Never has there been a better example of naive little fishes swimming in a vast, Machiavellian pond than Nick Clegg’s “Orange Bookers”.
It’s easy now to forget just how shocking and incomprehensible we all found even the concept of a Tory/LibDem coalition. To forget those 5 surreal days our democracy was in hiatus, holding it’s breath while just 4 men decided the future of our countries behind a locked door. For 5 days and 5 nights, Cameron, Osborne, Alexander and Clegg hammered out their agreement. A vacuum where one day, history would be.
Four men. After 29 million, 691 thousand, 380 people had voted, in fact they may as well not have bothered. The manifestos they thought they had voted for were discarded along with student trust and the last drop of belief in our political system. The party of civil liberties were artfully convinced to give them up for the promise of a few tempting beans.
Cameron and Osborne, foxes in tails holding knives and forks and licking their lips. Clegg and Alexander eager as sixth-formers convinced they are ready to play men’s games.
Clegg went into the room with a left of centre economic position, that passion for civil liberties, a determination to see electoral reform in both the Commons and the Lords, and a pledge to scrap tuition fees. He came out having ceded to Osborne’s right wing economic strategy, with the promise of a referendum on AV that was dependent on boundary changes that would see the Tories gain an almost indefinite majority in the commons, tripling tuition fees and supporting a welfare reform bill that would throw all but the most fortunate to the wolves.
Almost every policy decision for the next 5 years was decided in that room, by those 4 men. Since then, each time democracy has tried to object, she has been silenced with either bribery, dishonesty or the Whip. From using financial privilege to overturn Lord’s amendments and increasing government surveillance measures, to threatening the BBC and deleting old speeches from the internet.
They ripped up disability living allowance and replaced it with personal independence payments in that room, agreeing to slash a random 20% of people with disabilities from the budget – it was in neither manifesto. They awarded themselves 5 years of power with virtually no possibility of challenge the very day they left the room.
I remember Nick Clegg saying at the time “I asked a mutual friend “Can I trust this guy” [Cameron]. The friend said he thought he could and before we knew it we were feeling queasy at the sight of that new bromance flowering in the rose garden. I had always assumed that the very first thing they learn in politician-nursery-school is “You can’t trust anyone.”
Nothing has demoralised me more than watching previously centre left politicians with apparently, well, Liberal values, file into those lobbies, one by one, in support of slashing payments for disabled children, selling off our NHS in piecemeal chunks and slashing legal aid. I watched them argue over how terminally ill you have to be to qualify for disability benefit. I watched them decide that there was no longer any need to treat profoundly disabled children who would never work as though they had contributed national insurance, ensuring they were always entitled to support in their own name. After all, it was argued, they “might inherit”.
But that just demoralised me. What disgusted me, was being assured through it all that the Lib Dems had somehow stopped the worst excesses of the Tories. I have found myself living in a country that has allowed sick and disabled people to die in hunger and despair and they dare speak to me of mitigation?
I think in a funny way, the UK public did vote for a coalition. I just don’t think they trusted either the Tories or Labour to govern with free reign. They gave Clegg a once-in-a-generation opportunity to show that coalition could work. They “agreed with Nick”. A unique chance to dictate how and when he and his MPs would support the Conservatives and how and when they would not, issue by issue. Instead, he was smoothly convinced that his job was first and foremost only to “think of the markets” and “put stability above everything.” He didn’t even see the handcuffs coming. Or, it seems, such familiar right-wing euphemisms for stuffing the poor.
Now, we start to see the predictable sight of the little fishes trying to swim like mad away from the shark. But it’s too late to pretend they’re in the wrong pond now.
In fact, they’ve forgotten the idealistic, self-righteous little minnow pond they started from altogether. Now, when Danny Alexander is “pissed off” with Conservative economic policy, it is only because they stole it from him. In 2010 it was because – as he rightly pointed out – that same policy would delay recovery by 3 long years.
Tim Farron, the last remaining token voice of the handful of centre left Lib Dems who haven’t deserted the sinking ship describes the Conservatives as “borderline immoral”. Any politician that thinks finding people in comas fit for work and scrapping the social fund is only “borderline” immoral has a very different definition of immorality to me.
The total disdain voters in Scotland showed for Westminster in the recent independence referendum rang a warning loud and clear. “Reform or Die”. From the actions of all 3 parties at their recent annual conferences, it seems the message is as far from getting through as it ever was.