In THE German elections a few months ago, the Free Democrats, or German Liberal Party, experienced a disaster. Having been regularly in government as a coalition partner of either the Christian Democrats or the Social Democrats, they dropped below the 5 per cent share of the vote that would have ensured they were represented in parliament. Opinion polls here for the European and Westminster elections indicate that our own Liberal Democrats are in for a comparable drubbing. They have already suffered losses and a severe setback, at the Scottish Parliament elections in May 2011, but the worst may yet be to come.
This is not surprising. Going into coalition with the Tories has done them great damage. A couple of days after the coalition was formed, I was talking to someone in the Market Place in Selkirk who said he had voted Liberal Democrat because he had been told that was the way to keep the Tories out in our constituency. Now he felt betrayed and would never vote for them again.
Lots of people doubtless feel the same way and by allying themselves with the Tories, the Liberal Democrats have shed voters, including many who were attracted to them when then leader Charles Kennedy came out in opposition to the Iraq war.
Nick Clegg must have known, or at least feared, this would happen when he agreed to form the coalition. Many of his senior colleagues, including former leaders of the party, would have preferred to be part of the so-called Progressive Alliance, an idea being floated to keep the Tories out.
Yet there were only two things clear about the result of the last general election. The Tories had been denied a majority in the Commons and the outgoing Labour government had been rejected by the electorate. Propping it up, in alliance perhaps with the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales, would not only have seemed to fly in the face of the judgment delivered at the polls, but also would surely have led to instability.
In politics, the Duke of Wellington did not match his achievements in war, but he held to one sound and important principle: the Queen’s government must be carried on. This means that you must have an administration that commands a majority in the Commons and is capable of governing.
In 2010, this was absolutely essential, given the dire state of both the British and the world economy. By agreeing to the coalition, Clegg and those around him acted in the interest of the country. They exchanged the pleasures of easy opposition for the responsibility of a share in the government. And they have had the courage to persist in government and not to run away from the duty they had assumed.
No doubt things have been done that they would rather had not been done. That is the nature of a coalition, and we should remember that the Liberal Democrats – and, indeed, the Liberals in their previous incarnation – had been calling for coalition government for decades. Yet in other respects they have acted as a restraining influence on the Tories, and, as Chief Secretary of the Treasury, Danny Alexander has played an important part in the work of trying to restore the public finances. In short, the Liberal Democrats in government have behaved responsibly and deserve well of us. For this they should be praised, not censured.
As for those who dislike or resent much that the coalition has done – and there has been a good deal to dislike and resent – they might do well to reflect how much worse it might have been if the Tories had had a majority and were free of the restraining influence of their partners. If you doubt the reality of that influence, you should listen to the venom with which the Tory Right speak of Clegg and his colleagues.
One reason for their hostility, apart from the dislike of sharing power, is the Liberal Democrats’ consistent and whole-hearted support for the European Union, and the United Kingdom’s membership. Now it is quite possible to recognise that there are aspects of the EU that should be reformed and that in certain areas powers might be better returned to national parliaments, while at the same time holding fast to the opinion that the economic and, in part, political union of Europe is one of the most remarkable and beneficial of achievements.
Centuries of armed conflict culminating in the two terrible wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45 have given way to decades of peace with disagreements settled by negotiation and compromise. This achievement is now threatened by the revival of nationalism, expressed by people – and politicians – who have come to take peace for granted and even to assume that it is the natural state of affairs; an assumption that flies in the face of all historical experience.
If there was no other reason to vote Liberal Democrat, the party’s commitment to the EU, and to the principles of its founding fathers, would be an adequate one. Given the rise of Ukip, and the aims and character of that party, anyone who believes in the value of the European Union should certainly think of voting Liberal Democrat at the election for the European Parliament in May – and, indeed, do more than think about it.
It’s probable, nevertheless, that the Liberal Democrats will continue to poll badly and will lose seats at the next general election. Since they have acted in the national interest by joining the coalition, this will be unfair, but no-one of sense looks for fairness in politics. Yet they may not do so badly as their overall poll rating suggests. They will probably hold on to seats where they are well established and their candidate is an incumbent MP.
Besides, Liberal loyalism is an attitude of mind, not necessarily affected by events or policies. Former Liberal leader Jo Grimond once said he had supported two causes throughout his career: the EU and Home Rule for Scotland. Asked to vote on these matters in referendums, his constituents in Orkney and Shetland voted No to both – but they continued to return Jo to parliament.