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electoral reform. liberal democrats. coalition. Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg: an apology.

  I suppose I should apologise.  I was one of those McChattering hacks who urged Scottish voters to consider backing the Liberal Democrats, tactically, last May.  Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.  The LibDem surge seemed like a unique opportunity to break the dead hand of the two-party monopoly in Westminster and introduce fair voting. It was time, I said, to bring an end to elective dictatorship once and for all.

    But look where it’s landed us: with the most conservative government in modern times pushing through the most swingeing programme of public spending cuts since the “Geddes Axe” of 1921.  And declaring war on welfare and the NHS (in England at least).  And what have we  Liberal Democrat fellow travellers got in return?  A referendum on the Alternative Vote method of proportional representation, which it isn’t actually proportional and which will very likely be defeated anyway.  Ok , they have got things like scrapping identity cards and a raising of tax thresholds, but these are small beer.  And now Nick Clegg has declared that there is “no future” for the Left in the new, Tory-friendly LibDems.  All those election promises about Trident, taxing the bankers, not increasing VAT, hammering CGT tax avoiders, abolishing tuition fees…all sacrificed in the interest of getting Liberal Democrat bums on cabinet seats. 


    How did we let this happen? At the Liberal Democrat conference in Liverpool this week, a lot of activists are going to be asking that very question, if for no other reason than that many of them stand to lose their jobs.  LibDems tend to work in areas like higher education, local government, quangos and charities all of which are ripe for the axe.  Hundreds of LibDem councillors too, especially in the north of England, may be getting their P45s in the not too distant, now that the party is bumping down as low as 12% in a YouGov poll last week.   Like them,  I seriously underestimated the willingness, indeed the enthusiasm of English Liberal Democrats for the Tory agenda of ‘building down’ the state, returning to an older, Gladstonian version of laissez faire liberalism.  Abandoning the policies of John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge, both celebrated Liberals who were, respectively, the fathers of state intervention and he modern welfare state. 

   Now, by saying “English Liberal Democrats” I don’t mean to attack the Cleggies for their nationality. There is a north-south divide here, as in so many aspects of British politics.  Scottish Liberal Democrats, like Charles Kennedy, Lord Steel and Sir Menzies Campbell – all former leaders of the UK Liberal Democrats – are really a very different breed from the “Orange Book” Liberals who seem to be driving the‘ConDem’ coalition.   On issues like VAT, tuition fees, immigration, Iraq, Trident, banking reform, taxation, these three former leaders were, are,  instinctive social democrats and were often considerably the left of Labour.  But their current leader, Nick Clegg, appears to be fully signed up to a right wing, neo-liberal agenda in the deficit reduction programme and the proposals for welfare reform.  Just look at his speeches and articles; look at his body language, even his face.  Clegg is, to all intents and purposes, a Tory – a liberal Tory, a humane Tory, even a broad-minded Tory, but a Tory nevertheless.  This isn’t a broke back coalition at all, it is a Tory coalition. 
 
    Time for a little history:  We’re so used to thinking of Lib-Lab pacts and what used to be called the “realignment of the centre left” that we’ve forgotten that for much of the 20th Century, the Liberals aligned with the Conservatives.  Sir Eric Geddes, who swung the “Big Axe” in 1921 was commissioned to do so by the Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition led by David Lloyd-George. The crisis was similar to today’s: government borrowing had got out of control during World War 1,  interest payments were rocketing and  the bond markets had to be placated.  So Geddes proposed cutting spending by  25%  and sacking one in three public sector employees.  Sound familiar?  The cuts were never made in their entirety, but some economists believe that the Geddes axe led directly to the General Strike of 1926 and contributed to the Great Depression.  The Liberals joined the Tories again in the 1931 National Government, after which they split into three factions. That could happen again. 

But as late as 1951, Liberals and Tories candidates often agreed not to stand against each other in general elections.  Now, today, the Tories like the former cabinet minister David Hunt, want to revive this pact in 2015 save the skins of endangered LibDems.  Something will certainly need to be done.  Many LibDem MPs were only elected on the basis of protest votes from Labour supporters who were fed up with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown   They have now found that life under he Libdem is ten times worse and will be scurrying back to vote for whichever of the Millipedes takes over at Labour.  Even Nick Clegg could be vulnerable in Sheffield Hallam, so the Tories might agree not to field a candidate there.  Whether that makes any difference to their chances, remains very much to be seen. The way things are going, even the Monster Raving Loony Party will be more ejectable than many Liberal Democrat MPs. 

   It seems to me that there are already two distinct Liberal Democrat parties, though none of them will be willing to admit it this week.  It divides on regional and party lines between the anglo-Tories and the Scottish-social democrats.    Left to his own devices, there is simply no way that Charles Kennedy would have ever supported 25%-40%  cuts in departmental spending in the  middle of what is looking like a double dip recession.  There is equally no way that Lord Steel would have supported an immigration cap that even Vince Cable, the business secretary says is “doing great damage”, and of course Sir Menzies Campbell has made clear his continuing opposition to tuition fees. These tensions are already present, and will surely get worse after October 20th when we learn exactly where the spending axe is going to fall.  To use one of Nick Clegg’s favourite words, it’s going to be choppy 

   After the inconclusive general election in May, and during the hectic negotiations in the smokeless rooms in Westminster, there was something like a palace coup Liberal Democrats – a new generation of conservative Liberals have taken over the party.   So it is perhaps understandable that I, and many like me in Scotland were led to believe that the LibDems were a better kind of Labour Party  We won’t get fooled again.
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About iain2macwhirter

Writer and journalist.

