Friday, June 25, 2010

On the future of the Liberal Democrats

Alex Massie has a couple of sharp observations about the junior member of our coalition government:
"Labour continue to suffer from the category error of believing that liberals are really Labour voters who don't quite realise this. But this is not the case and it's quite evident that Nick Clegg is no Charles Kennedy. Indeed, the Lib Dem leadership might be thought closer to Germany's Free Democrats or their own ancestors in the Manchester Free Trade movement than to the SDP. When Nick Clegg said "I am not a Social Democrat" (or words to that effect) it might have been wise to listen to him."
He's right - but it's an easy mistake to make for a couple of reasons. Scots like Massie and myself have long been familiar with the way in which the Liberals can serve as a repository for non-Tory rightwing votes simply because this is more likely to be the case in Scotland than in England. Also, it is perhaps an easy mistake to make when you have 'first-to-the-microphone' Liberals like Simon Hughes getting more than their fair share of media attention. Here's his latest principled stand. (Liberals of his ilk always stand.)
"Hughes issued a blunt warning to the Tories that the government would break up if key pensioner benefits in the coalition agreement were cut. He launched the most significant intervention since the formation of the coalition in the debate that followed George Osborne's emergency budget on Tuesday when the chancellor of the exchequer said that welfare would bear the brunt of cuts."
It is indeed possible that the coalition might break up - but it is surely more likely that, with less dramatic consequences, the Liberals will break up? This Times editorial (free subscription) reminds us of the historical trend:
"The historical precedents suggest a sorry end for the Liberal Democrats. On three occasions, the Liberals and the Conservatives have formed a coalition in government and on three occasions the pact has divided the Liberals.

At the end of the 18th century, the Duke of Portland took half the Whigs into the Government of William Pitt the Younger. The “Portlandites” soon lost their independent status. In 1834 a small group of rebels, under Lord Stanley, joined the Tory Government of Robert Peel, only to find itself swallowed up by the bigger party. Stanley himself went on to become a three-time Tory Prime Minister.

In 1886 a large contingent of Liberals, led by Joseph Chamberlain, resigned in protest at Gladstone’s policy on Home Rule for Ireland. They joined governments led by Salisbury and Balfour but, in time, no trace was left of their entry."
Regarding this last example, the Conservatives are called the Conservative and Unionist Party for a reason. This tradition is older than the one that Ed Miliband referred to when he said,
"It takes a long time to establish an honourable political tradition. But it takes a very short time to destroy it. Are [Lib Dems] still the party of Keynes, Beveridge and Lloyd George? We all know these three men would turn in their graves at the idea that the inheritors of the Liberal tradition were supporting this budget."
Furthermore, it was a tradition established in a time when only the Liberals could be the repository of radical, labourist, anti-Tory political impulses, being as it was prior to the foundation to the Labour party. I would have thought, therefore, that the historical pattern was more, rather than less, likely to repeat itself - the ghosts of Keynes, Beveridge and Lloyd-George notwithstanding. The Times editorial that I linked above has both a more positive assessment of the Liberals' participation in coalition than I have, as well as being more optimistic about their likely fate:
"It is still possible that Mr Clegg might escape the fate of the many Whigs before him who have been strangled by the embrace of the Tories.*"
With this I'm reminded of a question that a distinguished theology lecturer I had at university was always inviting us to ask ourselves: "It's possible - but is it probable?" Let's see: measured in electoral terms the least successful party in postwar Britain is going into coalition with Britain's - actually Western Europe's - most successful election-winning machine. But if they can persuade people that they've delivered on a whole lot of constitutional issues that are somewhere between number thirty-seven and 'don't give a flying fuck' on the average person's list of priorities there's still a chance that the electorate will warm to them and they might come out on top? Well, it's possible...

*Thought I'd keep the cheap-shots for the footnotes. The editorial starts out well by including a bit of history - then it spoils it with this nonsense. Can't predict the future of the Times and its paywall experiment but I have to wonder who is going to pay for this shit when you can get speculation from proper historians elsewhere on the web for free?

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