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Decorum on display

Cameron and Clegg have put the acrimony of the past behind them and agreed to adjust to forge a new shared platform, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: May 16, 2010 01:20 IST
Karan Thapar

I wonder how many of you followed the outcome of the British elections? I found it riveting. Not just because of the thoughtful and thought-provoking way the BBC covered the unfolding political drama but also because of the final result and the delightful British conventions that were on display as we got there.

After 65 years Britain has a coalition government. The last one was put together by Churchill and Attlee during World War II. Then it was high-minded nationalist politics. This time the commentators spoke openly of horse-trading and late-night fixes in smoke-filled rooms. But don’t let the similarity of language delude you into thinking of our own sordid arrangements. This was an honest compromise and if principles have been sacrificed on both sides it wasn’t for crude party, leave aside, personal gain.

Both Labour and the Conservatives vied for the Liberals. They offered the best they could. At times it felt like an auction. But once the deal seemed imminent acceptance was immediate. Thus Gordon Brown, without delay or demur, resigned. In fact, he did so before the incoming coalition was formally announced and, consequently, Messrs Cameron and Clegg were caught by surprise. For her part, the Queen did not hesitate to ask the Tory leader to form a new government. She did not demand letters or pledges of support. She accepted his word when he said he was in a position to form a government, knowing that if he was wrong Parliament would bring him down.

After the back-room bargaining it was back-slapping, first-name camaraderie. Hours later the details were spelt out on television. If you recall their earlier bitter rivalry, the agreement they’ve reached is quite incredible.

For the last five years the Tories spent their time in the Commons shouting down Clegg each time he spoke. During the election debates some of the most heated exchanges were between Cameron and the Liberal leader. Yet they’ve put the acrimony of the past behind them and agreed to adjust their party positions to forge a new shared platform. The Conservatives have accepted a referendum on proportional representation and changes in proposed tax cuts. The Liberals, in return, have agreed to deep deficit cuts and a cap on non-EU immigration. And both have decided there will be no new institutional commitment to Europe without a referendum.

What we did not hear even a whisper of are demands for specific portfolios by party leaders out to grab the ‘rich’ ones for their side, phone calls by lobbyists promoting friends or their employer’s preferences or the use of MI 5 and SIS to corall recalcitrant politicians who might otherwise have strayed. And I doubt if six months from now British television channels will be broadcasting the secret tapes of the midnight deals that brought the Conservative–Liberal arrangement into being!

However, what I found particularly engaging was the attention to touching convention and detail. When Brown drove into Buckingham Palace to resign he was saluted by the guards. On the way out he wasn’t. Why? Because he was no longer Her Majesty’s prime minister. In reverse, when Cameron drove in the guards ignored him. When he left they gave a cracking salute. But both men, whether in or out of office, had to negotiate London’s tortuous traffic. At times they crawled, at red lights they stopped where often the crowds ran up to wave and cheer.

Can you imagine something even remotely similar in India?

The views expressed by the author are personal