In this article, Judi Atkins examines the rhetorical strategies employed by senior figures in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government in May 2010. Appeals to values, goals, the ‘national interest’ and a common enemy enabled the partners to create an image of unity and win widespread public support for the coalition. She suggests that, with another hung parliament and potential coalition after the 7th of May, these strategies may be instructive.
With the most unpredictable general election for almost a century fast approaching, it seems the only certainty is that neither of the two main parties will win an outright victory. If a single-party minority government is subsequently ruled out, Labour or the Conservatives will need to negotiate some form of agreement with at least one of the smaller parties in order to secure a working Commons majority. This will be no easy task, but the partners must then persuade their members, the media and the electorate that they can work effectively together in government. It is here that rhetoric comes to the fore, as it enables a new multi-party government to construct an image of unity and win support for its agenda. With this in mind, an examination of the rhetorical strategies employed by senior figures in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government in May 2010 may yield useful insights for the next UK multi-party government.
The partners may appeal to shared ideological commitments in a bid to project a united public front. Thus, in their first joint press conference, David Cameron and Nick Clegg unveiled a ‘radical’ programme that was based on the values of freedom, fairness and responsibility. The influence of the two parties’ traditions is clearly discernible in these guiding principles. While a commitment to freedom is common to both, fairness is primarily associated with the Liberal Democrats and responsibility with the Conservatives. Underlying these values is a belief in a smaller state, which facilitated the discovery of common ideological ground between the parties while affording them a means of promoting their goals of greater individual freedom and responsibility.
Although values are undoubtedly important, Cameron asserted that, ‘above all, [the coalition is] united in the purpose of bringing strong, stable, decisive government to our country’. This, he claimed, is ‘something that all Conservatives believe in profoundly’, and as such his statement was intended to unite MPs and party supporters behind the coalition. More broadly, Cameron’s words suggested that his administration was bound together by shared values as well as a common goal, and that therefore it would endure for a full parliamentary term.
The coalition’s stated aim of providing stable government is closely linked to the idea of the national interest. In Cameron’s words, ‘given the massive challenges this country faces, particularly the deficit, the national interest was not served by a minority government limping along. It was served by strong, stable, decisive government that could really act in the long-term interests of our country’. Clegg’s acceptance of this position indicated that the two leaders had agreed on a definition of the problems facing Britain and, moreover, that they had arrived at a mutually acceptable conception of the ‘national interest’. Such appeals to the ‘national interest’ may allow the parties to transcend ideological conflict and partisan concerns, and so afford them an alternative way of finding common ground.
The deficit narrative brought the two parties together to tackle the economic crisis, while uniting them in opposition to Labour. Here, immediate reductions in public expenditure were presented as the means of realising the coalition’s commitments to freedom, responsibility and a smaller state. Furthermore, austerity was framed in terms of the national interest, with Vince Cable arguing that ‘the problem of the financial crisis in Europe over the last few weeks has underlined the absolute priority for establishing confidence in the country’. Indeed, the congruence of the two parties’ thinking on austerity ensured that it acted not only as the cornerstone of the coalition’s programme, but as the overarching goal that would sustain the partnership throughout its five-year term of office.
Meanwhile, the blame for Britain’s problems was placed squarely on the previous Labour government, whose alleged irresponsibility had ‘wrecked’ the economy. In contrast, George Osborne claimed, the coalition would bring responsibility ‘back to the heart of our national life’ by demonstrating that Britain can ‘tackle its debts and live within its means’. The implication is that because responsibility is one of the coalition’s key principles, it alone can be trusted to act in the national interest and take the difficult decisions required to transform the economy and restore sustainable growth. Thus, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaderships invited MPs and supporters to rally behind the coalition, in opposition to the ‘feckless’ Labour Party whose profligacy had left the nation’s economy on the brink of collapse.
At the formation stage, these appeals to values, goals, the ‘national interest’ and a common enemy enabled the partners to create an image of unity and win widespread public support for the coalition. In the longer term, this strategy may have ensured the continued backing of party supporters, as it gave them a number of different reasons to remain onside. So, an individual who initially identified with the coalition’s core values but subsequently felt let down by its stance on Europe, for instance, might nonetheless have remained loyal because they shared its antipathy towards Labour. That this may have contributed to the coalition’s survival for a full five years suggests that the use of similar rhetorical strategies would be beneficial to a future multi-party government, whatever its composition might be.
The full version of this article, ‘“Together in the National Interest”: The Rhetoric of Unity and the Formation of the Cameron-Clegg Government’ by Judi Atkins, is published in the current issue of The Political Quarterly.
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Judi Atkins is Lecturer in Politics at Coventry University. She has published several articles on the relationship between rhetoric, ideology and policy in Britain, and is author of Justifying New Labour Policy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) and co-editor of Rhetoric in British Politics and Society (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).