Michael St George argues that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats are now a danger to nothing less than Parliamentary democracy itself
Even in normal political times, the Liberal Democrats are not a party I could ever consider voting for. As a small-state, low-tax, free-markets enthusiast, and one who, especially, vehemently opposes the signature LibDem shibboleths of Green climate alarmism and enthusiasm for subsuming the UK ever more closely into the socialistic, supranational EU, their general policy stance is anathema.
Their prevailing political ethos is also, for me, fundamentally hypocritical. Despite plaintive and unconvincing protestations to the contrary, and the presence of remnants of the old Liberal Party among the ranks of the Orange Bookers, the LibDem policy stance is dominated by the viscerally statist, redistributionist elements of the centre-left: the ones who are virtually indistinguishable from their fellow-collectivists in the Labour Party, and with whom they most often appear to feel most at home politically.
But imbued with this is, so often, an insufferable presumption of moral superiority, a self-indulgent assumption that their basically leftist policies are somehow being promoted in pursuit of some higher and nobler cause than the grubby, aspiration-averse class-envy of their Labour counterparts. The “socialism with sanctimony and sandals” label may be both clichéd and disparaging, but it’s no less deadly accurate for that.
However, we no longer live in normal political times. For the LibDems’ leader, Nick Clegg, has this week decreed from on high that we now live in very different political times – times where, he demanded, the sole unchanging feature of the British political landscape must be the immutable presence of the LibDems in all Governments, of whatever political stripe, as the constant junior partner to whichever majority party.
This was the extraordinarily hubristic and, in effect, far-reaching, almost revolutionary, constitutional upheaval that Clegg laid out in his keynote speech to the LibDem Conference this week. His thesis – if such a nakedly cynical and opportunistic grab for permanent political power, whether conferred by popular consent or not, can be dignified with such a term – is that merely self-proclaiming to be the party of “the centre ground” (and a Westminster bubble “centre ground”, incidentally, conveniently some way to the Left of the entirely different “common ground” occupied by the majority of the UK electorate) must automatically entitle the LibDems to be in government at all times.
Stripped of the unctuous, pretentious, self-serving verbiage in which it was delivered, this boils down quite simply to: “you can have any government you like, UK voters – provided it’s a coalition including us”.
The good governance of the UK, declared Clegg, cannot by definition be undertaken by the party gaining the most votes or seats in a general election, even if it attains an absolute majority. In the Clegg vision of the UK’s new constitutional and political settlement, the LibDems, however low their voter appeal, simply must be in government, to imprison their bigger and more electorally-mandated partners in the mythical centre-ground (NB, the Westminster bubble version), diluting or even negating their (to the LibDems) controversial and uncongenial policies on which they actually stood successfully for election.
The implications for continued popular consent for a democratic pluralism are immense – and adverse. In the Clegg Constitution, party general election manifestos and the commitments in them mean nothing, because they are axiomatically liable to be junked in the inevitable post-election coalition negotiations. Replicating what happens so frequently in Clegg’s beloved EU, coalition governments, determined not by the will of the people but through unsavoury, behind-closed-doors horse-trading by always the same people, become the norm, pursuing policies that nobody voted for except possibly 10-15% of the electorate.
Politics becomes devoid of any ideological content, deprived of any ballot-box contest between competing belief systems about the optimum organisation of the economy and society, and the allocation and distribution of resources. Whether you vote for one or other of parties as disparate as a collectivist Bennite Left or a free-market Thatcherite Right matters not one jot, because what you get is an anodyne, amorphous centrism, bereft of any guiding philosophical purpose other than self-perpetuating managerialism.
There’s a term that accurately describes this type of polity – it’s called a one-party state. A state where no alternative to the anti-democratic ruling elite is ever allowed to assume office. And Clegg’s vision would take us dangerously far down the road towards it.
Democracy functions best when a clear ideological divide exists between the differing philosophies and policies on offer to the electorate: it needs that clear ideological divide to survive and thrive. It’s no coincidence that some of the highest voter participation, measured by turnout, in UK general elections since 1945 have occurred when there was, not only a fundamental political-philosophy divide between the rival parties, but, crucially, the implicit expectation that the victorious party would govern largely on the basis of implementing the manifesto on which it sought office.
Clegg’s in effect subject-always-to-LibDem-dilution one-party state makes that impossible. But without the possibility of bringing about at least nominal change of government via the ballot-box, disillusionment with the democratic process may set in even more quickly than the trends already observable.
Gradual withdrawal from conventional political participation, though, doesn’t mean that politics doesn’t occur by other, less peaceful means: the substitution of other forms of political engagement for those denied by the anti-democracy one-party state may be violent. The forced imposition by the EU of its unelected proconsuls on the government of Greece should teach us, if nothing else, that an anti-democratic hegemony jeopardises democracy itself.
That’s why, at the 2014 Euro-elections, and above all at the 2015 General Election, the egregiously mis-named Liberal Democrats must not merely be beaten, to the extent of losing 20 or 30 of their 57 sitting House of Commons MPs – they must be comprehensively crushed, so that not the slightest justification for their inclusion in the formation of the ensuing administration can possibly exist. The survival of our sometimes raucous and messy but nonetheless vibrant pluralist democracy itself may well depend on it.