There’s an argument going on within the Liberal Democrats at the moment. As the Coalition rolls on to its eventual demise, a debate is taking place that looks to the 2015 election campaign and beyond. It can be framed in terms of left v. right, or as leadership v. activists, or as idealists v. pragmatists, but nobody doubts that it’s going on. What is our strategy, our policy, our messaging, our future? I will declare an interest: I would describe myself as on the left of the party, I am a member of the Social Liberal Forum, and I don’t quite trust Nick Clegg any more. However, perhaps it’s because of this – combined with the fact that I still grudgingly support us being in coalition – that I’m so annoyed at being told that I’m not serious about power.
Mark Pack, not exactly known as a bomb-throwing hippie, has already attacked the nonsense idea that social liberals prefer the comfort of opposition. The fact that the May 2010 Special Conference voted heavily for the Coalition Agreement should kill it stone dead. And yet, it lives. Clegg’s speeches are full of exhortations about showing that we’re serious about power and refusing the comfort of opposition. Less subtle are a string of newspaper articles which a suspicious mind might attribute to leadership stirring. Self-identified supporters of Clegg frequently attack internal critics of government policies as being insufficiently realistic, dedicated to the necessities of coalition, or ‘serious’ about being in government, preferring juvenile oppositionism.
What does it mean to be ‘serious about power’, then? Let’s pick a particularly stark example: the Home Office’s crude and offensive anti-immigration tactics. The van telling people, in the words of racists everywhere, to ‘go home’; the supposedly ‘intelligence led’ UKBA sweeps of London which look like an open-and-shut case of racial profiling; and the publication of these arrests in the most sensationalist way via the Home Office’s Twitter account. I’m not a particularly emotional individual, but when I read this description of an arrest in progress, it made me feel physically sick. Clegg has condemned it (belatedly); so have a host of other ministers. We are told that Jeremy Browne didn’t sign any of it off after all. All is well with the world – we’ve separated ourselves from the nasty Tory government so that we’re not contaminated by their nasty nastiness.
Well, no. For me, that’s not enough, because I’m serious about power. I want the vans to stop. I want the raids to stop, and I want UKBA to be told that racial profiling is wrong and against the law, and maybe I’d like someone fired to make the message especially clear. I want the Home Office to stop inflaming racial tension, which I really shouldn’t have to even think about. In this case, like many others, it feels like our ministers are the ones trapped by an opposition mentality, washing their hands, Pilate-like, on the grounds that It’s A Coalition, Oh Well, These Things Happen. Simply condemning your colleagues on Andrew Marr’s sofa is, well, just a bit more comfortable than telling them that what they are doing is utterly repugnant and must stop.
When I’m told that I don’t ‘get’ coalition, I cast my mind back to 11th May 2010. I remember it vividly – I was trying to write an essay on Aristotle’s Politics, unsuccessfully, while I followed the endgame of Coalition negotiations and made my way through a greasy, half-cooked takeaway pizza. I was not without trepidation, and I knew that there was rough weather ahead, but I was also hopeful about what Liberal Democrats could do for the people of this country, every single one of them. I’m still hopeful, although I suspect that the government is too set in bad habits to wrench back to the liberal, centrist agenda that seemed in the air on that warm evening.
Yes, I know that we’re in a coalition government, and coalition means compromise. But government means power, and responsibility. Some things are worth rocking the boat over, making risks, moving away from the safe poses you can take in internal opposition. On this issue, and a few others, Liberal Democrats in government should draw a line in the sand.
Or is it ‘In Government, On Your Side – except if you’re a black person on the Tube’?