Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat party leader, at a public event where he is wearing safety goggles. Photo: Getty Images
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Lib Dem torment is not all good news for Labour

Ed Miliband benefits when leftwing voters desert Nick Clegg but he suffers when moderate positions on Europe and immigration are shunted to the margins.

Not long ago, a shadow cabinet minister told me this joke that was doing the rounds in the parliamentary Labour party:

Q: A Lib Dem and a Tory are standing on the edge of a cliff. Who do you push first?

A: The Tory. Business before pleasure.

The sufferings of Nick Clegg have been a source of consolation to the opposition since the formation of the coalition. At an emotional level, it is morale-boosting to see a party that for many years challenged Labour from the pious left mangled in soul-shredding alliance with the Conservatives. At a practical level, the defection to Ed Miliband’s camp of voters that preferred the old, protest-oriented Lib Dems explains most of Labour’s lead in opinion polls, when it still has one.

It was predictable that this year’s local and European elections would bring another round of butchery to the Cleggites but that didn’t diminish the gratification such a spectacle afforded to their enemies. The Lib Dems were nearly evicted from the European parliament altogether and their councillors came similarly close to banishment from inner London boroughs. Labour gained at their expense. Opposition strategists, defending the decision to target Clegg in the campaign, now claim a degree of vindication. It was, says one Miliband advisor, important “having put the Lib Dems back in their box, to keep them there.” Once it is clear that the junior coalition partner is kaput, the path is clearer to take on the bigger Tory beast in a general election battle. Pleasure before business.

And it makes sense in terms of electoral arithmetic for Labour to grind the Lib Dems down. But politics is about more than boundaries and maths. Most voters certainly don’t see it that way. Zoom out and what you observe in the crushing of Clegg’s forces is the crippling of arguments that, broadly speaking, Labour would like to see strengthened. The Lib Dems were unabashedly the party of “in” on the question of European Union membership. They have taken a liberal line on immigration, relative to Cameron’s stance. They have also pushed back (a bit) against ever deeper cuts to the welfare budget.

At this point, the Labour tribalists snort with derision. Clegg has done nothing to soften the blow of austerity, goes the opposition mantra. He is an accomplice to Cameron’s callousness, not a brake on Tory excess. The Lib Dems would like to position themselves as the moderating element in the coalition but – says Labour – no-one buys it and it certainly isn’t in Miliband’s interests to bolster Clegg’s bogus progressive credentials.

Even if it could be proved that the Lib Dems have managed to restrain the Tories in some areas (and the Conservative back benchers certainly think they have) there is the additional problem of Clegg’s personal credibility. He may be spoiling arguments merely by touching them. This is certainly the view that Labour’s more ardent pro-Europeans took when watching the deputy Prime Minister beaten by Farage in televised debates on EU membership. It is also a view that is rapidly spreading through Lib Dem ranks – the image of their leader as the Jonah of liberal politics whose best contribution to the cause might be hurling himself overboard.

But the supposed toxicity of one liberal candidate cannot account for the defeat of pro-Europeanism nor for the surge in hostility to immigration represented by Ukip’s performance last Thursday. Those trends have been building over a long period and have a complex genesis. (I looked at some of it at more length in this essay earlier in the year.) It will take just as long to rebuild the case for the politics of openness and tolerance. The process will take even longer if the Lib Dems are annihilated. Labour may not like it, but Clegg’s party is on the same side in an emerging culture war against illiberalism and xenophobia.

For most of this parliament, Miliband’s interests appear to have been served by the dereliction of what used to be called the third party and is now slipping further down the league. That is certainly true if politics is described purely in terms of who poaches votes from whom in which seats in order to scrape over the finish line. Obviously it is good for Labour to be locking down anti-Clegg defectors in marginal constituencies. It is not so helpful if the price of that arithmetical advantage is a cultural drift in British politics towards bitter nationalism, characterised by the view that toughness is the only legitimate policy on immigration and exit the only popular stance towards Europe.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Is the Great Fire of London a blueprint for how governments deal with disasters?

Visible leadership, an established authority, and a common external enemy: an enduring defence mechanism 350 years on.

In 1968, the science journal The Lancet ran a report into human behaviour. When populations are confronted with disaster, it recommended, effective “communications, coordination, and control, and the establishment of a recognised authority” are of utmost importance (advice that should have been heeded immediately after the Brexit result in June this year).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London this week seems is a good time to think about how we deal with disasters: over 13,000 homes were destroyed, 87 churches ruined and thousands of Londoners displaced.

