough to send a shiver down the spine. Yet like a scientist attenuating a particularly unpleasant virus, the Liberal Democrats appear to have succeeded, for now, in tempering what the new Home Secretary Teresa May once described as the “nasty party”.
On paper at least – and this is genuinely surprising – in many ways the new coalition government is more progressive than its predecessor. At long, long last the House of Lords is to be elected; a referendum is to be held on the Alternative Vote for general elections; ID cards are to be abolished; the Scottish Parliament is to get more powers; there is to be a clampdown on “unacceptable” bankers’ bonuses; and income tax allowances for the poorest paid are to be raised, although not quickly enough.
To pick out two items on the debit side, there will be savage cuts in public spending and Trident will be replaced, policies Labour had promised to pursue, the former unavoidably so. (Labour, having lost the election that nobody in their right mind actually wanted to win, is well poised to capitalise on the inevitable unpopularity such cuts will bring at the next election.) The tribes will continue with their war dances and spear-throwing, but for serious people with an interest in how the country is governed and what reforms are introduced, the only way forward will be a sort of stunned studentship of events. Coalitions are inherently fragile and this one may unravel, but if intent is matched by achievement there is a real prospect of change for the better.
As we went to press, Orkney and Shetland’s Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael was waiting to hear whether he is to be appointed to the government. If he is he will be the first representative of these isles for more than 50 years to wield power at Westminister.
The Liberal Democrats will undoubtedly pay the price for joining the Conservative enterprise, locally and across the country, but the sum in question for Mr Carmichael will depend upon how he can use that power to tackle issues like high fuel prices for the benefit of his constituents.