Liberal Democrats in Coalition – the answer is still time will tell…

In the Observer today is an editorial entitled “How should we judge Clegg’s eventful year?” which basically describes the pitfalls and triumphs the Lib Dems have had this past twelve months. With a subtitle:

Though he’s easy to vilify, the deputy prime minister warrants some applause for showing that a coalition government can work

The editorial goes on to describe some of the negative and notably positive highlights:

The Lib Dems are a serious force in government. That statement would have sounded implausible two years ago. When the coalition was formed, the old habits of dismissing Lib Dem capability led many to presume their ministers would serve only as window dressing. In fact, their influence is pervasive, as many Conservatives bitterly acknowledge.

That irritation is caused in part by Mr Cameron using coalition as an excuse to jettison or change orthodox Conservative policies that proved impractical in government. Tory hostility towards the European Union has been softened; the party’s manifesto pledge to scrap the Human Rights Act has effectively been dropped; rigid anti-immigration measures have been amended to accommodate the economic realities of the labour market.

Liberal tendencies in Tory thinking have also been empowered, chiefly at the Justice Department, where Ken Clarke’s “rehabilitation revolution” has given him honorary Lib Dem status.

Pressure to make allowances for the Lib Dems is felt in every department in a process that the junior coalition partner likes to present as improvements and the senior partner sees as meddling, or sometimes sabotage. In compensation for their suffering over tuition fees, the Lib Dems won the right to bully universities into recruiting more state school students. They have diluted cuts to welfare and, trading on public outrage, helped salvage some sixth-form student grants. They have been instrumental in forcing a rethink of controversial NHS reform plans.

Meanwhile, Lib Dem MPs point disoriented and demoralised members to aspects of their own programme that are already enacted. There is a “pupil premium” that diverts money to schools that teach children from the poorest families – albeit from dwindling budgets. A decision on renewing Trident has been deferred. There is a referendum on electoral reform. A freedom bill is being passed that undoes some of the offences against civil liberties perpetrated by the last government.

One of the defining features in last month’s budget – raising the tax threshold for low earners – was the enactment of a Lib Dem manifesto commitment…

…In swapping nebulous opposition for hard power, the Lib Dems paid a heavy price in integrity. They draw some comfort from the growing tally of things they can claim to have done with that power. Not least is demonstrating that coalition can be an effective and stable form of government, in defiance of predictions that it was a certain recipe for disaster and alien to our indigenous political culture.

That is a substantial shift in British politics and a healthy one. The Lib Dems are building a claim to have authored many other changes in policy and society. Only time can prove the significance of those changes. But for all his mistakes, Mr Clegg has surely earned the right to make the case, in due course, that some of them are for the better.

To those who are still doubting the coalition decision made last May, the answer is still time will tell, but for one I’m still being positive!!


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