Allan Massie: Lib Dems deserve praise not censure

In the past four days, we’ve seen two articles from journalists saying good things about the Liberal Democrats. On Sunday, Jane Merrick said that we could all stop worrying and learn to love the Lib Dems. Now, Allan Massie has written in the Scotsman that Liberal Democrats deserve praise, not censure.

So, why? First of all, for simply putting the country’s needs first.

In politics, the Duke of Wellington did not match his achievements in war, but he held to one sound and important principle: the Queen’s government must be carried on. This means that you must have an administration that commands a majority in the Commons and is capable of governing.

In 2010, this was absolutely essential, given the dire state of both the British and the world economy. By agreeing to the coalition, Clegg and those around him acted in the interest of the country. They exchanged the pleasures of easy opposition for the responsibility of a share in the government. And they have had the courage to persist in government and not to run away from the duty they had assumed.

No doubt things have been done that they would rather had not been done. That is the nature of a coalition, and we should remember that the Liberal Democrats – and, indeed, the Liberals in their previous incarnation – had been calling for coalition government for decades. Yet in other respects they have acted as a restraining influence on the Tories, and, as Chief Secretary of the Treasury, Danny Alexander has played an important part in the work of trying to restore the public finances. In short, the Liberal Democrats in government have behaved responsibly and deserve well of us. For this they should be praised, not censured.

And, later, there’s a stronger endorsement because of our support for the EU:

If there was no other reason to vote Liberal Democrat, the party’s commitment to the EU, and to the principles of its founding fathers, would be an adequate one. Given the rise of Ukip, and the aims and character of that party, anyone who believes in the value of the European Union should certainly think of voting Liberal Democrat at the election for the European Parliament in May – and, indeed, do more than think about it.

And a prediction that we might do better than expected:

Yet they may not do so badly as their overall poll rating suggests. They will probably hold on to seats where they are well established and their candidate is an incumbent MP.

Besides, Liberal loyalism is an attitude of mind, not necessarily affected by events or policies. Former Liberal leader Jo Grimond once said he had supported two causes throughout his career: the EU and Home Rule for Scotland. Asked to vote on these matters in referendums, his constituents in Orkney and Shetland voted No to both – but they continued to return Jo to parliament.

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16 Comments

  • Massie is using the fallacious argument of no coalition = tory majority. That’s an untestable proposition, not a fact.

  • Do we yet have a robust banking system? If not, why do the lib dems deserve praise over this?
    There are matters of principle and judgement in politics. I am still waiting for the lib dems to recognise this and change course.

  • Frank Booth 30th Jan '14 - 2:20pm

    Tory commentator (admittedly quite a good one) praises the Lib Dems. The cynic in me wonders whether that should be seen as a good thing? There were strong reasons for going for coalition in 2010 but those reasons have passed now. The Lib Dem comfort blanket has given the government a solid majority and the Tories the confidence to move into radical areas. It is not sufficient to say the Lib Dems are acting as a restraining influence on the Tories. The Lib Dems were foolish to make it clear they were committed for 5 years and would leave under no circumstances. It’s given the Tories a licence to be far more radical than they would otherwise have dared for fear the Lib Dems would leave.

  • Chris Manners 30th Jan '14 - 5:40pm

    “In 2010, this was absolutely essential, given the dire state of both the British and the world economy. By agreeing to the coalition, Clegg and those around him acted in the interest of the country. They exchanged the pleasures of easy opposition for the responsibility of a share in the government.”

    The British economy was fine- maturity on the debt among the best, debt still low among the G7.

  • David Allen 30th Jan '14 - 6:02pm

    Gosh RC, you have provided a mathematically rigorous proof of the magic equation:

    No coalition+second 2010 election=tory majority.

    Your proof consists of (1) evidence that the Tories made contingency plans which would have allowed them to call a second election, if that had turned out to look like a good gamble, and (2) some “experts” speculating just after the election that if a coalition wasn’t formed, a second election might indeed have been on the cards.

    Well, OK, Cameron might (or might not) have called a second election, and then, he might (or might not) have won it. Now let’s look at all these uncertainties from the Cameron point of view.

