A new generation of ambitious politicians has finally won a share of power for their party. But the rise of this hard-headed, centre-right group will not go unchallengedby James Crabtree / June 21, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
On 4th June, BBC Radio 4’s The News Quiz began with the week’s big story: the resignation of David Laws, the Liberal Democrat chief secretary to the treasury. “Which axeman was first for the chop?” asked host Sandi Toksvig, as panellists joked that Laws’s use of his parliamentary expenses marked the first “proper” scandal of the new government. Toksvig—a Liberal Democrat supporter herself—then asked with mock pride: “So do you think this makes the Lib Dems finally a proper political party?” The jibe brought laughter from the audience, but was, in truth, a fair question. After a 20 year struggle to shed an image as a fringe party incapable of taking power, the Liberal Democrats have entered government for the first time.
The Lib-Con coalition was among the most unexpected events in recent British political history. Yet if it caught the media on the hop, it was almost as surprising for the Lib Dems themselves. For much of the past two decades, the party staked out its ground on the left. Even with David Cameron’s more liberal style of conservatism, most who dared dream of power after the 2010 election assumed it would come through a “progressive alliance” with a chastened Labour party. Looked at another way, though, the decisions taken by the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg over those six tense days in May seem, if not inevitable, then less surprising. The Lib Dems have changed significantly since the early 2000s. The bearded civil libertarians are less evident at party gatherings, and the party has quietly developed a more effective national operation. More importantly, a new generation of talented and ambitious politicians—notably Clegg, Laws, Chris Huhne and Vince Cable—had gradually taken control. While the circle around former leader Charles Kennedy saw their task as opposing the injustices of market liberalism, this new cohort was more market friendly. They took aim at Labour’s enlarged state, while also arguing for fiscal discipline in the face of the financial crisis. In the Orange Book, a collection of essays published in 2004, the group argued that Lib Dems needed to balance their social instincts with a rediscovery of the party’s market-friendly roots. These changes were reinforced by shifts in policy following Clegg’s 2007 leadership victory, and together set the stage for the decision to join not with Labour, but with the Tories.