Nick Clegg’s support for a massive extension of online monitoring may be a disappointment to disgruntled activists, and to any voters who listened to him on the subject prior to (and immediately after) the May 2010 election. But it should be no surprise. It’s certainly in keeping with a consistent experience of the three UK parties of government.
They regularly appear solid on policy in opposition but then are either ineffectual or do a series of direct u-turns once in office. The list is endless. Labour talked about equality of opportunity before 1997, but left behind the most unequal UK ever. The Tories joined the Lib Dems in howling about tuition fees in opposition, before working together to treble them almost immediately their coats were over the Downing Street chairs. I still remember the Tory backbencher telling me in 1997 that “we’re fine on this now, but don’t trust us when we get back into office“. Too true.
On security and civil liberties – especially on the futile attempt to trade the latter for the former – we have this same problem in spades. Governments, including this one and its predecessor, are almost always wrong, and oppositions, including this one and its predecessors, are almost always right. Whoever you vote for, it seems, the permanent government gets in, and the policies remain the same. The glee in the Labour spokesperson’s voice on Westminster Hour when asked if she’d be supporting this latest dogs’ breakfast was inescapable: “we dropped it! we dropped it!”, she said. Be in no doubt that Labour would pick it up the moment they ever return to office.
This might just be another attempt by the Lib Dems to discard a chunk of the broad base of support they assembled up to 2010. We’re not quite two years through a supposedly five year term, and there’s very little left. Broad but, it turns out, shallow, and only the Orange Book minority has really been shown any love by the leadership. Students were driven away, anyone concerned about privatisation of the NHS or Royal Mail is long gone, let alone those who wanted a principled left alternative to Labour. It seems almost absurd to think that’s how people ever thought of them.
The email monitoring legislation does feel a little different to previous betrayals, though. It has the air of a terminal nosedive about it, a sense that the party is approaching what looks like the point of no return. The smarter sort of Lib Dems on Twitter, the few of those that remain in the party, are saying things like “I have not sent my LD membership renewal until I see what happens with the surveillance stuff“, “I don’t know where [Clegg's] going, but I have no appetite to go on the journey with him“, “As someone who generally is keen on Clegg he’s fucked this up big time“, and “The question is what we can we do about it? How can we make the leadership listen?”
As Polly Toynbee put it today, “civil liberties was their last USP“, although she’s excluded Iraq, presumably because their policy there was actually much weaker than the media and the party implied: “if there’s a second resolution we’ll back a disastrous war“. (Polly-haters should try again with that piece, incidentally. Except for a spurious paragraph where she suggests “Labour has been spring-cleaning it roots” (sic), she’s on good form.)
Less than a month ago Julian Huppert, the darling of the Lib Dems on Twitter, wrote a remarkably prescient piece for the Guardian. Here is just one chunk (emphasis mine):
Civil liberties are a core, unifying issue for the Lib Dems. There are MPs in the Labour and Conservative parties who would defend civil liberties to the very end, and others – too many others – who would tear them up at the first opportunity. There is no such division in the Lib Dems. Issues such as civil liberties are utterly uniting for our party, and utterly divisive for the others. To abandon human rights would therefore be a greater threat to the coalition than most commentators realise. [...] if we do not provide a thorough, reasoned defence of civil liberties, no other party will.
Aside from the usual Green-and-Nat-ignoring self-serving Westminster tripe at the end, most observers would have agreed with this assessment of the Lib Dems until the weekend. But now it transpires that their champions around the Cabinet table don’t care about this issue either. Who knew? Perhaps it’s some odd highball tactic so Clegg can accept a “compromise” that the party wouldn’t otherwise have swallowed.
No amount of reasoning with the Clegg/Alexander leadership could get them to change their minds on private control of NHS, and no amount of lobbying could persuade Lib Dem MPs or peers to rebel in any numbers on it either. Will they go the same way over internet surveillance? Are they really ready to go down with Clegg on this issue and take their whole party with them? Or will we, finally, start to see some backbone from their backbenchers?