Propelled into the limelight by the televised leaders’ debates and riding high in the opinion polls, Clegg seemed to fancy himself as a British Barack Obama. “Change” was the order of the day. Labour and the Tories were the “old parties”.
Coming from the leader of a party that was formed from a coalition of Whigs, free trade Tories and middle class radicals in the 1850s, this all seemed a bit rich.
When the bubble burst, and the Lib Dems limped home with six fewer MPs than they started with, you might have expected a little humility from Clegg. Instead the hung parliament saw him anointed kingmaker. He flirted with left and right before deciding that a lash-up with David Cameron would usher in an era of “new politics”.
Clegg quickly moved to reassure Lib Dem voters that the coalition deal was “our best guarantee of a fair society”. Those Lib Dem activists who didn’t defect in disgust were left arguing that having a few Lib Dems in government would help rein in the worst excesses of the Tories.
In fact, the current leadership of the Lib Dems will find themselves sitting very comfortably around the cabinet table. The party has spent the past several years trying to walk a political tightrope: appealing to the right in the south west while trying to woo former Labour supporters in urban and student areas. Mass disaffection with Labour over issues like the Iraq war and tuition fees made it easier for them to achieve this balancing act.
But the Lib Dem leadership is not nearly so balanced. Most are closely associated with 2004’s The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism, which was edited by Paul Marshall (chair of Marshall Wace LLP, one of Europe’s largest hedge fund groups) and David Laws. Laws, a millionaire former investment banker, is now the chief secretary to the Treasury, tasked with slashing public spending to the bone.
The book was intended to put the argument for a return to free market “economic liberalism”. Clegg, Laws and the others wanted to steer the party away from “nanny state Liberals” – those on the social democratic left wing of the party.
So Laws calls for the abolition of the NHS in favour of an insurance system of healthcare that would be provided by a mixture of public, private and voluntary services. If you’re thinking that you’d rather not have this man in charge of deciding what gets the chop, you’re not alone.
Vince Cable argues for massive government deregulation and privatisation. It should come as no surprise that Cable’s first major decision as business secretary was to start drawing up plans to privatise Royal Mail.
Some have argued that Nick Clegg’s pro-EU stance will make it impossible to work alongside the Tories. But in The Orange Book, Clegg argues for repatriation of social and agricultural powers from the EU.
Susan Kramer, defeated by the Tories in the election, calls for market forces to be put at the centre of the fight against climate change.
One could be forgiven for thinking that these arguments had come straight out of Cameron’s manifesto. In fact, since the unceremonious dumping of first Charles Kennedy and then Menzies Campbell from the leadership, these ideas have increasingly guided Lib Dem policy.
Clegg’s decision to throw his lot in with Cameron is going to cause major problems down the line. Kennedy admitted that he could not support the decision to go into coalition with the Tories. Party activists and councillors have already started to quit, with many of them defecting to the Greens.
But among Lib Dem voters, the results could be catastrophic. Imagine how voters in places like Redcar, who voted Lib Dem in protest at Labour’s inaction over job cuts at the Corus steel plant, will react to their new MP propping up the Tories and voting through cuts. Or how students, attracted to Lib Dem opposition to war and fees, will feel about them allowing top-up fees to rise and prosecuting the war in Afghanistan.
The tensions within the Lib Dems will be sorely tested in the years ahead. The role of those of us fighting against cuts and privatisation will be to push those tensions to breaking point.
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