Timothy Garton Ash: This Could Be the Most Pivotal Election in British History





[Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European studies at Oxford University.]

This time, vote Liberal Democrat. Vote Liberal wherever you can. Vote Liberal as if your life depended on it. Vote Liberal if you want a transformed politics and a modern, free country with a realistic view of its place in the world. No matter if you didn't last time; no matter if you won't next time. This time: seize the chance. Take the risk.

I say this as someone who has never belonged to any political party and who, as an independent writer, intends to keep it that way. I say it as a lifelong liberal (small l) who finds elements of genuine liberalism in all the main British parties. Blair-Brown Labour has huge swaths of modern egalitarian liberalism, as well as nasty pockets of authoritarianism. On civil liberties, the Conservatives' Dominic Grieve seems to me more genuinely liberal – in the core sense of prizing individual liberty as the highest political value – than all Labour's home secretaries put together. When it comes to clawing back some of the freedom that we have lost over the last 20 years, under both Conservative and Labour governments, the Liberals are, unsurprisingly, the most liberal of them all. No other party has a freedom bill. Their European policy is also the best for Britain's long-term, enlightened self-interest.

But this time the individual policies are not the main issue. That's true even of the economy. There are differences between the parties as to where spending cuts and tax rises should hit hardest. There's the question of competence, on which I'd put both Vince Cable and Alistair Darling before George Osborne. But all are committed to a social market economy; all want a strong welfare state; all will have to cut public spending and raise taxes more drastically than they have begun to acknowledge. Forget all this partisan talk of savage cuts. Savage cuts are what you're going to get, whoever wins.

It does not stop there. Beyond paying the price for the follies of casino capitalism over the last two decades, we face the huge secular challenge of an economically booming, low-wage, high-skill Asia, and the imperative of greening our whole economy and way of life. To sustain such a wrenching economic and social transformation over the next decade, we need a different kind of politics – with broader popular support and strategic continuity. The kind you could get, for example, with a coalition government that represents two-thirds of voters, rather than a Conservative or Labour government representing only one-third.

This is where the Liberal Democrats are pivotal. It's not the detail of their policies, nor their leader, although he's pretty good too. It's because they are the third party and, under our current system, putting a third party into the kingmaker position is the only way we're going to change that system....


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