Conservatives and Lib Dems belong together
The next logical step is for the Lib Dems and Conservatives to make an electoral pact
Nick Clegg deserves to be cheered to the echo at the Liberal Democrat conference. He has led his party out of the wilderness and into a government that is already changing the face of British politics. The coalition may at first have looked like the inevitable product of electoral and parliamentary arithmetic – but that does not mean, as Shirley Williams once said famously of a prospective centre party, that it has “no roots, no principles and no values”.
On the contrary, the emergence of a strong, broadly-based Lib-Con coalition marks the exciting rebirth of one of the most important traditions in British politics. It should be carried through to its natural conclusion – an electoral alliance or even full merger. If this coalition is successful, it would be utter folly for its component parts to fight one another in five years’ time while defending the same record in government.
There are precedents: 1918 was a “coupon” general election in which Liberal and Tory supporters of the wartime coalition did not oppose one another. Winston Churchill tried to bring our two parties together when he returned as prime minister in 1951. The Liberals under Clement Davies had won only six seats and just one of their MPs, Jo Grimond, had faced a Tory opponent. Huddersfield and Bolton had each returned one Tory and one Liberal, thanks to electoral pacts between the parties. John Simon and the National Liberals were already in the Tory fold, and now Churchill and Lady Violet Bonham Carter were in covert talks about an alliance and, possibly, electoral reform designed to sustain the remaining Liberals. Churchill offered Davies a cabinet job and two junior ministerial positions for colleagues. Davies refused.
When Grimond succeeded Davies five years later, he took the party in a radically different direction with the notion of a “realignment of the left” – an elusive concept that also sustained his successors from Jeremy Thorpe to Charles Kennedy – and ditched electoral pacts with the Tories.
The evident bond between David Cameron and Nick Clegg has helped this coalition develop a life of its own; but it can draw strength from a rich, shared inheritance founded on the principles of equality before the law, freedom, personal responsibility and active citizenship. Conservatives and Lib Dems are working as colleagues throughout the body politic now – in government departments, in both houses of parliament and in Downing Street itself. They are doing so in the public interest, getting to grips with the economic crisis and fiscal disaster we inherited. After Clegg has spent five years as an effective deputy to Cameron who would volunteer to be the Conservative candidate against him in his Sheffield constituency? Cameron and Clegg are a formidable team – the same goes for their ministerial colleagues – and they would surely be an unstoppable combination on the campaign trail too.
Clegg now has an historic opportunity to make the leap Davies dared not make all those years ago, demonstrating that this notion of a “realignment of the left” based on the Liberal party – or the Lib Dems – was one of the great blind alleys of British political history.
For all our lives Conservatives and Liberals have shared certain values that are fundamentally different from those of socialists or even social democrats. They believe in a powerful state; we believe in powerful and independent citizens. In his later years Grimond himself argued that Margaret Thatcher was, if anything, insufficiently radical, and the government she led was “in danger of being damned for virtues it does not possess”. If Paddy Ashdown’s ignominious flirtations with Tony Blair in the mid-1990s did not prove the “realignment of the left” strategy was doomed to failure then the Labour government’s behaviour in the years that followed surely did.
That government’s pronounced authoritarian streak served to bring Tories and Lib Dems back together. Working with our good friends and colleagues Anthony Lester and Dominic Grieve, for instance, we helped orchestrate two of Blair’s three reverses in the Commons.
This growing Lib-Con convergence in opposition, especially but not exclusively on civil liberties issues such as identity cards and freedom of expression, helped to build strong foundations for the coalition discussions in May.
Labour’s leadership hates this, of course, foolishly spitting venom at the Lib Dems with the irrational indignation of a spurned stalker. If this coalition is carried through to its logical conclusion – an electoral pact and a realignment of the centre and centre-right in British politics – Labour will be occupying those opposition benches for a very long time indeed. It is a consummation devoutly to be wished.