Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Liberal Democrats: the Partick Thistle of British politics

In case you don't know who Partick Thistle are - they are Glasgow's third football team. Their supporters would claim they are for people who dislike the sectarianism of the Old Firm. Their critics would say they are for people who aren't that interested in football.

The Liberal Democrats are the Partick Thistle of politics. There are those who don't vote on some matter of principle ("I won't use my vote; it might get dirty.") and then there are those who use their vote but are uncomfortable with the idea that their votes might actually have political consequences. Chief amongst these are, of course, Liberal voters - many of whom are horrified by Clegg taking theirs and throwing them in with the embryonic Coalition of the Unthinking.

But it isn't just Lib Dem voters who are uncomfortable with power. From what we can deduce so far, there are signs that Lib Dem politicians share this aversion. I appreciate this may seem counter-intuitive, what with the Liberals deserting the centre-left ground they were alleged to occupy in order to do a deal with the Tories. Gone, it seems, is any commitment to the European ideal. Gone is the supposed deal-breaker - PR. All this to gain a seat in power. But behind the sun-eclipsing boner for power that we have seen on display thus far, we also see the genetic discomfort with it that the Liberals have incubated over seventy years. Consider this, for example:
"One of the first acts by the Lib-Con coalition will be to table legislation requiring a minimum 55% of House of Commons votes to force dissolution. So the simple majority no-confidence vote to force a new election evaporated as day dawned at the start of an era of “new politics”.

What this means is that even the implosion of the Lib-Con coalition that sees all Lib Dem MPs streaming into the opposition lobbys with Labour et al will be insufficient to bring down a Tory party government that can count 47% of the available votes."
Brownie remarks, "We all know power corrupts, but isn’t it supposed to take a bit longer than this?" Indeed - but one of the most commonly noted corrupting tendencies of power is for those who have it to seek to acquire more of it for themselves. Yet Clegg here is surrendering power - giving up as he does his party's power to bring down the coalition if it is no longer considered viable.

Cameron, then, has been quick to identify potential impediments to his power and to take steps to neutralise them. Another obvious one is the potential wrecking influence of Scottish votes in Parliament, which is the motivation behind this line in the Con-Lib deal:
"We have agreed to establish a commission to consider the 'West Lothian question'."
This being, "Why should Scottish MPs vote on matters only affecting the English when English MPs, post-devolution, have no such reciprocal powers?" It's not that it isn't a reasonable question. Unlike many of my compatriots, I think it is. It's just what it represents politically: Cameron is seeking to alter the constitution in his and his party's interests and all the available evidence we have so far is that Clegg and the Liberals seem willing to be led by the nose here. You could claim they are motivated by principle but if so, why have they abandoned the demand for proportional representation that they claim to feel so deeply about? Because one could be forgiven for thinking that over the years PR is the only thing that the Liberals hold as a principle that distinguishes them from either Labour or the Conservatives.

It may be psychologising but I suspect that behind all this is some kind of grasp for power combined with a deep aversion to the same. In office but not in power - because they are fundamentally and temperamentally ill-disposed to the latter? I'm not sure but if this is in anyway right, it leaves a question: why did the Lib Dems feel obliged to go into coalition with anyone? They refused to join the SNP in Holyrood and the net result has been that while the nationalists remain in power, they have been confronted on a regular basis with the reality that they simply don't command a majority in Parliament and have been unable to pass any controversial or partisan legislation. I would have liked the Tories to have shared the same fate. But Clegg had other ideas. If he had good reasons for this, thus far he has kept them to himself.
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