Last Thursday, I tuned in to the first televised debate in British history featuring leaders of the the two major parties--Labour and the Conservatives--alongside that of perpetual also-rans the Liberal Democrats. In one sense these debates mean little since you can't directly vote for party leaders in the Westminster system. At any rate, there was Gordon "British Jobs for British Workers" Brown and David "Are You Thinking What We're Thinking?" Cameron (see here) alongside the still-obscure-to-the-public-at-large guy Nick Clegg. I generally thought that Nick Clegg came across best in the debate, but that was just my bias, perhaps. What I didn't expect was that so many others agreed as well. The UK's most widely-read tabloid was quick to pour cold water on a poll it had commissioned indicating that the Liberal Democrats had taken the lead: 33% to the Conservatives' 32% and Labour bringing up the rear with 28%. Remember, owner of The Sun Rupert Murdoch famously switched allegiances from New Labour to Cameron.
What riles both Conservatives and The Sun is that scare tactics on their favourite topics--Europe and migration--fail to dent Clegg. There was Tory Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague saying that a vote for Clegg was a vote for a the "European super-state." More power to Clegg and here is my take on why Liberal Democrats matter for international relations:
1. Liberal Democrats are pro-Europe, not Atlanticist: the death of the odious notion of a UK-US "special relationship" was long overdue. Like most of the rest of the world, even Britons are getting sick of America and the increasingly bankrupt way of life it represents. The Brits tried being just like America and see where it got them. Precisely nowhere--just like America. Still, Labour cannot adequately distance itself from Blair's fawning and Brown's refusal to disown the party's poodling era. The Conservatives would undoubtedly be worse in this respect given its Atlanticist leanings.
And so the Liberal Democrats are the real alternative. Nick Clegg is a solid Europhile. He even met his wife while serving as a Minister of European Parliament. While he is realistic in not wanting to put the matter of euro adoption up for immediate referendum, it definitely should be a long-term aspiration as he states:
We must look not only within Britain for new ideas, but to our neighbours in Europe. And that means keeping an open mind about whether Britain would be better off in the long run as a member of the single currency...We have to be open to ideas that might help, including a move into the eurozone. I am not suggesting we could or should join the euro today. It is neither possible nor desirable in the teeth of an escalating crisis...2. Liberal Democrats are pro-diversity: the Conservatives are increasingly unrepresentative of modern Britain with their nearly lily-white leadership. They have only one black MP. Unlike Labour and the Conservatives, Lib Dems are not prone to making racially-charged slogans.
And then there is public perception. I have no illusion regarding how unpopular the euro is. The euro should never be introduced in Britain without public consent confirmed in a referendum. But its unpopularity is heavily based on a perception of its inferiority. It was easy to dismiss the fledgling euro as a "toilet currency" before we realised our own economic growth was built on sand. Of course, the euro is no panacea to all our problems. The eurozone will be hit hard by this crisis too, and some of the smaller, weaker eurozone countries are especially vulnerable.
But given the gravity of the economic crisis in Britain, and our unique exposure to international financial markets, silence about the euro must end. The future has never been more uncertain. People are increasingly desperate for stability in our economic affairs. We must be ready to think anew.
3. Liberal Democrats abhor Anglo-Saxonomics: before last Thursday's debate, Nick Clegg was always the question mark while Shadow Chancellor Vince Cable was the well-respected and established face of the Liberal Democrats. At the height of New Labour's American-style financial folly, Vince Cable questioned then-Chancellor Gordon Brown's highly leveraged claim to success. His book, The Storm, lays things bare:
It was November 2003 and Gordon Brown was in his pomp. Alone among the major developed nations, Britain had sailed on through the global downturn that followed the collapse of the late 1990s dotcom bubble. The chancellor liked to boast of the strength of the public finances and of how he had abolished boom and bust. He was certainly in no mood to take any lip from Vince Cable, the Treasury spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, when he had the temerity to suggest in parliament that the only reason Britain appeared to be doing so well was that consumers were taking advantage of rising house prices to borrow as if there were no tomorrow.There are 17 days (cue Prince and the Revolution) now left. I am positively giddy as it's as if I've entered an alternate universe with the political equivalent of Aston Villa fighting for the premiership alongside megamoney teams. Go figure; maybe this really is the storm that Vince Cable wrote about that can bring the Lib Dems at least into a coalition government as it is increasingly unlikely for a majority to emerge. Labour leadership is already paving the way for one. How I love to be proven wrong! A hung parliament would certainly be worth it if Cable can become chancellor in a coalition government. At any rate, a new folk hero is emerging as Clegg is approaching Winston Churchill-like popularity. Even Howard Dean is claiming partial credit for this turn of events.
The response from Brown was an object lesson in complacency and hubris: "The honourable gentleman has been writing articles in the newspapers, as reflected in his contribution, that spread alarm, without substance, about the state of the British economy."
Sometimes, the nice guys don't finish last. Euroscepticism, Atlanticism, and xenophobia are the products of fear and ignorance. Let the Liberal Democrats show us another way.