The Lib Dems’ troubles are a result not only of coalition and foolish promises, but of a resurgence of the old left-right division
In 1935, George Dangerfield published The Strange Death of Liberal England, one of those rare histories that survive long after the author’s death. The elegance and vigour of his description of Edwardian society account for much of his appeal — Dangerfield is as bracing an antidote to the banality of Downton Abbey as you could hope to find. But what stays in readers’ minds is not the style but the brilliance of the argument. Late Victorian liberalism, ‘a various and valuable collection of gold, stocks, Bibles, progressive thoughts and decent inhibitions’, appeared to survive the death of the old queen. The party won a spectacular victory in 1906, and embarked on a worthy programme of free trade and peace abroad and gradual reform at home.
What could go wrong? Just about everything. Even before the slaughter of the first world war, ‘Liberal England was reduced to ashes’. Moderate politicians could not placate the suffragettes or the rising trade unions. They did not know how to cope with the revolt of nationalists and unionists in Ireland or militant conservatism at Westminster. The Liberals rapidly became an irrelevance; a faintly ridiculous party with nothing to say to a modern world dividing between left and right. They lost their majority but clung on in 1910. By 1923, Labour had overtaken them as the main opposition to the Conservatives. By 1951, a party which had ruled a mighty empire was reduced to six seats.
Since that nadir, the Liberals have been on a long march. All those unread pamphlets for the Electoral Reform Society, the scarcely better-read op-eds in the leftish press, the meetings in cold halls, the ‘pavement politics’ about where incinerators should be built and when bins should be emptied, the dirty tricks in by-elections, the loveless marriage to the SDP, the simultaneous appeals to racism in white working-class London and to anti-racism in white upper-middle-class London, the donations from criminals, the assassination of leaders with a regularity that would embarrass the Mafia… all that manoeuvring and foot-slogging were for one reason only: to get back to being a party of power.
Yet no sooner is Nick Clegg deputy prime minister than the ghost of Dangerfield rises from the grave to watch with an ironic eye as Liberal England dies again. Measuring the rate of deterioration will remain an imprecise exercise until the next general election, but the patient’s symptoms look dire. YouGov’s daily poll shows Lib Dem support down from 34 per cent during the height of Cleggmania in the 2010 election campaign to 7 per cent. Its findings, I should add, are controversial. Like the other polls, it appears to have exaggerated Clegg’s support last May. Its critics claim that it has now overcompensated for this by excluding the opinions of too many Lib Dem supporters. Mike Smithson, a polling expert and the most amiable of Lib Dem activists, grows uncharacteristically conspiratorial when he discusses YouGov’s relationship with the staunchly conservative News International. ‘Day in day out these Murdoch-funded polls appear in the Murdoch press, setting the political climate and making the Lib Dems look like losers,’ he mutters. Unfortunately for him, other polling companies put the party’s support at around 12 per cent. The difference in a general election is that between annihilation and devastation.
Leaving the disputes between pollsters aside, not even Nick Clegg’s closest friends deny that he is the most hated politician in Britain. At a student demonstration outside Westminster, I saw a ragged man climb a lamppost and urge the protestors to join him in an obscene chant against Clegg. The crowd in Parliament Square roared as one, united in its loathing, and ecstatic at the chance he had given them to crush a man they had once applauded.
Liberal Democrat politicians are not used to being hated or to having excrement pushed through their letterboxes. Throughout their careers, Question Time audiences have never booed them or satirists torn into them. The worst that those outside politics could say was that they were well-meaning if a little cranky. Now when I approach old Liberal contacts who are in government, there is a discernible pause; a beat as they assess whether I will shout at them like so many other former friends. I am a journalist and make it a point of principle to talk to anyone, even Liberal ministers, and I can sense their relief when I extend a friendly hand.
Clegg is feeling the isolation most severely. ‘We expected to become unpopular when we joined government,’ Evan Harris, the former Liberal MP, told me. ‘Smaller parties in coalition governments always take the blame. But no one predicted the personal attacks on Nick or the collapse in his popularity. It was completely unexpected.’
The Liberals have no right to be surprised. Conservative-minded readers may think that the British liberal-left is good for nothing, but, trust me, we are world leaders when it comes to the vituperative art of denouncing sellouts. The Liberals ought to have known it, because they more than anyone else revelled in deploying the wild language of betrayal against Tony Blair. He had taken Britain to an ‘illegal’ war, they claimed, although no court ever said it was unlawful; he was a ‘liar’ who had knowingly sent British troops to their deaths on a false premise. Now, from Islington to Didsbury, from the BBC to the Guardian, the cry of betrayal the Liberals once directed against Blair is directed against them. The only discernible difference is that it took a decade for Blair to go from being the fresh leader of 1994 to the B:Liar of 2004. In the case of Clegg, it is as if someone has thrown compost accelerator over him, speeding up the process of degeneration from hope to has-been from ten years to ten months.
