An American travelling in, say, Nigeria who is asked to make a cash payment for someone to ’smooth the process’ they should be doing as a normal part of his or her job is likely to level accusations of corruption. Yet a similar payment made in the United States would likely be classified as a ‘tip’ for better service.
An American friend of mine always carries wads of $10 and $20 dollar bills whenever he visits popular restaurants or clubs. “A good tip smoothes the process of getting in or getting a good table,” he argues. What causes such payments to be perceived as legitimate or illegitimate is largely a cultural question.
So here we are. The Conservative Party has agreed to spend £1 billion of taxpayers’ money on Northern Ireland in order to form a government with some modicum of stability. And they are doing this having spent the last several years arguing that there is not enough money to adequately fund public services or welfare payments. As with the ‘tip’ question, the political classes have aligned on different sides. For proponents, the need for stable government justifies the payment in the national interest. For opponents, it is the worst kind of pork-barrel politics.
It is pointless to deny that both sides have a point. Does the nation really need further instability? Would voters welcome yet another election, another tedious campaign, and possibly no different an outcome? Conversely, is it right to buy power with taxpayers’ money when the electorate has just delivered a clear verdict against a Conservative majority government?
What makes this arrangement different from the 2010 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition is that it was clearly bought with money. In 2010, the parties agreed to a coalition deal based on a political compromise between each party’s manifesto commitments. There was not even a smell of power for sale.
One cannot blame the DUP for negotiating a good deal for Northern Ireland and for their constituents. And for preferring that to a formal coalition. For those who criticise the Conservatives, it is worth asking the question, and expecting an honest answer: What would you have done if you were in Theresa May’s position? Where the only route to staying in power with some degree of stability was taxpayers’ money?
I find it impossible to come down clearly on one side or other of this argument. While I fully understand the Conservative government’s position, there is no denying that the situation is uncomfortable. At a time when trust in politics continues to sink, when Britain is hopelessly divided, a nation no longer at peace with itself, its own citizens and its nearest neighbours. When few are clear what Britain still stands for and which fundamental British values remain relevant, being forced to resort to this sort of arrangement fails the smell test.
But the tragedy of our hopelessly adversarial and tribal political system is that, in Britain, a grand coalition of the two main parties along the lines of what has been happening in Germany these last five years is utterly inconceivable. And for that all parties must look in the mirror and take responsibility.
Of course, they will not. They would rather continue to throw stones at each other to score cheap political points. The national interest be damned.
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