March 4, 2012

Something Nasty in the Woodshed

June 2010

Chimera / ; a mythical beast with two heads: those of a lion and of a goat, and with a serpent's head upon its tail 
Right-thinking, left-leaning people always thought that the Conservatives were inherently greedy and cruel. Even if was going too far to say that they were actual Nazis, we agreed that they flirted with racism, xenophobia and hatred of "the Other". Nick Clegg seemed to speak for the anti-fascist wing of British liberal opinion when he accused David Cameron in the second of the general election leaders' debates of allying himself in the EU with "a bunch of nutters, anti-Semites, people who deny climate change exists [and] homophobes". Guilt by association was still guilt, he implied. Conservatives did not care enough about fascistic hatred to renounce without equivocation all those who played with murderous ideas.
In the 1990s, the liberal-Left thought that Labour was the antidote to such right-wing extremism. As far as we were concerned, it was a warm, generous party that believed in community, help for the poor and all other good things. As that unjustly underrated political commentator Bridget Jones noted in her diary in 1997: "It is perfectly obvious that Labour stands for sharing, kindness, gays, single mothers and Nelson Mandela, as opposed to braying bossy men having affairs with everyone, shag shag shag left right and centre and going to the Ritz in Paris then telling all the presenters off on the Today programme."
Unfortunately for right-thinking people, Tony Blair was too fond of overthrowing dictators for their taste and the consensus grew that Labour was a party that waged "illegal" wars abroad and destroyed civil liberties at home. If that wasn't bad enough, it also taxed the upper-middle class. Throughout the last two decades, however, the reputation of the Liberal Democrats for virtue has remained unchallenged. The clichéd picture of the party as a collection of sandal-wearing, latte-slurping, tofu-eating teachers may have been patronising but it was not frightening. Liberals could be woolly-minded on occasion and their ideas might be impractical, but they remained good people. If their schemes for social improvement were doomed to failure, that was because of fallen human nature and the ways of a wicked world, not because liberals themselves were fallen or wicked. On the contrary, the world would be a better place if more people were like them. I suspect that if your son or daughter said they wanted to marry a Lib Dem, you might sigh and think that they could do better but you would not fear that a life of abuse and betrayal lay ahead of them. 
The strange alliance between Lib Dems and Conservatives is therefore causing less consternation on the Left than you might expect. By any rational standard, an election which sees a Tory government replace a Labour government is a straight defeat for the Left. Many leftists cannot see their defeat for what it is, however, and accept the obvious. For them, the presence of the Lib Dems in the new government is as reassuring as the presence of a police officer outside a rowdy pub. They will keep order, the thinking goes, and stop the Tory Right running wild. Many are privately going further and among the intelligentsia an incredible thought is taking hold. "Perhaps," they are saying, if only to themselves, "a moderate Conservative-led government is what we wanted all along. It could deliver on causes dear to our heart — proportional representation, greenery and civil liberties — and if in time it offers tax cuts for people like us, well, would that be so bad? We've had years of a Labour government helping the poor, and what do we see: tattooed chavs and feral children bingeing on beer and burgers at our expense. That's hardly an advertisement for social democracy."
As a correspondent put it to me after I had written a firm but, I like to think, fair critique of the new coalition, "Hang about — this lot have cancelled the third runway, scrapped ID cards and promised to stop incarcerating children at Yarl's Wood — not a bad start even though it pains me to say so. I, for one, would rather have the Tories tempered by the Lib Dems than the Tories undiluted. Let's hope it works because we need a different kind of government right now and this is very different."
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