British politics has not witnessed for some time a u-turn more brazen than that recently performed by the Liberal Democrats on the issue of tuition fees.
Under the leadership of current Glasgow University rector Charles Kennedy and his predecessor, Menzies Campbell, the party was uncompromising in its opposition to the introduction of higher-education charges.
Nick Clegg, too, apparently right up until the moment he assumed the office of Deputy Prime Minister, was critical of the Labour-Tory consensus, which favoured transferring the increasing cost of obtaining a degree from the state to the individual. Famously, Clegg even had himself photographed signing a petition stating that, if elected to power, he would abolish fees altogether.
So when he announced last month, in light of the publication of the Browne report, that he fully supports plans to allow universities in England and Wales to raise annual course tariffs to as much as £9,000, many of his supporters, including huge numbers of students, were shocked and appalled. Rightly, they viewed this spectacular reversal as an epic betrayal of trust.
Clegg has been cast in some quarters as a sap and a Tory stooge, passively submitting to Cameron and Osborne’s ferocious assault on public services. This characterisation isn‘t entirely unfair. In interviews, at the dispatch box and at press conferences, he often appears painfully doe-eyed and earnest. It is hard to imagine him in cabinet meetings forcefully articulating robust centre-left solutions to the challenge of reducing the UK’s immense deficit.
But Clegg’s acquiescence to the Conservative’s ultra-Thatcherite programme reveals a wider truth about the Liberal Democrats as a whole, rather than merely the temperament of the man himself: the party has been marked since its inception by an ideological fissure that is yet to be properly addressed but is growing deeper all the time.
The Liberal Democrats were the eventual product of a split in the Labour Party that occurred three decades ago. In 1980 a rogue group of Labour MPs, among them Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins, began to voice their discontent with Michael Foot’s leadership, which they correctly perceived as being too radical for the moderate sensibilities of middle-England. After months of dispute, they finally departed, setting up the Social Democratic Party which fought Labour, not without some success, at the 1983 election.
As the decade progressed and Labour began the indelible march back toward the political centre ground, shaking off in the process the legacy of Foot’s old-school socialism, the SDP’s popularity waned. In a bid to salvage their break-away movement, Williams and co merged with David Steel’s Liberal Party and created the Liberal Democrats.
Before Mrs. Thatcher‘s laissez-faire revolution, the Liberals had been the foremost party of classical liberalism in Britain. It viewed the advance of individual freedom and economic freedom as a single cause, pursuing with considerable vigour the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality as well as the fortification of private property and free-trade laws.
The fusion, then, of the Liberals with the SDP in 1988 represented the coming together of two traditions of liberal political thought: social democracy, which, as a function of its base in the industrial working-class, is intractably hostile to unfettered capitalism, and 19th century liberalism, which, as the preferred ideology of a reformist element in the British establishment, is both socially progressive and fundamentally pro free-market.
Of recent Liberal Democrat leaders, almost all – Paddy Ashdown, Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell – have identified with the social democratic wing of the party. They have each sought to locate the Lib Dems, as a matter of strategy if not always of principle, to the left of Labour, advocating a graduated tax system, attacking the introduction of private capital into the provision of public services and, of course, resisting the privatisation of higher education.
In Nick Clegg and his team, however, the party now has a leadership whose redistributive instincts are barely detectable, if they exist at all. Clegg and ministers Vince Cable, Danny Alexander and Chris Huhne seem comfortable working with a Conservative administration committed to dismantling the welfare state for one very simple reason: they are. In contrast to liberals of the centre-left, there is nothing in their political DNA that tells them it is wrong.
In 2004 the now disgraced Liberal Democrat MP David Laws edited and published an extended pamphlet, The Orange Book. Among its contributors were Clegg, Cable and Huhne. It calls for an increased role for the private sector in providing services like health, education and transport, an undertaking which has traditionally been reserved for the state.
The public sector, it contends, is an obstacle to market dynamism and wealth creation – a burden to the entrepreneurial spirit. It interprets the previous Labour government’s authoritarian social and security measures – ninety day detention without trial, anti-social behaviour orders etc. – as a necessary result of its belief that the state has a duty to regulate the excesses of the market in the name of economic parity.
With this in mind it is not difficult to explain why the present generation of Lib Dem chiefs – those, that is, who rose to prominence after Nick Clegg was elected leader – should subscribe so unreservedly to a deficit reduction plan that aims to slash public expenditure by as much as 40 per cent. As it stands, the Orange Book faction, 21st century torch-bearers of Victorian-era laissez-faire capitalism, are in control of a party that for twenty years sought to define itself as a centre-left alternative to Labour.
Generally speaking, though, the Liberal Democrats have not abandoned social democracy. A number of senior figures in the party, including Kennedy and former party president Simon Hughes, have confessed that they are uneasy with the Tory coalition. (Indeed, it is highly likely that if Kennedy had remained as leader there would not have been a coalition at all.)
A majority of ordinary party members and activists sit well to the left of the new elite, too. Their growing frustration with the direction their party is being taken is palpable. Moreover, as many as two thirds of Lib Dem voters want and expect the party to act as left-wing counter-weight to Labour and the Tories. That the party’s poll ratings have halved since they entered government and continue to fall is a striking illustration of where the true sympathies of most Lib Dem supporters lie.
Yet, with cast-iron self-confidence and unshakable ideological certainty, the free-market dogmatists have set the party on a course from which it will not be easy to escape. But one thing is for sure: if the Liberal democrats stick with Clegg and his Orange Book colleagues they will be annihilated at the ballot box. A battle lies ahead for liberals of the centre-left, not just over the soul of their party but for its very survival.