It’s 10 years since the Lib Dem-Tory austerity coalition birthed Brexit and our brutal tribalism
Last weekend, in a sterling attempt to keep the political nerds out from under everyone else’s feet, the BBC Parliament channel kindly laid on a repeat of their coverage of the 2010 general election. The whole thing: from exit poll to exhausted speculation about the mathematics necessary to forge a coalition, in what transpired to be the first hung parliament since 1974. It was only ten years ago this month, yet had the sheen of antiquity you generally associate with Boxing Day movies: It Could Have Been a Wonderful Life perhaps.
No surprise, Ifan Morgan Jones (of this parish) was watching too. Once the bulk of the results were in, and daylight had broken over the hollow-eyed pundits in the studio, he tweeted: “they’ve begun discussing coalitions and I’m yelling ‘no, don’t do it!’ at the LibDems as if they were a teenage couple sneaking into a haunted house in a horror movie.”
Ah, the LibDems. Remember them? They were huge news ten years ago. After the first-ever leaders’ debate in British election history, “I agree with Nick” Clegg’s party soared in the polls, topping a few. On the weekend after that debate, the Sunday Times declared that according to their polling, Clegg was the most popular British political leader since Churchill (the prime minister that is, not the nodding dog; that was to come much later at Facebook).
The election night coverage was all about the LibDems. When the exit poll was published as the clocks struck ten, the only talking point was that no-one believed its prediction of the party actually losing seats. How the pundits, normally so right about almost nothing, scoffed at that one. But it was true: for all the heady Cleggmania, they slipped back, even managing to lose Montgomeryshire, a seat that they’d held continuously (bar four years) since 1880.
Despite the setback, they were still the focus of discussion for days, as the Tories and Labour both wooed them furiously. Nick Clegg fluttered like a heroine in a Victorian melodrama, before spurning Gordon ‘Heathcliff’ Brown, and caving in to the wily charms of David ‘Flashman’ Cameron. After professing undying love in the number 10 rose garden, Flashman took Clegg home and inflicted years of psychological torture on him, and on us all. He was always careful to leave no visible scars.
Was this when the die was cast for the horrible mess that is our politics today? There is a case to be made, I think. Of course, there would still be a pandemic regardless of who was in government, and ‘populism’, that slithery codeword for assorted shades of actual fascism, would still have risen all over the globe. But 2010 marked a watershed, and it’s one that’s worth unpicking.
Firstly, it did for the LibDems. In some ways, they deserved it, for their utter hubris: that they could buck two hundred years of history and somehow tame the Tory party, the most ruthless political machine in western Europe; that they were fobbed off so easily with nonsense like the AV referendum; that many of them so clearly loved the baubles of power way more than its judicious application.
Trouble is though, they took down with them (at least in the short term) the flame of liberalism, one needed so much right now, but which is sputtering badly in these harsh winds. They gave Cameron an easy run and six clear years to demonise and then decimate the public sector, the effects of which we are so painfully grappling with in the current emergency. The coalition gave Farage and his fellow travellers all the oxygen they could handle and more; it birthed Brexit and the brutal tribalism that went with it.
In Wales, the 2010 election inadvertently acted as a catalyst for another key ingredient in the unpalatable political diet of the past decade, the endlessly circular blame game. A new Conservative-LibDem coalition at Westminster coincided with the final year of a Labour-Plaid coalition in Cardiff Bay; suddenly, everyone – and no-one – was in power. It was a perfect storm for scapegoating, and through the middle sailed the wreckers. They couldn’t believe their luck.
Yet those were the nice guys, and the good old days! Since 2016 the Tories have shape-shifted into an even freakier monster. They’ve eaten UKIP and the Brexit party alive, their full banquet of fruitcakes and racists included, made ever more explicit their fundamental dislike of devolution, booted out anyone with experience or a bit of a conscience, sold what was left of their soul to the darkest operatives in the game, and in December, filled parliament with people so grim, any contact will have you wanting to scrub your hands for hours. On that at least perhaps, they seemed to know what was coming.