If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Friday, 10 December 2010

Those poor Lib Dems

For decades, the Liberal Democrats, and the Liberal Party before them, have had the luxury of going into every election knowing that they would not be in power after it. Never mind David Steel's "Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government" - no-one ever really believed that. So they have been able to promise anything they wanted, and be all things to all men. Increased spending on your favourite public service? Of course, Sir. Tax cuts? Not a problem, sir. Greater benefits? Your wish is my command, Sir. A vote against that nasty nuclear power or those nasty nuclear weapons, but without the risk that you would have to live with the consequences? Walk this way, Sir.

Well, now they have been found out. A lot of Lib Dems are learning that, when you are in government, you have to make decisions, and often there is no right or easy answer. Never mind the student union idealism, they are learning the truth of Bismarck's saying that "politics is the art of the possible". Not what you would like in an ideal world; not what you would have with unlimited resources; not what makes you look caring and kind - but what can be achieved in the real world with what you have got.

I've seen many young workers develop and be promoted to management positions. It's amazing how they suddenly stop moaning about "them up in the boardroom" and their "stupid" ideas when they have to actually make business decisions - with real consequences - for themselves. It's quite heart-warming. We all have to grow up eventually. Suddenly, making 'unbreakable' pledges to capture the youth vote doesn't seem such a good idea.

It has led to an interesting position for the Lib Dem MPs. Do you stick to your principles and vote against tuition fees, because that was what you promised? Do you accept reality and vote against, despite the 'broken promise' accusation? Or do you abstain?

I like to think I am a fairly moral person, and I would not break a solemn promise without a very good reason, if at all. I can respect MPs who vote against the rise in fees, if only because I respect the principle that your word should be something that you do not break lightly. And yet, the cost of this, in personal terms, is small. You get into trouble with the Party, and some of those nasty Tories will be cross with you, and you may be told that you are putting the future of the coalition and even your own party at risk. But that's all grown-up stuff. You gain the warm approbation of all those students for being a 'man of principle', and you can go to your grave saying that you kept your word.

I have more time for those MPs who decided to vote with the Government. That was a hard decision to make, I am sure, but realistically it is the only way forward, and the country will be grateful in the long term. They will have heeded Keynes's famous words:
When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?
Going from the freedom of permanent opposition into the gruelling pit of government at a time of huge financial crisis will certainly have presented new facts and new perspectives to the incoming Lib Dem cabinet, and if that has caused them to change their minds à la Keynes, then I can respect them for that. The price is the anger of all those who supported you, and a brick through your window if you are Norman Baker, so changing your mind is not cost-free. That makes it all the more admirable, in my book.

Abstention is an attempt to gain the approval of both sides, and is pathetic. You can say to your supporters "well, I promised not to vote for higher fees, and I haven't". And you can say to your party hierarchy "as a matter of principle I cannot vote in favour, but I will not stand in your way". You are trying to get the best of both worlds. It's spineless and feeble. Go with your principles, one way or the other, for God's sake.

Depending on how things turn out over the next few months, this could be the end of the Liberal Democrat party. Their core vote could turn against them - some of the voxpops I have seen on TV have been bitter - and there's no-one waiting to take the place of their traditonal supporters. It would be a rich irony if the events that finally made the Lib dems grow up and become adult about politics were the events that finished them as a mainstream party.


  1. Being in Opposition is the easiest job in the world. No responsibility. Simply snipe at whatever the party-in-power does/says. A bit of a balancing act for the Cons/Labour 'cos they'll inherit power.

    Only the LimpDumps had the luxury of knowing they'd never actually have to 'do' anything. Until last May.

    "Abstention is an attempt to gain the approval of both sides, and is pathetic." I'd call it hypocritical cowardice.

    Quite ironic really.

  2. "like to think I am a fairly moral person, and I would not break a solemn promise without a very good reason"

    I would imagine that as a moral person you would not make a promise you could not keep if the time came, and if you had to change you mind, you would explain why.

    This however, seems not to apply to politicians of any colour.

  3. The key is in not making promises that you aren't certain you can keep. I have no problem with people changing their minds - that's what you have a brain for. And if, for overwhelming reasons, you have to break a promise, the least people deserve is a full explanation.

