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28 September 2012

In Europe, liberals always dine with conservatives

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

By James Dawson

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.

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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.”