To govern is to choose: it’s a lesson the Lib Dems are learning the hard way
Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government,’ David Steel told the Liberal Assembly in 1981. Twenty-nine years, six leaders and a merger with the Social Democrats later, the party is at last in government, but not in the way it had hoped.
The Liberal Democrats have historically prescribed higher spending as the cure for most government problems. Yet today, in coalition with the Conservatives, they are proposing the largest public spending cuts since the 1920s (the last Lib-Con government).
So far, the Liberal Democrats have held it together. Not a single parliamentarian has defected. Only a few councillors have quit. But the same cannot be said for the party’s supporters. The army of new Lib Dem supporters, who appeared from nowhere in the aftermath of the ‘I agree with Nick’ election campaign debates, have vanished — along with many of the party’s previous supporters.
At the peak of Clegg’s popularity, the party polled at 34 per cent. On election day, it secured 23 per cent of the vote. Today, its support is 12 per cent. The question facing the Lib Dems this week, as they head to Liverpool for their party conference, is just how far down the coalition will drag them.
In this climate, a Lib Dem split seems highly likely. This is, after all, a party that was forged since Alex Ferguson became manager of Manchester United. The Lib Dems have a much smaller core vote than the other two parties — and far fewer safe seats. Unlike Labour or the Conservatives, they could be reduced to a single figure number of MPs in just one election.
Clegg confidants admit that almost anything could happen to the Liberal Democrats now. They could split, with the rump being absorbed by the Conservatives — as happened last time they were in coalition. They could be wiped out at the next election. Or they could become the new holders of the balance of power in British politics, as coalitions become the norm.
Optimistic Liberal Democrats think that history is on their side — and that Britain is ceasing to be a two-party country. Since the war, Labour and the Tories have seen their combined share of the vote fall from 92 per cent to 67 per cent. It is far from a fantasy to say that hung parliaments may now become a permanent fea-
ture in our political landscape, even without the change to the voting system which the Liberal Democrats want to secure in next year’s referendum.They can expect to be in government regularly.
The most enthusiastic Liberal Democrats will tell you that the busting of British politics’ duopoly is also leading to a less tribal politics. As ancient allegiances break down, voters are more likely to shop around—to the benefit of the third party.
All this would be fine, if the Lib Dems’ poll rating were not in freefall. The loss of 40 per cent of the party’s support since the election gives weight to another theory: that, by going into government with the Conservatives, Nick Clegg has alienated two of the party’s key voter groups, left-wing social democrats and anti-politics voters. One Lib Dem secretary of state recently predicted that, after the cuts start to bite, Lib Dem support would fall to a new low of about 5 per cent.
But both the optimists and the pessimists are ignoring the biggest challenge facing the Liberal Democrats: they have to decide who they are. As the second opposition party, the party could ignore its own ideological division: the split between the liberals, like Nick Clegg, and the social democrats, like Simon Hughes. In office, this becomes much harder. The party has to decide which direction it wants to try and push the coalition in. To govern is to choose.
Moreover, the party’s ideological dif-
ferences are now complicated by another factor. Most of the Liberal Democrats who have government jobs are on the liberal wing of the party, while the backbenchers and the activist base tend to be social democrats. It is the party’s perennial problem: the classically liberal instincts of MPs such as David Laws and, indeed, Nick Clegg himself are unreflective of a membership that was at its most comfortable when attacking New Labour from the left.
To some, this makes a split almost inevitable. Westminster insiders say that a sizable number of Liberal Democrats will walk out next May if the referendum on the alternative vote is defeated and the party has fallen into single figures in the polls. I understand that one Lib Dem MP—not Charles Kennedy—has already spoken to Labour figures about switching parties. If, next May, the AV referendum is defeated and the Lib Dems suffer major losses in the local and Scottish elections, he might be tipped over the edge.
The Cameroons can’t say it in public — and are reluctant to admit it even in private — but a Lib Dem split would suit them rather well. If left-leaning Liberal Democrats go off to either Labour or the political wilderness, it would be easier for the Tories to do business with those who remain. Many backbench Tories are confident that they could gobble up the liberals who stick around. Thus the natural, two-party order could be restored.
Those Lib Dems who regard Labour as their natural partners see hope of a rapprochement in Scotland, where next year’s elections could well make a Lib-Lab governing coalition a possibility. But some in Scottish Labour would rather run the risk of minority government than deal with the Tories’ partners in cuts.
The Liberal Democrats may have to grow accustomed to getting the left’s cold shoulder. Ed Miliband has already made it clear that he would not work with Nick Clegg after the next election. And as the full pain of the cuts is felt, anti-Lib Dem sentiment on the Labour side is bound to harden. By the next election, the Lib Dems may find that only one party will co-operate with them: their current coalition partners, the Conservatives.
‘My husband enjoys his own company — after all it grossed £30 million last year.’
