Michalski: Clegg changing Britain

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]here are politicians whose incompetence is as deep and as causative an influence on the fortune of states and nations as other politicians’ talent or diligence. One of them is Nick Clegg, the leader of the UK Liberal Democrat party (LibDem), which not only suffered a hammering in recent regional elections but was also defeated in a referendum aimed at changing the UK electoral system and to ensure the party’s eternal participation in future ruling coalitions.

Clegg’s failure may lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom or at the very least the secession of Scotland. But let’s start at the beginning. There was a moment before the 2010 general election when Clegg was called “a statesman” and “a heaven-sent politician”. While in the final outcome Clegg failed to secure a convincing majority he did manage to finish off the Labour Party. A large number of disappointed Labour supporters voted for him to punish Labour for entering the war in Iraq, for Blair, for Brown, for the third way and for excessive statism. Much of the justification for punishing Labour appears self-contradictory, as is often the case with the vagaries of the vox populi. By voting LibDem traditional Labour voters wanted to ‘correct’ Labour and ‘knock them down a peg’ without giving power to the Conservative Party, because most of them believed Clegg would make a coalition with Labour.

In the absence of the crucial centre-left vote Labour failed to hold on to power in the absence of an election majority. Because the Tories did not win strong electoral support they did not secure a parliamentary majority. British voters did not move very much to the right in 2010. Part of the centre-left showed their dissatisfaction by voting for Clegg (thinking it was safe and without taking risks) who turned out to be a Trojan Horse. He entered a coalition with the Conservatives and not only fooled a great deal of his voters, but also fooled himself. In 2010 Clegg could have made a coalition with Labour and the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), which was what most of the LibDem electorate and a significant part of the party’s grass roots wanted. The coalition would have been slightly weaker, but he would have a much stronger position himself; he would have been able to realise his programme and he would probably carry out voting system reform because, initially, it had the majority support of the British people and Labour leaders who knew that in a more pro-rata system the Conservatives would never rule the UK. Conservative voters often form the largest share of the electorate and they are quite loyal, but they do not represent the majority of voters in Great Britain. And any coalition of Labour, LibDem and SNP would be a more balanced socio-economic system, free from “neoconservative barbarity” (this Homeric phrase I keep endlessly repeating is supposed to emphasise that Tea-Partyism or Cameronism has nothing to do with the liberal or communitarian conservatism of Burke, Disraeli or even Churchill). Any coalition without the Conservatives could also mean Britain having a greater participation in creating a United Europe.

On announcing the coalition with the Conservatives, Clegg promised his voters that while supporting Cameron’s budget cuts and deregulation he would still defend equal access to education and significantly temper Tory euroscepticism. He messed up in all three areas. Fees for students (loyal LibDem voters in 2010) increased threefold, the Tories are shattering Europe as much as they can (although they really could do more – we will see).

And while the Conservatives are putting the full extent of their political plans into practice with determination the LibDems are not. Once the Conservatives had already swallowed Clegg and used him to achieve their own political goals, handing the LibDems a small number of symbolic government posts, they decided to be shot of him. They humiliated Clegg by running a successful campaign against the voting system reform he championed. It was Labour leader Ed Miliband who remained a supporter of the voting reform suggested by the Lib Dems, his political opponents, understanding its fundamental political meaning for the “anticonservative majority” in the British Isles.

It only took a couple of months for the Britons to turn their backs on voting reform. Everybody knew it would be a pat on the back for Clegg and why reward a political ass and a traitor? After the election and referendum one of the LibDem leaders called Cameron’s Tories people ‘eradicated, brutal and tribal’. The trouble is that since the times of Margaret Thatcher the Tories have always been like that. They were like that when Clegg gave them the political initiative and sacrificed his political programme. That’s why the Conservatives’ vote in the local elections held up but the Liberal Democrats were decimated. A large proportion of LibDem voters went back to Labour, strengthening the bipolarity of the British political system instead of weakening it. That’s what happened in England and Wales, but in Scotland the SNP won a majority of votes and seats for the first time making it possible to rule alone. SNP leader Alex Salmond used the opportunity to announce a referendum on independence.

If Clegg had taken a different decision after the 2010 election, the SNP would now be co-creating a coalition government in the UK. The resultant coalition’s politics would be more balanced, centred and Scottish voters would have no reason to revolt. Labour and the LibDems, as the first parties in history that allowed the Scottish Independence Party to form part of the London government would not have lost the majority of their votes in Scotland to the SNP. But under the ruling of the English neocons the UK swung to the right declaring a new ‘Thatcher revolution’. The old ‘Thatcher revolution’ was carried out at the expense of the north of England and Scotland. That is where British industry was and that is where it was stopped. That is where the British proletariat was and that is where the British proletariat split into its smaller part ‘the new middle class’ and into the bigger part ‘the underclass’. No wonder that when Cameron (who in Scottish eyes seems to be a paradigmatic ‘tribal’ Englishman) declared a new ‘Thatcher revolution’ the Scottish people gave the English the V-sign. In the times of the first ‘Thatcher revolution’ the Scottish did not have their own parliament or their own strong and politically mature separatist party. Today they have the tools to enable them to oppose the barbaric neocons operating in the City of London who want to cut public spending, but not pay taxes.

The SNP, moreover, are not nationalist-neocons but nationalist-communitarians. Salmond, an amiable chubby Celt, always takes care to say something in one sentence about both Scottish ‘society’ and ‘nation’. That play on words is even understood in Poland where we often contrasted these two concepts- the right talked about ‘nation’ while looking down on ‘society’ while the left talked about ‘society’, being afraid of ‘nation’. Salmond, whose success gave him wings, announced that he would be holding a referendum on independence during the next term of the Scottish parliament. Whilst the ‘new Thatcher revolution’ run by the English is radicalizing, Scottish communitarian nationalists have a greater chance of winning the referendum. So the ultimate influence of Clegg’s failure may be beneficial to British politics after all. Scotland will become a full throttle member of the EU and this will shatter the eurosceptics’ hegemony in the British Isles.


Translated by Katarzyna Abramowicz


Krytyka Polityczna
Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique) is the largest Eastern European liberal network of institutions and activists. It consists of the online daily Dziennik Opinii, a quarterly magazine, publishing house, cultural centres in Warsaw, Łódź, Gdańsk and Cieszyn, activist clubs in a dozen cities in Poland (and also in Kiev and Berlin), as well as a research centre: the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw.