The Economist is right. Liberalism is winning. Which could be bad news for the Lib Dems in 2020

by Stephen Tall on May 19, 2015

cam clegg

“Mr Clegg lost not because liberalism is under threat but because it has become mainstream.” That’s the striking, counter-intuitive conclusion of this week’s Economist, examining the reasons for the massacre of Lib Dems at the polls:

Another explanation for the Lib Dems’ terrible performance is that they are no longer necessary. In a tearful farewell speech, Mr Clegg lamented the demise of liberalism and the “fear and grievance” evident in the rise of Scottish and English nationalisms. He vowed that he would not allow “decent liberal values” to die.

But they have not. The Tories ate up Lib Dem votes partly because they have swallowed much of the party’s ideology. The Conservative embrace of causes like gay marriage means liberals do not have to vote Liberal Democrat these days. Indeed, although the Tories still have plenty of illiberal edges, David Cameron, the prime minister, has called himself a liberal conservative. Tony Blair had absorbed much liberalism into the Labour Party. Even the SNP, though illiberal in its nationalism, is pro-gay marriage and pro-immigration.

It is true that a significant minority is anti-liberal. UKIP secured 12% of the vote (though only one seat) by kicking back against the globalised, multi-ethnic society that Britain has become. Yet overall, Mr Clegg lost not because liberalism is under threat but because it has become mainstream. Indeed, the metropolitan assumption that liberalism conquers everything is part of what UKIP so dislikes. That will be small consolation for Mr Clegg as he watches the triumphant Mr Cameron trying to balance those competing forces. But it is hopeful for Britain.

Most Lib Dems will harrumph at this, pointing out (not unreasonably) that neither David Cameron’s insular Conservatives nor Tony Blair’s centralising Labour party have been especially liberal.

This is true in a narrow sense, but wrong, I think, in a broader sense. A form of liberalism (albeit not the Lib Dems’ preferred model) won the twentieth century, as even its opponents on the right and left of the political divide have in the past acknowledged: Britain became considerably more socially liberal and economically liberal.

This, I guess, is a triumph for the liberal disapora — what has proved a weakness in building a Liberal Party big enough to win by itself has proved a strength by embedding itself in the Conservative and Labour parties that have governed Britain.

Many Lib Dems have comforted ourselves in the last fortnight by telling ourselves that the British public will miss us now we’re gone. Indeed, the Labour-leaning Guardian and New Statesman have joined in this anticipatory ‘told you so’ lament.

This assumes, though, that the Conservatives will revert to type, that their swivel-eyed, nut-job element will triumph.

This may still happen: David Cameron’s wafer-thin 12-strong majority may force him to tack to the right. His surprise victory smacked of 1992; who can say deja vu won’t strike again?

But it’s not an inevitability. For the past five years, David Cameron has been forced to moderate his policies because of the Lib Dems. Who’s to say he won’t now choose to moderate his policies — indeed, that he won’t find it easier to be himself a moderate because it will now be Tory ministers implementing small-l liberal measures?

The Prime Minister will (almost certainly) lead the pro-EU side of the in/out referendum campaign, and has appointed the ex-SDP-er Greg Clarke to lead devolution to local government, while the Chancellor, George Osborne, is urging forward the ‘northern powerhouses’.

This dose of liberalism may be temporary. It may all end in tears. In which case the Lib Dems may well be able to bounce back sooner than now looks likely, just as Paddy Ashdown was able to do in 1997.

But if Mr Cameron is able to stick to his guns, then 2020 may prove an even tougher fight for my party precisely because liberalism isn’t actually in retreat.