For me, one of the most striking parts of the story of the Great Fire is not the fire itself nor the dramatic rebuilding programme that followed, but the state of flux in between.

When the fire broke out, England was at war with both the Dutch Republic and France. As soon as news reached France, the Venetian ambassador Alvise Sagredo, declared that the fire would be “worse than the plague and any other disaster, capable of making [the English] change their government and their principles”.

In England, even the London Gazette warned that England’s foes would try “to persuade the world abroad of great parties and disaffection at home against his majesties government”. Faced with unparalleled destruction and unprecedented disarray, how did the king, his advisers and civic authorities regain control of London?

With the Guildhall severely damaged and the Royal Exchange destroyed, the first step was to find a new base for civic and mercantile power. On 6 September, Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and the city aldermen to resume governance of the city. Gresham College and buildings around Bishopsgate were taken over and efforts were immediately taken to re-establish trade. Vendors were granted permission to set up sheds in temporary markets at Bishopsgate Street, Tower Hill, Smithfield and Leadenhall Street.

“Honest and able persons” were selected to monitor the ruined city to ensure fire did not break out afresh, appeals were made across the country for charitable donations and neighbouring counties were called upon to provide sustenance. From the navy stores, ship’s biscuit was offered to the needy and canvas was provided so that the tens of thousands of homeless people stranded in the fields surrounding London could fashion tents.

The measures were not perfect. Visiting Moorfields, the diarist John Evelyn described, “the poor inhabitants . . . some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag”.

Those stranded found food to be in short supply and many succumbed to the illnesses bred by a reduced condition in life, including aged playwright James Shirley, who died in October 1666.

But it wasn’t long before people started to disperse – either leaving London altogether, finding accommodation elsewhere, or returning to the locations of their former homes and shops to erect makeshift shacks above the ruins.

In the background, the trial and execution of French watchmaker Robert Hubert, who falsely claimed to have started the fire, provided a focus for any anger and rage.

With communication ruptured following the destruction of the London Gazette printing house and the General Letter Office, rumours of plots, arson and invasions had spread almost as quickly as the fire itself. Indeed, terrible violence had broken out during the fire, with mobs targeting any “strangers” or foreign-born Londoners. One French servant, for example, reported how gangs of “English women did knock down strangers for not speaking good English. Some of them armed with spits, some with bread staffs, and the captain with a broad sword.”

When the London Gazette was released the week after the fire – after only skipping one edition of its biweekly run – it provided readers with a detailed description of the catastrophe, emphasising its accidental nature and promoting the role played by Charles II and his brother and heir, James, Duke of York, in preventing the fire spreading even further.

Against protocol, the newspaper also allowed important tradespeople to advertise their new offices: the goldsmith-bankers, for example, informed readers that they had found premises along Broad Street.

By mid-September, the etcher Wenceslaus Hollar had already begun his survey of the city and plans had been submitted to the king from John Evelyn and architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, to name just a few, as to how to rebuild the capital.

Writing at the time, Sir Nathaniel Hobart, believed that the “rebuilding of the Citty will not be soe difficult as the satisfying all interests, there being many proprietors”. As such, one of the most important innovations following the disaster was the establishment of a judiciary, known as the Fire Court, to untangle the complex web of formal and informal agreements between tenants and landlords. From 1667 until 1672 the Fire Court settled hundreds and hundreds of cases.

There were certainly many bumps along the way – for a while, the City of London was plundered and inhabited by gangs. Plus, anger towards foreign-born Londoners continued; owing to his Dutch background, one Johan Vandermarsh had to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of his property on Lime Street, despite helping to save many of his neighbours’ homes.

All of this considered, there was nothing like the widespread disorder that Charles II had feared and his enemies expected. On the contrary, the visibility of the king and his brother and heir – and the convenient suspicion that the fire had been started by an external enemy – worked to bind the people to their king and settle unrest. Although hard to believe at the time, there was also the promise of “a more beautiful city”.

Rebecca Rideal is a historian, factual television producer and author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

She will be speaking at London’s Burning festival on Friday 2 September – a contemporary festival of art and ideas produced at Artichoke to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Free to the public, it runs from 30 August-4 September.