Are Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems more Liberal and less Democrat?

Nick the Kingmaker

For a long time ‘Liberal Democrats’ was usually a punch line to political jokes. Their leadership merry go round and policies which jumped to the right then the left of Labour and back again, apparently doomed them as just a protest vote. But this schizophrenia is a reflection of the odd history of Britain’s third party.

The Liberal Democrats are a hybrid. On the one hand, are the old Liberal party of Gladstone. They were heirs to the classical liberal tradition of John Stuart Mill, of social and economic liberalism. On the other hand is the Social Democratic Party. The SDP was founded by a group of disillusioned moderate Labour MPs in 1981, distressed by Labour’s lurch to the left. The two merged in 1988.

This duality at the heart of the Liberal Democrats has been brought to the fore in recent years. With ‘New’ Labour seemingly drifting toward the centre right on many issues, former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy sought to move the party to the left. In a clear echo of the SDP tradition, he pledged higher taxes to fund increased public spending and bitterly opposed the invasion of Iraq.

This prompted a response from the party’s Liberal wing and 2004 saw the publication of ‘The Orange Book – Reclaiming Liberalism’. With contributions from Nick Clegg and Vince Cable the book was a surprisingly frank statement of classical liberal beliefs.

The party’s 2007 leadership election between Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne was a straight shoot out between the two wings. The Liberal Clegg beat the more Social Democratic Huhne by just 1.2% of the votes cast. This victory, for the time being, of the Liberal faction over the SDP, was confirmed at the party conference in September when delegates voted to approve a platform of tax cuts.

This shift could see the one time joke party become something more important. For years it has been assumed that the most natural coalition in British politics was between Labour and the Lib Dems. Indeed, the late 1970s saw the Lib-Lab Pact whereby the Liberals propped up the ailing Labour government. In the 1990s, Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair seemed on the verge of practically merging their parties.

But the ascendancy of the old Liberal tendency changes that. With his new rhetoric about the “smaller state”, Nick Clegg sounds closer to David Cameron than to Gordon Brown. Obstacles still exist, namely the differing stances over Europe and electoral reform and there is still the antipathy of the mostly SDP majority of rank and file members. But in the very possible situation of a hung Parliament after the next election, a new political cocktail could be on the menu.

(Printed in London Student, vol 29 issue 3, 20/10/08)

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