I’m not the world’s greatest Biblical scholar, but I’d like to take a short scriptural reference as the inspiration for my latest instalment: “...think of yourselves with sober judgement”. (Romans 12:3)
In relation to the coalition between our party and the Conservatives, I believe it is time to reflect on the previous few weeks with sober judgement. We have already experienced hostility from the media; the Daily Telegraph in particular has seemed unfriendly even to the idea of coalition government and was responsible for ending David Laws’ promising cabinet career, while closer to home The Herald and The Scotsman have suggested that the Lib Dems are likely to suffer electorally for “selling out” on principles. Even The Guardian sees the potential for party revolts around every corner.
It isn’t just the media who have been critical of course. There are members of both coalition parties who have been noticeably unhappy at how things have panned out since the inconclusive general election. I know that many fellow Lib Dems have been uneasy at the very prospect of power-sharing with Conservatives (myself included) and that some chose to resign from the party in protest at what they considered a compromise too far. Many party activists I know have, while broadly welcoming the opportunity for government, been understandably concerned about some of the decisions taken, especially in relation to cutting school building programmes and the rise in VAT. Recently MPs have also expressed their dissatisfaction with arrangements, with Tory David Davis rather foolishly referring to a “Brokeback coalition” and our own Tim Farron describing his Conservative colleagues as “toxic”. Deputy Leader Simon Hughes, speaking – I imagine – for many other Lib Dem MPs and party members, claimed that the party would not have backed the government’s Academies Bill had the Lib Dems not been in coalition.
Farron told BBC Radio 4’s World at One that the Conservatives are seeking to exploit their partners for their own ends: “we are providing some cover for [the Tories]. The reality is that David Cameron has a toxic brand....His brand, including most of his MPs, are toxic.” He went on to explain how he thought the Lib Dems could contribute to the coalition’s direction, suggesting that his party are having a positive effect on the way the Conservatives are presenting themselves and on key policy issues: “... [because of the coalition] the Conservative Party is less ugly than when it went into it. The problem is that most Tory MPs are determined to keep it ugly... the Conservatives would have preferred a less fair budget. I think that is blindingly obvious. We have now to make sure that our [own] policy is worked on, pronounced and announced and obvious to people”.
In some respects it is hard to disagree with the substance of Mr Farron’s assessment. Some of us, especially in Scotland, have no love for the Tories and have historically had closer links – both ideologically and practically – with Labour. Farron is right when he asserts that the coalition represents a "poor ideological fit". He also articulates the feelings of many members when he talks of the need to “re-establish our own identity”. The problem I have with what he says is that it stems from an underlying negativity and betrays a surprising lack of faith in his party’s leadership.
The Labour Party are understandably keen to treat the Cameron administration as if it was merely a right-wing Conservative majority government to which the Lib Dems have sold out. This is patently not true; many Tory MPs wish otherwise. The mistake of many in the media has been to take this facile argument at face value and to underestimate (or overlook) the new reality that the traditional two-party system has been broken and that Britain is currently being governed by a genuine coalition and the politics of co-operation. Yes, it is an ideological incongruity and a marriage of convenience rather than one of principle, but that doesn’t mean it is unworkable. The coalition is not based on values, but on the democratic outcome of a general election which made alternative agreements not only difficult but near impossible - more so when it became clear Labour weren’t willing to be remotely flexible. No-one in the Lib Dems is pretending otherwise – they are simply being pragmatic in their relationship towards the largest party in Westminster. As an editorial in The Guardian observed, “the [coalition] government is based on a deal between two parties that leaves the resulting team and programme connected to but distinct from the elements that formed it. This is the nature of coalitions as voters...in Scotland already know”. (End of the beginning, 27/7/10) These wise words are based in the sober judgements I refer to; there is a very real need for party members, MPs and the media (especially in Scotland, where the likes of The Herald and The Scotsman really ought to know better) to bmore fully understand and get used to the character of coalition government, which will be with us for the foreseeable future and perhaps beyond.
