Are the Liberal Democrats suffering an identity crisis?

The look of excitement on Nick Clegg’s face was hard to contain. A couple of weeks ago he took Prime Minister’s Questions while David Cameron was off visiting the Obamas, and his glee at standing at that dispatch box could not have been more obvious. During one shouting match with Jack Straw, he claimed to be the first person from his party to be taking Prime Minister’s Questions since the 1920s.

What struck me as odd is that this simply wasn’t true. All joking aside, Nick Clegg is a Liberal Democrat, and no Liberal Democrat has ever held a government post, ever, until the coalition. The Liberal Democrats have only existed since the Liberal-SDP merger in 1988. This apparent paradox led me to consider what is currently an almost ignored question in British politics, but is one which may yet tear the Liberal Democrats in half.

First, I’m afraid a little history is required. 1981 was possibly the bleakest year in modern British history. The new Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher was mid-way through its turbulent first term, and to many it seemed that one was all she’d get. Mrs Thatcher had been elected in the hope that her new economic policies would put Britain back on track. Instead unemployment rocketed towards 3 million, economic growth nosedived, taxes went up and public spending was slashed. The country seemed to be sinking into the abyss.

The alternative was just as unappealing. The Labour Party was fighting a civil war between those who wanted to remain on the centre ground and those who wanted to go further towards implementing a full blown socialist society. For a time, it seemed as if the far left would win this battle for the soul of the Labour Party.

For some Labour moderates, this was the final straw. In March 1981, four leading moderates, dubbed the ‘Gang of Four’, broke away from Labour and formed the Social Democratic Party (SDP). This aimed to “break the mould of British politics” by offering a middle way between the free market policies of Thatcherism and the near communist ideas of Labour. The party proved immensely popular at first, with opinion polls giving it 600 out of 635 seats at the next election. However, Labour stepped back from the edge, while Mrs Thatcher was saved by slight economic recovery and the Falklands War. The mould was apparently to remain.

But how is this history lesson relevant to us today? That party of Labour rebels has now gone full circle, and today comprises half the name of a party which is propping up a Tory administration enacting many of the policies the SDP set out to destroy.

This contradiction is hidden for the moment. But already cracks are appearing. Lib Dem support in the opinion polls has plummeted to 14% since the election and is still falling. Key party grandees, including those such as Charles Kennedy and Paddy Ashdown who helped to fuse the old Liberal Party and the SDP together, have stayed strangely silent on the coalition. If Nick Clegg cannot demonstrate he is having a real impact on government policy, especially on electoral reform, that silence will not last.

This week Parliament breaks for the summer, but before it returns in October there will be the party conferences. It is here that the Liberal Democrats must decide where the soul of their party lies. Is it in the free market ideals of the Victorian Liberals? Or within the social democracy of the SDP? Upon the outcome of this question rests the future of David Cameron’s government. It is just possible that the SDP may yet succeed in breaking the mould of British politics.


  1. 11 Aug ’10 at 7:15 pm

    Didn't vote for the 'coalition party'

    Guide to going into the firing line of government in a financial crisis

    Step 1: Do not go alone
    Step 2: Find body armour or failing that a 57 person strong human shield.

    Mr Cameron strokes his chin, ahah he think, “over here Cleggy”

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  2. I really don’t understand people who voted for the Lib Dems and are disappointed that they formed a Coalition with the Conservatives.

    You can either have some of your policies enacted, have a vioce in the government and some influence over decisions; or you can have none of your policies enacted and have no influence over anything. Tough call. They’re like some rebel musician that doesn’t want their band to get signed because they think it would compromise their indie values. You just can’t take them seriously, because they’re not serious.

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  3. What Henry said.

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  4. The Lib Dems?

    Lib Dumbs more like.


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  5. 12 Aug ’10 at 12:39 pm

    Didn't vote for the 'coalition party'

    … and didn’t vote for any coalition party…

    “They’re like some rebel musician that doesn’t want their band to get signed because they think it would compromise their indie values.”

    Agreed, thing is, they don’t (as a party) have a core set of guiding principles they are part New Labour (SDP) and part Victorian era Liberal still mindlessly awestruck at the effects of the industrial revolution.

    Indeed they’re party ‘principles’ will be as academic as they will be as a party at the next election. :P

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  6. @ Didn’t vote for the ‘coalition party’

    By ‘they’, I didn’t mean all of the Liberal Democrats, but the people who voted for them and are now disappointed that they are in government with the Conservatives. Those people are, in my view, hopelessly irrational and removed from reality. No matter which party was elected, spending cuts were inevitable – so isn’t it better they have some of their agenda considered rather than none at all? Or is it better to have a whinge and take zero responsibility?

    Also, your equating the SDP with New Labour is just mind-blowingly crazy. The SDP was about small businesses, workers’ security and strategic economic planning. New Labour didn’t give a flying f**k about any of that.

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  7. Spending cuts were not ‘inevitable’ – rather, you could even state they it goes against economic orthodoxy to cut so soon. Well Keynesian orthodoxy anyway.

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  8. 1) Alright then, we’ll just keep spending at the same level, borrowing and getting into higher levels of debt to pay for it (which is in itself unlikely, because to borrow money from someone they need to be persuaded that you’ll pay it back at some point). Alternatively, we could raise taxes massively (along the lines of 90% income tax for the majority of households), which might make some socialists happy, but would also do what spending-enthusiasts say is bad – lowering consumption and saving levels in the real economy.

    2) Spending cuts WERE inevitable because all three main parties (including Labour) said that’s what they would do before the election. (Although Labour was also promising funds which they could not deliver. By coincidence, many of these promises happened to be made in marginal constituencies.)

    3) Keynes is spinning in grave. He advised the government to save, reduce debt and even run a surplus during periods of economic expansion to pay for higher levels of spending to stimulate the economy during recessions. Labour failed to do the former, but they were (and still are) happy to invoke Keynesianism selectively to prop up their arguments. I call it pick ‘n mix Keynesianism.

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  9. 14 Aug ’10 at 11:21 am

    Anonymous George

    Henry, much as I agree with what you are saying here, it is not true that Labour failed to reduce debt. Prior to the credit-crunch, the UK’s debt/GDP ratio was one of the lowest among all major economies.

    @Fanny Adams
    Every European nation has agreed to cut spending. If you did not follow suit you would have already lost your AAA credit-rating and you would no longer be able to borrow money at reasonable/affordable interest rates.

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  10. @ Anonymous George

    Surely it depends how you measure it with pension contributions, PFI included etc.?

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  11. 23 Aug ’10 at 9:20 pm

    Kieran Murphy

    Just thought I should throw this in there, but one of the names the Gang of Four originally considered for the SDP was ‘New Labour’, so the link isn’t as illogical as it appears… although when it comes to policy the links are a lot less!

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