It seems curiously fitting that, on the same day that Nick Clegg vents his frustration at aspects of the coalition, the news should also carry the story of a man who incinerated his own underpants in a microwave. Marx famously wrote that history repeated itself first as tragedy, then as farce; but the history of the Liberal Democrat contribution to the coalition appears to mingle the two in a cocktail of betrayal, incompetence and at times sheer stupidity. Consider the history of the coalition announced with such high hopes in May 2010; within days of taking office, the architect of Orange Book Liberalism is forced to resign, the guardian of the public purse caught with his fingers in the till, his replacement apparently reduced to being no more than the Chancellor’s human shield; the U-turn on tuition fees; the betrayal of the NHS, in which the Liberal Democrat peers suffered the ultimate indignity of being outflanked on the left – on the left – by David Owen; the humiliation of the AV vote; and now the final indignity of the withdrawal of House of Lords reform.
Every single Liberal Democrat red line traduced, while a Conservative party that lost the 2010 Election has been maintained in office, and given free rein to destroy services, emasculate local government and pursue the largest redistribution of wealth from poor to rich in modern history, sustained in office by Liberal Democrat votes. Tory bloggers in the Daily Telegraph may fulminate about how, thanks to the Liberal Democrat influence, this isn’t a real Tory government; but this is merely the Lib Dems taking the fall for things like the abolition of the Human Rights Act or withdrawal from the EU that the Tories in office could never have delivered any way; or for failing to allow the delivery of a right-wing moral agenda that Cameron and his Notting Hill chums have little interest in delivering. At every point the Liberal Democrats have failed to make any difference.
Back in 2010, I heard people of Liberal Democrat leanings excitedly talking about opportunity, and my predictions that it would all end in tears being dismissed as a manifestation of my usual Eeyorism. But how could it have been any different? The British Conservative party has an instinct for the concentration and wielding of power that makes many dictatorships look like rank amateurs. The Liberal Democrats were like lambs to the slaughter.
This is partly because, as a party, they represented an uneasy marriage of two quite different political traditions. On the one hand there were social radicals, people at the grass roots who really believed in change, and who embraced causes – CND in the 1980s, environmentalism and identity politics more recently. What they lacked was a coherent theory; their heart in the right place, their star in the ascendant in the Liberal Democrat party that emerged from the merger of the Liberals and SDP, but no real grasp of economics and a lack of any systematic approach to society. On the other hand, the Orange Bookers – drawing on the nineteenth-century Liberal traditions of laissez-faire and more recent theories of public choice and intelligent markets, but with a belief that the market could serve a benign vision of social progress, most significantly when accompanied by the reform of political institutions. These were the people who gained the ascendancy in the period leading up to 2010 – people like Laws and Clegg himself, and even Vince Cable who was able in opposition to deliver withering analyses of bubble capitalism even while Orange Book zealots were embracing the ideology that made such bubbles possible. In other words – an incoherent fissiparous ideological mess.
In Government of course the Orange Bookers have been in the ascendant. Shrinking the state? Provision of healthcare in the private sector? Local government as a commissioner of services from the private sector rather than as an active agent of social change? It’s all there in the Orange Book for anyone with a strong stomach and a taste for turgid prose. In many respects, this has been an Orange Book government. Where the Orange Book vision has matched the Tory passion for free markets, a minimalist state and private sector provision, this has seen a coalition of common cause, with Liberal Democrats as enthusiastic cheerleaders for privatisation and cuts. But political reform is different. The price of Liberal Democrat cooperation was a commitment to political reform – but it is becoming increasingly clear that this was a commitment that the Tories were never able or indeed willing to deliver. Clegg and his colleagues simply lacked the will, nerve or common sense to enforce his part of the pact. Clegg may whine that Labour skewered Lords reform, but that pass was already sold – the Bill that Clegg sought to defend was simply bad legislation, with almost every reforming instinct removed to appease the Tories. By the same token, AV was a milk-and-water reform that would have made little difference. Cameron and his party never wanted political reform and were never going to allow it, except insofar as it suited their interests (i.e. a smaller House of Commons on reformed boundaries which would have wiped out any gains in proportionality from AV).
Shirley Williams – in the days before she became a cheerleader for privatising the NHS – said that a centre party would have no heart, no roots, no philosophy. It was a comment that was eerily prescient of what would bring the Liberal Democrats down – a party with no real theory, of conflicting political standpoints, whose leaders lacked the judgement and objectivity to get past the glamour of office in striking the coalition deal. Never trust a Tory was the cry when, thirty years ago, I was active in the old Liberal Party. Or, as Tawney wrote about Labour in 1931, to kick over an idol you must first get up off your knees. There are aspects of the old Liberal tradition that are desperately needed today – its empiricism, its emphasis on democratic and representative processes, its assertion civil liberties. Liberal Democrats, through market idolatry and sheer bad judgement, have helped ensured they are sidelined.