Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: Labour and the Conservatives so distrust each other they could be mistaken for Northern Ireland politicians...

It used to be majority rule was unacceptable here, but was fine for GB. Not any more, says Malachi O'Doherty

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn
Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn

By Malachi O'Doherty

It has long been a key difference between Northern Irish and British politics. Majoritarian government worked in Britain and did not work here for a very simple reason. That is that both big parties over there were stuck with each other.

Even now, with a balance of big parties that many European countries would be comfortable with, we in Northern Ireland cannot have majority rule.

With an ordinary, majority-rule election to Stormont, we might end up with either Sinn Fein or the DUP in coalition with Alliance.

We might even find them voluntarily in coalition with each other. And, since every party would, in such a system, need to be on the lookout for a partner, the dynamic of majority rule might even be benign; it would soften everybody's edges, create the need for all to get along.

So, why is it unthinkable? Because nationalists and unionists profoundly distrust each other. Power-sharing works on the principle of keeping your enemies closer to you.

Neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP would trust the other to govern, even given the opportunity to take over in government itself after four years. And even if the other had to give Executive posts to the Alliance Party, Ulster Unionists, or the SDLP.

In Britain, by contrast with here, Labour and the Conservatives may fear and despise each other, but they cannot refuse to be governed by the other.

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When Labour was preparing for victory in 1964, during the Cold War, many in England raised the spectre of Harold Wilson taking his orders from the Soviet Union. Constantine Fitzgibbon wrote a nasty little novel anticipating the horror of it all, When The Kissing Had to Stop.

And there were moves towards a possible coup.

Yet, Wilson's Labour gave us massive social reform.

The economy was in a bad way for a time, with devaluation of the pound - seen as a very bad thing back then - though it was the Conservatives under Heath who gave us the three-day week.

You couldn't say in the 1980s that Margaret Thatcher and Michael Foot were each content that the other wouldn't do irreparable damage to the country, but neither contemplated breaking the parliamentary system to save us from the other.

That parties are able to do that here rests not only on the depth of their contempt for each other, of course, but on the safety net of Westminster.

The great declaration of a spirited Irish identity implied in the Sinn Fein boycott of Stormont is nothing of the sort; it is a retreat to the snug underside of a British comfort blanket. Which isn't so snug right now for the nurses and those who are waiting for so-called "elective" surgery, like hip replacements.

Still, politics is the art of the possible and it is not possible in Britain for parties to go on strike and bring government to a halt.

If they refuse to govern, then someone else will do it.

In other countries, it can take quite a while sometimes to put together a coalition of those willing to govern and has done recently in Germany and in Israel, but ultimately, when they have to, parties with every bit as much contempt for each other as Sinn Fein and the DUP will pull together for the good of the country.

This week we face a general election in which British parties compete for government from positions of almost total mutual disdain.

A front-page editorial of The Observer this week described the current Prime Minister as a charlatan. I don't recall that language being used by a serious newspaper before.

Boris Johnson is regarded, even by former colleagues and friends, as simply unfit to govern. Few of them would say we would be better off with Jeremy Corbyn.

The Observer and its sister paper The Guardian have, in recent years, sneered as fulsomely at Corbyn as they now do at Johnson.

The situation is worse than it was when Thatcher and Foot faced each other. Each thought the other would ruin the country. Few thought both were right.

What was most exasperating about our identity-centred wrangling here is that it distracted from concerns that were more important. Margaret Thatcher had made the pension taxable and set it on a trajectory of progressive decline in value. Student grants disappeared.

The family doctor who used to come to the house and make you say "Aaaah" has gone.

Now, you make an appointment that may be weeks away, or sit in a queue in A&E. And Universal Credit has been a nightmare, leaving some people without money for weeks.

Isn't it marvellous how they give grand reassuring names to restrictive policies?

We have seen successive Tory governments berate the poor for their poverty. Any time there is a rise in unemployment created by Government policy changes, the Tories will blame the people without jobs. The worst of it is that many struggling people will believe them and vote them back into power.

Boris Johnson's snide remarks about single mothers have come back to remind us of how little fellow feeling he has for the disadvantaged, but the single parent was the routine whipping target of Tory party conferences in the 1980s and 1990s.

What put an end to that was not the awakening consciences of crass people, but simply the embarrassment of being exposed as the creators of single-parent families themselves.

We now have a contender for government in the Labour Party which is making a revolutionary proposal, to reboot the welfare state. It's a brilliant idea, but few believe it can be done; the chimera of a happy Brexit is apparently more attractive than a promise of a well-ordered benefit system and reformed social care.

And where this plan should be confronted with intense analysis to see if it is raising false hopes of a recovery of the social values that made Britain wonderful, it is just being sneered at.

Everyone knows that Boris Johnson tells lies, that he is utterly superficial in his political arguments, but still it seems more English voters say they would rather have him than Corbyn, as if this was a presidential election.

And whichever type of government we get after Thursday, we will be stuck with it. There will be no option of bringing it down by boycotting it, even when half the country is likely to fear and despise it.

And that's the horror: England will have become more like Northern Ireland.

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