Probably all of us who hold (to one degree or another) a partisan political stance are sometimes guilty of making mischief at another party's expense when we know that the true position is at least marginally more nuanced than we care to let on. But my conscience is clear on that score over the last 36 hours or so - I've been genuinely dumbfounded not only by the extent of devastation that is being wreaked on the poorest and most vulnerable in society, but more particularly by the Orwellian attempts to pretend that black is white and that "those with the broadest shoulders are bearing the greatest burden". I had a rare chat about politics with my mother this evening, and her final comment to me was this - "the truly frightening thing is that they're in for the next five years". Well, perhaps - but that isn't a future that's yet set in stone. And this time the people who ultimately get to choose whether it comes to pass aren't the headbanger No Turning Back brigade of the Tory right, but a group of people who for the most part actually care about social justice - the Lib Dem rank-and-file. So, knowing what they now know, why wouldn't they seize the opportunity to put a stop to the horrors that lie in wait?
We've heard all the rationalisations by now. "Coalition is about compromise, not about getting everything you believe in" - OK, but what if the Liberal Democrats could have delivered more of their principles through a cooperative and hardheaded approach to politics outside this government? A more limited confidence-and-supply deal with the Tories would have left them free to join a principled ad hoc alliance with Labour, the nationalist parties and the Greens to vote down the most gratuitously vicious of the welfare cuts announced on Wednesday. As for "we don't want to do this, but we had no choice", that argument is always the last resort of the political scoundrel. Just because the government had to do something about the deficit, it doesn't somehow follow that singling out the very poorest as the group to be squeezed until the pips squeak was unavoidable. That was a choice, and to pretend otherwise not only insults the intelligence of the electorate, it insults the intelligence of those otherwise decent Lib Dems who are frantically pretending to themselves. If they look at this CSR at it truly is, and not the Hollywood version in which glossy graphics are always at hand to magically prove it's all very progressive, can they honestly say that this is what they entered politics to achieve? More pertinently, can they say that it doesn't in many senses represent the polar opposite of what they entered politics to achieve?
And if Scottish Lib Dem members were looking for reassurance last night as their consciences and opinion poll ratings started to prick, they certainly wouldn't have found it in Michael Moore's excruciating appearance on Newsnight Scotland. His remarkable ignorance about (and disinterest in) the impact of the welfare cuts in his designated patch has of course been well-documented, but something else also leapt out at me. When Gordon Brewer asked him if someone on Employment and Support Allowance in a deprived part of Glasgow would have their money cut off if they'd failed to get back into work after one year in spite of their most genuine endeavours, Moore said this -
"we are not going to allow a situation where people get trapped on benefit for year after year"
Bearing in mind the context in which he gave that answer, the only possible inference to draw is that Moore's curious idea of "liberating" people from being trapped on benefit is simply to remove their benefit regardless of whether they have work or not (or indeed any means of properly supporting themselves at all). Of course, there are some on the right of politics who genuinely believe in the brutal logic that if you leave people to sink or swim, many will find a way of swimming. There may even be a grain of truth in that - but inherent in that logic is that if some are bound to sink rather than swim, that's a price worth paying. Again, is that really typical of the values that most Lib Dems came into politics to further? For the Orange Book tendency now at the apex of the party the answer may well be yes, but what about the rest?