In the Doctor Dolittle series of children’s books by Hugh Lofting, there’s a creature called a pushmi-pullyu which has a head at both ends of its body. When it wants to move, the heads attempt to go in opposite directions.
When two parties form a coalition, they may initially move cooperatively towards one or two mutually-agreed destinations. But resentment soon sets in when one partner gets dragged backwards to allow the other to advance. If the ideological distance between the two parties is significant, as it is with the Tories and the Lib Dems in the UK, the coalition is doomed to become a pushmi-pullyu.
In that scenario, there are two possible outcomes. Either the opposing forces within the coalition cancel each other out and progress is stymied or there’s a series of quid pro quo trade-offs that leave everybody, including the likes of Business Secretary Vince Cable, believing there’s “no coherent strategy”. It’s obviously difficult to have a “compelling vision of where the country is heading beyond sorting out the fiscal mess”, as Vince Cable complained in his leaked letter to David Cameron, when the coalition partners are looking in opposite directions.
While the Tories beat the drum for aspiration, enterprise and hard work, the Lib Dems throw up their hands in horror at prosperity and resolve to punish the “privileged” few who have had the temerity to attain it. So are our political masters saying affluence is something we should all strive for, or is it a crime against society? It’s just one example of the contradictions and mixed messages issuing from our government today. No good ever came of ideological promiscuity.
It’s not just about conflicting ideologies anyway. It’s also about the processes and the very nature of government. Coalition members disagree about the optimal extent of government involvement in our everyday lives. Although the Tories generally disapprove of big government and central control, the noisy neighbour Lib Dems are relishing their rare opportunity to get involved and do some meddling.
Doctor Dolittle’s pushmi-pullyu was eventually reduced to performing in a circus. Worryingly, the Lib Dems and the Tories are already engaged in a merry dance over taxation and the NHS Bill. It’s not particularly edifying and it’s not in the country’s best interests to be led by cabinet members cavorting around in circles. All the signs suggest the Coalition will be in the circus business if it is allowed to serve a full term.