It’s a few days old now, but don’t miss a review essay in the London Review of Books by Colin Kidd on Matthew D’Ancona’s book In It Together: The Inside Story of the Coalition Government. In the great tradition of British reviewing, precisely one paragraph (the second-last) gets devoted to the book itself; but what Kidd has to say about both coalitions and the Liberal Democrats is extremely interesting.
Most of it is straight history – the largely forgotten history of the ways in which Britain has so often failed to conform to the neat model of a two-party system. As Kidd says, “The interplay of Liberals and Conservatives in the first two-thirds of the 20th century constitutes one of the forgotten themes of modern British politics.” But he also goes back further, to one of my favorite subjects, the Fox-North coalition of 1783. We even get a reproduction of James Sayers’s memorable cartoon, Carlo Khan’s Triumphal Entry into Leadenhall Street.*
For most readers, however, the important part is the recent history of the Liberal Party and its successor, the Liberal Democrats. He first describes their apparent closeness to the Labour Party:
The Blair years had seen a prolonged, though unconsummated, flirtation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Blair wanted to make the 21st century ‘the radical century’ by healing the progressive split between Labour and Liberals which had so often allowed the Conservatives to sneak into government without the support of Britain’s progressive majority.
But the result turned out rather different:
Most voters assumed – reasonably enough – that the Liberal Democrats were on the left of British politics. Yet the ironic outcome of the 2010 election was the formation of a coalition government composed of two Thatcherite parties: one which appeared, under the Cameron makeover, to have renounced Thatcherite dogma, only to rediscover it in office, and a smaller party most of whose leadership cadre seem just as happy as the Tories with laissez-faire political economy.
Kidd’s great virtue is that he explains how free market policies were a natural fit with the Lib Dems’ background. The Orange Book of 2004, in which Nick Clegg and others advocated market-based solutions of a range of problems, did not come out of nowhere. The Liberal Party of the 1960s challenged the statist consensus of the major parties, and Jo Grimond, who led the party from 1956 to 1967, later said that “Much of what Mrs Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph say and do is in the mainstream of liberal philosophy.”
In Kidd’s words, “The high road from classical liberalism to Thatcherism is neither long nor winding.”
His failing, on the other hand, is that he sees this as somehow paradoxical. Having discovered that there was significant overlap between Thatcherism and liberalism, he nonetheless feels that this shouldn’t be the case: that being on the left should automatically make for being anti-market.
Certainly for much of the twentieth century that’s how the political spectrum seemed to work. But the appearance was misleading; although liberals and conservatives often united to resist the claims of socialism, they came from very different places philosophically. Day to day politics might turn on issues of economic organisation, but they were not what determined fundamental loyalties.
Left and right, or liberals and conservatives, didn’t fight and kill one another in the English civil wars, the French revolution, the Spanish Civil War and a dozen other such conflicts because they disagreed about the respective roles of the state and the market. There were much deeper issues at stake: freedom, equality, democracy, religious tolerance, international peace.
The fact that liberals stood for the winding back of big government and central economic planning didn’t of itself put them on the right. But in the mid-twentieth century, when the British Liberals and other parties like them were mostly on the outer, supporters of such policies often found themselves in conservative parties. So when those policies were implemented, by people like Margaret Thatcher, they tended to be accompanied by conservative-style authoritarianism, and so happened in ways that liberals would (and did) deplore, even when they agreed with much of the philosophical underpinning.
That’s basically the problem Clegg still has. What makes him uncomfortable in coalition is not that Cameron is a free marketeer – if anything he is less of one than Clegg is – but that under the Tories free market policies come in right-wing, authoritarian garb.
So the Liberal Democrats are still trying to hold onto a sort of middle ground, with Clegg last year indicating that in the future he would willingly consider a coalition with Labour, while Vince Cable, his most senior colleague in cabinet, mused about breaking up the existing coalition in advance of next year’s election.
At the moment their prospects don’t look particularly good. Kidd suggests they may “become tomorrow’s National Liberals” – the splinter that staggered through the middle part of the twentieth century before eventually merging into the Tories. Recent polling has them hovering around 10%, less than half of their 2010 election result, and the collapse last year of the German Liberal vote is an ominous warning.
But the need to somehow combine sensible economic policy with a genuinely progressive sensibility isn’t going to go away.
* Featuring not only (as Kidd mentions) Fox as an oriental despot but also North as his elephant and Edmund Burke as the trumpeter.