The Scottish Liberal Democrats, such as remain, gathered in Aberdeen over the weekend for their party conference.
Every inch of the proceedings was soaked in dread, like watching an old children’s film just knowing the dog’s getting shot at some point.
Members know how hated their party has become for its governing alliance with the Conservatives and accept that the voters are preparing — many with unseemly glee — to punish them for it at the ballot box in May.
In happier times, the Lib Dems didn’t stand for anything so you couldn’t pin them down. Their first experience of government (as the Liberal Democrats) has seen them not so much pinned down as pinned against a wall. They have been defined by everyone else: jilted voters, rival parties, and an almost universally hostile press.
Lib Dems used to be geography teachers, trendy vicars and people who left the house to their cat in the will. Government has transformed them from harmless oddballs into near-demonic hate figures. Five years on, Cleggmania looks like an unconscious left-liberal pastiche of tabloid hysteria — much heat, little light, but a whole lot of embarrassment when examined with hindsight. Now the Lib Dems find themselves on seven percent in UK polling and a barely perceptible four percent in Scotland. In many parts of the UK, they face a similar problem to Labour in Scotland: The voters have grown so hostile that they are no longer willing to listen. They want to hurt the Lib Dems.
Them’s the breaks when you go into government with a party your natural voters consider a half-step to the left of Vlad the Impaler and ditch a totemic policy like free higher education. But if the general election is to see them sharply rebuked, fairness demands that we consider the successes of five years of the Lib Dems in power.
Their achievements largely fall into one of two categories: Positive (where they have succeeded in implementing a policy) and negative (where they have prevented the Tories from implementing a policy).
A 2012 study by researchers at University College London found that 75% of the 2010 Liberal Democrat manifesto found its way into the coalition agreement that became the Cameron-Clegg administration’s programme for government. Overall, 40% of that document was Lib Dem in policy terms, a creditable achievement considering they won only a fifth as many seats as the Conservatives in the general election.
Policy successes include: Securing a referendum on proportional representation (which they went on to spectacularly mismanage and overwhelmingly lose); separating high street banking from “casino banking” of the kind that hastened the economic collapse; agreeing a 45% higher tax rate instead of the Tories’ desired 40%; establishing a green investment bank headquartered in Edinburgh; delivering £2.5bn for schools in England under the pupil premium; and providing free, nutritional meals for infants at those schools.
Many more examples can be found on this good-humoured site.
But what of their negative achievements, where they have unswivelled the eyes and defoamed the mouths of their true blue coalition partners? The record is also substantial here.
Theresa May’s campaign to repeal the Human Rights Act? Blocked by the Liberal Democrats.
The Tory pledge to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1m? Blocked by the Liberal Democrats.
Like-for-like replacement of Trident in this parliament? Blocked by the Liberal Democrats.
Michael Gove’s push for profit-making state schools? The illiberal “snoopers’ charter” requiring ISPs to archive users’ web histories and share them with the police and security services? Allowing employers to sack workers at will, a policy advanced forcefully by the Conservatives?
All blocked by the Liberal Democrats.
Even as the Lib Dems have frustrated some of the Tories’ more reactionary impulses, the sensible wing of the Conservative Party has been busily ripping off the very best of Lib Demmery.
As Asa Bennett of the Daily Telegraph (a newspaper not known for its charity to Nick Clegg’s party) points out, the Conservatives have been adept at pinching Lib Dem policies and passing them off as their own, as was witnessed again in the Budget when Chancellor George Osborne raised the personal tax-free allowance threshold to £11,000. Taking the low paid out of tax has been a Lib Dem totem and their 2010 manifesto pledged to end income tax for all people earning less than £10,000 per annum. The Tories opposed this at the time but now trumpet the reform as an example of “compassionate conservatism”.
And while I come to bury the Lib Dems, not to praise them, we shouldn’t forget their record of dogged liberalism in the Scottish Parliament. They may have been reduced to a mere five MSPs but leader Willie Rennie has earned a reputation for spirited opposition to the SNP’s illiberal agenda. On stop and search, routine arming of the police, the ongoing push to scrap corroboration, and other areas, Rennie has been the stinging nettle that pricked the Nationalists as they trampled cherished freedoms and precious safeguards underfoot.
There are few votes in civil libertarianism, particularly in Scotland where the SNP’s belief that “decisions about Scotland should be made by the people of Scotland” doesn’t seem to apply to deciding how to raise their children or what songs they sing at football matches. I’ve always found it reassuring to have the quietly stubborn Lib Dems at Holyrood, politely suggesting that banging up Dubliners tribute acts and giving AK47s to traffic wardens might not be altogether sensible ideas.
No doubt Nick Clegg and his senior strategists expected to receive credit for the coalition’s more progressive measures. Even those opposed to joining with the Tories could have been forgiven for assuming the party would reap some reward for reining in David Cameron’s right-wing tormentors on the backbenches. It is a sign of the pungent sense of betrayal still felt by Lib Dem voters that the party now faces extinction in Scotland and the north of England. It is also an object lesson in what can happen when a long-term opposition party finally finds itself in government.
For years to come, political scientists will compare and contrast the experience of the Liberal Democrats and the SNP. Both thrived in opposition by being all things to all people, both were adept at tapping into anti-establishment anger, and both mopped up protest votes from left and right. But while the Lib Dems became a conventional party of power, the SNP was canny enough to govern as though still in opposition. The voters’ response to these two approaches offers a case study in the elusive subtleties and cruel ironies of British politics. If you take tough decisions, you are pilloried as opportunists. If you avoid unpopularity at all costs, you are hailed as principled champions of your cause.
Before you start feeling sorry for them (unlikely, I know), the Lib Dems have been done in by no one but themselves. They built their strength by exploiting public sentiment on the issue of the day — Iraq, student funding, banking excesses — instead of articulating a principled platform. Their populist posturing, sometimes justified but often obtuse, has returned to haunt them. Now they are the objects of mass opprobrium, the deal with the Tories an Iraq of political miscalculation, their 2010 manifesto scorned as a dodgy dossier.
The temptation of schadenfreude is powerful but if the Liberal Democrats are indeed eviscerated on polling day, we may come to appreciate too late what they have brought to the political scene. Britain needs an authentic liberal voice and, for all their flaws, the only party fulfilling that role right now is the Lib Dems. There are liberal tendencies within Labour and particularly the Greens but these are drowned out by heavy-handed statism and dreamy collectivism, just as genuine Tory libertarians are outgunned by the bang-‘em-uppers and border-closers.
On that basis alone, the Liberal Democrats deserve to survive as a force in UK politics, if a more modest one than at present. But the party must decide what it stands for. Is it a social liberal movement like the American Democrats, Canadian Liberals and Swedish Centre Party? Or is it an economic liberal outfit in the vein of Denmark’s Venstre, Slovakia’s Freedom and Solidarity, and Germany’s FDP?
The philosophical character of the party is important, and the Left and the Orange Bookers will join battle swiftly after May 7, but just as vital is the purpose of the Liberal Democrats. Do they exist merely to profit from resentment towards the Conservatives and Labour and grab at every chance of power that comes along? Or is their mission more noble — to reorient our system of government and entrench liberalism in our political culture?
If they continue on the former path, the Liberal Democrats will struggle to find a place in the democratic risorgimento under way in Britain. If they pursue the latter path, they will have a future as a rehabilitated party of personal liberty and political moderation.
But first they have to choose.