During Britain’s recent election campaign, someone asked David Cameron, the Conservative leader who is now prime minister, for his favorite joke. He replied, “Nick Clegg.” During that same election campaign, Nick Clegg, now the deputy prime minister and a Liberal Democrat, accused Cameron of “breathtaking arrogance.” “In this country,” Clegg declared, unsubtly alluding to his opponent’s aristocratic background, “you don’t inherit power, you have to earn it.”
All of which was pretty lame, by the standards of British politics. Winston Churchill once described his opponent Clement Attlee as “a modest man with much to be modest about” — and, on another occasion, as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing.” Elaborating on that same theme, one Labor politician infamously dismissed an opponent’s attack on the grounds that “it was like being savaged by a dead sheep.” Not all of the nastiness is between parties: When asked why Margaret Thatcher so disliked him, her Tory predecessor, Edward Heath, merely shrugged. “I am not a doctor,” he said.
Insults, both amusing and otherwise, are central to British public life: This is a country in which the government and the opposition glower at each other from opposite sides of the House of Commons, in which backbenchers jeer when their opponents speak. American partisanship, whether of the Nancy Pelosi or Sarah Palin variety, is a pale imitation by comparison. All of which explains the genuine fascination of the Cameron/Clegg, Conservative/Liberal Democrat, rightish-leftish U.K. coalition: After 21 days, it has become clear that this isn’t just a government, it’s a cultural sea change.
Curiously, the two men at the center of the whole thing are making the adjustment easily. Thanks, no doubt, to their identical educations (boarding school, Oxbridge), they share an identical sense of ironic distance and an identical sense of humor. At their first news conference, Cameron humbly confessed to that “Nick Clegg” joke, Clegg pretended to walk off in a huff, Cameron melodramatically shouted “come back!” and all was well in officers’ mess.
But others just can’t seem to get their bearings. Richard Littlejohn, the Daily Mail columnist who occupies the cozy space between right and far-right, last week careened between belittling Cameron (he is “working on the basis that it’s best to get your betrayals in early”), praising the new government’s plans for welfare reform and simultaneously predicting that they will fail (“I don’t want to rain on his parade . . .”). Meanwhile, Polly Toynbee, who occupies a similar place on the left, furiously ranted against the new coalition’s plans to cut the deficit — Britain’s deficit is the largest in Europe, even bigger than that of Greece — while assaulting the Labor government for, um, wanting to cut the deficit.
Whom to attack? Whom to defend? It’s hard to be a partisan columnist when all of the partisan lines are being redrawn — but it’s even harder to be a partisan politician. There are Tories who went into politics to fight against European integration. There are Liberal Democrats who went into politics to support it. All face the same, very real, moral dilemma: Stick to your principles — and thus torpedo your party’s crack at power — or compromise. And each political crisis, each major decision is going to force each of them to face that dilemma again.
Already, we have had a taste of what is to come. Over the weekend, a senior Liberal Democrat, Chief Treasury Secretary David Laws, resigned after news emerged that he was claiming expenses for an apartment rented from his (male) partner. Amid all of the normal squeals of glee and horror, another urgent question emerged: Could Laws — an economically literate fiscal conservative — even be replaced? Is there another economically literate fiscal conservative in the Liberal Democratic Party? The Tories seemed prepared to accept Laws, but there is no guarantee they will accept his replacement. The Liberal Democrats seemed prepared to accept Laws’ budget cuts, but there is no guarantee they will accept them if they appear to be “Tory” budget cuts. No one knows what will happen next.
It’s a drama that is going to last as long as this coalition, and it’s only going to get more interesting: Unusually, this government’s fate depends on not only the normal political calculations but also on some more basic questions about human nature. And there are lessons here for the rest of us. If it succeeds — if the coalition stays together, if it tackles Britain’s financial crisis, if it reforms education and welfare, if it produces a coherent foreign policy — we will know that yes, it is possible to convert bitter partisanship into amicable bipartisanship without destroying your party or losing your soul. And if the coalition fails — well, maybe partisanship can’t be overcome after all.