I saw lights coming on above the heads of the remaining supporters of the Liberal Democrats today.
Since the Tories came to power with Liberal support last year, Liberal Democrat friends have been quick to defend their party's abysmal record in government. As one Liberal minister after another has stood up in parliament or on the stump and announced illiberal, hateful, even downright evil policies straight from the Tory manifesto, my Liberal Democrat friends have said "They're a restraining force! It'd be worse without them! It's a price worth paying for voting reform!".
My reply has been same each time. The Liberals were elected on a Liberal manifesto. Why are they the ones that get to announced the implementation of far-right Tory policies? Why does reasonableness flow from the arch-Thatcherite Cameron creature and betrayal from the man with the office in a box in the corner of the PM's broom cupboard?
And how could it be worse without them? So far, we've had almost everything promised – threatened – by the Tories when they were in opposition and almost nothing threatened – promised – by the LibDems when they were the half-forgotten minor party. The things that Liberal Democrats have trumpeted as "great victories for Liberalism" were things the Tories were committed to anyway: the scrapping of the daft Heathrow expansion and the end of the Orwellian ID Card scheme, for instance. The Liberals won nothing when they backed what the Tories were going to do anyway and could easily have done as a minority government.
All along, I have repeatedly said that the price – voting reform – was too high. And I'm committed to voting reform. First Past The Post stinks and has ill-served us as a nation on every single occasion it has been used since 1950. The House of Lords stinks, even without the hereditary peers exercising legislative power just because their orange-seller great-great-grandmother fucked the then king. A House that consists almost entirely of people the voters have roundly rejected (Norman Lamont) or are old and decrepit but too rich to be put in a home to be abused (Norman Tebbit) is a downright insult to the British people and our values.
And, anyway, the voting referendum was probably lost when Gideon Osborne made his first budget speech and definitely lost the day Liberal Democrat MPs – almost all of them – tramped through the lobby to vote in favour of excluding poor people from higher education, in direct opposition to a pledge that each one of them had personally signed.
Now there's nothing left. The Liberals in this Tory government aren't behaving like liberals in any way. The only thing we could possibly hope was that they might retain a shred of the 'Democrat' part. They haven't.
This morning, the chief turncoat of the Liberals, "Blue" Vince Cable, made a speech to the GMB union. The GMB, an honourable, democratic association of people who work lower grade jobs throughout the economy, founded in 1889, was pleased to yet again have a senior member of the government addressing its conference – it generally happens only under Labour, so having Vince there under a Tory-controlled administration was something of a coup.
Vince stood up and announced that, should the GMB or anyone else organise industrial action in the face of the government's drastic and mean-minded cuts to services to the least able to defend themselves in society, the Liberal Democrats would be the ones to pass new anti-democratic, anti-union legislation.
Thirty years ago, the unions had real power in the country. Acknowledged as one of the pillars of our society, they had a direct line to heart and soul of government. Thirty years ago, they abused this power and Thatcher's governments systematically rolled back both the unions' muscle and their influence. The abuses have now gone; the unions are now democratic and now fight directly for better terms for their workers without really trying to change national or social policy. Nobody, on either side of the political divide, seriously suggests that we should go back to how things were in the late 1970s.
But the Tories have remained flushed with their victory over the unions. Their press backers have made billions since Thatcher's legislation allowed them to sweep unions out of the print houses and the newsrooms. Thus the Tories always get good headlines when they union bash, and the proprietors always get extra invites to Downing Street when they print those headlines. If anything goes wrong, if workers are killed on unsafe deregulated rails, if nurses are asked to cut treatment to the poorest, if teachers are told to politicise lessons, the unions stand up for their members, the press shout them down and the Tories threaten to "rein the unions in".
And then one day a Liberal Democrat MP in a Tory government stands up and announces that he will no longer stand for this. It's not a political thing, he says, it's an economic thing. That comes as a surprise to Liberal Democrat members, who always thought union membership was a social thing, divorced from politics and economics – social things are one of those areas the Liberals fundamentally
believe government should keep its ugly pointy nose out of. And here's Vince, saying that not only is it an economic thing after all, but also he will, with a song in his heart, legislate to make strikes virtually illegal if the members of the democratic unions democratically decide to withhold their labour when abused.
As I say, this was the point that lights started to come on over the heads of the Liberal Democrats I know. This was a Liberal Democrat cabinet minister saying something neither liberal nor democratic. This was a Liberal Democrat cabinet minister who had sold his soul for power – and was most probably too inexperienced at government to even realise the depths to which he had been pushed.
Shame on Blue Vince. Shame on his words. Shame on those that wrote such a nasty, pernicious speech. But most of all, shame on the Liberal Democrats for selling themselves to the Tories for so very, very little.
Of course, what has happened, I'm told, is that there has been a coup within the parliamentary Liberal party and the old socially liberal, economically socialistic members have slowly been replaced by "Orange Book" Liberals, socially centrist and economically hard right; this makes the British Liberals much closer to the European idea of what a "Liberal Party" means. The activists never saw it happening, or never thought it would happen in this way; the parallel is with Militant's attempted takeover of Labour in the early 1980s, only the Orange Book mob have actually managed to seize power in their party, something Militant never achieved.
Of course, the light that went on over the heads of the Liberal faithful soon started to flicker. "It's okay," they said. "Vince doesn't mean it. The Liberal Democrats will block such horrible legislation if it comes to it, and it won't come to it. Everything will be all right, we're in power now".
I believe the last people to comfort themselves with such words were the original liberal-minded, consensus-seeking Macmillan-Heath Tories, back in the early 1980s. "It's okay", they said to themselves, "we'll stop her when she goes too far".