I have a confession to make. It’s been a while in the gestation, but I think I’m fascinated by the Liberal Democrats. Maybe I’m being coy. Could it be more than fascination? When I think of them – Clegg, Laws, Davey, Featherstone and the gang – my throats dries and my pulse races. What’s going on?
It wasn’t always this way. I flirted with them in my youth, drawn yellow-ward for no other reason than it was hard to find anything to dislike about them. They had some endearing if slightly overblown ideas, like transforming education with a 1p rise in income tax. They seemed a nice bunch; unobjectionable and unthreatening. Along with Labour, they were a counter-balance to the dottiness of Thatcherism.
The truth is I didn’t quite take the Lib-Dem plunge when it came to ballot box time. But I certainly wouldn’t have minded if Blair and Kennedy had struck some kind of deal in 1997. Equally, I wasn’t that bothered when they didn’t. This probably sums it up: ambivalence.
Oh, how times have changed. Now, they prompt a pretty violent reaction – along with the drying throat and racing pulse, there’s an accompanying sense of nausea.
Perhaps it was the bizarre ease with which the Lib-Cons did their deal, slinging aside years of ideological disagreement and discarding electoral pledges, including the one which more or less defined them as a party (PR, I mean); maybe it was the sight of Clegg all but bear-hugging Cameron on the steps of Number 10; or their ‘public-school boys at prize-giving’ jocularity announcing their deal just moments later.
Where did this come from? The answer lies in Clegg’s in-built conservatism but also something integral to the Liberal Democrats, which has come to the fore with closer scrutiny and will be familiar to anyone who has been involved in a local campaign with them; they have a chameleon-like capacity to transform themselves in an instant, drawing on whichever strand of liberal, conservative, socialist, green or democratic thought provides them with the moral high ground at any given point.
This has enabled them to jettison the lefty-stuff they previously held dear and re-invent themselves in the image of both Clegg and Cameron. You can rest assured, if a Miliband had been leader and Labour had held another 20 seats, the Lib-Dems would have been dusting down their ‘progressive-left’ credentials.
It has also allowed them to contort liberalism into whatever suits them, with Clegg claiming recently that this long-established tradition was basically ‘the same as’ the big society. Poor Bentham. Poor Stuart Mill. Such a vast expanse of thought reduced to nothing! It’s the kind of shape-shifting that means they sneer at Labour’s big-brotherish moments, while remaining silent on the removal of a peaceful protestor from outside Parliament, just days into their Government.
And locally, I’ve noticed they have an entirely disagreeable habit of jumping on bandwagons; claiming success for local campaigns where there contribution can best be described as negligible.
Take my local Lib-Dems. A leaflet popped through the door during election time. It was misleading to say the least (deliberately so, perhaps). On one page they claimed success for increasing recycling. Fair enough – it’s a Lib-Dem council after all.
But the same council said they set up Sure Start Children’s Centre’s. It also wanted praise for establishing Neighbourhood Police Teams in every ward. Interesting: both are (were) central Government initiatives and Labour Government commitments. Even better, the Lib-Dem MP said he had ‘won’ extra funding for primary schools, even though every school in the country received this particular boost. So, this was their message in the build-up to the election: whatever went well in my patch was directly down to the Lib-Dem MP and council; whatever was going wrong was down to the big, bad Labour Government.
The problem now, of course, is this line of argument just doesn’t work anymore; they can’t blame the Government any more, as they are it!
Already this has put my local MP in a very difficult spot, as funding for a secondary school is under threat – a school he had previously described as ‘vital’. As he says himself this is ‘something the Conservatives said they were going to cut’, so he can hardly grumble. I expect, chameleon-like, he will slip and slide to the higher ground claiming ‘it’s nothing to do with the Lib-Dems, we believe in everything and nothing, often at the same time.’ One things for sure, my fascination looks like it’s not going to let up…