From “The L-Word,” an article about Liberalism by Peter Clarke in The Financial Times (May 14)
Coalition is, of course, a current problem for Liberals. It could be said that every successful political party is itself a coalition, the broader-based the better. This was what gave the Liberal party such traction in British politics in the Gladstonian era; and what sustained the New Liberals of the succeeding generation, with comparable electoral triumphs in the era of Herbert Henry Asquith and Lloyd George, was again the party’s ability to adapt itself to new social forces.
The tacit electoral alliance with the early Labour party was not actually called a coalition, though in some ways it served as such. The point was that, in all but a few constituencies, Liberals and Labour did not oppose each other; and in the House of Commons a Liberal government was sustained by what contemporaries called a Progressive Alliance, including both Liberals and Labour. This is an instructive formula: almost the opposite of the current arrangements, which simultaneously implicate Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats in a basically Tory government while permitting their partners in Westminster to undermine them in the country.
The current failure of this strategy could not have been clearer when, in a referendum held less than a week before the two parties marked a year in coalition on May 11, British voters overwhelmingly rejected the more proportional voting system that Lib-Dems had hoped would be one of their chief rewards.
The contradictions of coalition-building have nowhere been better illustrated than in Canada. Taking their cue from the Gladstonian example, Canadian Liberals emerged as the natural party of government in the 20th century. A broad-based party, it included a business wing that was happily entrenched in both Montreal and Toronto; it included liberals who embraced the politics of the welfare state and of the Keynesian consensus; it meanwhile effected an accommodation with the forces of francophone identity that gave the party a firm base in Quebec. To the frustration alike of Conservatives, Quebec separatists and the social democrats of the New Democratic Party, the Liberals were sitting pretty.
This was the party that drew Michael Ignatieff back to Canada; a man of enormous intellect, quick wit and academic distinction, he was elected as its leader in 2009. Alas, a 30-year absence brought with it several handicaps, one of which was his failure to discern that the Liberals he remembered with such affection no longer existed, as was shown in their decimation in the Canadian general election last week. The card that the Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, played with single-mindedness and undoubted effect was to mock his rivals’ claim to have a broad base and in particular to demonize them as a party that could not govern without seeking coalition partners outside their own ranks.
This is not a good time, then, to celebrate the English-speaking liberal tradition; certainly not to celebrate it with any degree of complacency.