Posted on 21-04-2010
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

It took one debate to send the upcoming British elections into a tailspin.  With his rivals attacking each other the young Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg emerged the surprising victor.  Now in a meteoric rise rivaling that of Barack Obama (Clegg is still in his first parliamentary term) at least one poll has the Lib Dems leading the popular vote with Clegg polling as the most popular politician since Churchill.

However, as the polls above indicate the surge in the polls will not translate into enough seats to form a government.  Britain’s first past the post system can result in the seat allocation being very different than the popular vote.  The likeliest result will be a hung parliament and a coalition government.

The biggest losers in this are the Conservatives.  Originally expected to end Labour’s 13 year hold on power they have seen their fortunes fade even before the recent Lib Dem surge.  With the Lib Dems ideologically closer to Labour a coalition with the Conservatives is unlikely.  Labour and the Lib Dems previously had a coalition in Scotland.  The result will be to extend the Conservative sojourn in the political wilderness.  This is likely to be extended even further if the Lib Dems extract as their pound of flesh the goal most dear to their hearts – proportional representation.  Whether Labour will consent to a policy directly contrary to its political interests is not certain.  Even if Labour comes third in the popular vote they could still be the single largest party.  However, if proportional representation does come the United Kingdom will join its continental cousins in experiencing coalition government politics.  Even the huge Thatcher majorities in the 1980s barely cracked 40% of the national vote.

I have always had a soft spot for the Lib Dems, and particularly their predecessor the Liberal Party.  In its heyday the party championed free trade, relatively low governmental interference, social reform, extending the franchise and personal liberty.  Under William Gladstone it was decidedly ambiguous about Empire.  But by the beginning of the 20th century the party was being squeezed by the rise of the socialist Labour party on the left and during the Boer Wars its Liberal imperialists on the right.  To head off social unrest the party enacted a number of reforms designed to protect the elderly and children but was ultimately shattered in the aftermath of the First World War.

Inherently opposed to Britain’s military-industrial complex the party under the leadership of David Lloyd George pushed the more pacifist liberals out and entered into a coalition with the Conservatives.  With the left wing of the party thrown into the arms of Labour, Lloyd George’s imperialist policies provoked a rebellion among his Conservative allies forcing him from office.  No Liberal has come close to the post of Prime Minister since the fall of Lloyd George in 1922.  A sizable portion of the right-wing rump of the Liberal Party (including one Winston Churchill) ended up with the Conservatives.  Over the next two decades the party almost ceased to exist.

The Liberals fractured in their attempt to find a middle path between Labour’s pacifist radical socialism and the Conservatives reactionary imperialist positions on the right.  The fractures were evident in the fall of the last two Gladstone governments in an attempt to grant Ireland Home Rule in the 1880s.  The project was stopped by Conservative opposition in the House of Lords, but had it passed could have spared Ireland much of its misery in the 20th century.

In the 1980s the Liberals merged with the Social Democrats – moderate Labour Party members fed up with that party’s radicalism on the left to form the Liberal Democrats.  Three things predispose me in their favor – a more middle of the road approach, a stronger commitment to civil liberties (will be interesting to see if that survives if they ever get to power) and a love for lost causes.  But they have also benefited in the current climate from not being one of the two parties in power.  There are many scenarios on what may happen.  The Lib Dem surge may not hold up under the almost certain harsher scrutiny of the next two debates – stuff like this will be used to lampoon Clegg.  But for now they have made the usual two party British election tango much more interesting. More than 75 years after Lloyd George destroyed his own party, his successors are making their best run for political power

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