They voted yellow – but now do they regret it?

The <em>New Statesman</em> asks prominent Lib Dem supporters for their verdict on the first year of

On 5 May 2010, Nick Clegg stood on the edge of a major electoral breakthrough. Following his sterling performances in a series of televised debates, the Liberal Democrats finally stood shoulder to shoulder with the Conservatives and Labour as a credible option for millions of voters. Pundits predicted gains of 20 or 30 seats for the Lib Dems as the party rode to historic highs in the polls.

One year on, and the party is in government, but the good news stops there. After joining the Conservatives in a coalition, Clegg was cast as a traitor by many on the left who had been sucked in by his seemingly sincere promises of a "new politics".

Students hung him in effigy. The Liberal Democrats' poll ratings crashed to single figures. In the hangover from Cleggmania, the New Statesman asks five public figures who voted Lib Dem (and one who did not) whether they regret their decision one year on from the election.

Lisa Appignanesi, novelist

I still think coalition government has its benefits. However, I'm very distressed at what the Lib Dems have allowed to happen in two (unwittingly) related areas. I do think that in a world that increasingly requires knowledge and skills, university or any form of tertiary education should be free. We owe it to the next generation.

An educated citizenry nurtures our entire polity in more ways than I can put into 200 words. It's not a simple matter of the arithmetic of higher wages for graduates. (Even the US has state universities aside from the high-fee charging private institutions.) And tertiary education is as important as health.

I'm also very disappointed at the way in which the Lib Dems have handled the response to protest, permitting the police to "kettle" and robbing a generation that wants to take an interest in politics of their right freely to do so.

Jemima Khan, human rights campaigner

I did something odd last year. I canvassed for my brother Zac, then a wannabe Tory MP, in Richmond, alongside my mother ("Darling, it's going marvellously. But what's a ponce?"). I then slunk into the polling booth in my own constituency on election day and voted Lib Dem.

If I lived in Richmond, I would have voted for Zac. As is often the case with British voters, I was very clear about who I did NOT want to vote for. I would not vote for Labour – a party which invaded a foreign country for no reason, lied about it, made us an international pariah and then bankrupted us. The Tories would doubtless have done much the same or worse.

I hate black-and-white politics. I'm more comfortable with ambiguity. My ideal scenario would be a sort of pick'n'mix – to be able to vote for my favourite, individual candidates from all the parties. For those of us who voted Lib Dem, Clegg's compromises have been disappointing, but that's the nature of coalition government. He chose to form a coalition with the party that won the most votes rather than take the easier option – to remain in the familiar, cloud-cuckoo-land of opposition – and be liked.

Some of the decisions, such as the promise of a green investment bank and not just a fund, I don't think would have been made if there had been a fully fanged Tory government in power. I have noticed that in the past two weeks the Lib Dems have been taking a more combative stance – and that's a good thing in my view, but of course it has elicited the inevitable cries of rifts in the coalition. He can't win.

I know it's an unpopular view, but I see Clegg as a decent man – more human than most politicians – trapped in a nightmare. Ultimately, I would still rather the Lib Dems were there in the coalition than not.

George Monbiot, environmentalist

I voted for Lembit Öpik, partly because he had proved to be an excellent constituency MP, and partly to keep the Tory out. This strategy enjoyed the same degree of success as most of my attempts at political intervention.

I regret the fact that Lembit lost his seat; I regret the fact that the Lib Dems have proved to be all leaf and no plums even more. I am amazed that they're still prepared to act as Cameron's cannon fodder, and I fail to see what they gain from their craven compliance with the most vicious programme of disaster capitalism the UK has ever witnessed.

Anthony Barnett, OpenDemocracy founder

In March last year I wrote an NS cover essay, "Hang 'em". The Tories were implicated in the Labour government's support for the Iraq war, its permission of parliamentary corruption and its backing the banks and market fundamentalism up to the financial crash. The Lib Dems had failed also. Their policies were often correct but their spirit was lacking; they were not challenging the system. We should hang the lot of them.

But when, after the first leaders' debate, the Lib Dems appeared to be different, I supported voting for them. I should have kept to the logic of my argument and backed the Greens. I am proud that I opposed returning Mandelson and Brown to power (voters rightly rejected their controlling database state; only if Labour's leaders now show they have learned, changed and will not govern like that again can they win back support).

But the Lib Dems have embraced marketisation not democratisation of the public sphere. Clegg and co are enjoying the grotesque powers of the British state to intensify the market fundamentalism voters clearly rejected at the election. Westminster is still hanging us, only more so.

Sunny Hundal, editor of Liberal Conspiracy

I regret the course of action Nick Clegg took after the election – but at the time it was the only decision I felt at ease with. The Labour Party of May 2010 was trying desperately to triangulate on the economy, on cutting benefits, on immigrants and asylum-seekers. It had no positive vision for the future and it was intellectually spent. I couldn't bring myself to vote for it.

In hindsight, many decisions are regrettable, but we have no choice but to stand by them. I saw how quickly the Lib Dem leadership were willing to ditch their principles; I saw a much better vision articulated by Ed Miliband – so I joined Labour to support his leadership bid and that vision. And there were plenty who followed the same path. You live, you make mistakes and you learn. But you can't whitewash your own history.

And one who didn't . . .

Laurie Penny, columnist and activist

This time last year, I was just as disgusted with New Labour as everyone else; I wanted to see a real shake-up of the staid two-party system, and was all set to vote Lib Dem for the chance at a hung parliament. In the end, though, I just couldn't do it. I spent several nights arguing with Lib Dem friends about the importance of supporting trades unions, and realised that something in me just doesn't trust Liberal equivocation.

Whatever that something is, it wrenched the pen back just as I was about to put a cross in the yellow box. My local Labour candidate was John Cryer, an LRC member who took a stand against the Iraq war. Voting for him was a bit like a diet chocolate muffin – all the pleasure of voting Labour with none of the guilt – but it still left a bad taste in my mouth.

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear