Thursday, 13 May 2010

Tory-Liberal Parallels with the Fox-North Coalition

There is a rather strange and embittered article in the Guardian today by Andrew Adonis, the former transport minister. He draws parallels between the new ‘Liberal Conservative’ administration and the Fox-North coalition which held power between April and December 1783.

The Tory Lord North, who famously lost America, formed an administration with the radical Whig Charles James Fox, after defeating the government of Lord Shelburne. It was an unlikely pairing and was bitterly opposed by George III who, among other things, was appalled by the influence of the libertine Fox on his son and heir, George Augustus Frederick. Though Fox and North were the prime movers, the prime minister was actually William Henry Cavendish-Bentinck, Third Duke of Portland. Undermined by its own contradictions and lack of support, it collapsed before the year was out, making way for two decades of political dominance by William Pitt the Younger.

Though there are undoubtedly major hurdles ahead for Britain’s new administration, especially over policy, parallels with the North-Fox coalition do seem rather forced. The likes of Nick Clegg and David Laws, for example, do not seem hugely different in their economic and social outlook to the likes of David Cameron and George Osborne (Clegg is on record as saying that social democracy is dead). None are tainted by failure as yet (unlike North), nor does anyone resemble the colourful loose cannon that was Fox. They are not propping up a lame-duck PM, like the Duke of Portland. And The Queen seems happy enough with the arrangement. So it seems odd that the normally generous Adonis, the arch pragmatist, intelligent student of history and a former active member of the Liberal Democrats’ forerunner, the SDP, should see such similarities.

But there are resonances he has missed. The Duke of Portland was of Dutch extraction and educated at Westminster, like Clegg; and both North and Fox were schooled at Eton College. The grip of such schools on the body politic remains almost as great at the beginning of the 21st century as at the end of the 18th. Until very hard questions are asked about the nation’s education system and acted upon, it will remain so.

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