2010 will always be, for me, the year of apology, the year of humble pie, the year I go it wrong. Yes, I know: I get things wrong all the time – I’m a political journalist after all. But this was different. During the general election campaign in May, I suggested that in certain key marginal seats, like Edinburgh South, voters should consider voting for the Liberal Democrats. Why? Because I thought there was a chance that, by levering in more LibDems, we might finally see a fair voting system in this country, proportional representation. There was a good chance that a Liberal-Labour coalition – for that seemed the only credible outcome of a hung parliament – would finally end the first past the post voting system that handed too much power to Number Ten and not enough to the House of Commons. I also hoped that the Liberal Democrats might act as the radical conscience of a Liberal Labour coalition. Hadn’t they stood alone against the Iraq? I even commended the Liberal Democrats to students since they – and only they – had given cast iron pledges not to increase tuition fees in England or introduce them in Scotland.
You see now why I am so contrite? Why I can scarcely show my face in progressive company? I deserve to wear a hair shirt as penance and to flagellate myself twice daily with copies of the Liberal Democrat manifesto. Ok – that might be going a little too far – sounds rather like one of those recreational passions of Tory MPs in the 1990s. So, hold the flagellation. But I resolve never again to give electoral advice.
But this isn’t just about me. The outcome of the Rose Garden marriage of Nick Clegg and David Cameron in May 2010 has done huge damage, not only to students and our university system, not only to those many decent people in the Liberal Democrat party, but to the cause of parliamentary reform and constitutional change as a whole. Politicians had only just emerged from the doghouse after the expenses scandals of 2009. Now they are exposed, not only as home flippers and duck house purchasers, but as irremediable promise-breakers. People who simply cannot be trusted. The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg’s campaign mantra was: “Isn’t it time that politicians kept their promises?”. He devoted an entire election broadcast to this theme. But now after fees, VAT, spending cuts, I doubt if anyone under thirty will vote Liberal Democrat again – at least not until Nick Clegg is safely ensconced in some lucrative post in Brussels. It is hard to conceive of a greater betrayal of trust. Nick Clegg – and Vince Cable – have undermined democracy by confirming everyone’s worst fears about politicians’ lack of collective integrity.
But let’s spin the tape back a little to remind ourselves of the context and the circumstances that led up the LibDems winning a share of power for the first time in eighty years. We began 2010 with the brutal disintegration of Gordon Brown’s political authority. The man who had saved the world financial system – and there is more than a shred of truth in that claim – had become an unsellable commodity in Britain. And it WAS personal. People just didn’t like him – especially English people. He was seen, not least by many in his own party, as a dour, unsmiling Scot who had a brutal temper, was an administrative disaster area, couldn’t make a decision and stick to it, and surrounded himself with yes men and attack dogs like special adviser, Damian McBride, he of the libellous emails about women Tory MPs.
At any rate, that’s how the prime minister was portrayed in Andrew Rawnsely’s epic account of the last years of New Labour, “The End of the Party”. Brown bashed furniture, physically manhandled aides, rose at unearthly hours to compose emails to ministers and voters alike. No, it was not a pretty sight. But at least he seemed to have some grasp of economics. It is fascinating to read Brown’s own account of the financial crisis “Beyond the Crash” and map it across to the Brown ‘coup’ stories that were dominating the headlines while he was trying to mend the world’s banks. If there is anything to be said for Brown it is that he really did have other things on his mind.
But the country had made up its mind: whatever happened it didn’t want Brown. Indeed, it didn’t like the rest of New Labour much either, especially after three former Labour cabinet ministers, Geof Hoon, Patricia Hewitt and Stephen Byers were caught on camera offering their services to private interests for personal gain. Stephen Byers uttered the immortal lines; “think of me as a taxi cab for hire”. Tony Blair didn’t exactly do his image a great service either by selling his services to every wealthy Arab leader and international bank willing to put up a couple of million pounds to buy his name. The sheer venality of the Blair crew was breathtaking. It was like a satire by Armando Iannucci, whose “The Thick Of It” brilliantly captured the moral bankruptcy of the New Labour era. Only worse.
Brown was toast, but the opinion polls suggest that the Tory Leader David Cameron hadn’t yet ‘sealed the deal’ with the electorate. There seemed something shallow about his policies, which is hardly surprising since they were designed to avoid too much policy detail. The big Tory idea was the “Big Society” which meant pretty much whatever anyone wanted it to mean, from voluntarism and self help, to the small state and US-style workfare. When the Conservatives got into office we discovered that the Big Society was really Thatcherism with a smiley face. Ministers have launched a fatwa against the welfare state, with deep cuts in housing benefits, council services and ‘nonessentials’ like arts funding in England. As Vince Cable himself remarked last week, there has bean a “Maoist” tendency within the Tory part of the coalition, that seems intent on upturning institutions like the NHS in England just for the sake of it.
The general election campaign of April/May 2010 will always have a special place in history because it was the first in which there was a televised leaders debate – though the leader of Scotland’s governing party, Alex Salmond, was excluded from it.. I still don’t quite understand how the BBC could broadcast these programmes in Scotland, since only three parties were represented in a four party country. But the SNP case was lost even before it got to the courts.