    Cameron had for five years been posing as the Tories’ great white hope, the man who would lift their vote above the core 30% who had stuck with the losing campaigns of Hague and Howard. But the wheels were coming off. The Tory vote slumped back towards hung parliament territory. Was it time for the ruthless Tories to sling out another failed leader, to follow the Hagues and the Howards?

    Well, not if Cameron could pull a coalition out of the bag. But what if he didn’t? Would he then happily call a second election after a few months, knowing that defeat could put him in the history books as the shortest-lived PM of the century, and end his political career at 44?

    He’d have been scared sh*tless, wouldn’t he?

    Cameron needed the Lib Dems. He really, really needed the Lib Dems. We didn’t really need him.

    We worried ourselves about how much we might lose, if we told the Tories to govern as a minority and ask for our support on a case-by-case basis. And yes, there were risks. Not half as serious risks as the risks Cameron would have faced.

    We found ourselves grasping Cameron by the throat. We totally failed to squeeze. Instead, we gave him a one-sided deal that let him do virtually what he wanted. Cameron took the opportunity to force through major structural changes, entrenching private business power and weakening democracy. (After all, the low Tory core vote was still a huge concern. If you Tories might never win again, then you Tories have to be radical, and fix things for the long term while you have the chance.)

    Whether Clegg made such a poor deal because he was just an incompetent bargainer, or whether the ex-SPAD of a Tory grandee might have had a view on the desirability of the Tory shrink-the-state project, is an interesting issue to debate!

  • @ David Allen

    I trust you put forward all your sage and clearly experienced advice about how to form a Coalition in the middle of a fiscal meltdown and a continuing international financial crisis with a much bigger, better funded party with much of the press on its side at the time of the negotiations in May 2010.

    If not, all your post looks like is spectacular and misplaced 20/20 hindsight.

    “We found ourselves grasping Cameron by the throat.”

    An utterly unbelievable statement. In what possible alternative reality could this possibly be true?

    @ Chris Manners

    “The British economy was fine- maturity on the debt among the best, debt still low among the G7.”

    And virtually the biggest deficit as a share of GDP of any significant developed economy, plus a knackered financial sector, households indebted up to their hilt, manufacturing halved as a share of GDP and a totally broken education system with standards sliding down the global league tables.

    And you say the UK economy was “fine”??????

    I am utterly astonished at how, even at the short distance of just under four years, people can reinvent the past to fit their current viewpoints. Unbelievable, totally unbelievable.

  • Massie does not start well by using the Duke of Wellington as a role model. It is worth remembering that the Duke of Wellington is not always viewed as a hero in his country. For many of us he is amongst the worst of Tories, happy to put innocent women and children to the sword at Peterloo. Wellington’s unpopularity among ordinary English people has not been matched in the last 200 years. From 1815-1822, there were numerous plots of assassination, arson, and even blowing up the parliament targeted specifically at the Duke of Wellington. If you want a topical comparison of unpopularity by a leader look no further than the current president of the Ukraine. The Duke of Wellington was no Liberal.

  • David Allen 30th Jan '14 - 7:13pm

    RC, if you don’t like the exercise of hindsight, why did you open this dialogue with an exercise based on hindsight?

  • David Allen 30th Jan ’14 – 6:02pm “………Whether Clegg made such a poor deal because he was just an incompetent bargainer, or whether the ex-SPAD of a Tory grandee might have had a view on the desirability of the Tory shrink-the-state project, is an interesting issue to debate!”

    David Allen raises an interesting issue to debate. Why has Clegg achieved such a poor record as a bargainer? Even if you agree with what he says he has tried to do, his record is embarrassing.
    As David Steel said recently, “it used to be –I agree with Nick. Now it is — I feel sorry for Nick.”.
    The best Nick Clegg can hope for now is public sympathy for someone who started out in life and in politics with all the advantages going but it has all turned to dust. His reputation is shot through. He reached a peak with a moment of Cleggmania in April 2010 but it has been downhill ever since. He has become such a loser that loyalists are trying to justify a 2% result in a parliamentary by election as “good considering the territory.”.

