When I was a member of the Young Progressive Democrats many, many moons ago, I used to attend conferences of our sister party the Liberal Democrats. I found them to be very camp (I was just coming out of my homophobic phrase) and also exceptionally left wing. Yet I still felt very comfortable with them, and knew that if I were British I would have been a Lib Dem.
Why? Because I felt that they had a streak of decency in them. But also because they were not an ideologically straitjacketed party. Whereas the Tories were hounding out Heathite liberals and Labour were still working their way through their leftwing Don Quixote moment, the Lib Dems were the middle party. The party of reason.
It is, of course, easier to be like that when you don’t have to be in government. Contact with government for the Lib Dems was not much different from the Irish Greens entry into government: a form of political anaphylactic shock. The Libs Dems, like the Irish Greens a party built on being nice and pure and offering a berth to pretty much anyone with a grievance about the bigger parties, took a hammering. The reality of budgets and choices in office chased away almost all the purists and the fantasists. The grand promises of opposition, like tuition fees, suddenly turn from a banner into a lump hammer to be beaten with.
We now see the real Liberal Democrats, all 7-10% of them. We see a party that has been hardened by government, hopefully more cautious about what it promises, but above all a party that has had a positive impact.
Lower paid workers keep more of their pay-packets. Overseas aid was protected. ID cards were scrapped.
Yes, there have been compromises. Tuition fees. The Bedroom Tax. Political reform. But isn’t that the reality of modern politics? Cameron gets it in the ear from his right about Lib Dem vetoes. Ed Miliband served under Blair, a man despised by the party’s left. But you know what? If you support Proportional Representation then you have to recognise that politics is about compromise. Too many Lib Dems seems to think that PR will magically turn the whole country into nice happy liberals.
The politics of compromise is here to stay, and with Nick Clegg you get a centre party that speaks for the middle and simple liberal values. British politics without the Lib Dems is not better politics, but a politics of the Tories pandering to UKIP and Labour pandering to the SNP and the Greens. Britain needs a middle party, a party that admits that some solutions come from the right and some from the left. Britain needs the Lib Dems to survive.
Am I disappointed by Nick? Of course. But one party has to stand up, in particular, for Europe and the idea of Europe. I watched him debate Farage on the EU, and Farage clearly won, firing out one witty pub-friendly quip after another. Nick was all facts and boring statistics and the truth. It was boring and not funny. But it was the truth, and someone in British politics has got to stand up to The Daily Mail and The Daily Express and say yes, Europe is worth saving.