The strange death of Liberal principles.
This morning Nick Clegg promised "savage cuts" to public spending, and by nightfall it was becoming clear they would fall at least partly on students. Well, it's not a cut to abandon a spending pledge, but it will certainly feel like one to students and would-be students.
Apparently the pledge would cost "billions every year". When Charlie Kennedy was promoting the idea, though, the price was just £700m a year. At least one Liberal leader is clearly lying here, unless the cost really has trebled since then. Thank goodness they worked with us and the Nats at Holyrood to abolish fees last year - just in time, it seems.
Seven months ago Clegg was on the record confirming their commitment to abolish fees in England and Wales. In February he said he knew "that young people will be hit hardest by the recession". What can have changed?
The mood at Westminster is what. The big boys are having a discussion about cuts, so he's got to join in. They're equidistant from Labour and the Tories in principle, however contradictory that may be. If both those parties are tacking to the right and preparing to slash services for the poor, he'll have to be right in the middle of it all.
Despite today's foolish (and politically inept) decision, he went on to claim that they'll go into the next election with "the best, most progressive package for students of any mainstream party". What?!
It's obviously too painful or strategically inadvisable for a Liberal politician ever to admit that the Greens and the Nats are mainstream parties. This is a stunt they pull with tiresome regularity, and I'm sure a hundred years ago they were doing it to Labour. Sometimes the media play along, as with this example on Trident.
Again, neither the Greens nor even the elected Government of Scotland count as mainstream by this logic, despite Trident being based in Scotland. In another instance they even claim to be the only mainstream party consistently concerned with civil liberties.
This mantra about being the only "mainstream party" to oppose Trident, the Iraq War (which was a particular lie), tuition fees, etc, etc, simply decodes as a claim that Labour and the Tories are equally dire on these issues. Is that really much to crow about?
My absolute favourite is this, though. "At the same we are the only mainstream party which continues to put the environment at the front and centre of our political massage (sic)". Leaving aside the unintentional honesty there (which will probably be fixed shortly), the gall there is extraordinary.
While the rest of the UK hasn't been governed by the Liberals since Lloyd George knew your father, we did have Liberal Ministers from 1999 to 2007, Ministers who made some of the most egregious and anti-environmental decisions taken in Scotland since the 1960s. Their specialities included motorway building and GM crop planting, alongside other hypocrisies like tuition fee renaming and ID card abstention.
Their 2007 manifesto had ten pages dedicated to the environment, although three of them were full-page photos of grass and snow and stuff. Surely this greenest of all the mainstream parties would have some achievements to cheer about from eight years in power?
Not much. In all this verbiage ("They may be only the tip of the morbidity iceberg") there are just two references to any actual achievements in this area:
* £20 million invested in "public sector energy efficiency"
* "recycling rates have trebled under the Liberal Democrats" (although what they did to achieve this wonder isn't stated)
To be fair, they did a bit better on funding marine renewables than their SNP successors, too. But, unlike the Romans, that really is the lot.
Contrast these baby steps with the massive expansion of the motorway network Liberal Ministers forced through. It's in the manifesto, albeit disguised as a pledge to "implement the current planned road infrastructure investment". Presumably they wanted us to believe it was just some minor frippery they happened to inherit.
For years I met English friends who genuinely believed that the Liberals had abolished fees in Scotland, and that they were like a more organised version of the Greens. Plausible, perhaps, if you've never been governed by them, if you overlook their lust for privatisation.
It won't wash in Scotland, though. I almost hope the English have to put up with Liberal Ministers. Perhaps then we'd start to see more pieces like this: the New Statesman's great exposé of Vince Cable, which points out he was just as enthusiastic a deregulator as those he now criticises. And that he was happy to work for Shell in the mid-1990s during the period they were accused of complicity in the murder of Ogoni activists (Ken Saro-Wiwa pictured). Enough said.