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Labour peer Andrew Adonis gives us his account of the negotiations that followed the UK General election of 2010, when no party won enough seats to form a Government alone. Although not published till now, Adonis explains that the book was written near-contemporaneously and that shows through in the anger and frustration that seeps from the pages.
(For non-UK based people, coalition government is highly unusual in Britain and not much liked. The Lib-Dems, who held the balance of power, stunned many, not least their own members, by being willing to deal with the Conservatives and back an austerity plan that they had consistently campaigned against in the run up to the election. The Labour party was divided – they had comprehensively lost the election, but should they hand over to the Conservatives, their traditional class enemies, who planned major cuts in public services, or should they try to form a coalition of the ‘losers’ to keep the Brown/Darling recovery plan on track? It’s hard to explain to anyone who isn’t a UK political junkie how those 5 days played out and how they changed some of the political certainties in Britain, perhaps for ever.)
The book is short and the main part concentrates entirely on the negotiations – Adonis assumes that readers understand the background and the main political and economic questions of the time. We get a vivid, sympathetic view of the Labour team and of the much-maligned Gordon Brown. The Conservatives are only in the background (since Labour obviously wasn’t negotiating with them) and the Lib-Dems don’t come out of the whole sorry episode well – Adonis (once a Lib-Dem himself) can’t stop some of his bitterness showing through at their turn to the right. It’s a very readable account, not bogged down with some of the self-aggrandising that can be a feature of political memoirs, and the reader gets a real feel for the stress and exhaustion in the Labour camp.
In the last 40 pages, Adonis looks back at his account with the benefit of distance and is endearingly honest about his own bias in the first, contemporaneous section:
‘5 days in May was written in the heat of battle. Re-reading it after nearly three years, it reminds me of a general’s despatch after one of Britain’s all too common defeats in the Napoleonic wars, dictated while the smoke was still swirling and the dead and maimed being taken off the field. It is vivid, partisan, and angry about the perfidy of Albion’s supposed allies, in this case Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems.’
Adonis assesses why the Lib-Dems acted as they did, concluding that both Clegg and David Laws (their chief negotiator) were always more right-wing than they seemed or than the rest of their party. He also discusses the benefits or otherwise of coalition and concludes that Labour must keep the door open to a future coalition with the Lib Dems, however bitter that pill would be to swallow, but must first and foremost try to win outright.
I found this an excellent read, biased yes (but then I’m on the same side as Adonis so that didn’t bother me too much) but revealing and blessedly short and to the point. Is it still a democracy when one man (in this case Nick Clegg) gets to decide who will govern for five years regardless of pre-election promises? A question that will become more and more relevant in Britain as the old two-party system fades further into the distance with each passing year. Highly recommended for left-leaning UK political nerds – not sure how interesting it will be to other people though!
PS I had to laugh at the subliminal advertising on the book jacket – Brown faded into the background, then Clegg, then Cameron; and finally, right at the front, Ed Miliband! A triumph of hope over experience, perhaps?