I agree with Nick

No, not Nick Clegg. Nick Cohen. The Lib Dems are finished.

It's not often that I agree with Nick Cohen. There was a time -- pre-9/11? -- that I was a fan of his columns and his arguments. But the Observer columnist has hit the nail on the head in his Spectator cover story this week ("The death of the Lib Dems"):

The Liberals have no right to be surprised. Conservative-minded readers may think that the British liberal-left is good for nothing but, trust me, we are world leaders when it comes to the vituperative art of denouncing sell-outs. The Liberals ought to have known it, because they more than anyone else revelled in deploying the wild language of betrayal against Tony Blair. He had taken Britain to an "illegal" war, they claimed, although no court ever said it was unlawful; he was a "liar" who had knowingly sent British troops to their deaths on a false premise. Now, from Islington to Didsbury, from the BBC to the Guardian, the cry of betrayal the Liberals once directed against Blair is directed against them. The only discernible difference is that it took a decade for Blair to go from being the fresh leader of 1994 to the BLiar of 2004. In the case of Clegg, it is as if someone has thrown compost accelerator over him, speeding up the process of degeneration from hope to has-been from ten years to ten months.

To triple the tuition fees he and every Liberal Democrat pledged to cap and on occasion abolish has destroyed his credibility to an extent I still do not think the Westminster village understands. It's not just that students are furious or that middle-class parents are wondering how their children will manage, but that voters with little time for violent demonstrators have even less time after the expenses scandal for politicians who are 'liars' -- if I may use Liberal Democrat language. He's finished.

I don't disagree. On the surface, the result in Oldham East and Saddleworth might feel to some Lib Dems "like a victory", to quote my colleague George Eaton, considering their share of the vote actually increased by 0.3 per cent since the general election, but the fact is that it wasn't. It was a defeat in a seat in which the Lib Dem candidate had forced the ejection of the sitting Labour MP via judicial means and rejoiced at the prospect of the resulting by-election -- a by-election that the Lib Dems, in their pre-coalition, "party of protest" days, would have won with ease.

Then there is tactical voting. That around one-third of the Lib Dem vote may have come from pro-coalition Tories is irrelevant; the key fact is that the support from the Tories wasn't enough to compensate for the number of defections from the Lib Dems to Labour. Clegg may have declared last year that there is "no future" for the Liberal Democrats as a left-wing alternative to Labour but what's his alternative for his party? What "future" do the Lib Dems have inside the Tory-led cuts coalition? Answer: none. On the evidence of Oldham East and Saddleworth, there doesn't -- yet -- seem to be a new and dynamic coalition of Lib Dem voters.

Since the formation of the coalition last May, I've been asking Lib Dem activists and friends the same question that Jackie Ashley posed in her Guardian column on Monday -- why vote Lib Dem, rather than Labour or Conservative, in 2015?

As Ashley wrote:

If Watkins fails, it will be because people don't know why they should vote Lib Dem. You like what Cameron and Osborne are doing? Vote Tory. You hate it? Vote Labour. The Lib Dems are no longer a protest party or an opposition party; but not quite a party of government, either -- more hostage than partner.

Clegg visibly enjoys government. In his way, as much as Cameron, he has been moulded and educated for power. But unless he manages to give the voters a reason to vote Lib Dem in future, it may not be something he enjoys again.

 

** On a side note, I seem to have nodded in agreement with not just one but two pieces penned by Nick Cohen this week. In his Observer column, Cohen rightly condemned the abuse and misuse of so-called blasphemy laws inside the Muslim world and, in particular, in Pakistan:

It is the most pernicious of attacks on free speech because defendants can never know the nature of their offence. Who is meant to be their victim? Are they meant to have injured the feelings of believers, whose faith is so weak mockery and doubt can threaten it? Perhaps they stand accused of assaulting whatever god or gods the faithful follow. In which case, are the deities in question so feeble and thin-skinned they demand that criticism be punished with human sacrifices?

In November, Freedom House published a report on the abuses of power that follow the endorsement of such a nebulous offence. It documented how Islamic states and religious vigilantes use blasphemy laws to persecute Christians, Ahmadis and Muslims who believe that Muhammad was not the final prophet and, of course, ex-Muslims such as Rushdie who decide to change or renounce their faith, as free men and women should be entitled to do.

In Iran and Egypt, blasphemy is used to prosecute political opponents of the regime. And everywhere the malicious call on it to pursue petty vendettas, as poor Mrs Bibi learned to her cost. Blasphemy is not a protector of religious freedom, as the UN maintains, but its mortal enemy. If free speech is absent, citizens are not free to argue for and practise their beliefs without the fear of state or clerical intimidation.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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