Nick Clegg has returned. Having boycotted George Osborne’s Autumn Statement the Lib Dem leader was back in his place next to David Cameron at PMQs this week.
It’s easy to understand why Clegg has tried to avoid the House of Commons chamber lately. Things do not look good for his party. Recent opinion polls show that the party is far behind Ukip. Some polls are showing the Lib Dems locked into a battle with the Greens for the irrelevant title of being the fourth party in British politics.
It could have been so much better for the Lib Dems. Entering into Coalition in 2010 they could have been the voice for democracy and radicalism taking hold of constitutional reform, devolving powers, opening up our politics and introducing referendums.
But Nick Clegg’s petulant U-turns – rejecting parliamentary recall and trying to blame others, refusing a referendum on Lords reform and thereby killing the measure, opposing the vote on the EU despite his promises – made clear to voters that he was not very radical at all.
The Lib Dems could have attempted to return the party to its traditional Liberal roots. In 2004, a group within the Lib Dems, including Nick Clegg, David Laws and Vince Cable, contributed to a collection of essays called The Orange Book, which put forward a belief in small government, the free market and civil liberties.
David Laws argued that the structure of the NHS led to suboptimal health outcomes for millions of citizens. He proposed a National Health Insurance Scheme to guarantee health care free at the point of delivery to all people, irrespective of ability to pay, but allowing private providers to compete for patients. Another essay suggested private pensions should replace state payments, while Vince Cable said the state should not take more than 40 per cent of GDP in tax.
But under Clegg the party has called for a tax on fizzy drinks and booze and a ban on smoking in cars. It also led the call for state licensing of newspapers and thwarted Osborne’s plans to lower the highest rate of tax to 40p, insisting on 45p. Earlier this year Nick Clegg said that teachers use their freedom in ways he disapproves of. He said that more state control was needed over the curriculum, hiring and even the contents of school dinners.
As one government source put it: “Clegg wants freedom through regulation. Very Nineteen Eighty-Four.”
This is a sorry state for the heirs of Gladstone and the Whig-Liberal tradition.