The myth of the national interest in the Cameron coalition narrative

The launch of the Lib-Con’s ‘Programme for Government’ saw Prime Minister Cameron appeal not for the first time to the ‘national interest’, a concept that seems to be gaining increasing currency in anticipation of the possibility that established party differences might create embarrassing obstacles in the era of the ‘new politics’.  You will have noticed, and will continue to experience, the authoritative invocation of this handy phrase from the leaders of the government.  I would advise any optimistic Coalitionists out there that ‘the national interest’ does not lend itself to much objective usage.

It is establishing itself in Cameron and Clegg’s vocabulary with good reason too.  While the Coalition will continue to portray a convergence of values based on a thoroughly legitimate concern for the ex-government’s erosion of civil liberties, Labour’s statism will become a bit of a straw man after a while.  Obvious ideological differences between the Lib Dems and the Tories will be exploited to full effect by Labour in opposition and the media, and the idea that these can be rendered benign by a higher cause has obvious appeal to both sides of the Coalition.  

Putting aside party interests’ is a particularly banal tautology; at what point would the Conservative Party concede that their principles do not reflect what’s best for Britain?  Are we to assume that the past two weeks have revealed some happy coincidence between Tory fiscal policy and the national interest?  If we had a Labour government right now, the national interest would be defined as maintaining fiscal stimulus, and protecting the recovery.  Instead Britain’s interests are best served by immediate cuts.  The pliability of the term exposes the absurdity of any attempt to use it seriously.

The Coalition, existential proof of the diversity and representativeness of British politics, rests on the fiction that Cameron will objectively defend the national interest, which logically implies that the national interest must be seen as threatened.  Immediately after the scale of the Conservatives’ underachievement in the election had been recognised, Cameron began the public rationalisation of a deal with the Lib Dems. His post-election speech, ‘National interest first’ will be remembered for its ‘big, open and comprehensive offer’ to Clegg.  But it is also indicative of the kind of alarmist, apocalyptic rhetoric which will be essential to the success of the Coalition government:

‘[Britain] did not vote for party political bickering, grandstanding and point scoring – our country’s problems are too serious, they are too urgent, for that…We must sort things out, as quickly as possible, for the good of the country’

So Cameron dutifully assumes the traditional paternal vestige of his party, clearing up Labour’s mess and administering the painful but necessary policies that serve the interests not of a self-serving elite but of the nation.  I’m not saying this sort of negative cohesion is anything new in politics – it is as old as the hills. This makes its usage by Cameron in suggesting that we have entered the ‘new politics’ even more nauseating.


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