Jeremy John Durham Ashdown must be laughing his butt off these days. In the 11 years that “Paddy” was head of the Liberal Democrat Party of the United Kingdom, he worked to elevate the Lib-Dems to full third-party status and make them “kingmakers” in parliamentary elections. He certainly came close, increasing the number of Lib-Dem members of parliament, but was thwarted in his ambitions by Tony Blair and the Labour Party’s landslide victory in 1997. It would be Nick Clegg in 2010 who would achieve what Ashdown dreamed of – the power to chose the winner in the parliamentary election, the power to chose to next Prime Minister. The Conservatives only took 305 seats, not the 324 needed for majority. Labour took 253. Lib-Dem held 57. Labour would have needed a coalition with the Lib-Dems and at least two of the minor parties to achieve majority, but the Conservatives only needed Clegg.
But Nick Clegg traded political power for the soul of his party and forgot what the word “liberal” means. He chose coalition with David Cameron and the Conservatives and was named Deputy Prime Minister, positioned several members of his party on the Cameron cabinet. The party has been paying for that decision ever since. Paddy Ashdown was the man who famously told his party at their 1997 convention “Taxes are the price of civilization.” Supporting a conservative agenda of austerity, tax breaks for the wealthy and severe cuts in social programs is not the Lib-Dem way. Those policies have plunged the United Kingdom into a double-dip recession.
Clegg has chosen a symbolic issue to defy Cameron on – a vote calling for action concerning the involvement of Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture and Media with the hacking and political influence scandals swirling around Rupert Murdoch and his News International Corp. Clegg has informed his party members that they will abstain from voting when the vote on a Labour motion for an inquiry into Hunt’s activities is called. The Conservatives have enough votes without the Lib-Dems to kill the motion, so Clegg’s decision to have his party abstain will not effect the vote.
The Murdoch scandal has tainted both the Conservatives and Labour. Former Prime Minister John Major has testified that he was literally told by Rupert Murdoch to change his European policy or face the consequences of losing his news organization’s support. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has a long history of association with Murdoch as well. Cameron appointed a Murdoch man to his cabinet. The list of meetings, coercions, arm-twistings, briberies and influence peddling keeps unfolding like the layers of an onion. What started as an investigation of a Murdoch newspaper paying a private investigator who hacked into the cell phone of a dead teenager, seriously disrupting the investigation into her disappearance, has turned into a scandal the likes of which Great Britain hasn’t seen since the days of pocket boroughs.
Clegg lacks Ashdown’s political killer instincts. He looks at the current situation and sees his party losing influence and possibly losing seats in the 2015 elections. He’s content doing symbolic abstinences instead of taking action. But the Lib-Dems weren’t important enough for the Murdoch machine to bother with all these years. They are squeaky clean in this scandal, as are the 120 “minor” parties registered in the United Kingdom, from the Democratic Unionist Party who hold 8 seats in Parliament to the Idle Toad Party – all are Murdoch-free. There is enough anger in the United Kingdom right now – anger at Cameron’s policies and anger at Murdoch’s influence – to coalesce into a much larger third-party presence than ever seen before. All it would take would be a leader with chutzpah and vision.