Magazine article The Spectator

Liberal England Dies Again

Magazine article The Spectator

Liberal England Dies Again

Article excerpt

The Lib Dems' troubles are a result not only of coalition and foolish promises, but of a resurgence of the old left-right division

In 1935, George Dangerfield published The Strange Death of Liberal England , one of those rare histories that survive long after the autho r 's dea th . The e legance and vigour of his description of Edwardian society account for much of his appeal - Dangerfield is as bracing an antidote to the banality of Downton Abbey as you could hope to find.

But what stays in readers' minds is not the style but the brilliance of the argument. Late Victorian liberalism, 'a various and valuable collection of gold, stocks, Bibles, progressive thoughts and decent inhibitions', appeared to survive the death of the old queen.

The party won a spectacular victory in 1906, and embarked on a worthy programme of free trade and peace abroad and gradual reform at home.

What could go wrong? Just about everything. Even before the slaughter of the first world war, 'Liberal England was reduced to ashes'. Moderate politicians could not placate the suffragettes or the rising trade unions. They did not know how to cope with the revolt of nationalists and unionists in Ireland or militant conservatism at Westminster.

The Liberals rapidly became an irrelevance;

a faintly ridiculous party with nothing to say to a modern world dividing between left and right. They lost their majority but clung on in 1910. By 1923, Labour had overtaken them as the main opposition to the Conservatives.

By 1951, a party which had ruled a mighty empire was reduced to six seats.

Since that nadir, the Liberals have been on a long march. All those unread pamphlets for the Electoral Reform Society, the scarcely better-read op-eds in the leftish press, the meetings in cold halls, the 'pavement politics' about where incinerators should be built and when bins should be emptied, the dirty tricks in by-elections, the loveless marriage to the SDP, the simultaneous appeals to racism in white working-class London and to anti-racism in white upper-middle-class London, the donations from criminals, the assassination of leaders with a regularity that would embarrass the Mafia. . . all that manoeuvring and foot-slogging were for one reason only: to get back to being a party of power.

Yet no sooner is Nick Clegg D eputy P rime Minister than the ghost of Dangerfield rises from the grave to watch with an ironic eye as Liberal England dies again. Measuring the rate of deterioration will remain an imprecise exercise until the next general election, but the patient's symptoms look dire. YouGov's daily poll shows Lib Dem support down from 34 per cent during the height of Cleggmania in the 2010 election campaign to 7 per cent.

Its findings, I should add, are controversial.

Like the other polls, it appears to have exaggerated Clegg's support last May. Its critics claim that it has now overcompensated for this by excluding the opinions of too many Lib Dem supporters. Mike Smithson, a polling expert and the most amiable of Lib Dem activists, grows uncharacteristically conspiratorial when he discusses YouGov's relationship with the staunchly conservative News International. 'Day in day out these Murdoch funded polls appear in the Murdoch press, setting the political climate and making the Lib Dems look like losers, ' he mutters. Unfortunately for him, other polling companies put the party's support at around 12 per cent.

The difference in a general election is that between annihilation and devastation.

Leaving the disputes between pollsters aside, not even Nick Clegg's closest friends deny that he is the most hated politician in Britain. At a student demonstration outside Westminster, I saw a ragged man climb a lamppost and urge the protestors to join him in an obscene chant against Clegg. The crowd in Parliament Square roared as one, united in its loathing, and ecstatic at the chance he had given them to crush a man they had once applauded. …

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