The contradictions of Liberal Democrat opportunism

During a long drive on Thursday, I listened to Richard Bacon interviewing Paddy Ashdown about his new book and current LD politics.

There was the usual absurdity of comparing the UK with Greece.  That the UK had the same level of debt as the Greeks but by going into coalition with the Tories, the LDs had ‘put the national interest first’ and ‘succeeded’ in keeping our interest rates low.  The fact that the UK is not at all like Greece; that the UK is not part of the Eurozone, and has its own currency and central bank, was never mentioned or even questioned. The perpetuation of this mythology is economically illiterate and/or profoundly economical with the truth.

I was, however, astonished to hear that Nick Clegg is by far the most talented of our political leaders; that he is enjoying every moment of being in government, and that he was courageous in having apologised for pledging to abolish tuition fees.

Additionally, Nick Clegg just loves the spoof video clip of his ‘saying sorry’, just as Paddy had loved his ‘Spitting image’ puppet (!).  This was followed by a great deal of the usual nonsense about the LDs having shown that Coalitions ‘do work’, and even though the LDs loathe the Tories, they had put that to one side in order to rescue the UK in its hour of crisis.  A crisis entirely created by the irresponsible government of Gordon Brown … a risible contention on a par with the UK being like Greece, or Nick Clegg being by far the most talented of our political leaders.

The conversation then moved on to the new book but as a final question, Richard Bacon asked about the possibility that there might have been some sort of coalition with Tony Blair in 1997, and that Gordon Brown had offered Paddy Ashdown the chance to be Northern Ireland Secretary of State.

“Yes’ said Paddy Ashdown.  He’d had a lot of discussions with Tony Blair.  They had agreed on a great deal but when it came to it, Tony Blair had wanted to amalgamate the LDs into the LP and that was something that Paddy Ashdown would never do because British politics would be the poorer without the LDs.

Richard Bacon expressed great surprise that Paddy Ashdown had not taken the opportunity to be a Minister, a last chance to be in government.  “No” said Paddy Ashdown.  He would never have compromised his principles by being in a Gordon Brown government with which he fundamentally disagreed.  The problem for him was ‘collective responsibility’.  How could he have been put in the position of appearing to support policies that violated his political beliefs?

Which rather begged the question as to what Nick Clegg is up to?

Is Paddy Ashdown calling the ‘talented’ Mr Clegg, a hypocrite, who has compromised his principles by accepting ‘collective responsibility’ from the loathed Tory Cabinet.  A step, which would be going far too far for Paddy Ashdown to contemplate?

Or is Paddy Ashdown implying that Nick Clegg substantially agrees with Tory policies and economic strategy?  In which case why does he maintain that Nick Clegg loathes the Tories?

And why exactly does Paddy Ashdown favour coalition government and PR?

Given that the very essence of PR is that most governments would be coalitions, how does Paddy Ashdown reconcile that, with his strongly stated position about the impossibility of working with governments that do not reflect his own principles…?

And if that government does reflect his own views (as he said Tony Blair’s did), then why wouldn’t he join together with that political party?  Are we to understand that British politics would be the poorer without the LDs because it would diminish the opportunities for a third grouping of political careerists to enjoy ministerial power/cars?

As they say  ‘Give a Liberal Democrat grandee enough rope, and they may hang their whole party by disclosing its innate contradictions and opportunism’.

Related Post:

One little word so powerful it lost the Tories the last election (and probably the next)  (Tom Pride)

15 thoughts on “The contradictions of Liberal Democrat opportunism

  1. This is a spectacularly intellectually dishonest posting. What Tony Blair and I were negotiating was a coalition agreement between two Parties which all on both side could sign up to. What Nick Clegg has negotiated with th Tories is exactly the same. What Gordon Brown offered me was the chance – as a Lib Dem – to join a Labour Government enacting Labour policies with which I didn’t agree. Surely even the most biased can see the difference between the two. I respect your political view of the world, even though I don’t agree with it. Pity I cannot equally respect the intellectual honesty of your arguments. Paddy Ashdown


    • “What Gordon Brown offered me was the chance – as a Lib Dem – to join a Labour Government enacting Labour policies with which I didn’t agree.”