There are those who deride the Lib Dems for entering into a coalition agreement. To these short-sighted people I would ask what the alternative should have been. To squander the chance of partnership in government? To enter a “progressive” alliance with an unwilling and un-cooperative Labour Party? As I explained in a previous post, a relationship with Labour would have been preferable in many respects but risked leaving the largest party out of government and had the potential to bring into question the very democratic principles Lib Dems passionately believe in. Even the argument that the Lib Dems could have been more influential in opposition to a Cameron minority government doesn’t convince, especially in relation to issues such as political reform. It simply wouldn’t have made it onto the agenda in the face of likely Tory and Labour opposition.
There are also those who see Nick Clegg in the pocket of David Cameron, just as some perceived David Steel to be in David Owen’s. These people I would point towards the hard reality: despite the obvious chemistry between the two leaders, there have in recent weeks been significant disagreements on Iraq, Higher Education funding and immigration. Number 10’s rubbishing of Clegg’s insistence that the Iraq invasion was illegal hardly suggested at either a subservient role on Clegg’s part or a Lib Dem leader short on distinctive ideas.
Labour might want to portray him and the other Lib Dems in the cabinet as “Tories in Disguise” for purposes of narrow, tribal political interest. But the mud is unlikely to stick, especially among the 57% of voters who believe the coalition is doing a “good job” (The Guardian, End of the beginning, 27/7/10). And it won’t stick with those of us who are aware that coalition policy has been imbued with a liberal perspective alien to the Conservative Party. Lib Dem achievements in administration outweigh the party’s modest representation in the cabinet and include significant progress on increasing income tax thresholds, an AV referendum and better scrutiny of government. Lib Dem participation has also resulted in significant policy concessions and almost certainly helped dilute George Osbourne’s budget proposals.
Historically, there has always been a small “purist” wing within the Liberal Party and its successor with a disproportionately large influence. The purists are again becoming voluble, contending that the Tories are getting more from the coalition, just as Tory purists argue the same things about the Lib Dems. The risk is that this excessively loud group can be seen as representing broader Lib Dem opinion, and that this plays into the hands of Labour Party tacticians aiming to propagate the myth that the party is divided and dissatisfied with ideological sell-out on the part of its leadership. The likes of former MP Sandra Gidley, who warns that the Lib Dems will be “toast” at the next election if they don’t cease to be a mere front for Tory cuts, are not only wide of the mark but are also doing their party a huge disservice.
What is happening, and by nature always happens in coalition government, is that Nick Clegg is making tough compromises in the national interest. No lesser a figure than Lord Ashdown, hardly a man with pro-Conservative tendencies, admitted that the Tory/Lib Dem coalition was the only combination that had offered "a stable government with a clear majority in the House of Commons at a time of crisis...coalitions are usually about establishing the lowest common denominator between the two parties. This coalition's not - it's a genuinely reform-minded, a genuinely radical programme of reform. So this far, it's going far better than I imagined it could".
Tim Farron states there is a need for the Lib Dems to “re-establish” distinctiveness. I am not sure that the party has lost its distinctive character; what has happened is that distinctive policies have been eclipsed by the political pragmatism of coalition government. Nick Clegg’s failing hasn’t been one of selling-out, but of not being sufficiently active in selling the coalition, its policies and the Lib Dem role within it to the public. In not doing so, he has handed initiative to Labour and their shallow arguments. Coalition and co-operation does not necessarily result in the respective partners’ identities becoming merged or indistinguishable; neither does it result in the lesser partner being swallowed up by the larger. The Lib Dems retain a strong and distinctive agenda which is more than distinguishable from that of the Tories. Clegg and his ministers simply have to be more pro-active in promoting it to a critical media and a sometimes sceptical public. As Tim Farron suggests, the Lib Dem position has to be "pronounced and announced and obvious to people".
What is needed is some sensitive and skilled salesmanship from the media-savvy Nick Clegg. And a healthy dose of sober judgement from the rest of us.