I've spent the last twenty-four hours debating with a few Tories, following the debate within Conservative ranks about a possible coalition with the Liberal Democrats. It is an intriguing thought, and one that few might have thought likely that long ago.
When I first got involved in politics in the mid-eighties, Margaret Thatcher was in her pomp, Labour were busily writing the longest suicide note in history, and the Alliance were beginning to show signs of stress. Opposing the Conservatives was easy really, as the romanticism of youth came into counterpoint with some of the more pointless brutalities of the second term.
Ironically, I tended to sympathise with much that the Conservatives were doing. Unions had become too powerful, the economy too flabby and overmanned, taxes too high and incentive dimmed. The problem was that they simply didn't seem to care about the casualties, and there were plenty of those. They also made some remarkable stupid decisions in search of short term gain. I've touched on the reduction of the civil service retirement age elsewhere, so I won't bang on about that one.
Having made most of the radical changes, the third term saw a loss of momentum. Kicking the trade unions lost its savour, especially as they had become vehicles of customer service, affinity deals, insurance and social awareness rather than leaders of a socialist rebellion. The country saw no threat in the Labour Party, and became wary of the notion of 'permanent revolution'. And as for family values, failing to check that your MPs are playing at home first was a red rag to media who had little else to shoot at. And at a time of ever more rapid social change, the seemingly extreme views of leading Conservatives and apparent lack of empathy for the less fortunate just turned off moderate voters.
Labour just seemed more dynamic in 1997. Independence for the Bank of England, devolution of power in Scotland and Wales, a Human Rights Act, all of these things pushed the right buttons for liberals. People remembered the 1992-1997 Government with contempt. Thatcher might not have been liked, but she was respected (or feared, which in some quarters passes for the same thing). By 1997, Conservatives weren't liked, nor were they respected and the obligatory kicking was duly administered.
Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Labour, once so radical, have become more and more authoritarian. Unable to win the arguments, they have resorted to ever more debased scare tactics to keep 'their' voters loyal. Increasingly, they pass legislation first and think later, only to create more problems which require even more draconian, anti-libertarian solutions. They can't even do competence these days, it seems.
As a liberal, I believe in giving people the opportunity to take control over their own lives. I don't believe that the Government, any government for that matter, should interfere with the rights of individuals, so long as the freedoms of others are not restricted. That makes me a social liberal. I also believe that government is generally pretty bad at things which require initiative - civil servants struggle with the profit motive (not unreasonably, I suppose) but often lack the independence of thought required to make meaningful change in the way that services are delivered.
Frankly, I don't really care who delivers services, as long as the people delivering them are treated properly and that there is real, meaningful democratic accountability. I also believe that people should have to deal with the consequences of their own actions and that they should be rewarded on merit, not because they fall into a certain category. That means that taxes should only be levied where they can be justified as being in the public interest - sorry, I'm yet to be convinced that individual ownership of major pieces of military hardware is in the public interest - and I guess that this makes me an economic liberal...
So, if freedom of the individual is uppermost, there is scope for linkage between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, and certainly, there are more obvious points of contact between the underlying philosophies of liberalism and conservatism than there are between liberalism and socialism (not that the latter is currently on offer...).
From a personal perspective, I'm yet to be convinced either way. The lack of clear policy from the Conservatives leads one to be sceptical - we've been fooled by the reds, we're not so keen to be fooled by the blues... but where policy is being released, the parallels are intriguing. So I'll watch and wait, and see what develops. And, having already voted to go into coalition with the Conservatives in Southwark in my capacity as an Officer of the Liberal Democrat Group here, it wouldn't be as outlandish as once it might have been...