In Europe, liberals always dine with conservatives

The Lib Dems' sister parties have long-standing alliances with the right.

As the Liberal Democrats debate the political position of their party and the future of the coalition, a look at other EU nations shows a notable tendency for liberal parties to ally with conservatives.

In France, the Radical Party has a long-standing electoral alliance with the centre-right and even sits within the European People’s Party in the EU Parliament. In addition, many of the Lib Dems' colleagues in the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group are distinctly pro-conservative.

Most outspoken is German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who resigned as leader of the liberal Free Democrats in 2011. Ahead of the 2009 German federal election, he told Der Spiegel that a coalition with the SPD or the Greens was "out of the question". He went on to argue that the left-wing parties promoted "ever greater burdens on citizens".

In Sweden, the Social Democrats are kept out of power by a right-wing electoral pact, The Alliance, which includes two ALDE affiliates, the Liberal People's Party and the Moderates.

In the Netherlands, the position of the liberals is even more outlandish. The main liberal party and, since 2010, the biggest party in the Dutch parliament, the VVD, lurched to the right in the 1970s under the leadership of Hans Wiegel. Perhaps more properly described today as conservative-liberal, it nevertheless remains allied with the Lib Dems within the ALDE group. The Netherland’s other liberal party, Democracy 66, the progressive remnant of Dutch liberalism, has itself propped up conservative governments, most recently from 2003-06.

The Lib Dems are correct in identifying liberalism as a distinctive political strand between conservatism and social democracy. However, across the EU as in Britain, this political strand sits more happily on the right. As Lady Bracknell said of the Liberal Unionists in The Importance of Being Earnest,  "Oh, they count as Tories. They dine with us. Or come in the evening, at any rate."

German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, a former leader of the Free Democrats, with Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photograph: Getty Images.
Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Getty
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For the first time in decades, there is genuine dissent in Scottish Nationalist ranks

The First Minister is facing pressure to talk less about independence - and bring on new talent in her party.

She so recently seemed all-powerful, licensed to reign for as long as she chose, with the authority to pursue the return of our national sovereignty. We would then have the ability to strike our own deals on our own terms, a smaller, smarter, leaner nation freed from the stifling constraints of partnership with a much larger neighbour. There was, she repeatedly told us, nothing to be afraid of.

Now, suddenly, she is the victim of her own miscalculation: having misread the public mood, having raced too far ahead of moderate opinion, she finds herself at bay. The voters have delivered a public humiliation, while an opposition party until recently lampooned as unelectable is on the march. There is, suddenly, talk of her departure sooner rather than later.

Yes, this is a tough time to be Nicola Sturgeon…

Let’s not overstate it. The position of Scotland’s First Minister is considerably more secure than that of the UK’s Prime Minister. Theresa May wants out as soon as is feasible; Sturgeon, one suspects, will have to be dragged from Bute House. Sturgeon retains enough respect among the public and support among her colleagues to plough on for now. Nevertheless, things are not what they were before the general election and are unlikely ever to return to that happy state.

It’s all because of Scexit, of course. Sturgeon’s unseemly sprint for the indy finishing line left enough Scottish voters feeling… what? Mistreated, taken for granted, rushed, patronised, bullied… so much so that they effectively used June 8 to deliver a second No vote. With the idea of another referendum hanging around like a bad headache, the electorate decided to stage an intervention. In just two years, Sturgeon lost 40 per cent of her Westminster seats and displaced half a million votes. One could almost argue that, by comparison, Theresa May did relatively well.

For the first time in decades, there is genuine dissent in Nationalist ranks. Tommy Sheppard, a former Labour Party official who is now an influential left-wing SNP MP, published an article immediately after the general election calling on the First Minister to ‘park’ a second referendum until the Brexit negotiations are complete. There are others who believe the party should rediscover its talent for the long game: accept the public mood is unlikely to change much before the 2021 devolved elections, at which point, even if the Nats remain the single largest party, Holyrood might find itself with a unionist majority; concentrate on improving the public services, show what might be done with all the powers of an independent nation, and wait patiently until the numbers change.

There are others – not many, but some – who would go further. They believe that Sturgeon should take responsibility for the election result, and should be looking to hand over to a new generation before 2021. The old guard has had its shot and its time: a party with veterans such as Sturgeon, John Swinney and Mike Russell in the key jobs looks too much like it did 20 years ago. Even the new Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, has been on the scene for donkey’s. There are more who believe that the iron grip the First Minister and her husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, have on the party is unhealthy – that Murrell should carry the can for the loss of 21 MPs, and that he certainly would have done so if he weren’t married to the boss.

The most likely outcome, given what we know about the First Minister’s nature, is that she will choose something like the Sheppard route: talk less about independence for the next 18 months, see what the Brexit deal looks like, keep an eye on the polls and if they seem favourable go for a referendum in autumn 2019. The question is, can a wearied and increasingly cynical public be won round by then? Will people be willing to pile risk upon risk?

As the hot takes about Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise election performance continue to flood in, there has been a lot of attention given to the role played by young Britons. The issues of intergenerational unfairness, prolonged austerity and hard Brexit, coupled with Corbyn’s optimistic campaigning style, saw a sharp rise in turnout among that demographic. Here, Scotland has been ahead of the curve. In the 2014 referendum, the Yes campaign and its can-do spirit of positivity inspired huge enthusiasm among younger Scots. Indeed, only a large and slightly panicked defensive response from over-65s saved the union.

That brush with calamity seems to have been close enough for many people: many of the seats taken from the Nats by the Scottish Tories at the general election were rural, well-to-do and relatively elderly. The modern electorate is a fickle thing, but it remains rational. The Corbynites, amid their plans for total world domination and their ongoing festival of revenge, might bear that in mind.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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