The Liberal Democrat Party: a concluding unscientific postscript

Unlike leftish fiction-writer Ian McEwan, I am disinclined to extend much goodwill in the direction of the coalition government. In fact, anyone capable of judging this government – and the Lib Dems’ role in making it possible – as positively as McEwan strikes me as having something important missing from their own political makeup. It’s a bit like hearing it seriously argued that apartheid was good for the South African economy, or that Mussolini did in fact make the trains run on time: you just know that you’re not going to agree with this person on anything. (Not that I’ve agreed with old Leftie McEwan for quite a while.) Tory government is bad; if you join a Tory government, or (even worse) make a Tory government possible, you and your party are off the political roll-call forever.

This position seems pretty fundamental to me. But can I justify it on the basis of anything other than what McEwan refers to as “deep tribal reasons”? Well, yes and no. I can identify three inter-related reasons for continuing to view the governing coalition – and the Lib Dems in particular – with the greatest possible suspicion and hostility.

The first reason is part sociological, part phenomenological. (I’ll get the second bit out of the way first. Bear with me.) Through a phenomenological lens, the interplay of claims and appearances and assumptions that makes up social reality is… what it is. We may hold the belief that there is a real world behind it all, fully stocked with objectively real mountains, objectively real buildings, objectively real bank balances and objectively real class struggle, but this is in some sense a second-order belief. All we can ever really see or know is, well, the interplay of claims and appearances and assumptions that makes up social reality. And this is a two-way process: everything we see and know – and take to be objectively real – can be resolved into the claims, appearances etc which give it being. I can, with a bit of an effort, understand how I’ve come to hold ‘beliefs’ derived from something I call ‘Marxism’; with a bit more effort, I can understand how I’ve come to believe that I ‘work’ for something called a ‘living’.

The important point here is that everything that’s been unpacked can be, and generally is, packed right up again: there’s no particular ironic distance about saying that I am a Marxist or that I do work for a living. (This, to my mind, is one of the key things Rorty got wrong – that I acknowledge my beliefs as contingent does not at all entail that I hold them ironically – but that’s by the by.) In other words, what phenomenology told me is that I can (as I occasionally do) step outside my ‘tribal’ political loyalties – just as I can step outside my belief in obeying the law or telling the truth. But there has to be a good reason to step outside – and there are lots of good reasons for stepping back in. By which I mean, I’ve got lots of significant and hard-to-change beliefs which are congruent with those loyalties – which is where the sociology comes in. My father’s father was a miner; the full story is that he was the son of a miner, swore he’d never go down the mine, worked in a tileworks and had a nervous breakdown when it closed, because he knew what the alternative was. When the hospital discharged him, he went down the mine. He was one of the miners who struck for ten months in 1926, survived on charity and went back to a wage cut. That was in North Wales. My mother’s mother, down in southern England, was in domestic service before she married; somebody’s maid, somebody’s servant. So class means something to me – and what it means has to do with strength and defiance as well as powerlessness and abjection. Dougie Maclean:

We are our father’s dreams
We are our mother’s pride and joy
And we will be the ones to tell you now that it’s over
You have no hold on us like the fear you laid on them
We are the seeds they grew
It’s we that you must answer to

For me, then, the Conservative Party is the enemy (or at least the political wing of the enemy). If that’s tribalism, then it’s a tribalism I’m happy to avow.

The second reason again has to do with phenomenology, but in less exalted terms. I’ve devoted quite a lot of effort over the years to arguing for lesser-evils and least-worsts and shades of grey: I think it’s really important to recognise that the Progressive Unionist Party is a bit to the left of the main Unionist parties, and that the ex-Fascist Alleanza Nazionale is not the most Fascist of the major parties currently active in Italian politics (or even the second most Fascist). But of course I say this from a vantage point in England; neither I nor any of my family and friends have ever been at any risk of being governed by the PUP or the AN. People closer to the action have a less nuanced view. And it’s entirely right they should – if I lived in Italy, I suspect I would be one of the ones hanging the ‘Fascist’ label on the AN, not one of those taking it off. The views of the member of a setting are necessarily different from those of a detached observer (or: from those of a member of the setting who has taken the role of ‘detached observer’).

Apart from anything else, the member of the setting has a language in common with other members, and positional interests which can be pursued by using it. Look at Gianfranco Fini – an intelligent and cautious reactionary, someone who’s renounced Fascism more times than he can count, and by all accounts a much nicer guy than the troglodytes he’s allied to. What purpose could possibly be served by labelling him as a Fascist? Let’s see: it might drive voters away from his party, which would weaken it; it might attract Fascists to his party, which would create conflict and hence would also weaken it; it might prompt him to move to the Left to prove the label wrong, which wouldn’t weaken the party but would make it less harmful; it might even prompt him to move so far Left that he ended up splitting the party, which would weaken it and make it less harmful. Really, it’s all good. Anyone with as much distance from the English scene as I’ve got from Italy might want to frame the current government as a just slightly right-of-centre alliance, with the Lib Dems as a centrist/Europhile/libertarian counterweight to the Tories’ nastier tendencies. From within the English political setting, though, framing the Lib Dems as Orange [Book] Tories has an awful lot going for it. (It could drive voters away from the party, which would weaken it…)

