I was a teenage Lib Dem

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It was my (German) grandmother who first introduced me to acid house. She’d just got back from a all-nighter in a field off the M1 and with shaking hands and gleaming eyes she pressed a Todd Terry mixtape into my hands with the words ‘Dies musst du einfach nur hören!’. In suburban Sheffield in mid-1988, a period soon to be known as the second summer of love, there was a huge opening of like minds, a spiritual confluence of tribes and generations united around bleeps, beats and togetherness.

Actually none of that is quite true. There may have been people nearby getting into raving and revelling in e-fuelled dionsyan madness but I’d just finished my GCSEs and was working in a supermarket stacking shelves as slowly as I could. When my dad offered me the chance to deliver Liberal Democrat Focus leaflets I must have leapt at the opportunity for some excitement. To my eternal shame my attachment to the Lib Dems continued on to University. I think I must have quite fancied one of the people on the stall on Fresher’s Day and so spent several weeks trudging around Norwich in the runup to the local elections trying to get people to vote yellow (I don’t think I actually voted for them myself). I vaguely remember a couple of barbecues at which I met well-meaning and very polite local people who cared very much about their streets (for them the Lib Dems were essentially  a national version of Neighbourhood Watch) but were either clueless about the world beyond or sounded to my ears distinctly like Tories.

Thankfully for my dignity and campus credibility my political trajectory swept me away from Paddy Ashdown and co. When the exchange rate mechanism crashed down in early 1992 and it became clear that no one up there in or near power had a clue what they were doing I decided to abandon my weird form of political contrarianism and go back to being a Marxist. In the meantime, sadly, my adolescent street-pounding in Sheffield Hallam had eventually paid off, and those seeds I’d planted (in the form of leaflets focussed almost exclusively on street lights and traffic containment measures) had flourished to the point where a fresh-faced chap called Nick Clegg was elected local MP. His trajectory surpassed mine, because while I continued on through various trotty groups towards inevitable disillusionment, his star rose to the point where he came to stand on a sunny morning in spring 2010 in the garden of 10 Downing Street and, beaming like a new parent, boast that he and his new friend David were going to “take Britain in a historic new direction” and create a “stronger society” by, er, allowing Trident to go ahead, capping immigration and introducing some spectacular and ‘savage’ cuts.

The rest is history, although not of the sort that should make anyone feel proud. Within a few short months students were rioting in Central London in fury at Clegg’s decision to betray them over skyrocketting tuition fees. By spring 2011 ordinary voters were so sick of the Government’s coalition of sickening cruelty and staggering hypocrisy they rejected Clegg’s prized referendum over the Alternative Vote. In mid-2011 there were (as had been predicted a few weeks earlier by local youth groups struggling to survive those ‘savage’ cuts) riots which quickly spread from Tottenham to cities across the country (and which were sternly condemned by Clegg as ‘completely unacceptable’). Since then things have only got worse, as Gary Younge details in The Guardian this week:

Since 2010 there has been a £387m cut in youth services, and between 2012 and 2016 603 youth clubs were closed. In London, £28m has been slashed from youth services budgets in the last five years, leading to 36 youth centres in the capital closing. A starved NHS is unable to adequately provide mental health assistance to the young. The government now plans to cut funding to schools in urban areas.

Cuts have consequences. They leave wounds and create resentment in those whose lives have been scarred. It’s more than poetic coincidence that Younge’s article also talks about a rise in knife crime and relates it to austerity. The A-word is one that, in the Lib Dem-crowded anti-Brexit Facebook groups I signed up to in the wake of the Brexit vote last summer, I quickly found to be taboo. People were (rightly) horrified and outraged by what had taken place but (as had been the case after the 2011 riots) they weren’t very interested in finding out why it had happened.

At the same time there were a number of well-informed explanations of what lay behind the vote, especially how those who had most to lose (in working class areas which depend on EU funding) had almost uniformly voted to leave. One particularly cogent account by someone who spent weeks talking to people in what became ‘leave’ areas is the Guardian reporter John Harris, who argues trenchantly that decades of economic neglect lie behind the Brexit vote, and that the level of dillusionment is such that it would be a grave mistake for those of us who campaigned to stay in the EU to try to reverse the vote. Instead left-liberals have a duty to make political connections with the areas left out of globalisation, to create dialogue and common causes which aim to draw millions of disaffected people away from the influence of the far-right.

I’m lucky: I haven’t been directly affected by austerity. I’m also one of those who has (on an individual level) done quite well out of neoliberal globalisation and who appreciates the chance to live in other countries and have other people come to live in mine. At the same time, I oppose the austerity agenda of the last few years, which I can see is having a devastating impact on the social fabric of cities like Sheffield and creating unprecedented levels of social resentment and mistrust throughout the country. That resentment and mistrust fuelled the Brexit vote. Nevertheless, in my occasional visits to those Facebook groups I regularly encounter people who like to pretend that everything was perfect until June 23rd last year, that Brexit is an inexplicable stain on reality’s otherwise pristine sofa. In fact, it is partly an incoherent and (deliberately) misguided response to those ‘savage’ cuts Nick Clegg boasted of and then presided over. I know that Tim Farron is not an Orange Book neoliberal like Clegg, but I’m also aware that (as Owen Jones points out in today’s Guardian) he is on record as saying he would enter another coalition with the Tories. Whether he’s being cynical or naive, his party is no alternative to and no defence against the most right-wing government that the UK will have ever seen. Another loved-up springtime morning in the Downing Street garden would be, to paraphrase one of my grandmother’s most illustrious compatriots, a farcical tragedy repeating itself as a particularly tragic kind of farce.

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