Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Lib Dems' mainstream decision to get behind nuclear power

“It was all very well having principles,  but you cannot live  on principles...”

The Lib Dem conference abandoned its opposition to nuclear power, a policy it had held to pretty well since before the atom was split. A Clause IV moment! And a triumph for Energy Secretary Ed “green man” Davey, who warned the conference that it would be “reckless” to “take off the low-carbon menu a low-carbon option”. Though prosaic, this was in line with his ambiguous boast that his party was “making the weather” on the environment. Lib Dems don’t just talk about climate change. They change the climate! 

But it was a close-run thing. The conference nearly backed a call to refer back – i.e. annul – the entire energy motion it was debating on the grounds that it was neither detailed nor “long term” enough – a bizarre claim given that it contained 10 separate proposals covering three pages and 114 lines of the printed agenda, including one to ban all but electric – or at least “ultra-low carbon”– cars by er… 2040. What exactly do these people want? A pledge of fossil fuel-free mass space travel by the end of the millennium?

But while this was endearingly reminiscent of Lib Dem conferences past, something is changing. The activists who take part are slowly undergoing a journey a bit like that of the dissident-turned-conformist Winston Smith in 1984, with Nick Clegg playing the role of O’Brien, as the menacing thought police leader who explains to Orwell’s hero what needs to be done to serve the party objective, namely, power. “There is learning, there is understanding, and there is acceptance.”

Unlike Smith, the party activists are not actually being tortured, though Davey’s jokes from the platform came close to achieving that. “Tory backbenchers long to be Sancho Panza to the Ukip Don Quixote,” the Energy Secretary declared. “Well, let them tilt at windmills.” (Davey is keen on windmills, or at least wind turbines, which if it were not for Davey’s own heroic struggle for the planet, his Tory Cabinet colleague Owen Paterson “would cull faster than he can cull badgers”.) And, most painful of all, in a passage stressing the need for regulating the extraction of shale gas: “I’ve been fracking responsible.” This provoked so many groans that Davey had to do the laughing himself.

But the effect is the same. True, they weren’t quite ready to ditch all their opposition to tuition fees. But gradually, not just ministers but the party itself is replacing its old “signature tunes” –the phrase Clegg coined on The Andrew Marr show – in pursuit of being in government. Perhaps for ever, as Clegg implied it might be with his declaration that “coalition is good”.  Like Winston, it is “learning, understanding” and beginning to accept. It was all very well having principles, said Lancashire councillor Bill Winlow (also talking about fracking) “but you cannot live on principles.” Welcome to mainstream politics.  

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