Britain: Resurgence Of The Thatcherites? – OpEd


By Neil Berry

In the run-up to the 2010 British General Election, the leader of the minority Liberal Democratic Party, Nick Clegg, sold himself as a genial plain-dealer, a politician irked by the tribalism of Britain’s dominant Conservative and Labour parties and determined to eschew the media manipulation for which the Labour prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown became notorious.

When Clegg became deputy prime minister in the Conservative-led coalition government of Prime Minister David Cameron, Liberal Democrats looked forward to being a power in the land for the first time since the decline of the historic British Liberal Party in the early part of the 20th century. The fact was that the Conservatives had simply not polled enough votes to be able to govern without their support.

Two years on, what most observers see is a Liberal Democrat leadership that has let itself be cynically used by Cameron to take the blame for the divisive austerity measures introduced by his government to tackle Britain’s deficit. The impression that Clegg is a wide-eyed innocent who invites contemptuous treatment was compounded this December when, without even consulting him, Cameron struck a crowd-pleasing “British bulldog” attitude and exercised his veto to exempt Britain from European Union plans to establish a “fiscal compact” involving all its member states. Cameron could not have humiliated Clegg more completely, for there is scarcely anything about which the Liberal Democrats set greater store than constructive engagement by Britain with the rest of Europe.

So effectively has Clegg lined himself up as Cameron’s fall guy you could be forgiven for thinking that his whole raison d’etre is to serve as a stooge. Unable to accomplish any of his leading campaign objectives, he has robbed his party of very nearly all credibility. In the matter of Europe, the Liberal Democrats’ boast was that they would deter Cameron from indulging the “Europhobic” section of the Conservative Party, which would dearly like Britain to say a definitive goodbye to the European Union and which, by virtue of its size, Cameron has no choice but to placate. In the event, Cameron courted the plaudits of the Europhobes with impunity.

The ease with which Clegg was brushed aside over Europe could be big with consequences, since Cameron’s anti-European stance has won more than a little public support. Following his veto, the Conservative Party has gained a small but potentially decisive opinion poll lead over the Labour Party, whose leader Ed Miliband has conspicuously failed to establish his plausibility as a future prime minister. As things stand, Cameron could fight a general election with a sporting chance of winning an outright majority and absolving himself of the need to cooperate with the Liberal Democrats at all. For him to call an early election would be a gamble but it is astonishing that he is in a position even to contemplate such a thing at a time of soaring unemployment and unremittingly grim economic news.

Meanwhile, all the indications are that the Liberal Democrat vote faces terminal collapse. Yet precisely because their electoral prospects look so dim, the Liberal Democrats dare not challenge Cameron except rhetorically. Once there was a British pop group called “The Zombies” whose name was belied by their life-enhancing melodies. Now, in Clegg and his fellow “Lib Dems”, Britain has a political party that deserves to be so named, though few can be bothered even to listen to their tunes.

Clegg is seen by many as a disastrous politician, one whose malign influence stretches far beyond the damage he has done to his own party.

It is his extraordinary guilelessness that has done much to strengthen Conservative Europhobes, the very people whose parochial, intolerant “little Englander” values Liberal Democrats purportedly most abhor. Nor is it any consolation to those dismayed by this development that, at a moment of acute crisis for the whole European Union, national isolationism threatens to become widespread. In Britain, the prospect looms of the political agenda being reclaimed by the hard right, the unappeasable heirs to Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative prime minister of the 1980s who championed free markets and sought to transform Britain into a US-style “enterprise culture”, even as she exuded nostalgia for the white imperial Britain of yesteryear. Certainly, Cameron’s veto has greatly emboldened anti-European Conservatives who regard Germany in particular as the enemy and who in their heads are forever fighting World War II.

What underpinned the Conservative hegemony in Britain in the 1980s and 90s was the chronic disarray of the Conservatives’ opponents, who included not just the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats’ forerunners, the Social Democrats but moderate members of the Conservative Party. If the miscellaneous opposition to the radical right fails to unite as it did then, Britain could be subjected afresh to protracted rule by xenophobic neo-Thatcherite ideologues, with dire implications for the country’s minorities, not least Muslims, and for social cohesion in general.

Under David Cameron, Britain is already experiencing renewed Thatcherite insistence on private enterprise, though there is little sign of the private sector being able to restore Britain’s fortunes. Indeed, far from having a galvanizing effect, excessive reliance on it may throttle the remaining life out of the stricken British economy. At the same time, the resurgence of the Thatcherites could accelerate both Britain’s exit from the European Union and the break-up of the United Kingdom itself, for there is little liking in Scotland and Wales for the English nationalism and neo-liberal economics epitomized by Conservative Europhobes. Such an outcome would signal the historic contraction of London as a centre of political power. Renewed long-term exposure to Thatcherism might even mean Britain’s demise as a social democracy enshrining the old Liberal Party’s commitment to individual liberty and the compassionate state.

It is not just the Liberal Democrats who are at risk of becoming indistinguishable from zombies. Thanks in no small measure to their crashingly inept leader, the whole of Britain is in danger of turning into a zombified zone.

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