Saturday 7 February 2015

Things fall apart when the centre cannot hold

I’ve voted for each of the main UK political parties at one time or another. Often it has depended on where I lived. Sometimes I’ve voted tactically, sometimes not. I’ve tried to keep this blog and my tweets reasonably neutral with regard to UK party politics.  I genuinely hope that each of the Better Together parties does well in Scotland, for that is our best chance of defeating the Nationalists. However, I have already made it clear that I am supporting the Lib Dems in Gordon, as I think that Christine Jardine has the only hope of defeating Alex Salmond here.

I’ve never been a member of the Lib Dems. Over the years I’ve agreed with some of their ideas and disagreed with others.  I’ve neither been a supporter, nor have I particularly been an opponent. However, as opinion poll support for the Lib Dems has declined nationally over the past few years I find my opinion of them has steadily improved.  One of the main reasons why I’m supporting the Lib Dems in Gordon is that I think their record in Government deserves it.

It’s not always easy to remember where we were five years ago. We’d just had the worst financial crisis since the 1930s and many economic commentators were predicting huge economic difficulties for Britain. Markets were becoming very wobbly. Some commentators were predicting a sovereign debt crisis. We had an election and the result was indecisive. It was fairly clear however, that the mood of the country as a whole was that Labour and Gordon Brown had had their chance and that it was time for change. I have no idea what would have happened if the Lib Dems had formed a coalition with Labour. Would that have been a good result for the economy or the country as a whole? Who knows? But there isn’t much point anyway arguing about what might have been. The fact is the Lib Dems formed a coalition with the Conservatives. Has it been successful?

It was obvious almost from the beginning that the markets preferred a Lib Dem/Conservative coalition even to the Conservatives ruling on their own. One of the reasons for this, is that senior Lib Dems immediately made it clear that they understood the extent of the economic crisis facing our country. Once it became apparent that the Lib Dems were intending to put country before party and rule in the national interest, supporting policies that they might otherwise have opposed, the coalition form of government became a source of strength rather than weakness.

It is in this context, above all, that voters today must understand the manifesto pledges that the Lib Dems made prior to the 2010 election.  No party that enters a coalition government can keep all of its manifesto promises. Each party has to compromise. But it’s also fair to say that prior to entering Government neither the Lib Dems nor the Conservatives were fully aware of the extent of the economic problems facing our country. Did any of us really realise that cupboard was quite as empty as it was? It was no doubt genuinely a surprise  for the incoming Chief Secretary to the Treasury to receive a note from his predecessor saying  ''I'm afraid to tell you there's no money left.”

With the responsibility of Government the Lib Dems had to make hard choices. They had to do things they did not want to do. They could have ducked all of these tough decisions if they had simply decided to remain in opposition. But they saw that the country was in trouble economically and preferred to lend a hand. I’d always far prefer to have a party and a politician in Government who was willing to do what was right rather than what was easy. Wouldn’t you?

Much of the business of Government is dull. There have been some education reforms, some welfare reforms. Some of these have been popular, some less so. It will take time, perhaps decades before we fully see the results. Some progress, though less than hoped, has been made on the deficit. Consequently the national debt has increased. But the UK has the best rate of growth in the world among major economies and there is something of a job creation miracle going on. People from all over Europe are coming here precisely because the UK has the jobs which other countries do not. There is some way to go, but our economy is well on the way to recovery and if we keep on like this within a relatively short time we’ll have a surplus rather than a deficit. This didn’t happen accidentally. It happened in part because the Lib Dems made hard choices for the good of everyone.

For as long as I can remember, Lib Dems have sought to change the voting system. There was a referendum in 2011. Given the alternatives on offer the UK public decided to stick with the present system. To their immense credit the Lib Dems accepted the democratic wishes of the electorate. They didn’t create an enormous fuss. They accepted their disappointment and got on with the job of running the country. For this, and the mere fact that they've been working with the Conservatives the Lib Dems have seen their polling numbers crash.  Lib Dems might be forgiven for asking whether it was worth it.

If you’re a Lib Dem supporter, it looks rather as if Government has turned out to be a catastrophe. The party goes into the next election much weaker than the last. But if you’re an ordinary British citizen, you should be grateful that the Lib Dems joined the Government in 2010. The country is in an incomparably better shape today than it was then. This was not inevitable. We can see what poor Governments and poor political decisions have done to some of our colleagues in the EU. The Lib Dems have achieved more in the past five years than at any time since the days of David Lloyd George. They have made a major contribution to a helping the UK get back on its feet. Not only that, they played a significant part in defeating the greatest threat to the existence of the UK in centuries by helping us to achieve a No vote in the independence referendum. Lots of Lib Dem politicians have made crucial contributions to Government. It is frankly ludicrous that polls should suggest that someone of the calibre of Danny Alexander is in danger of losing his seat to an SNP member of the Highland Council. The UK has benefited from having people like Mr Alexander in Government. It has benefited from having the Lib Dems in power for the first time in decades.

Britain may well soon have another coalition government. The Lib Dems have shown that parties can work together for the good of all. Whichever of Labour or the Conservatives forms the largest party in the next parliament, I would far rather see the Lib Dems as their partners than any party on the extremes.  The last thing Britain needs is being held to ransom by parties with policies which would damage all of our prosperity. In Scotland there are a number of constituencies where only the Lib Dems can defeat the SNP. Those candidates if elected will contribute positively to the running of our country, rather than try to wreck it. Christine Jardine, Danny Alexander and others would be assets not only to the Lib Dems, but to the country as a whole.

It is my hope that No voters, including those who support other parties, will vote tactically for the Lib Dems. But if they should also look a little more closely at the Lib Dem record in Government, they will find positive reasons to vote for the party as well. The Lib Dems arrived in Government at one of the more difficult times in recent history. They will leave Government with our country in an improved condition. No party can do more.  It’s a record to be proud of. 

If you like my writing, please follow the link to my book Scarlet on the Horizon. The first five chapters can be read as a preview.