Alastair Stephens on how Nick Clegg managed to wreck both his party and the project that was the purpose of the coalition - to make coalitions an acceptable part of British politics
Nick Clegg will now go down in history as the second leader to destroy the Liberal Party. He has managed to wreck both his party and the project that that was the purpose of the coalition, to make coalitions an acceptable part of British politics.
It all started so well with Clegg mania and their best result, 57 seats, since 1929 when the party was led by David Lloyd George.
Instead the party has had its worst result since February 1974, over 40 years ago, when it won six seats. It is returning to the fringe party which it was for the 40 years previous to that.
This is not the first time the Lib Dems have committed political suicide like this though. The Liberals were the dominant party of British politics until the First World War. They then strangely imploded.
On both occasions the cause has been the same: forming a coalition government with the Tories, the most successful, but also the most cynical and ruthless, ruling-class party in the Western world.
You would think: “once bitten, twice shy”.
Lloyd George: from hero to zero
The party's first collapse was caused by one of its greatest leaders, the “Welsh Wizard” David Lloyd George.
He had been the Chancellor in Herbert Asquith's reforming governments from 1908, which along with the then Liberal, Winston Churchill, he dominated. But in 1916 at the height of the First World War he united with the Tories to oust Asquith.
He then led a coalition government with the Tories and the infant Labour Party. This split the Liberals with Asquiths’s supporters leaving the government to go into opposition.
This was a strange reversal of alliances. The Liberal party was a ruling class party, like the Tories, but it was the more socially progressive of the two. It had introduced social reforms such as pensions, which Lloyd George had pioneered, and tried to give Ireland Home Rule. It had led what was known as a 'progressive alliance' made up of itself, the young Labour Party and the Irish. All this now went out of the window in the name of the war effort.
When the war ended and there was a general election, rather than reunite the Liberals, Lloyd George did a deal with the Tories to carry on the wartime coalition. He arranged for his MPs to get a free ride from the Tories in the seats they held whilst his Liberals agreed not to run in Tory seats. The MPs who were part of this deal were issued an official letter giving the election its nickname, the “Coupon Election”.
The ‘Coalition Liberals’ won 127 seats. Their rivals the Asquithian Liberlas, finished only 0.1 behind them but were almost wiped out, winning just 36 seats. Even Asquith himself lost his seat.
Of course Lloyd George was now dependent on the Conservatives - an arrangement the Tory party leadership was perfectly happy with. However it was not popular on the backbenches and in 1922 MPs rebelled against it, a rebellion which found its voice in Stanley Baldwin. The coalition was ended, the Tory leader Austen Chamberlain, was ousted, and an election was called.
It was Lloyd George’s Liberals who were now trounced as they were reduced to 53 seats. The two squabbling wings of the Liberalism then managed to reunite, but really the Liberals were finished as a major force in British politics.
Forget nothing but learn nothing
Memories can be long in politics, and that is why neither the Tories or Lib Dems wanted the Coalition to become a permanent arrangement. Clegg did not want to become Lloyd George. Cameron, knowing the coalition was unpopular on his back benches, did not want to repeat Chamberlain’s mistake.
And Cameron didn’t. He shafted the Lib Dems good and proper early on. The only concession he really made to them, and the only thing which might have saved their skins, was a referendum on the Alternative Vote.
But in it they went for Clegg personally, breaking a promise not to do so. The referendum went down to defeat, destroying any Lib Dem chance to end the Coaltion early. They were trapped, they had no choice but to sit it out and hope their ratings improved with the economy.
Of course the ratings did not improve as most people became poorer.
The two thirds of voters who were more sympathetic to Labour immediately were never won back. Any opportunity to do so was destroyed by the viciousness of the government’s cuts and the pleasure which Lib Dems seemed to take in it and blaming Labour for the deficit.
Thatcher's bitter legacy
But Clegg's problem want just tactical misjudgement. The ruling class long ago decided to put its eggs in the one basket of the Tory party. It is that party's task to push through neoliberalism regardless of human cost. In doing so under Thatcher the Tories created a deep well of bitterness and an anti-Tory majority in the country.
The only real space political space for the Lib Dems was on the centre left. This is where first Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy took the party and from their point of view sincerely so. The huge growth of the Lib Dems' electoral base was the result.
Nick Clegg is equally sincere in his belief in neoliberalism, a doctrine now accepted by much of the party leadership in all its awfulness. They took the party to the right and into government at the first opportunity.
The Liberals have always striven to be a party of the ruling class, but not managed to. Now they thought they might succeed just at the moment our rulers decided to launch an all out assault on the welfare state.
The final reckoning
When the general election finally came around it proved to be as polarizing as one might expect given the Thatcherite nature of the government. In it Tories did not vote tactically to help out their Coaltion partners. Instead the opposite happened, the Lib Dems lost votes to the Tories. If the Coalition was to be not really different from a Tory government, better to vote Tory and keep out Labour.
The Tories had once again proved themselves to be the most ruthless and opportunistic of parties.
Clegg’s coalition had three party political purposes: first to move the party into firmly into the neoliberal centre of British politics, second to prove that the Lib Dems, out of government for decades, could be a ‘responsible’ party of government, and third, to show that coalitions could work and be a normal part of British politics.
Well he succeeded in the first and second, but destroyed the party in the process. In the course of that he failed the third, by putting anyone off the idea of coalitions for a long time to come.
Way to go, Nick. Idiot.
Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.