by Kevin Meagher
Poor old Rowan Williams. He is a decent man who deserves a break. Instead, all he gets is to see the Church of England fall apart on his watch. Last week’s general synod saw yet further attempts to bandage the gaping wounds in the Anglican communion. They go deep: divisions over fundamental points of theology; a pervasive sense that they have lost their way and are on the cusp of being eaten up by a larger rival.
Nick Clegg, the cherubic but rather less devout leader of the Liberal Democrats, faces parallel problems: simmering internal discord and an existential crisis about his party’s future. But Clegg does not deserve a break. He is the architect of the afflictions that beset his tribe.
Just as women bishops were inevitable once the general synod voted to allow the ordination of women clergy back in 1992, so, too, it should be a short journey of logic for the Lib Dems to realise that supporting a right-wing Tory government leads to VAT hikes, benefit cuts and scorched earth public services.
Despite the pervasive threats to his organisation, Rowan Williams’ emollient circumlocutions keep the show on the road. Clegg’s line to his own party, however, is now much tougher: welcome to coalition politics. Compromise is now a way of life. Deal with it.?And for hitherto allies on the left, Clegg is equally disabusing. He used his recent Hugo Young Memorial Lecture to slam the door in the face of Labour ecumenists. “Old progressives” he opined, “emphasise the power and spending of the central state”. In contrast, shiny “new progressives” focus on “the power and freedom of citizens”.
Make no mistake, such blather signals a major realignment of British politics. The real message of the speech was clear: no deals with Labour; the Tory-Liberal coalition is here to stay. Clegg’s attempted reformation seeks to turn the concept of progressivism inside out: state bad, market good. He has to. He needs intellectual cover to disguise the soulless, personal ambition of Lib Dem ministers as something altogether grander. But it is too late. Everyone can see that they have learned to love big brother.
The odd trivial policy concession cannot abjure the Tory-Lib Dem coalition’s theology, which is unquestionably orthodox, small state, neo-liberal Tory. Clegg’s role is now sealed as their useful idiot; providing cross-party cover for the birth of neo-Thatcherism. He can make all the speeches he wants, the die is cast.
So who will save the Lib Dems? Who will be their Thomas More and put duty to God before King? Like his leader, St. Vincent of Cable has opted to embrace orthodoxy too. But he has the decency to at least look like a man who has to whip himself with bark twigs to eradicate impure thoughts. Instead, it falls to Simon Hughes, the Lib Dems’ deputy leader, to adjudicate where political pragmatism and heresy intersect for his party. If he does not lead the counter-reformation within the Liberal Democrats, they are doomed. Unfortunately, the avuncular Mr Hughes is about as lethal as a supply teacher with a stammer.
So, like the Anglican church, the Lib Dems risk sliding inexorably towards the jaws of an old rival. Labour does not have to conspire to steal Lib Dem support; their voters will seek out the mother party themselves. Faddism about Mr. Clegg’s “reinvented progressivism” will give way to Labour’s moral absolutist version of progressive politics once Madame Guillotine lands on the nape of our public services.
Clegg can ape the language, but true progressivism is about active redistribution, using the power of the state to improve life chances and promoting social harmony. You simply cannot believe in any of that yoked to a party that believes in regressive economics, the endurance of old elites and the undeserving poor.
We are promised further musings from Mr Clegg on his new creed in the new year. The question is: how many of his flock will still be in their pews when his homilies of the absurd are done?
Kevin Meagher is a campaign consultant and former adviser to Labour ministers.