To triple the tuition fees he and every Liberal Democrat pledged to cap and on occasion abolish has destroyed his credibility to an extent I still do not think the Westminster village understands. It’s not just that students are furious or that middle-class parents are wondering how their children will manage, but that voters with little time for violent demonstrators have even less time after the expenses scandal for politicians who are ‘liars’ — if I may use Liberal Democrat language. He’s finished.
On this basis, the condition of Liberal England seems serious but not fatal. Leaders come and go, particularly in the Liberal Democrats. Already the party’s activists are looking fondly at Clegg’s old rival Chris Huhne. They note that Paddy Ashdown and Shirley Williams helped Clegg’s career with a patronage that was almost Edwardian in its munificence. Huhne, by contrast, worked his way to the top, a virtue appreciated in a party that has had to scrap for every small gain. More pertinently from the Lib Dem point of view, Huhne is fighting for the climate change cause, and has not been caught in press stings like Vince Cable, or had his honesty impugned like David Laws.
If Clegg falls, the watchful Huhne is well-placed to succeed him and, if it were merely a question of changing personnel, one could see the Lib Dems pulling through. The clash between Asquith and Lloyd George did not destroy the old Liberal party, after all. The tide of history rather than the rivalry of leaders washed away that great Victorian edifice, and brought the new division between left and right. I know that to suggest that same tide is threatening to swamp today’s Liberals is to invite ridicule. For what does it mean to be left- or right-wing in the 21st century? Is a working-class Labour voter suspicious of immigrants more left-wing than a metrosexual Tory from Notting Hill? As I write half the think tanks and political academics in Britain are producing papers which state that Labour and the Conservatives secured only 65 per cent of the vote between them in 2010 (against 97 per cent in 1951) as proof that the binary division of 20th-century politics is gone for good.
For all their erudition, they fail to see that the two-party system is beginning to reassert itself. The great recession of 2008 is transforming politics in Britain, squeezing the middle ground on which the Liberals stand. Now you believe either that George Osborne’s deflationary policy to reduce the deficit is a disaster falling on those least able to bear it or that it is a necessary response to a national emergency. You believe that the recession was caused either by the folly of the bankers or the extravagance of Gordon Brown. In short, you are either left-wing or right-wing. You must choose, for you cannot be both.
Liberals have spent their whole careers arguing that left and right are illusory concepts, and have been rewarded with the support of millions of voters who agreed. Naturally, they recoil at talk of the old divisions opening up again; for in its implications they sense their own demise. They point to the success of their civil liberties agenda in office, but in their hearts they understand that advances in freedom, worthy though they may be, count for little when set against the great economic arguments of the age. They know they chose the right-wing path when they signed up to Osborne’s budget, although the closest they come to admitting it is when they tell me ‘if the economy goes wrong we’re sunk’, or ‘we couldn’t survive a double dip recession’.
The party’s base, as it turned out, was more ideological than its leaders imagined. Swathes of supporters have realised that they were a part of the centre-left after all, and defected. Labour has had an extraordinary and undeserved stroke of good fortune. It is intellectually exhausted, all but bankrupt, and was until recently led by the most unpopular prime minister in living memory, but the behaviour of Liberal politicians and the despair of Liberal supporters has pushed it into an eight-point lead in this week’s polls. Ed Miliband’s much derided strategy of keeping a low profile does not seem so risible now that protest voters are flocking to the only available opposition.
Douglas Alexander, Labour’s campaign co-ordinator in the 2010 election, told me he saw nothing strange about the Liberals’ death throes. ‘Their voters feel disoriented ideologically by the familiar right-wing agenda the government is pursuing, and genuinely angry about the betrayal of the promise of a new politics done differently.’ Yet Alexander emphasises that however gratifying it is for Labour to receive their support, ‘the demise of the Liberal Democrats will probably be influential but not decisive to the next general election’. If you glance at the seats the Liberals hold, you will see why. Yeovil, Lewes, Kingston and Surbiton, Mid Dorset and North Poole, St Austell and Newquay, Somerton and Frome… these are not constituencies Labour has a prayer of ever winning. The only realistic challenger is the Conservative party. If it stays strong, if the coalition teaches right-leaning liberals that their fears about a nasty Tory government were misplaced and brings them into the Conservative camp, then David Cameron will be the true beneficiary.
I said earlier that the strange death of Liberal England inaugurated an era when the British were either Labour or Conservative. That was true as far it went, but missed the big point — that the Tories took the greater part of the spoils. Labour had only one great reforming administration in 1945 and did not win two consecutive full terms until after Tony Blair took charge in 1997. The 20th century was a conservative century. Labour must win arguments that expand its appeal beyond the disillusioned centre-left voters who once agreed with Nick — or the 21st century will be the same.