The debates were a revelation; Nick Clegg was a revelation. His direct approach, his apparent honesty, his promises on Trident and redistribution of wealth, captured the imagination of the nation. Here was a leader who was not only articulate and telegenic, but actually seemed to be offering a different kind of politics. Not mired in the neo-conservative dogmas of New Labour and the Tories, but determined to use the state to make Britain a more equal society. Brown seemed stiff and conservative by comparison; David Cameron as insubstantial as a puff of air freshener. The Liberal Democrats raced into contention and seemed about to replace Labour as the second party in the UK.
It didn’t last, of course. By the final week of the campaign, the novelty had worn off, Labour had reasserted itself and the Tories, who had all the money in this election, were spending their way back into a comfortable lead. Then, Brown self-destructed during a visit to Rochdale his aides inadvertently left his radio microphone on and the PM was recorded describing a loyal Labour voter, Gillian Duffy, a “bigoted woman”. That Labour managed to prevent the Tories getting an outright majority after such a disastrous campaign was quite an achievement – though no one is quite clear whether this was down to Brown’s leadership or Cameron’s lack of substance. Whatever: Britain woke up on the morning after election night to discover that, for the first time in thirty five years, it had no government.
The following few days of hectic post-election horse trading sowed the seeds of the Liberal Democrat tragedy. Nick Clegg ruled out any coalition with Labour – hardly surprising since a rack of former Labour politicians like Lord Reid of Celtic, took to the airwaves opposing it. In order to seal the deal with the Tories, however, Nick Clegg had to accept that the Liberal Democrats would abandon key election pledges, including the scrapping of tuition fees, in exchange for getting five cabinet posts. Nick and Dave emerged joking and blokeish to Downing Street Rose Garden and announced a new dawn of co-operative politics.
Within weeks, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, had begun the job of axing the state to pay “the debts of Labour”. Certainly, Britain had run up an unsustainable budget deficit during the recession of £150bn, which had to be paid off. Those who insist that the deficit is nothing to worry about are wrong: there is nothing socialist about debt, about having to spend more in interest payments than on education. With a deficit running at Greek levels, Britain is still in danger of a sovereign debt crisis, though no one is allowed to talk about it for fear of panicking the markets. The debt had to be reduced. But, over what time-scale, and who was going to pay the cost? We very quickly learned that, whoever else is going to be fleeced, it wnn’t be the City of London. VAT and inflation will rise, living standards fall, public services will be axed, people will lose jobs – but the bankers will continue to enrich themselves. By awarding themselves multi=million pound bonuses and salaries, financiers like Bob Diamond, the new chief executive of Barclays, thumbed their noses at the British taxpayers, who had bailed the banks out with a rescue package officially costed by the Bank of England at £1.2 trillion. The lavish remuneration packages were an insult to ever working person in Britain. Even nationalised RBS – the “world’s worst bank” – announced its intention to pay its investment bankers a billion in bonuses in 2011
Britain’s politicians simply capitulated in the face of the bankers’ naked self-interest. ‘Nothing we can do..got to get the financial system working again…government can’t dictate pay’. Perhaps, but the voters were outraged, not least at the banks’ failure to recycle public funds through making loans to small businesses. The banks were allowed, in effect, to borrow from the Bank of England at 0.5% and then buy government bonds yielding 3% and pocket the difference – so why bother lending? A great injustice has been allowed to stand, as savers and pensioners are robbed by inflation, which has been running at 4.6% RPI, in order to bail out households and banks which had run up unsustainable debts. ‘Quantitative easing’ by the Bank of England has led to the 2% inflation target being missed for over a year. Then English students were told they would have to pay £9,000 a year tuition fees.
When the government announced the new tuition fees policy, following the report by the former BP chairman, Lord Browne, no one expected a revolution. After all, there had been very little unrest over public spending cuts, job losses, pension raids and short time working. Why would students – who anyway wouldn’t be paying the fees – get out of their beds to protest? Then, on November 10th 2010, they did. 50,000 students, including 2,000 from Scotland, took to the streets in London in the first serious extra-parliamentary challenge to the political establishment since the poll tax demos of 1990. It culminated in the “Battle of Parliament Square” when rioting students set he streets alight and broke into treasury offices.
Of course, the bill to increase tuition fees in England passed into law, though it split the Liberal Democrats. But the bitterness and sense of betrayal remains. The focus of the student anger was Nick Clegg the Liberal Democrat leader. His party’s popularity collapsed and his party has been bumping around 8% in UK opinion polls. Already, people are talking about Nick Clegg being given a sinecure in Europe as a reward by the Cameron government.
As the snow fell, and politics ground to a halt, we don’t know how all this will pan out in the New Year. Scottish politics, which had been largely sidelined by events on the UK national stage, went slightly doolally as ministers resigned for getting the weather forecast wrong. For what it’s worth, Labour established a clear lead over the SNP in the Holyrood race. But the students seem to have won a promise from the SNP that, in Scotland at least, there will be no tuition fees. That promise will be under intense scrutiny in the run up to the Scottish election in May. And if the SNP win, one thing is certain; they’d better stick to it in office.