"I for one think that the past is as much of a guide to the future as our current neophilia. On that basis, LibDems beware!"Few Liberal Democrats have put their coalition with the Conservatives into historical perspective. This is partly due to all politicians’ intoxication with the supposed novelty of any situation these days, something they share with most of their fellow citizens. How many times did Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg assert their embrace of a ‘new politics’?
There might also be another reason. For as Charles Kennedy, one of the leading opponents of the deal has pointed out, the precedents are, for the LibDems, pretty bad.
When the Liberals split over Home Rule in 1886 the Liberal Unionists were soon assimilated within Conservative ranks, helping to ensure that the latter’s grip on power lasted until 1906. Liberal Unionists however continued to pretend – to themselves as much as anybody else - to be members of a separate organisation until they formally gave up the ghost in 1912.
The formation of the National Government in 1931 provoked another split in Liberal ranks with the resulting Liberal National Party helping the Conservatives retain office for the rest of the 1930s. After 1945 however the party’s significance declined to being little more than an annex of Conservatism, and it died an unlamented death in 1968.
Of course the present coalition does not follow nor does it look like precipitating a split within LibDem ranks. Even Kennedy has not yet proposed forming a splinter group. It is however early days.
But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the beneficiary of these coalitions has always been the senior partner, then as now, the Conservatives.
Within the First Past The Post system both Labour and the Conservatives have long tried to annex the Liberal vote – rather than the Liberal party – to clear their path to a Commons majority. Until Margaret Thatcher, the overlap between Liberals and Conservatives was however always the greater.
The SDP-Liberal merger also changed the nature of the centre party, making it more inclined to collectivist solutions. From the late 1980s the notion of a ‘progressive coalition’ of Lib-Lab forces became much more potent, an idea successfully mined by Tony Blair.
The current coalition, then, marks the return to an established pattern – much to the discomfort of those LibDems, like Kennedy but also Simon Hughes, schooled in 1980s politics. In contrast, Nick Clegg – whether he was or was not a Conservative at Cambridge – was a member of the Orange Book group that in 2004 stressed the importance of the free market to liberalism.
This was meant as a criticism of Kennedy’s leadership, which saw the LibDems stand to the left of New Labour on many issues. The group was however also concerned that under David Cameron a ‘decontaminated’ Conservative party would reclaim voters lost in the 1980s. Stressing the market (along with getting rid of Kennedy) was their way of protecting the party from that possibility. Ideologically therefore the LidDems have never been closer to the Conservatives: it wasn’t just Commons arithmetic that prepared the ground for this coalition.
But what of the Conservatives? As soon as he became leader David Cameron described himself as a ‘liberal Conservative’ and called on LibDem voters and MPs to join his party. Cameron’s often reiterated description of himself as a ‘progressive Conservative’ was however aimed at voters more than leaders – he wanted to form his own government not to create a coalition.
The ease with which Cameron embraced the prospect of coalition after the election suggests he saw the strategic possibilities inherent to it, showing a grasp the wily Stanley Baldwin would have appreciated. Few will now remember Baldwin and even the experts that do rank him as a mediocre Prime Minister.
Baldwin it was however who in the interwar decades encouraged many Liberal voters and leaders to become comfortable with voting, joining or collaborating with his Conservative party. While this infuriated many of Baldwin’s back benchers who cavilled at his moderation it was the basis for a strategy which succeeded in keeping Labour on the political margins.
Is the coalition a ‘new politics’? Have the tribal instincts of the Conservatives and LibDems been put aside in favour of the ‘national interest’ and a novel pluralistic political leadership? Believe that if you want to. I for one think that the past is as much of a guide to the future as our current neophilia. On that basis, LibDems beware!
Professor Steven Fielding