    But that's good manners and honourable behaviour, which as you say is a foreign language to most politicians.

  4. Some very good points Richard.

    Abstention is an attempt to gain the approval of both sides, and is pathetic

    I think it's this that makes me dislike the Lib Dems the most. The other parties (well Labour) wriggled out of a referendum on Lisbon on a technicality but at least they had a position (albeit wrong) The Lib Dems abstained on a 3 line whip - if that's not the completely opposite of principles and the ultimate 'cake and eat it' I'm not sure what is.

  5. Slightly OT Richard but this was the PMQs between Thatcher and Kinnock I saw before the cameras were allowed in. But you don't really need a picture to see Kinnock jabbing and spluttering and doing the 'firebrand' or sound to hear his tone. Thatcher's tone was clinical, as well it might be for dealing with an hysteric. She barely moved a muscle.

    Turns out it was from 85, not 87. Ah, memory.


  6. Thanks for the link, Jim. Thatcher: "He wants to promise the earth and not say how it is to be paid for." Precisely!

    Frog: thanks!

  7. "The key is in not making promises that you aren't certain you can keep."


    This problem is, I'm afraid, one of their own making. They need to say 'We shouldn't have made that pledge, because we didn't realise at the time just what sort of black hole of debt Gordon Brown was busily creating. Now we do.'

  8. Agreed, although the problem isn't confined to the Lib Dems. All politicians these days seem to regard changing your mind as a sign of weakness, whereas to me changing your position when circumstances (or your understanding of them)change is the only intelligent response. Your suggested response above would gain respect from the majority of people, because the majority of people aren't fools.

  9. Some well-argued points here.

    I have to say that, in this particular case, I believe the only appropriate response was for the LibDems to vote against the proposals. I suspect they needlessly put themselves in that position through political naivete rather than any outright attempt at dishonesty, but nonetheless that was where they were.

    Pre-election, Nick Clegg's campaign was built around ending broken promises.

    Pre-election, LibDem candidates voluntarily, individually and unconditionally signed pledges to vote against any fee rises for the duration of the next Parliament and, if possible, to have fees repealed entirely.

    At the time, coalition was already on the cards, with the Browne report due and both major parties looking at restructuring fees.

    If they had been a little smarter about it to begin with, made the pledge a party manifesto statement and negotiated it away under the coalition agreement, the "hands up, we got it wrong" approach would have been acceptable, if a little expedient. Party compromise is a necessary part of that deal, and I recognise without malice where both LibDem and Conservative have had to accept lesser positions than the ones they campaigned for. That is grown-up politics.

    But this isn't simply a party issue, though: these were promises made very explicitly to constituents on a personal basis in order to win constituency votes and that should trump any party political considerations. The only way out of that one would be for those individuals to go back to their electorate and make their apologies there - via a local referendum, perhaps, if such a thing is feasible.

    It's quite frustrating, in that I believe HE reform is necessary and I'm willing to accept that Browne may well have come up with the fairest approach possible. However, their postponement - or an alternative proposal - would have been a reasonable price to pay for politicians to demonstrate that, just for once, they genuinely could be entrusted with a point of principle and commitment.

    As it is, the LibDem position was untenable. There were obiously highly compelling arguments for supporting the reforms, which means those who broke ranks and voted against are fools, those who toed the line and voted for are liars and those who abstained are spineless fools willing to lie by omission. Even if the eventual results are favourable for the country, that smacks too much of the ends justifying the means.

    It is, I think, a new low in the relationship between politicians and electorate and all the more disappointing for being at a time when the spin and deceit culture was supposed to be over.

  10. The LDs certainly painted themselves into a corner over the tuition fees issue, and it's good to see chickens coming home to roost.

    It wuill be interesting to see how the Coalition survives the next few years. If the 'third party' are squeezed out, we could be seeing the end of the present system. I wonder who will fill the gap.

  11. Who is the biggest fool? The politicians who promised something that was idiotic to start with (They did not know that the country was bankrupt? Honestly? If that was the case, how on earth can they be allowed anywhere near being in charge?!?), or the idiots who voted for them because they liked the sound of something for nothing?

    I guess I ansewered my own question! :)


Comment is free, according to C P Scott, so go for it. Word verification is turned off for the time being. Play nicely.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...