The Spectator

Don’t be fooled by the Lib Dems

Don’t be fooled by the Lib Dems

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The nurses and midwives at St Thomas’s Hospital this week faced a rewarding task: to bring Donald James Kennedy into the world. They could have been as slapdash as they had liked, even pulled the poor chap out by the ears — knowing full well that nothing would have prevented his father bounding down the hospital steps and praising the care and dedication of NHS staff. Never mind Charles Kennedy’s boast that he was going to put parenthood before politics; only the extremely naive would think the Liberal Democrat leader incapable of appreciating the electoral advantages of becoming a father during a general election campaign.

Our complaint is not that the Kennedys deliberately timed the birth of their first child for electoral purposes. So what if they did? The country needs more babies; not least to grow up, pay taxes and help meet the government’s rapidly growing pension liabilities. In fact, we would argue that the more paternity leave Charles Kennedy takes, the better. It will prevent him from treating us all as though we were young Donald: i.e., born yesterday.

The Liberal Democrats have been taken more seriously in this election than in any within living memory. It is widely predicted that the party will not just damage Labour but will pick up votes from middle-class Tories attracted by the Lib Dems’ promise to abolish tuition fees and to offer free ‘personal care’ to the elderly. While there is no danger of Charles Kennedy becoming prime minister, there is a risk — as he told this magazine last month — that he would go into coalition with Labour in the event of a hung Parliament. That must now be counted a real possibility, and grounds for assessing what he says very carefully.

Much of this week’s campaigning has been taken up with accusations that the Tories have failed properly to cost their — comparatively modest — proposed tax cuts. Actually they have, and the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies has confirmed it. Yet, remarkably, nobody seems to have asked whether Charles Kennedy has properly costed the tax rises of which he seeks to make such a virtue. According to the Liberal Democrats, increasing the top rate of income tax to 50 per cent will raise £5 billion. Really? To produce this figure the party has ignored the experience of Nigel Lawson, who proved that by cutting the upper rate of income tax from 60 per cent to 40 per cent you can increase tax revenues — as taxpayers are given a greater incentive to work and a lesser disincentive to avoid tax.

Liberal Democrat tax rises will not end there. The party promises to replace council tax with a local income tax, without giving an indication of how many extra pence in the pound this will add to the 50 per cent top rate. You can forget economic liberalism: given the ravenousness with which local authorities used to descend upon their wealthy residents during the days of the old domestic rates, we would be heading for personal tax rates last seen in the 1970s, when a net half a million economically-active Britons were driven to emigrate. Maybe this is why the Lib Dems high-mindedly refuse to join the debate on immigration: they know that if they came to power the struggle would lie in keeping people in, not out.

As far as we can make out, much of our extra 10 pence of income tax would be swallowed up by the Lib Dems’ promise to abolish tuition and top-up fees. This is about as bad a public investment as they come. It would return us to the days when university education was a free ride for middle-class students, while denying our best universities the hope of financial independence. Higher education is woefully underfunded in this country, and there is no hope of salvation as long as universities are throttled by the Treasury.

There is occasionally something to admire in the Liberal Democrats’ pronouncements: that they would drop ID cards and cut industrial subsidies. But no one should be fooled into thinking that the ‘Liberals’ have returned to their roots. Exempt from the scrutiny given to Labour and the Tories, the Lib Dems have been allowed to establish policies which are a mass of contradictions; in which ultimately the bossy, public-sector wing of the party has the upper hand. In one hilariously contradictory paragraph the party promises to ‘cut red tape that stops business from growing. And we’ll protect all of us from rip-offs by introducing a new legal duty on business to trade fairly’ — with the help of such new bodies as an ‘independent supermarket watchdog’ and a ‘food trade inspector’ to snoop on contracts between shops and farmers. Not much red tape there, of course.

Where’s the liberalism in the party’s support for a new law against religious hatred, which could see us banged up for lampooning Moonies? Or in the failure of Lib Dem MPs to appear in Parliament during the vote on the Prevention of Terrorism Bill? Or in the backing of many Lib Dems for the hunting Bill, and their obsession with criminalising adults who smack their children? If the Lib Dems are serious about wanting to protect the public from rip-offs, we suggest they start by ceasing to trade under the banner of a 19th-century party committed to laissez-faire and personal freedom and admit what they really are — a bunch of confused bossyboots with one ambition above all others: to bleed the rich.