    My guess is that the answer to David’s question is that Clegg is both an incompetent bargainer and that he has the worldview of a small state, small ‘T’ Tory. He is a victim of his background and simply cannot connect with ordinary voters of whom he has little personal knowledge and even less understanding.

  • A Supply and Confidence agreement would have ensured stable Government and no second early election. But of course no Red Boxes for Lib Dem MPs.

  • @ David Allen

    I was saying what I say now, then, that the Coalition agreement wasn’t marvellous but it was the absolute best we could do under the circumstances i.e. having one eleventh of the MPs in parliament. That is not hindsight. It’s consistency.

    @John Tilley

    “Why has Clegg achieved such a poor record as a bargainer? Even if you agree with what he says he has tried to do, his record is embarrassing.”

    I would like to see how you think he could possibly have negotiated a better settlement under the circumstances. Yet more 20/20 hindsight. Remarkable ability that. I must try to develop it for myself some time.

  • John Tilley – “He is a victim of his background and simply cannot connect with ordinary voters of whom he has little personal knowledge and even less understanding.”

    That comment is even more true of Milliband. Labour aristocracy, leafy Hampstead mansion, PPE at Oxford … Just like all those Labour voters on the council estates.

  • Bill le Breton 31st Jan '14 - 9:39am

    In May 2010, whatever government emerged and for how long it lasted, the key issue to get right was the economy.

    Questions should be asked why it was that our negotiating team of four did not include our economic spokesperson and the best economist in the Parliamentary Party.

    Statements by Clegg on the economy and especially on both the deficit and the debt reveals a poor understanding of the subject not just by the leader himself but also by those who he had around him at the time.

    Clegg’s instinct rather than his analysis was to get to a position when the ‘debt’ could be brought down and that entailed reducing the ‘deficit’ as quickly as possible.

    Crucially he was supported in that position not just by David Laws but (perhaps surprisingly) Chris Huhne. (see Laws on this)

    Outside of the team, this message was being reinforced by Mervyn King, Governor of the bank of England, who sought the opportunity to speak with both negotiating teams. He was refused access, but no-one can doubt that his message got through; ‘you can increase the pace of deficit reduction as against the Darling 2010 March Budget, we at the Bank will provide the necessary aggressive monetary stimulus to offset the effects of the increased pace and depth of Government Expenditure cuts and tax rises’.

    Damagingly, King and his fellows on the Monetary Policy Committee failed to achieve this, perhaps underestimating the extent of the monetary stimulus required. (No one should have had any confidence in the Bank’s forecasts during those months.)

    Thus, the Coalition was not able to rely on the ‘freedom’ that other currency issuers such as Poland and Sweden had in 2010. In fact by 2011, King was having to fight a rearguard action against hawks in the MPC who wanted rates to rise (as in deed they did in the Eurozone to hazardous effects). Many of those hawks have since had their contracts renewed by the Quad.

    The truth is that the Coalition could have stuck with the Darling budget and by my reckoning the National Debt today would be one quarter of a trillion lower – quite a legacy those errors have left for ‘our grandchildren’.

    Of course, in fairly short order the pace of fiscal consolidation (tax rises and expenditure cuts) had to be reversed. Plan A lasted not much more than a year. But, as anyone with the slightest experience of government (local or national) would have warned, ‘watch the capital budget’. That is where the officers offer their first ‘cuts’.

    So, overly tight monetary policy, cuts to the capital programme, and a negative rather than a measured message from the country’s leadership was heard as a warning NOT to expect demand to continue its recovery and therefore NOT to risk investment and NOT to spend those reserves. The message in the population at large was similar. ‘Your Job is at Risk.’.

    I think, had Cable been at the table instead of Huhne, if Cable rather than Alexander had been charged with relaying back to the Leadership at the close of each session of negotiation, we would have had a very different stance in the negotiations on the economy and might have succeeded – because Clegg did at that time have the powers of communication and the quality of relationship to gain the future PM’s support and that of the British Public.

    It was the economy and we were stupid. Nor is that hindsight. It was willful blindness to the views of the Party’s economic spokesperson at the time. It was as much fear of Cable getting the credit as anything else. Politics is people.

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