Nick Clegg made a wide-ranging speech today to mark his five years as Liberal Democrat leader. It was very much a justification for his position in coalition and I don’t want (on this occasion) to examine his record on the NHS, on tuition fees or on removing universal benefits from the elderly – important though those issues are. I wanted to pick up on a particular phrase which seems to me to sum up the depth of the delusion behind the politics of this coaltion:
The Tory right dreams of a fantasy world…where we can walk away from the EU, but magically keep our economy strong…where we can pretend the world hasn’t moved on, and stand opposed to equal marriage…where we can refuse to accept the verdict of the British people and pretend the Conservatives won a majority of their own.The Labour left lives in a different, but no less destructive, fantasy world…where their irresponsible borrowing in government can be remedied by borrowing more…where every budget reduction can be opposed without explaining where the money should come from…where games can be played with political reform and EU budget policy without long-term damage to their credibility.
The accusation of a fantasy world is ironic: it comes from the Deputy Prime Minister of a Government that has moved further away from the disciplines of evidence-based policy making than any in recent history, in a way that seems to me to be largely a result of the dynamics of coalition.
Responsible government means that political leaders are obliged to take account of the realities of life. There are things that party zealots would like to do that are not practicable, or reasonable. A party leader is moderated by the discipline of dealing with reality – of reminding followers that the world is not always as they would like it. The presence of Nick Clegg and his party in Government has allowed the Tory Party to dispense with that responsibility. Leaving the EU, abandoning the Human Rights Act, abolishing “health and safety”: the swivel-eyed tendency of the Conservative Party can rationalise its inability to do destructive ideologically-motivated things like this, not because they are crazy and wrong and impossible, but because the Liberal Democrats won’t let them. And their friends in the media are happy to parrot this line.
Moreover to most observers, by backing austerity economics, the effective privatisation of health care and education, and the demonisation of those on benefits, it would appear that the Liberal Democrats have done precious little to moderate the ideological agenda of the Tory Right (no surprise to those of us who have read the Orange Book, of course) – or, on all those things, to make policy in a way that reflects hard evidence.
And there is no doubt that the effect of this coalition has been to lead Government ever further from the discipline of evidenced policy-making; it has strengthened the power of ideology in the context of a political system in which all main parties discount evidence in the face of their common ideological assumptions. The evisceration of the Civil Service, whose role has long been to present Ministers with an evidenced response to party policy, has accelerated this process further.
There is a notorious comment made by one of George W Bush’s aides – it’s often attributed to Karl Rove – in response to a journalist seeking to discuss facts:
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Nick Clegg and his party, wittingly or not, have played an indispensible role in ensuring that the neoliberal Right – of which the Orange Bookers are of course an integral part – have created their own reality, ungrounded in the experiences of their fellow citizens. Far from acting as a bulwark against fantasy politics, Clegg and his party are its principal enabler and cheerleader.