Nearly thirty years ago, a politically-engaged student and president-elect of the Oxford University Liberals, I sat in a dingy hall in Llandudno with several hundred of my fellow party members and heard my then leader, David Steel, tell us to go back to our constituencies and prepare for government. It was heady, inspiring – and unrealistic. Nevertheless there was pride and passion in that party – admittedly some of the pride related to passing a pro-CND motion, moved by one Cllr Paddy Ashdown, on the conference floor earlier in the week – and radicalism. Our mission on the radical wing of the party was to change the world, not to preserve its inequalities and power structures.
Over the ensuing thirty years, the Liberal Party and I went our separate ways – the Party moving to the Right into merger with the SDP and eventually into government in alliance with the Tories, while I spent much of the next thirty years in Whitehall as a politically neutral Enemy of Enterprise, watching, thinking, reading and moving to the Left as my knowledge and experience deepened, and now in retirement engaging with the debate.
Following the Liberal Democrat conference this week, then, has produced mixed emotions. Overwhelmingly, there is a sense of despatches from the front line of the shock doctrine. They don’t quite know what’s hit them – from the intemperate reaction to the protests outside the conference to the growing realisation of their deep unpopularity. Like Macbeth faced with Banquo’s Ghost demanding to know “which of you have done this”, there is a deep denial of the reality of what their party has done.
For anyone with a knowledge of history it was astonishing to hear Clegg referring in his closing speech to Beveridge and Keynes. Seventy years ago, William Beveridge was starting work on the most important document in British social history. His report paved the way for the creation of the welfare state and identified five Giant Evils in society – squalor, ignorance, want, idelness and disease. Keynes had warned of the futility of tackling economic crisis by cutting public expenditure. Clegg claims that “ours is not a government of cuts”. And yet, in the face of all the evidence, from Ireland and elsewhere, Clegg is part of a government that is slashing and burning the public sector, while promoting the cruel lie that you can take £80bn out of the economy in expenditure and create hundreds of thousands of jobs. He sounds like – is – one of the boneheaded fiscal conservatives that Keynes so excoriated in the 1930s. It is not difficult to see him as one of the wing-collared Tories that had done well out of the First World War, arguing for cuts in the face of the depression and rationalising it by claiming that unemployment is down to the fecklessness of the poor. Keynes and Beveridge knew those people, and their Liberal tradition opposed everything they stood for.
And what sort of failure of awareness does it take for a man who styles himself as a radical not to realise that, thanks to his Government, Beveridge’s five Giant Evils are more prevalent than they have been for a generation? Squalor, Ignorance, Want, Idleness and Disease. The assault on welfare, the effective privatisation of the NHS, and perhaps above all – because this lies at the heart of Beveridge – a belief that benefits for the most vulnerable are not a matter of right but are charity, the hand-me-downs of a Big Society of the wealthy and privileged. It takes a special kind of self-deception for the Deputy Prime Minister of this coalition government to portray himself as the heir of Beveridge.
So what of Liberal Democrat activists?
No doubt activists like to laugh at their predecessors. I’m sure that there is no lack of smooth young folk in PR and marketing – people to whom the free market has been good – sitting in the bars at Liberal Democrat gatherings, patronising their bearded and sandaled predecessors. But we stuck to the task and fought for what we believed in. Do you? Is it really more honourable or more adult to be the Tories’ useful idots? You may not have liked the protesters outside your conference, or for that matter the students who marched in London last autumn, but at least they had got off their knees. Have you?
I have no doubt that many of those in the hall in Sheffield were decent, progressive people. But the record makes it clear: a government in which Nick Clegg is comfortable is one that no decent progressive could support. And I’d say to those delegates – stop whining. You may not like what this Government is doing, but you have made it possible. By going into formal coalition with the Tories, you’ve made it possible for them to pursue their shock doctrine. Privatising the NHS and the Universities? Cleansing the poor from the inner cities? Do you really believe any of this would have happened had your party been deciding its position in the Commons on a vote-by-vote basis, rather than going into full coalition with the Tories?
And do you really think that Clegg, let alone the Tories, will take any notice of your vote on the NHS? Yes, Lansley’s been talking the language of compromise, but you know that the die has already been caset. The private sector providers are already looking for the opportunity to profit from the GP commissioners, just as the private sector has leached public provision through privatisation and PFI for the last two decades. The fact is, Clegg’s loyalty – and Laws’ and Alexander’s loyalty – is not to you. It’s to the Tories who control the coalition, and the ideology that drives them. The electorate knows that, and it’s why you’re coming sixth in by-elections.
And if you believe in tackling Beveridge’s Five Giants, every Liberal Democrat leaflet you deliver, every sub you collect, is an expression of moral delinquency. It’s over. Your party is no more than the fading figleaf on a decaying Victorian statue – if you really believe in anything better, tear up your membership card and get out now with your integrity reasonably intact and before the denial poisions your soul.