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6 thoughts on “Nick Clegg: an apology.

  1. Fear not Iain,For a conviction, we need both a criminal act and the accompanying guilty intention. Many, I suspect, shared your election-time feeling that a Liberal vote might be an ideal way of breaking down the old dispensation, little anticipating how meekly they would agree to an AV referendum, despite the fact that that system having no real supporters, best I can discern, even among their own membership.Like them, exculpation for you lies in arguing the absence of mens rea.

    Posted by Lallands Peat Worrier | September 19, 2010, 2:57 pm
  2. "It seems to me that there are already two distinct Liberal Democrat parties, though none of them will be willing to admit it this week. It divides on regional and party lines between the anglo-Tories and the Scottish-social democrats."Danny Alexander is clearly an anglo-Tory, though. Which got me thinking: would the Scottish Lib Dems do better next year by rebranding themselves as Tavish's Tartan Tories. Let's face it, the Libs are likely to lose a sizeable chunk of their not-very-sizeable-to-begin-with vote to Labour, and the Scottish Conservatives will do well to hold on to what they got in 2007. Annabelle is soon for the chop and David Cameron has left it to his Lib Dem chums at UK level to deal with the problem of Scotland. It would surely makes sense, then, for the Scottish Conservatives to disband and join up with Tavish's crew. It's a marriage made in heaven: a strong liberal centre-right voice in the Scottish Parliament with 25% plus of the vote.A daft thought, I admit, but no more silly than the Scottish Lib Dems pretending to be liberal and democratic for the past three years. Come on Tavish, you know it makes sense.

    Posted by G. Campbell | September 19, 2010, 5:54 pm
  3. Where now for Scottish Lib dem voters ? It would make sense for the Scottish lib dems to go there own way and be a proper federal party with there own distinct policies etc,however as the Lib dems in Scotland are answerable to London they are very limited ,so will Lib dem voters choose to vote Labour again answerable to London ,so is the answer to this problem that these London based partys seperate from London control ? Oh of course they couldnt as that would bring a proper federal system to the UK and well that is to much to hope for.

    Posted by Conway | September 19, 2010, 6:59 pm
  4. "There is equally no way that Lord Steel would have supported an immigration cap that even Vince Cable, the business secretary says is “doing great damage”, and of course Sir Menzies Campbell has made clear his continuing opposition to tuition fees."Yeah, but what Lib Dems do in power and what they say they will do are very different things.They have, like Labour, become all about winning power – to hell with what you do when you get there.So Ian, you thought that the LIb Dems would be a better kind of Labour Party?You don't get it do you Ian? Labour, Tory, Lib Dem – three cheeks of a very deformed (by the UK establishment) arse.

    Posted by voiceofourown | September 19, 2010, 10:50 pm
  5. I don't understand the idea that the Lib-Dems could break the two party monopoly in Westminster Iain. Even with a good result the Lib-Dems were never going to form a governnment on their own and a coalition was always on the cards if the Lib-Dems did well and that's what you got. If you believed that the Lib-Dems were capable of forming a government on their own then you were not looking very hard at the polls."All those election promises about Trident, taxing the bankers, not increasing VAT, hammering CGT tax avoiders, abolishing tuition fees…all sacrificed in the interest of getting Liberal Democrat bums on cabinet seats."What a surprise eh? However you have to be careful about Trident because the Lib-Dems never promised to abolish it, just to look at alternative ways to deliver the warheads to their targets which may or may not have been feasible as replacements for Trident. They never have been unilateralists like the SNP.It seems to have passed you by Iain that the Lib-Dems are a unitary party of which the bulk is based in England. "The English Liberal Democrats" are the Liberal Democrats and if you based your expectations of the party on the rather remote Scottish Branch it was a rather parochial view. In Scotland the Lib-Dems hope to pick up disaffected Labour voters and in England it's disaffected Labour voters in the North and disaffected Tory voters in the South. They Lib-Dems cut their cloth depending on where they are and in much of England it's the rural Tory vote they're after."So it is perhaps understandable that I, and many like me in Scotland were led to believe that the LibDems were a better kind of Labour Party We won’t get fooled again."So who are you going to vote for in this coming 2011 election Iain? If you're not voting Lib-Dem is it going to be Labour or even the Tories? What you've got to remember is that a vote for either of the three is a vote for keeping Westminster as Scotland's parliament and a vote for Lib-Dem, Tory or Labour is a direct endorsement of David Cameron as the Tory Prime Minister of Scotland. Maybe you should turn against your natural unionist inclination and vote SNP because thats the only vote which is a vote against Tory rule in Scotland.

    Posted by DougtheDug | September 20, 2010, 11:42 am
  6. Clegg encourages his Party to "Enjoy the power." Quite a statement. Clearly he thinks the power made it worth it. Initially I wondered if this coalition might work but I have decided lately that it just won't, it can't. It isn't a coalition: you only have to watch the monstrous Osborne when he speaks and the excitement in his voice when he gets to the part where the poor on benefits will get sorted right out. In five years time, if not before, Clegg will be history. I definitely don't think he will be leading the Lib-Dems.

    Posted by Jo G | September 20, 2010, 1:47 pm

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