Saturday, April 04, 2015

Election Choices

The achievements of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats in government have been remarkable. In the face of an economic crisis where many commentators were predicting the economic collapse of the UK, the coalition has taken decisions which have left the country in far better shape than they found it. Britain has performed better than almost all its peers, and there is little doubt, that in raising the tax threshold and defeating the SNP referendum to break up the UK, it has been Liberal Democrats who have been the first out of the trenches. Liberal Democrat ministers, from Ed Davey to Steve Webb, to David Laws, have proven to be better informed, better prepared and far more effective than their Conservative colleagues. From the point of view of managerial efficiency, the Liberal Democrats have undoubtedly proven that they have all the requisite skills and more to deliver effective government of this country.

So it is more than a little frustrating to see the party continue to languish at single figures in the opinion polls. Even more so when one considers the contrasting support for UKIP and the Greens. The astonishingly cavalier approach of UKIP MEPs shows a profound contempt for the voters who pay them. The number cases of outright corruption, even criminality that has afflicted UKIP suggests that the party is completely unqualified for elected office, and their major policy- withdrawal from the European Union- is now supported by an ever dwindling bunch of fruit cakes. As for the Greens, their declared anti-growth politics are simply Luddite and would lead to social and economic chaos- and wouldn't even achieve the protection of the environment that they say they want.

As for the Conservatives and Labour, the shouting match over such issues as the NHS is simply dishonest. The Health Service may well be entering a crisis, but it is not an issue of "Tory cuts", as Labour would have you believe: the crisis is structural and very long term. The solutions are not merely financial, they are highly complex and will involve taking difficult decisions- perhaps charging for hospital food, for example, or major restructuring of primary care- including changing the way we train GPs, to take another example. The campaign attempts at scaremongering so cheapens the debate as to make it irrelevant to the future of the NHS or anything else for that matter.

Meanwhile the elephant in the living room remains the urgent need to rearm in the face of the aggression of Putin's Russia. Not one politician has admitted the implications of Putin's war in Ukraine must include preparing to defend ourselves and our NATO allies from attack by the criminal in the Kremlin. The impact of this necessary- indeed critical- expenditure has been minimized or ignored completely- a truly appalling dereliction of duty, especially when in private all sides admit that there is a serious problem.

The tax crisis in the UK is also simply ignored- at a time when HMRC employs more people than our entire armed forces and when the costs of tax administration are approaching £50 billion, and when the rules are simply too complicated to be fairly enforced, it is absurd that the subject is not even being tackled. The whole catastrophic  situation is reduced to "scrounger vs tax dodger", and the real issues are ignored. The system is so broken that inevitably more and more are seeking to opt out- and this crisis of legitimacy will get worse. When even the HMRC itself uses tax sheltering schemes, you know the crisis has arrived.

So the election campaign has started in a cloud of delusion. The so-called leaders debates were irrelevant beauty contests, which have taken place so early in the campaign precisely in order to limit their impact. In any event it is hard to believe that such an over-rehearsed and stilted media event could have any impact at all. The politicians seem so scared of putting a foot wrong, that they lack all conviction.

Yet I know that Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats- for all their now vaunted managerial efficiency- do not lack conviction. The conviction to continue to press for major constitutional reform remains at the heart of the party; the conviction to press for a fairer tax system, and the courage to face down Putin- all of this I know that Nick Clegg possesses. I just want to hear the Liberal Democrats articulate their distinctive vision of freedom and fairness in a way that connects- because the consequences of the eclipse of the Liberal Democrats will be far more serious for Britain than all but the most prescient commentators now suggest. 

So in my brief trip back to the UK over Easter I am now off to deliver some leaflets on behalf of Martin Horwood, and I hope that the British people can recover their faith in the Liberal Democrats sufficiently to recognize that they have been and remain a force for good in British politics.

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