A party dying on its feet

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.

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12 thoughts on “A party dying on its feet

  1. expertly summed up i’ve never voted Libdem but did believe they were a party of principle an alterntive to the big two. I expected this attack on public services from the Torys but expected a hell of a lot more from the Libdems, is Clegg so obsesed with power that he will give up everything to keep it?

  2. The sad nature of politics in this country is that compromise is inevitable, and whilst purism in idealism has its place, if you ever want to be in a position to implement many – any – of the excellent motions passed into policy by Liberal (Democrat) conferences over the years, you have to accept that life is not perfect and that coalition means compromise. You profess radicalism but will never be in a position of power to see that radicalism become fact – well, we Lib Dems are making Britain a fairer, freer, more liberal country, and if you can’t accept the good things accomplished because we were not able to rule the country alone, then the fault is yours. No UK government elected in 2010 could have avoided cuts, and I’m glad that we are in power doing our best to tackle those 5 giants of Beveridge than stood on the sideline carping. The fact that you prefer the tiny, helpless Liberal party of decades ago to the large, powerful and still way to the left of Labour Liberal Democrats speaks volumes, but I hope we, and the coalition as a whole, can change your mind in this regard and prove that we have done good for the country as a part of the coalition.

    • But the combination of liberalism and conservatism is bringing the very worst. I cannot see councils being capable enough as they are populated by people who enjoy being big fish in small seas when others are too busy or not interested.

  3. Z, The tiny, “helpless” Liberal party of decades ago brought in abortion rights and the legalisation of homosexuality. The argument that the LibDems could have voted, piece by piece, is a powerful one.

  4. I too sat in that hall in Llandudno and was inspired by our willingness to break the mould and not conform. I left the Lib Dem’s over Kennedy’s disgraceful sacking of Jenny Tonge. I also disliked the “lots of government” approach we had drifted into, which sees us install sleeping policemen (so presentist) whilst underfunding the filling of potholes. Too much government is clearly bad news and costs a lot money. I rejoined the Party this year. Why?

    Like many people who work and pay taxes, I want to be represented. I resent supporting the 1 in 5 who now get benefits, a level far too high and unsupportable by any society. Why should I have no pension or a smaller one, when I am being taxed to see people in Public service have bigger pensions and better benefits? Why should I cut back and live within my means when others get support I do without? Why should I, despite paying tax, end up with the same as someone who has never worked? A decent society with real welfare based on what you have contributed has ceased to exist in Great Britain, “contribute and pay more and get less, do little or nothing and get more”, seems to be the motto nowadays.

    Good Government is about getter the balance right between those who contribute and those who need help. The last Labour Government failed in this respect so badly, we are now horribly in debt.

    Talking about “slashing and burning” when the cuts are so timid they only take us back to where we were in 2005 seems a bit OTT? I can only assume you are personally affected. So have I been, but ultimately those who created and contribute deserve more recognition than those who receive. The pendulum is swinging back, and about time too.

    The NHS sounds good, but compared with European countries which operate with an insurance based system with an element of choice, we are failing and badly.

    Your life experience has motivated you. So has mine, I use to employ 400 people and pay a very large amount of tax. Having thrown in the towel to a state that penalises and punished people who create and employ, I now pay little tax and employ just myself. I wouldn’t dream of employing anyone nowadays, it’s a lottery of bad luck, and I say that based on experience.

    You think this society is better off like this? Think again, once the enterprising (the rich to the left) have been taxed out of existence or exile, the end result will be a society with a very low state wage, no right to protest and ration cards for basic food stuffs (Cuba for example and increasingly Venezuela).

    Above all there is no greater truth that that debt is slavery, and nowhere is that more true than with Government.

    So I say to you, you abuse “alarm clock Britain” and mug your children and grandchildren to pay for your benefits now, but I, like so many others want no part of it.

    Good luck Cleggy!

    • this is also interesting but are you both saying there is no middle way? we used to think there was, when the likes of me were the first of their generation to go to university and eventually join the middle class.

      someone must represent the centre for the bulk of the British people who voted for it last summer.

      you are both possibly in danger of allowing politics to polarise

      I was always taken with the idea of breaking the mould as I tried to help get the chap who wrote the book into parliament but we haven’t broken it all. It is reforming rapidly, engulfing us all.

  5. Thank you for some excellent insight.
    And a fantastic example for the wisdom
    of ‘every day people’, talking to other
    ‘every day people’. I am getting
    to the point now, where, if you speak
    because you work for the govt, a
    corporation, a newspaper or even
    a charity, I switch off. This article
    As the voice of someone speaking
    without an interest group to promote
    defend. So refreshing.

  6. You clearly weren’t at the conference, nor watching coverage. In fact, did you write this before it even started?

    Had you been there you would not have seen ‘whining’ delegates ‘on their knees’ nor did we ‘dislike the protesters’, of which there were much fewer than expected. No, we told the Tories and our leadership what we didn’t like and suggested bold changes.

    All this done in a pluralistic and open manner you would no doubt recognize. That progress over party attitude is after all the defining character of the liberals and logic for the coalition.

    • No, I wan’t there – after all, I’m not a member – but I did follow the conference and I wrote this afterwards, out of disgust at the the way Clegg tried to appropriate the legacy of Keynes and Beveridge and the way that the delegates sat there and applauded this nonsense. Today’s events – Cameron declaring that there will be no change to his NHS proposals – shows how futile was Sunday’s debate.

  7. Pingback: Abusing Beveridge’s legacy « Notes from a Broken Society

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