Friday, 21 November 2014

The Kippers and the Corpse

In terms of the dog/man/buttocks interface, the return of Mark Reckless in the name of the Farage hardly creates a ripple.  Nick Clegg, however, should have the odious Nigel on his Christmas card list, as the unravelling of the political scene renders the decline of the Liberal Democrats as peripheral to the principal drama of Dave's dalliance with the lunatic fringe.  The Tory/UKIP tango has the merits of a family quarrel on the right, so the inexorable death of the one party that supposedly articulated libertarian values is a sideshow.

From the "I agree with Nick" fiasco to "Who he?" in four years is quite an achievement, perhaps only equalled by the decline of the Liberals from 1929 to 1935, when the party split three ways during a period of similar economic and social turmoil - and it took forty years for even a partial recovery in party fortunes to play through.  As a leader, Clegg has sacrificed a great deal for Westminster power, including the activist, councillor and devolved nation base, while presiding over a party losing its way through a lack of focus on policy, apathy and, in many cases,  anger at the assumption that a centre-right position is a legitimate target when the ground is already being contested by three other UK parties.

Clegg's acolytes increasingly resemble the Bennite left in the Labour Party of the 1980s, always arguing that a tack to the more extreme would unlock the keys to the kingdom.  When Jeremy Browne, soon to be unlamented and presumably coining it in elsewhere, attacks the proposals for higher tax on high-value properties, which both Labour and Liberals endorse, it is clear that the party has been captured by the kind of metropolitan elite that would turn Emily Thornberry into a raving egalitarian.  For the vast majority of people who live outside the centre of London, taxation of £2m properties is a matter of principle rather than personal inconvenience.

For those of us who used to support the Liberal position on the basis of compassionate individualism, and the belief in a strong basis for social inclusion, there is no obvious home now politics are polarised - at least not within England.  Clegg has allowed the party to become a captive punchball and has not articulated what Liberals believe in, nor how odious the Tories have become.  A leader should at this stage be working to define a lifeboat that does not despatch Liberalism into another 40-year cul-de-sac, through saving what is left of the party, and through tacking away from power as a panacea.

One very much doubts that there is either the appetite or the capability to do this, and the party's dismal performance in by-elections suggests that the only approach is to retreat to the local redoubts, hang on like grim death, and hope that the wider view of the electorate is sufficiently discerning to derail the rightist bandwagon.  Clegg should not be cheerleading - he is now assimilated and part of the problem rather than the solution.  After thirty years as a Liberal, my subscription to the party has fallen due for renewal and, not for the first time this is causing soul-searching.  This time round, however, there may be better destinations for money and support.

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