Last May I wasn't overly keen on the prospect of entering into a coalition government with the Conservative Party. However, like many Lib Dems, I could see that whichever road Nick Clegg took was fraught with danger: a "coalition of the losers" would have posed serious political risks and any "supply and confidence" deal with a minority Tory government would in all likelihood have led to another General Election within the year in which we would almost certainly do badly. There were many other reasons why entering into coalition with the largest party was the correct thing to do, and nothing that has happened since has convinced me otherwise.
That is itself a separate issue. My main concern is with some of my fellow Liberal Democrats who, after being so pleased at the prospect of power nine months ago, are now in utter despair. A few Lib Dems have left the party. Others are threatening to. Still others profess outrage at every coalition decision they are not 100% in agreement with. Some go as far as to accuse Nick Clegg and our other colleagues in government as having "sold out" or of being "unfit for government".
Some of this is understandable. I have not been thrilled by every decision the coalition has made but, realising that the Conservatives as the senior partner would wield the strongest influence, my expectations were more realistic. I was critical of the leadership's handling of the tuition fees issue, as well as Vince Cable's unnecessary decision to explain to two journalists his plans for the Murdoch empire. As someone who is deeply opposed to Conservative policy, especially in respect to social policy, a fair amount of what is coming out of the coalition is naturally not to my liking. So I can fully appreciate why fellow Lib Dems have concerns.
But let's get real. Withdrawing from the coalition is not an option, even if was a good idea (which it isn't). Let's get to grips with what coalition is actually about: it's about sharing responsibility for decisions, making those decisions jointly in the country's interest and working co-operatively to implement an agreed policy programme which will inevitably contain elements of both parties' manifestos. Basically, the kind of thing you'd think we Lib Dems would be good at especially given our record in Scotland.
The real problem is not with Nick Clegg, however much we might disagree with him at times. Neither is it really with the coalition. No, it lies with the fact that for many Lib Dems the transition from a party of opposition (or a party of protest, depending on your perspective) to a party of government is a difficult and painful one. It's not easy to adjust to the new realities.
I have no time for renegade Lib Dems like those in St Helens who cynically oppose the coalition for short term electoral gain. More concerned about their council seats than their party or the wider public interest, I don't salute their mock outrage. I have more time for my fellow Lib Dems who are simply uncomfortable with the policy direction of the government. But that, too, is an inevitable consequence of coalition and we have to learn to deal with it.
Shifting the focus onto the positives could help. Let's not get caught into reiterating the tired and false arguments Ed Miliband and his ilk would have the public believe. This is not a Conservative-led government, but a coalition in which 20 Lib Dem MPs are ministers. It's our government too - and don't forget it. In spite of sharing power with a party we would traditionally consider as a sworn enemy - and at a time of economic uncertainty - Lib Dems have made a significant contribution to government. As the inspiring Paul Waugh points out, Lib Dem involvement at the heart of government has resulted in some notable victories including on welfare reform, gay marriage, a British Bill of Rights, the u-turn on the sale of forests, environmental policy, economic growth and social mobility. And the AV referendum of course. He could also have mentioned progress on HE (yesterday even the NUS agreed that the proposals are better for the Lib Dems' moderating influence) and raising the income tax threshold. Or the positive work Michael Moore is currently doing at the Scottish Office.
As Waugh points out knowingly, the success of Clegg and Lib Dem ministers in stamping a liberal mark on government direction is evidenced "by the irritated reaction of the average Tory backbencher". Basically, we know we're doing well because we're getting up the Tories' noses.
Danny Alexander has looked surprisingly assured since taking over from David Laws at the Treasury, while Chris Huhne looks like a natural minister. Whatever his detractors say, Clegg has continued to show determined leadership - even if he's not really selling his achievements very effectively to the public.
We need to be positive about what we're achieving in government, while being realistic about the limitations of coalition. We're not going to implement every Lib Dem policy. Yes, the Tories can be infuriating at times. But we are making a difference and will continue to do so. The attitudes of some (including at times our effervescent party president, Tim Farron) seems to be one of taking credit for elements of coalition policy we like while blaming the Tories for decisions we struggle to agree with. Some members will like that approach, but that's not how a good coalition works. We can not pick and choose what policies to support - after all, we'd be outraged if Tories decided not to support obviously Lib Dem policies such as marriage equality. We have to appreciate that our ministers are in government making tough decisions and need to be supported to do so.
I have no doubt that many of the decisions facing Lib Dem ministers will be unpalatable and difficult. But that is what government is about. We can not, and should not, complain because our party is for the first time in almost 90 years making decisions on issues that matter. We should also be focused not on small policy details but on greater goals: in particular, the fact that government policy is imbued with liberal philosophy is reassuring for those of us who strongly believe in promoting a more liberal society.
I appreciate that rebellion comes naturally to we Lib Dems! I also realise how tempting it must be for individual Lib Dems to make a stand against an unpopular policy. But voters are not noted for taking seriously parties that are divided on almost every issue (remember the Tories in the 1990s?). Talking down the coalition or sticking the knife in (often via the national media) is not only a counter-productive strategy. It also discredits the significant contribution Lib Dems have made, and are continuing to make, in the national interest.
Like me, the great Paddy Ashdown naturally preferred working with Labour to co-operation with the Conservatives. But he famously said, after Clegg's announcement that we would be entering coalition with Cameron's party: "I may hate the Tories but **** it, I'm with you." If this giant of the Liberal left can be supportive of the coalition, why shouldn't we?
Let's be more positive about our government. Be proud to be a Lib Dem!