      So you’re saying there is nothing the Liberal Democrats disagree with about the present coalition?
      If so, there is another obvious contradiction. Why do the Liberal Democrats keep saying they had to break their promises to the electorate because they are in a coalition?
      Either you stop blaming the fact you’re the minor party in a coalition for the worst policies – or man up and accept responsibility for everything the coalition is doing.
      You can’t have it both ways.


      • Also note that he doesn’t apologise for getting the economic arguments wrong.

        Dishonest and stupid is no way to go through life Paddy.


  2. Considering the Liberal Democrats have waived through very high tuition fees and the dismantling and Americanisation of universal healthcare, it would seem it is hardly a wonder that they cannot support Labour Party policies as they appear to have more in common with the Tory Party.


  3. @ Money isn’t real … I also couldn’t help but notice, that Lord Ashdown did not rebut the economic argument. To suggest that the UK could ever have been in the situation of Greece is indeed ‘spectacularly intellectually dishonest’, but we could also apply the same description to Nick Clegg’s insistence that ‘the economy is repairing’! An absolutely extraordinary thing to say, when the deficit has increased by 22% instead of falling by the projected 4.6%.


  4. I really enjoyed this article, but while most of the points raised with regard to Lord Ashdown’s position in relation to serving under Brown or Blair are acutely observed, I take issue with the premise that the refusal of the LD’s to be subsumed within the LP is further evidence of opportunism.
    I would note that the LD’s retain a strong Social Democratic strain to their identity which leads them to being rightly described as being a Centre Left Party. But the Liberal Strand of the party which makes up the preponderant core of its makeup, is inherently difficult to codify in the simplistic terminology of left or right.
    I would probably agree that the Labour Party would benefit from having access to more Liberals, as this would dilute the authoritarian strain which sometimes rises to the surface in your party. But I am not clear that it would benefit democracy, parliament, Britain or governance generally.
    Indeed, on the basis that the voice of Liberalism would be required to compete with more traditional, socialist priorities for a voice, my strong suspicion is that a genuinely Liberal voice would be lost. And this would be inherently bad for both Britain and the Centre Left in general.
    The break -up of the 19 Century Liberal Party allowed (in my view regrettably) the Tories to lay claim to the economically liberal agenda and Labour has tended to be portrayed (sometimes fairly), as the party of authoritarianism (Witness ID Cards and attempts to introduce on the spot fines for anti-social behaviour as two recent examples).
    It was interesting that Lord Ashdown implied that his party could have worked with Blair, but that he could not have worked to impliment a labour agenda, because while that rings true in 1997, it seems less so by 2001 when any Liberal would have been given cause to think twice by the Labour Party’s domestic agenda. And clearly, from then on, as the focus moved to Iraq, the Liberal Democrats would have faced hard choices which opposition freed them from.
    I note, one more thing. The largest increase in Liberal Democrat support since Lloyd George came in the wake of the Iraq War, under Charles Kennedy’s leadership, and came at the expense of Labour as much as of the Conservatives, in terms of seats won. Given the unpopularity of that war from the outset and the clear revulsion many felt at the Blair Government for bringing Britain into it, it is worth wondering who would these people have gone to, had the LD’s been implicated as well as Labour. My guess, in the majority of cases would have been a party such as UKIP or the Greens, neither of which could have hoped to make the electoral break through’s that the LD’s managed.
    In which case, we would not now be talking about a viable Liberal partner to Labour in a future coalition, but a much more right of centre majority Tory Government with the Liberals a tiny rump as they were for most of the 20 Century.
    Such a Government would have been much more damaging to public services, than the current one. Moreover, there is no question that they would have passed the boundary changes which would have made it harder for Labour at the 2015 election.
    Finally, we should not forget that while Labour can win elections in Britain, it is relatively difficult. Note that the possible loss of Scotland (which the nationalists would find easier to manipulate under a solidly Tory Government, would make this considerably more difficult. Without Scotland, Wilson and Callaghan would have gone the way of Gaitskell, as leaders who might have been.
    So while I do have sympathy with a lot of your post, I would caveat this by saying that Labour would be better served through a Proportional Representation arrangement as advocated by the LD’s and sharing the left with a representative Green, Liberal and possibly Unitarian Socialist Party.
    Lord Ashdown, viewed from this perspective is correct to draw a distinction between Coalition (involving compromise and swallowing ideological purity) and outrite betrayal of his own party and ideals, which was he option offered him by Brown.
    Keep up the thought provoking approach.


