Thursday’s Question Time gave a few insights into what we Liberal Democrats can expect in the coming weeks. Simon Hughes, a man who no-one could ever accuse of being either unprincipled or the kind of person willing to sell-out for the trappings of power, defended the new politics of coalition in the face of fierce criticism from Labour’s Lord Falconer who alleged that our party had betrayed progressive politics and had sold out its values.
It’s not only Lord Falconer who has been making such criticisms. There have been many within our own party who are angry at recent developments, and some have felt so incensed as to resign their membership. A fellow Lib Dem blogger today claimed that the coalition “makes some of us feel like we have been turned into liars and fools...It's easy to compromise on your principles if you don't have any." Similarly, the former leader of the Lib Dems on Somerset County Council, Greg Jeffries, wrote in The Guardian that “[we] have lost all credibility...Liberals [didn’t] fight so hard to keep Tory candidates out of office simply to find themselves in bed with the old enemy whose values they do not share”. And this is mild compared to some of the harsher criticisms of the popular press.
Even Nicol Stephen MSP is on record as stating that Liberal Democrats have "deep-seated concerns about Conservative policies” and that “about a third of the party opposes working with the Conservatives”.
I do understand concerns about sharing power with the Tories. It was hardly the option I would have chosen; in fact, I would probably have preferred our party to work in opposition with Labour, using Cameron’s lack of a majority to ensure the worst excesses of Conservative policy are avoided and siding with fellow progressives to promote liberal values. But that would not have led to stable government, and there can be few people who fail to understand that stability is necessary to deal effectively with current economic realities.
Those of us with memories of the coalition deal struck between Jim Wallace and Donald Dewar in 1999 will remember how the media then hurled similar accusations in our direction. We had “sold out”, they said. We had “betrayed” the nation in exchange for the trappings of power. We had shown “weakness” over the tuition fees issue. Eleven years later, and nobody with a modicum of understanding of Scottish politics would even suggest such silliness, especially in light of our successes in government.
As Liberal Democrats, we recognise that coalition governments can be effective. For many years we have, rightly, promoted the politics of co-operation. Now that a genuine opportunity to put those beliefs into practice has emerged, it’s vital that we find ways of making it work. Co-operation and coalition rarely happen without compromise and, while I admire fellow liberals’ dedication to long-held principles, I can’t see how Nick Clegg could have realistically gained a better deal from the Conservatives. Those who see the deal simply as Nick Clegg gaining a small place at the top table, or as selling out his party in exchange for cabinet privilege, have misunderstood what he has actually achieved. There may have been little agreed on the potentially divisive issues of Trident and tuition fees (these will have to be dealt with in due course), the pledges on electoral reform may fall far short of what we would like and we might find ourselves sharing power with an unfamiliar partner; however, progress has been made on issues such as taxation, the Calman Commission, the environment and civil liberties. It may not be perfect, but this is politics. And however disappointed we might be at the admittedly unappealing prospect of working with the Tories, the position we are now in is certainly preferable to five more years of parliamentary irrelevance.
To Liberal Democrat members and supporters I would say this: please keep it real. Firstly, don’t treat the tabloids with the respect they don’t deserve. Don’t believe the lie that we are “supporting a Conservative government” – we’re not supporters, we’re liberal partners in a purposeful and pragmatic government. Don’t focus on the false accusations of betrayal and dishonesty. And don’t be so consumed with an almost puritanical obsession with principles that we fail to see the chance we have to genuinely influence society for the better. Remember, we’re liberals: we don’t like fundamentalism or arrogant self-righteousness in others so why should we make a virtue of such attitudes in ourselves? We are, by nature, pluralists. Not for us the old politics of tribalism or, as Jenkins put it, "out-dated dogmatism".
Those who criticise Nick Clegg’s decision (which was supported by our MPs and the FPC by the way) have to answer the obvious question: if we don’t work with the Tories, what other options are there? While I would naturally have preferred a coalition of “progressives” between ourselves and Labour there was always the risk that this would be seen as lacking legitimacy, while the prospect of allowing Cameron to rule on a minority basis was also fraught with danger and may have resulted in unstable government and our rejecting the opportunity of a lifetime to “break the mould”, to “create a new politics” or “to have a very great influence on the future of this country.” (OK, I’m through with the SDP clichés now...)
How can the Liberal Democrats realistically achieve our aim “to create a more liberal society” without taking the opportunity to enter government? And how is it possible, short of winning an overall majority via an electoral system that works against us, to enter government without having to compromise or work with those with whom we may have sharp disagreements? What has actually happened is that Nick Clegg has crafted out a possibility for the Liberal Democrats to move on from the outdated duopoly of traditional politics and usher in a genuine realignment. The Liberal Democrats have the unprecedented opportunity to not only curb the excesses of rampant Conservatism but to imbue the new coalition, and its political outlook, with a refreshingly new and progressive liberalism. If Clegg fails, and our party is simply used and manipulated by the Tories, then the opportunity has been wasted and he should be judged accordingly. But early signs are good, and this new tree could yet bear good fruit.
Simon Hughes told the Question Time audience that “I didn’t go into politics to be in opposition, but to change society for the better.” After serving for 27 years in opposition, his urgency is understandable. Simon is no Tory sympathizer and I share his perspective. Some of us may be disappointed with the outcome of the election and the prospect of coalition, but we are partners in this coalition and we have no reason to lack faith in the determination of fellow liberals within the cabinet to ensure government policy is directed to promoting fairness and social freedom.
As a party, we need to show the country we are capable of working in the “national interest” rather than our own. We also need to focus minds on the fact that the future for our country is bright, because Liberal Democrats are now at the heart of government. Nick Clegg has shown leadership in an almost impossible situation and the party must follow that lead and remain united in our determination to promote a liberal agenda and a better future. If we can do that, then future political analysts may well reflect on Nick Clegg’s positive contribution to democracy in the same way one-time critics of Jim Wallace now praise his achievements in Scotland’s coalition politics.