A recent political anecdote passed most people by; it is the story told by Donald Tusk that David Cameron thought that being in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats would prevent his proposed referendum from going ahead. He was therefore able to say he would call a referendum to try to hold his Conservative party together, but was quite confident that the Lib Dems would block him when he tried to carry it out. That way he would avoid having to have the referendum, but not take the blame for it. Donald Tusk relates the story:
“I asked David Cameron, ‘Why did you decide on this referendum, this — it’s so dangerous, so even stupid, you know,’ and, he told me — and I was really amazed and even shocked — that the only reason was his own party, [he told me] he felt really safe, because he thought at the same time that there’s no risk of a referendum, because, his coalition partner, the Liberals, would block this idea of a referendum. But then, surprisingly, he won and there was no coalition partner. So paradoxically David Cameron became the real victim of his own victory.”
At the next election, traditional Lib Dem voters punished the party for what they saw as the betrayal committed when they allowed the coalition government to raise tuition fees for university students, a policy they had promised to oppose. Consequently, the Liberal Democrats were not in coalition with the next Conservative government, and were not there to stop Cameron from carrying out his promise to hold a referendum.
You could therefore argue that the anger of Lib Dem voters over tuition fees opened the way up for Brexit to happen. If they had formed another coalition with the Conservatives they would have continued to be in a position to moderate Conservative government. Without the balancing power of the Lib Dems in a coalition, instead the Conservative party has veered to the right, and formed an effective coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party, a party that could not be more different from the Liberal Democrats.
With the benefit of hindsight, this was a massive own goal for pro-Europe, centrist, Liberals. It shows the danger of focussing too much on just one issue, in this case tuition fees, and not looking at the bigger picture — the compromise of being in power through a coalition versus not being in power at all.
In politics, especially in coalition, compromises are necessary. I would argue that the Liberal Democrats knew this when they formed a coalition with the Conservatives. Of course they had to compromise, but they also brought Lib Dem values into government, and helped keep the Conservative government on a more centrist trajectory. We can see from the post-coalition Conservative governments what un-hindered Conservative rule is like, and by contrast how much the Lib Dems helped temper it.
It would have been wise of angry Lib Dems to vent their anger, but to continue to support their party. That would have acknowledged that some of the compromises within the coalition were a betrayal of Liberal values, but overall that the coalition was a better option than a pure Conservative government. It was myopic not to see that bigger picture, as history has shown.
The lesson from all this, moving forward, is to look at the bigger picture. Rather than getting obsessed by single issues, it would be sensible to look at the general direction of politics. If you think like I do, then right now, supporting any centrist, pro-European party would be better than getting caught up in policy details. Vote for the general flavour of politics, rather than the specific ingredients.
This becomes interesting with the growing list of Labour and Tory MPs leaving their parties to sit as an independent group. Traditionally in British politics a smaller third party, or a new party, cannot win an election. But as the Liberal Democrat experience in the coalition, and more recently the DUP influence over May’s government have shown, even without proportional representation, it is possible for a third party to affect national policy.
The new Independent group already have more seats in parliament than the DUP or the Liberal Democrats. If they combined with the Lib Dems, and grew in numbers, they might be able to form a coalition with one of the main parties, and could therefore have as much sway in the future as the ERG and DUP have today. Just as those two groups have pulled British politics to the Right, and away from Europe, a strong vote for a large group of Independents, or a new Centrist party drawn from that group, could force a government to be less radical (left or right) and more pro-Europe.
It is important that centrist, liberal, pro-European voters think long and hard about how anger over tuition fees may have helped lead to Brexit. Being less angry, more pragmatic, and more strategic could lead to a new force in parliament that would be able to temper a future Labour or Conservative government, which would be a good thing for the country.