Harsh but fair? Marquand on the Liberal Democrat leadership

David Marquand reviews Vernon Bogdanor’s new book The Coalition and the Constitution in today’s Guardian. Bogdanor is clearly not impressed with the Coalition’s mandate to pursue its radical agenda. And Marquand agrees. He is particularly scathing on the process by which the Coalition agreement was established as the basis for government. As an interim conclusion Marquand observes that:

Though Bogdanor does not say so, the clear implication of his account is that the present coalition is the least legitimate peacetime British government in modern times.

For Marquand the failure to seek broader endorsement for the Coalition agreement in innovative ways should not be seen as “a sign of political fortitude” but of “constitutional sclerosis”. That the Conservatives did not do so could be seen as par for the course. But the fact that the Liberal Democrats, who are self-styled constitutional radicals, did not embrace the possibility was less explicable.

While Bogdanor may have shown that the Liberal Democrats were ‘sold a pup’ in the Coalition negotiations, Marquand feels that things are rather more serious than the Liberal Democrats being out-manoeuvred. Marquand finishes his review by giving it to the Liberal Democrat leadership with both barrels:

Why did they succumb so easily to the establishment embrace? … The terrible answer, I believe, is that their birthrights were no longer to their taste. The Liberal Democrat leaders still talked social liberalism, but as they had foreshadowed in the notorious Orange Book, they walked economic liberalism. The tradition of Beveridge, Keynes, Lloyd George and Asquith, and for that matter of David Steel, Paddy Ashdown and Menzies Campbell – the tradition that stood for a synthesis of freedom and solidarity, procured by a strong, but not oppressive state – no longer spoke to them. They were liberals in the continental mode, not in the British one.

What do we make of this? Should it be written off simply as deep-rooted disaffection?

Anyone who invokes the Orange Book in this way is probably going to struggle to be taken seriously by Liberal Democrats. The Orange Book, when used like this, has become an all-purpose pejorative shorthand for unadulterated economic liberalism. It less frequently means the writer has read the Orange Book itself. Anyone who has read it knows that it covers a range of perspectives – some of which entail a fairly minimalist social liberalism but some of which are much more mainstream Liberal Democrat positions.

Yet, is it possible to demonstrate that Marquand is wrong?

Nick Clegg’s strategy of hugging the Conservatives close over the last year makes it difficult. The recent talk of differentiation suggests we are moving into a new phase of the life of the Coalition. But I’m not sure it will be a phase during which things will be clarified. I don’t think we will see sufficient concrete and distinctive “social liberal” actions, directly attributable to the Liberal Democrats, to silence critics who believe the Liberal Democrats have become Tory-lite under Nick Clegg. And the Liberal Democrat leadership will presumably be able to invoke the constraints of Coalition and realpolitik as an explanation for why this is the case.

So it is unlikely that we are going to be presented, any time soon, with a crucial test to gauge the health of social liberalism or the extent of ‘betrayal’ of that tradition. That would tend to suggest the debate – and the mud-slinging – is going to continue.

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