Saturday, 13 November 2010

Lib Dem Leopards and their Changing Spots

The British press has been awash with stories this weekend about the shenanigans surrounding the creation of our first proper Coalition Government since 1945. In May, by a fluke of electoral arithmetic, the election produced a "hung parliament" where no party had an outright majority over all the others. So the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats agreed a deal to govern together.

Nick Clegg, Liberal Leopard?
Two books have just been published about the deal - one by a Conservative MP, Rob Wilson, and the other by a Lib Dem MP, David Laws - and both show how the Coalition involved the smaller, originally centre-left Lib Dems in making massive compromises to create the rightist ,Conservative-dominated programme for government. From welfare reform, through higher education to the deficit, it is hard to identify any clear trace of the manifesto the Lib Dems had so effusively put to the country just a few days earlier.

The consequences for the Lib Dems appear to be disastrous so far - down as low as 9% in the opinion polls from their 23% in the election and a very bitter reaction from now former supporters. Students in particular have understandably turned angrily on the Lib Dems for cravenly reneging on their flagship pledge to abolish tuition fees, agreeing to nearly trebling them instead.

The Lib Dems, under leader Nick Clegg, have floundered to explain themselves: firstly, they claim that they didn't know how bad the deficit was before the election (although this is hard to sustain - the forecasts prior to May in fact indicated a larger deficit than has turned out and economic growth has been marginally higher than expected). Next they argue that they did not win the election themselves and so have no mandate to implement Lib Dem policies. Compromise, they say, is essential in such a situation.

No doubt it is - to an extent. But the Lib Dems have compromised with vigour: there has been no reluctance shown in surrendering anything to the Conservatives. Wilson's book reveals how the they secretly identified a whole range of negotiable policies during the election campaign. While Mr Clegg was busy harvesting student votes by signing his pledge on tuition fees, his lieutenant, Danny Alexander, was busy writing that the party should not press this as an issue in any negotiations - advice clearly heeded in due course.
Deputy PM Nick Clegg with PM David Cameron, 
12 May 2010

Laws' book, meantime, shows how the Lib Dems' negotiating team kept the Labour Party falsely talking for five days, with the astonishing connivance of the Royal Household, while they fixed up their deal with the Conservatives. In an utter charade, in complete bad faith, they held out the prospect of an agreement with what Laws calls the "decaying corpse" of the Brown government.

These are the same men who throughout the election battered on and on about how they would deliver a new, honest politics after the litany of disasters around the MPs' expenses scandal. But by their gleeful, schoolboy-like revelling in their grubby dealing, they betray their inability to rise above their narcissistic isolation from the world outside their "Westminster Village". All to what end? Seats at the Cabinet table, and little more. No great reform of politics; no more equal society; no great move to a green country. We will have a thoroughly Tory Britain, with even the Post Office privatised and nuclear power stations under construction.

I was an active member of the Lib Dems for many years, including as a parliamentary and European candidate. I served on several national policy working parties and from 1994 onwards felt a slow but determined drift away from any ideological position in anticipation of a possible pact with the pragmatism of Blair's New Labour. A raft of radical, centre-left policies on industrial democracy, citizens' income and overseas trade were quietly dropped. Next, Clegg, Laws and Chris Huhne published the "Orange Book" seeking to embrace the free market in public services. For myself, in 2005 I left and joined the Greens, attracted by their commitment to social justice as well as to the environment.

Shortly afterwards at a friend's birthday party I was introduced to a Lib Dem councillor. My friend explained my recent switch, at which point the councillor became extremely agitated. Why would I do such a thing, she demanded. The Lib Dems had a much better prospect of power. I explained that the Greens were where my principles lay. Her response was telling - principles were superfluous because "if you ever actually get any power, you'll soon find that it's all about compromise - compromise for breakfast, lunch and dinner!"

And that is why we are where we are - they are a party no longer with any moral compass. While there remain hardworking, well-intentioned individual members, nothing matters that much to their leaders - so consequently, everything is up for review. They no longer have any abiding vision or radical imagination, no idea that anything much needs to change. The concept that politics is the infinitely flexible "art of the possible" has been raised to their sole ideology.

Nick Clegg recently told the radio programme "Desert Island Discs" that his favourite film is Visconti's "The Leopard." This epic, a powerful story of the time of the Italian risorgimento, is certainly wonderfully done, and it includes a stunningly apposite line when the Prince of Salina, played by Burt Lancaster, observes laconically, "Something has to change so that everything can stay the same."

Establishments survive by first neutralising and then absorbing any challenge to them - and we are witnessing such a moment unfold before our very eyes. 
"The Leopard" - Something has to change so that everything can stay the same

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