SPECTATOR.CO.UK/COFFEEHOUSE For the latest in news from Westminster the spectator | 18 September 2010 | www.spectator.co.uk Charles Moore
It is a convention of modern politics that cuts in public spending must be made sorrowfully. Etiquette seems to demand that phrases like ‘unpleasant task’ and ‘sharing the pain’ be used. Just before writing this, I heard Francis Maude on the Today programme deploying such terms with studious moderation. But one notices that most top-quality politicians, including Mr Maude, actually take some professional pleasure in the work. They are right to do so. It should be an absolute condition of taking money from the public through taxation that the person taking it minds wasting it. It is an absolute certainty, given the amounts of money taken, that huge amounts will be wasted. In the Gordon Brown years, it was wasted more than ever before. So it should be a satisfying task to find the waste and get rid of it. Few gardeners say how agonisingly sad it is for them to trim their hedges or pull up weeds. A surgeon does not protest that it pains him to cut up a patient. The tasks are part of the work. Mr Maude, in particular, is identifying huge amounts of money frittered on government advertising, consultancies and misapplied IT projects. He is tackling the scandal of redundancy terms so generous that civil servants cannot be sacked. It is wrong to crow when one is making decisions which deprive some people of money, but it is fine to say that what one is doing is not so much unfortunately necessary as positively good.
If one does not argue strongly for cuts one cedes the rhetorical advantage to one’s opponents.This is now beginning to happen.The Labour party and the TUC are finding a voice, because they are ‘against the cuts’. Theirs is a stupid position, since they do not yet know what most of them are, and they cannot propose what they would do instead. This debate was avoided at the general election. Even now, with the advantage of two parties, carrying 60 per cent of the vote between them, agreeing the cuts, the government is shy. I am not pretending its case will be wildly popular, but I do suggest that it is underplaying its hand.
Given the global fuss when Pastor Terry Jones and his minute congregation threatens to burn the Koran, I wonder what would happen if any of our theatres dared to perform Tamburlaine the Great. In this oncefamous play by Christopher Marlowe, the conqueror Tamburlaine captures modern Iraq, shoots the governor of Babylon (‘now he hangs like Baghdad’s governor,/ Having as many breaches in his flesh/ As there be breaches in her battered wall’), and then orders that the Koran be burnt (‘and all the heaps of superstitious books/ Found in the temples of that Mahomet’). Rather in the way that the crowd tormented Jesus on the cross by telling him to get God to save him,Tamburlaine taunts Mahomet:‘Why sendst thou not a furious whirlwind down/ To blow thy Alcoran up to thy throne…?’ Of course it is Tamburlaine, not Marlowe, who incites what Muslims would see as a blasphemy, but, in the current climate, would any theatre dare bet on fanatics accepting this distinction? One notices that modern theatre, despite its love of being ‘edgy’, tends to attack safe political/religious targets, such as George W. Bush and American Biblebashers, rather than genuinely dangerous subjects, like extreme Islam.Also, the mere act of burning the text, even for stage purposes, would be violently opposed. Anyone brave enough to put on the play should send out advance publicity saying, in large letters, ‘No Korans were harmed in the making of this production’.
Asthe Pope arrives in Britain, there will be some Christians who wish to distance themselves from him. I feel that, in current conditions, this is a mistake. I tend to adhere to Bart Simpson’s ecumenical doctrine, promulgated shortly after, to his mother’s dismay, he converts to Catholicism: ‘It’s all Christianity, people.The little stupid differences are nothing compared to the big stupid similarities.’
Wespent last weekend in west Dorset.The view from Lewesdon Hill over Marshwood Vale across to Golden Cap must be as good as anything that southern England can offer.What I can never quite decide is whether the landscape of northern or southern England is the more beautiful. I am fairly unusual among people I know in having spent at least one night in every county in England. (The one exception is Cornwall, which I have visited only for the day, and of which I have the presumably unfair impression that it is packed with tourists from end to end.) This is because journalism, broadcasting and speechmaking have taken me to the towns, and field sports, friends and a general love of exploring have taken me to the country.The case for the south is that, in the west at least, it has more sweetness, more small, hidden things, more hedges and combes. It also — Lewesdon Hill is a classic example — has a wonderful relationship with the sea, which adds a touch of drama to an otherwise very domestic setting. The north, on the other hand, has a more bony quality which is exciting.You rarely get the sense, which can be stifling in summer in the south, of being trapped in too much vegetation with too limited views.You feel more on top of the world. Even in drawing this north/south divide, I am conscious of slighting the Midlands —which do not fit into either category —where places like Staffordshire and Leicestershire are much more attractive than people think. So perhaps my comparison is odious.The only county hard to praise is Bedfordshire.
Wehavea camera which does ‘face recognition’, cleverly discerning the human face in a scene and focusing on it automatically.A student I know tells me that he and some friends went to a fancydress party where lots of the girls wore bustiers. One girl was particularly notable for what Sir Peregrine Worsthorne would call her embonpoint.Their camera decided that her breasts were faces, and zoomed in on them like a drunken lecher.
the spectator | 18 September 2010 | www.spectator.co.uk