In a confidential memo addressed to the Prime Minister, an adviser has argued that supporters of the government are ‘increasingly apathetic and disunited’ due to its failure to appeal to the ‘popular imagination’. Beyond tackling the consequences of the economic crisis, most people he argues do not have a clear idea of what the government stands for, what its principles are. It must, he asserts, ‘stand not only for good administration but for an ideal … the ideal of national unity’. The coalition must proclaim ‘the great political ideal of National Unity’.
Before I go on, I should admit that I am quoting from a memo written in 1934 by the soon-to-be Conservative MP Duncan Sandys and intended for the eyes of National Government Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald. A copy is to be found in the National Archives.
The National Government was Britain’s last peacetime coalition before David Cameron and Nick Clegg came to terms in May 2010. Composed of all Conservative MPs and elements of the Liberal and Labour parties it was created in 1931 to address an acute economic crisis and remained in office, keeping government spending down while – some would argue as a consequence – unemployment and social division rose.
The longer the National Government went on the greater was the pressure for the return to a single party government or for the governing parties to merge. Many Conservatives favoured the former – as with the current coalition they formed the major part of the government’s voting force in the Commons. Sandys was a Conservative, but a young and self-consciously ‘progressive’ one. He consequently claimed that in 1934 ‘the distinctions between the old political parties are becoming blurred … the modern age has proved that it is possible not only to reconcile, but actually to unite and harness in the service of the state, the best and strongest elements in different political creeds’.
The problem, Sandys argued, was that National Government policies were widely regarded as the result of horse trading between its constituent elements. ‘This’, he wrote, ‘is estranging the all-important floating vote, which, because it is non-party and essentially “national”, resents what it imagines to be concessions to this or that party prejudice’. In other words, the government needed to transcend its individual parts to become a principled whole. Its leaders also had to tackle the impression that it was merely a Conservative government under another name: this meant building up its non-Conservative elements.
Sandys was aware that the bitterest opponents to this approach were members of his own party: the ‘Tory right-wing’ he conceded advocated a return to ‘the old party politics’. He feared that the extreme section of this group would never be reconciled to the ‘national ideal’ but that many might be converted if they were persuaded that the protection of the Empire was at its heart. This would then reconcile them to what Sandys believed were the government’s ‘progressive’ social and economic policies.
In the end, the Sandys memo appears to have been ignored. The National Government remained a Conservative-led coalition but one in which its other elements slowly lost any significant influence, especially after Stanley Bladwin replaced MacDonald as Prime Minister. Baldwin quite liked the situation as it allowed him to isolate his right-wing Tory Die-Hards, the most prominent of whom was Winston Churchill (who in 1935 became Sandys’ father-in-law).
Of course, the situation faced by the current coalition might echo the experience of the National Government but there are some significant differences. Thus, while the Conservative right is critical of Cameron’s decision to join with the Liberal Democrats, securing the Empire does not quite have the purchase it might once have had. The Sandys memo nonetheless does point to an abiding tension inherent to any coalition government: the nature of the relationship between the parties that form it. Initially both Cameron and Clegg wanted to emphasise the points of principle that united their parties and in the coalition’s earliest days some even talked of merger. Since those halcyon summer days of 2010 little has been said of that – in public at least. Indeed for much of 2011 the party leaders have been more inclined to underline areas of disagreement. But who knows, right now a modern day Duncan Sandys might be tapping out a memo on his iPad ….