    • Thank you for such a comprehensive and thoughtful argument. I rather cavil at the idea that Tony Blair was representative of the LP grassroots but then the LDs have a similar divide with their own leadership. My analysis of Paddy Ashdown’s interview was not intended to put forward my position but to indicate the contradictions in what he said, which IMO sprang from opportunism. He replied in accordance with what would put the LDs and himself in the best light rather than from a coherent position, hence his contradictions and with regard to Nick Clegg IMO insincerity.

      Speaking as someone who scores on the political compass in the bottom far left corner, I too was appalled by the authoritarianism of New Labour and would have great sympathy with the liberalism of the LDs (but not their economic liberalism). However, it is really very difficult for me to discern that the LDs have effected much change on tory policies whilst in coalition.

      When it comes to PR, I am torn between the apparent justice of that system and a belief that fundamentally the significant political difference lies in approach to the markets and the state. As a result, I do not see how a coalition can exist between those who believe that the markets should operate unfettered, and those who value the role of the state. It is a the same as not being able to be a ‘little bit pregnant’. A significant problem is that each of the three main parties are led by ‘free marketeers’ whilst Labour and LD grassroots memberships largely want a mixed economy, regulation and public services. Hence, the leadership of the LDs could be in coalition with the Tories or with New Labour.. but the grassroots of the LP and the LDs are completely left out of the equation. We have yet to see on which side of the divide Ed Miliband falls but there are some positive signs, such as his questioning inflation targets which may suggest a welcome rejection of monetarism.


      • It would be interesting to understand exactly the makeup on the current LD grass roots, just how many former SDP members remain in the party. It always seems to me that having deserted Labour, they would surely have returned when Blair reformed Clause 4.

        That said, I would be more optomistic than you about the chances of common ground with the LD’s. True, at an ideological level a Grass Roots Socialist puts either opportunity or wealth redistrobution, support for labour organisations such as the Union Movement, and regulation through an impartial State, higher on the priority list than a Liberal and that A Liberal would be more inclined towards prioritising the individuals responsibility towards society and granting them the trust that left to their own devices, they will do the right thing.

        But when we translate these ideological differences into strategy, you have much in common. I doubt many grass roots Liberals or their leaders would disagree on the need for labour protection, a well funded NHS, controls on the banking sector or the need to be progressive in taxation. Similarly, while I have met socialists who are totally illiberal, they are in the minority. Most that I have met would agree that individuals have responsibility before the state and to other people.

        Similarly, Liberals and Socialists are essentially born of the same 19th Century Liberal mother when it comes to social policy. Beverage was a Liberal, after all, and your mutual approach to minority rights, equality and ethics in foreign policy are basically complimentary.

        None of which negates your point about your differing ideologies. But Governments do more than impliment policies. They set the mood music of Government and the nation. And the LD’s continually undermine George Osborne providing valuable breathing space for Miliband to set a distinctive course for the party. I don’t think you should underestimate that.


  5. I agree that ‘ I doubt many grass roots Liberals or their leaders would disagree on the need for labour protection, a well funded NHS, controls on the banking sector or the need to be progressive in taxation.’ However, we may need to disagree about the LDs undermining George Osborne because I see no evidence for it. I also think that the Labour movement sprang out of the Chartists, the unions and the mutual societies rather than any ‘Liberal mother’ but I’m no historian so I stand to be corrected 🙂


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