The third reason has less to do with what the Lib Dems have done than what they’re going to do – or rather, what they will not now be able to do. It’s about path-dependency, in other words. For a variety of reasons – some positional, some tribal – the possibilities open to the Lib Dems have been massively reshaped by their alliance with the Tories. The formation of the coalition, in and of itself, will have made it almost impossible to take the Lib Dems seriously as a party of the centre-left, or even the centre, for a very long time; I don’t think the party leadership realised just how big a break they were making with the old tradition of ‘equidistance’, let alone the party’s more recent position on Labour’s left-libertarian flank. But there was also a second miscalculation, and a larger one. The coalition is designed as a long-term project, with a five-year expiry date – and every day of those five years will bring negotiations, adjustments, decisions to retreat from Lib Dem priorities or accede to Tory policy. In other words, the Lib Dems are locked in to a process of rapprochement with the Tories: they’re not merely a satellite of the Tory planet, they’re a satellite in a decaying orbit.

So, why do I hate the Liberal Democrats? For tribal reasons: they’ve put into power a party which I regard as the enemy, and which I cannot not regard as the enemy without abandoning bigger and more important beliefs. For positional reasons: within the setting of British politics, hating the Liberal Democrats seems both appropriate and constructive. And, in the words of the old joke, because it saves time: if they aren’t a party of the Right now, they soon will be.

Update 12th June
And so it begins.

Less than a month in power and the new government has already reversed policies giving incentives to councils to develop land for Gypsy and Traveller communities. As a result, all bids to fund new sites and refurbish existing ones across England and Wales have been cancelled.

Eric Pickles, the communities and local government secretary, has said he wants to revive elements of the Conservative’s 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act that turns trespass from a civil into a criminal offence. This will mean that Travellers who refuse to move from land that is not privately owned by them could be arrested by police or forcibly evicted. Pickles has also announced his intention to scrap new rules giving Gypsies and Travellers a “level playing field” in planning disputes with local authorities.

Matthew Brindley, spokesman for the Irish Traveller Movement, says that … his members would strive to keep protests peaceful and focused. “Over a decade’s campaigning work has been destroyed overnight by this coalition but we’re still as determined as ever to campaign and work with the government because we believe that we can, through campaigning and lobbying, get the needs of Gypsies and Travellers – in terms of health, education and accommodation, addressed.”

Brindley admits that the community is bitterly disappointed by the support the Liberal Democrats are giving the proposed legislation. “Lib Dem policy towards Gypsies and Travellers has always been pretty much in line with Labour policies, which, though not perfect, had been quite positive over the last 10 years,” says Brindley. “But the coalition’s new policy has been very much shaped by the Conservatives.”

Shorter Pickles: “Go. Move. Shift.”

Bending over backwards to be fair, these moves aren’t going to harm an awful lot of people, and you could argue that they will give a certain kind of fearful, vindictive satisfaction to a lot more people. But that’s actually the point, just as it was with Labour’s equally appalling treatment of asylum seekers. You can tell an awful lot about a government by the kind of trade-off it’s prepared to do, particularly at the expense of groups with no power, no influence and no significant allies. And ‘government’ here includes the Liberal Democrats.



  1. Posted 9 June 2010 at 23:50 | Permalink | Reply

    This is terrific, Phil: thanks for posting. (I have, by the way, finally got a copy of your book sitting on my desk. And I plan to read it, too.)

    I think the third reason is the one I’m most interested in — partly because it seems to me the one that’s most under-discussed in the torrent of words about the coalition. People mention the historical precedents — Liberal Unionists being absorbed into the Tory Party, the fate of the Coalition Liberals after 1922, the National Liberals, and so on — but it’s not accompanied by any serious speculation about what the actual political dynamics are likely to be this time round, what pressures the Lib Dems are going to face, and what the experience of coalition will do to the party. Maybe the point is that we can’t say much that’s coherent, so it’s best to say nothing. But I think you’re right: there’s a path-dependency here, or, at least, the obvious trajectory is one that makes the Lib Dems over the longer run de jure what they are currently de facto, i.e., the left wing of the Conservative Party.

    What this underlines for me, I think, is just how stuffed the Lib Dems were in the election: in the end, they just didn’t have any good medium- or long-term options, so they went for the tempting offer of Coalition government that Cameron set out before them.

    It’s striking that the Lib Dems with more of a historical sense — Charles Kennedy, Shirley Williams — were the most sceptical about the deal (but still didn’t really oppose it – a sign of the way in which they didn’t perceive there to be a real political choice). And it’s also striking that on the same day that Clegg was showing how historically ignorant he was with his boasting about the 1832 Reform Act, Cameron was moving to neuter the 1922 Committee, as he knows exactly how the Lloyd George Government was brought down, and he doesn’t want to tread the same path.

    • Posted 10 June 2010 at 01:20 | Permalink | Reply

      Too bloody right.

      And Ian McEwan: it’s all been downhill since The Cement Garden.

  2. Posted 14 June 2010 at 07:56 | Permalink | Reply

    Also see Teresa May’s proposal for picking on non-English speaking spouses, which doesn’t seem to have led to any threats of Liberal resignation.

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