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.