Nick Clegg closed his party’s Brighton conference with the message trailed by colleagues during the week. The Liberals are a party of government, not just a third party. Though popular support for the Lib Dems may be as low as 8 per cent, says Mr Clegg the party has a fundamental role in government, curbing the wilder politics of the Tories and Labour. His supporters may be twitching with distaste at the consequences of Coalition with Conservatives: the broken promises on tuition fees; the endangered goal of a green utopia. But if they stick with the politics of coalition – and Mr Clegg, they will temper the excesses of right and left to the benefit both of Britain and themselves.
That’s the latest Lib Dem line. But the reality is of a different order. The Lib Dems have not restrained the excesses of either party but used their firepower to reinforce the rhetoric and politics of excess that dominated during the years of Labour’s rule. They continue to urge the extension of the redistributive–dependency state, except for their headline tax cut for the poor.
For Mr Clegg and his party, as for Gordon Brown and his, increasing spending on or benefits for targeted categories of the poor is the surest way of tackling the problems of disadvantage with which we grapple today. Moreover, the Lib Dems have joined the other parties in the pretence that such fiscal and social policy is akin to benign Robin Hood-ery.
While Vince Cable, as the party’s spokesman, did indeed promise in the 2010 election campaign to curb levels of deficit and fiscal imbalances and the leadership continues to support the general course, there is another mission, one shared with the other main parties. Like the Conservatives and Labour, the Lib Dems identify themselves with a politics of ‘fairness’ as the badge of the ‘centre ground’, in the belief that such a centre ground is what appeals to most voters.
The rhetoric of promoting a ‘fair’ tax and benefits system was developed extravagantly by Gordon Brown to justify the bribery of the electorate with hard gained earnings and savings of working people, and the reckless public spending and borrowing on the back of the taxpayer. Although living with the consequences today, Messrs Clegg and Alexander have gone far further to attack those who pay the bills, particularly the better off. The tone and emphasis this week was apparently designed to discredit better-off people. We heard of a crack Revenue unit of HMRC to be designated to pursue people living in houses worth a million or more in case they were not paying their fair share of tax.
Out went the presumption of innocence on which British justice – and a true liberal democracy – rests and in came a false, cheap and damaging sally of class war. Not only do richer people pay (and have paid) a higher share of tax proportionately, but the aspiration to earn and do well is a liberal value greatly prized traditionally by all parties.
In the same speech Mr Clegg boasted of giving a further bounty to failing schools and pupils – in a country where failing schools have been serially rewarded for failure on the grounds of ‘fairness’ to the disadvantaged. Rewarding failure does not work, as is shown in Politeia’s series Comparing Standards. Good teaching and a system which allows for excellence does. However, Mr Clegg has ruled out a public examination system which would restore differentiation and aspiration across the full ability range.
The idea that the Liberal Democrats contribute to thoughtful restraint would be laughable were it not for the serious social and economic problems we face. If they are to be as good as their word, they should start challenging the consensual centrism of all the parties and support the brave politicians confronting it. That’s the best way to restore the principles of a true liberal democracy, under increasing attack from left, right and centre.