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.