During the recent election campaign, someone asked Conservative Party leader David Cameron, now the British prime minister, for his favorite joke. He replied, “Nick Clegg.” During that same election campaign, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, now the British deputy prime minister, accused David Cameron of “breathtaking arrogance.” “In this country,” he declared, unsubtly alluding to his opponent’s family background, “you don’t inherit power, you have to earn it.”
All of which was pretty tame by the standards of British politics. Winston Churchill once described his opponent, Clement Attlee, as “a modest man with much to be modest about,” or, on another occasion, as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing.” Elaborating on that same theme, one Labour politician infamously dismissed an opponent’s attack on the grounds that “it was like being savaged by a dead sheep.” Not all the nastiness is between parties. When asked why Mrs. 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 for a reason: This is a country in which the government and the opposition glower at one another 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 with the Cameron-Clegg, Conservative-Liberal Democrat, rightish-leftish U.K. coalition: After three weeks, 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 press 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 the 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 simultaneously assaulting the Labour government for, um, wanting to cut the deficit.
Whom to attack? Whom to defend? It’s hard to be a partisan columnist when all 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 one 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 on the grounds that he was claiming expenses for an apartment rented from his (male) partner. Amid all the normal squeals of glee and horror, another urgent question emerged: Could Laws—an economically literate fiscal conservative—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. I can’t tell you what will happen next, because I don’t know.
It’s a drama that is going to last as long as this coalition endures, and it’s only going to get more interesting. Unusually, this government’s fate depends not only on 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.