It’s natural for defeated political leaders to make up stories which absolve themselves from blame. After every by-election, those who have done less well offer unconvincing explanations. Nick Clegg is no exception, but his story last week that “the Liberal Democrats are on a journey from a party of protest to a party of government” is curious for two reasons. First, because no previous Liberal or Liberal Democrat leader has presented the party as one of protest and second because the party was very much a party of government before he became leader.
It is wrong and insulting to suggest that David Steel, Paddy Ashdown, and Sir Menzies Campbell were somehow leaders of a protest group that lacked ambition to govern. From Steel’s much-mocked call to his members to “prepare for government” to Campbell’s courageous stand against the Iraq war, each of them presented comprehensive and radical programmes for government in their actions and manifestos.
David Steel led Liberals into the 1987 election on a broad programme which included devolution to Scotland and Wales, the introduction of a Freedom of Information Act, restoration of the link between pensions and earnings, and the incorporation of the European Charter on Human Rights into British Law. These were so much a programme for government that each has now been implemented by other parties.
Paddy Ashdown set out detailed plans for government as he led the Liberal Democrats into the 1997 election. Far from seeking protest votes, Ashdown made a firm commitment to increase income tax in order to fund improvements in education – what party leader would have the courage to do that today?
In 2005, Charles Kennedy faced the electorate with a manifesto of fully-costed policies. It drew attention to Labour’s broken promises on tuition fees, defended the contribution made to the British economy by economic migrants, and set out a suite of environmental policies.
None of these leaders were fronting a party of protest. Each had wide-ranging proposals covering all aspects of government. They did not flinch from promoting policies they knew would initially be unpopular. And each was confident in the knowledge that all their proposals were soundly embedded in modern Liberal principles. They certainly won seats from other parties in by-elections (rather than coming 7th or 8th as Clegg has done recently) but they also steadily increased their haul of seats at General Elections.
Liberal Democrats were arguably more effective as a party of government before Nick Clegg became leader. the decade from 2000 to 2010, Liberal Democrats were coalition partners in the governments of both Scotland and Wales. The achievements of Liberal Democrat Ministers in those governments were far-reaching and radical. Significantly, they punched above their electoral weight and delivered effectively on their manifesto pledges. Fair voting in local elections, free personal care for the elderly, and no university tuition fees are just some of the party’s achievements in government in Scotland.
Liberal Democrats also controlled major local authorities in most parts of Britain during those years. That strength at municipal level has been shredded in recent elections. Ironically, this loss has been largely a consequence of perceived Lib Dem ineptitude in national government.
Clegg’s “journey” story doesn’t stand up. The party has been active in government for many years, almost everywhere except London. His journey has not been from protest to government, but from principle to pragmatism. To be an independent party of government in future will require new seats to be gained from other parties in areas outside current Lib Dem comfort zones. For this, the South Shields result does not augur well.
* Nigel Lindsay is a former Liberal councillor in Aberdeen and a longtime activist in the party, but consider himself an internationalist first and foremost.