With support for the coalition down, and the Liberal Democrats plunging to humiliating lows in the polls, as George Eaton entertainingly pointed out recently, how will Nick Clegg get through the next 12 months? Here, not entirely in a serious spirit, are ten New Year’s resolutions that might help the Deputy Prime Minister.
1. Forget the Orange Book that has left the Lib Dems oddly orientated towards the market at just the moment when the faults of that model are so plain to see. Time to reread the Yellow Book of 1928, Britain’s Industrial Future, to take inspiration from what great Liberals such as Lloyd-George and Keynes thought about the role of the state. The fact that one of the Orange Book’s editors, Paul Marshall, described the Yellow Book as “an intellectual retreat from economic liberalism” is only even more of a recommendation.
2. Remember the fate of previous Liberal participants in coalition government (this NS article by Vernon Bogdanor in May will come in handy) and, er, somehow try to avoid it.
3. Be realistic about your prospects. The deputy prime ministership may be a position that has no constitutional basis, and will not be a stepping stone to No 10 Downing Street. It is still the highest office held by a Liberal since Lloyd-George fell from power in 1922, though. That alone puts it far higher than the “bucket of warm spit” one US vice-president summed up his job as not being worth.
4. Don’t forget that while Dave may be your friend, many (if not most) Tories are not. For example, thus Norman Tebbit, on spotting flip-flops for sale in a store window, in 2001: “Oh look! They’re selling Liberals!”
5. In dark moments, either go into a reverie to the sound of Private Willis’s solo in G&S’s Iolanthe:
I often think it’s comical – Fal, lal, la!
How Nature always does contrive – Fal, lal, la!
That every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative!
Fal, lal, la!
6. Revel in the fall from grace of St Vincent de Cable, whose popularity as the plain-speaking “free radical” before the election campaign must have irritated the hell out of you. Who’s now Deputy PM? And who is now revealed as a foolish old man who couldn’t stop showing off in front of two giggling young women? Exactly.
7. Allow yourself proper credit for whatever achievements can be demonstrated as having been “Liberal” during this administration. A coalition requires compromises – do ask yourself if you have already made too many – but don’t apologise more than you need to for not having been able to keep all your promises.
8. To critics who accuse you of betrayal for not propping up a Labour government the electorate had turfed out, quote your own version of Jo Grimond’s verdict in 1977 on why Liberals should not have supported Jim Callaghan’s 1976-79 administration.
Why do I – the original advocate of realignment on the left – object to the Lib Lab pact? . . . The root objection to the pact is the nature of the Labour Party. It is not liberal. It is not becoming more liberal. The social democrats remain ineffective, or sneak off, after preaching equality to everyone else, to some of the highest-paid jobs open to the British. As a final spectacle of degradation, they are to be seen intimidating the Grunwick workers . . . The Labour Party remains without principle, clinging to office, paid by the trades unions, and with an anti-democratic Marxist wing.
That was 43 years ago, but it shouldn’t take too much reworking.
9. Make sure you permit plenty of space for dissent within your own ranks. Many Liberals have long had what the late Alan Watkins referred to as “anarcho-syndicalist” tendencies. They are nonconformist both in their historical links to “chapel” and by temperament. Disagreement does not mean disloyalty.
10. If all else fails, take heart in the probability that history will treat you more kindly than the opinion polls and the commentators are doing at the moment. Even if the Liberal Democrats are doomed to obscurity and irrelevance after the next general election, that will only be a return to the situation that obtained through most of the past 80 years. You, on the other hand, will have been in government for five years – or so you hope, anyway.