Philip Hensher: Power at last – but to what purpose?

This conference will be fascinating. From the floor will arise endless complaint at the terrible fact that their party is in government
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The Independent Online

This weekend, there is going to occur that most unexpected phenomenon in British politics: the interesting, and possibly even memorable, conference of the Liberal Democrat party.

Party conferences which stay in the mind of observers are, to be frank, few and far between. For my generation, there was the emetic, never-to-be-forgotten occasion in 1977 when a 16-year-old William Hague stood up and looked forward to the day when his audience was dead and he was running the country.

There was the appallingly chaotic Labour conference of 1980, and the unforgettable one in 1985 at which Neil Kinnock denounced the "grotesque spectacle" of Militant-dominated councils such as Derek Hatton's Liverpool.

There was the Conservative one in 1980, dominated by Mrs Thatcher's "the lady's not for turning" speech. There is Peter Lilley with his "little list", and Michael Portillo on the SAS. There was, of course, the unforgettably soigné appearance of Mrs Thatcher at her bravest and most defiant only hours after the IRA had come very close to killing her at Brighton in 1984.

Going much further back, there was the celebrated Labour conference in 1935 at which Ernest Bevin told the leader George Lansbury to stop "hawking your conscience round from body to body asking to be told what you ought to do with it". From time to time, Labour and Conservative conferences have broken out of their self-conscious bubbles and registered on their countrymen.

The Liberal Democrats and, before them, the Liberals, have done so much less rarely. Sometimes this has happened for what they would consider the wrong reasons. In 1958, an abstruse but potentially catastrophic argument between China and Taiwan was mounting over two disputed territories. A Liberal MP – one of exactly six at the time – became briefly famous for announcing at his party's conference that year that "he did not want to say anything which might exacerbate the situation in Quemoy and Matsu". Since then, few of their doings at seaside resorts have left a lasting impression on anyone not actually paid to listen to them.

This year promises to be rather different. Last year, nobody actually said to the faithful: "Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government." But that, strange to say, is exactly what happened. To its great surprise, the party soon found itself occupying key Government posts. Not only was Nick Clegg Deputy Prime Minister, but the crucial posts of Business Secretary and Chief Secretary to the Treasury, overseeing all Government spending, went to the party. No one could suggest that the five Cabinet posts in all offered to the Liberal Democrats were mere token positions.

It was a historic opportunity for the Liberal Democrats, and it could be argued that they took the opportunity with both hands. Four months on, it is easy to point to areas where Liberal Democrat policy has been incorporated into the Government's thinking: civil liberties has been moved to a higher agenda than would otherwise have been the case; prisons policy has a definite Liberal Democrat edge now; a review of the right-to-buy policy; fixed-term parliaments and the prospect of consultation on electoral reform; and a real say in where the crucial spending cuts will fall. However you slice it, the Liberal Democrats now have the first opportunity in many generations to put their manifesto commitments into practice.

And yet the rage of many people, at all levels in the party, is being quite openly voiced. A poll this week for The Independent showed that a fifth of Liberal Democrat voters at the general election would now turn to Labour. Simon Hughes, the deputy leader, continues, like George Lansbury, to hawk his conscience round from body to body, insisting that this Coalition is merely "a business arrangement," making no secret of his distaste. There are mutterings from Vince Cable, not thought to be an enthusiastic junior partner in the Coalition. A Liberal Democrat councillor in Wolverhampton withdraws her support for the Coalition, complaining about the "ideological" cuts to services. And so it goes on.

Many years ago, Sigmund Freud posed a genuine question, which he was unable to answer, and which many of his followers since have been equally incapacitated by. What, Freud said, do women want? In the same vein, political observers paying attention to the imminent conference season might ask this question: what do Liberal Democrats want?

This conference is going to be so fascinating, because from the floor will arise any amount of complaint at the terrible fact that their party is in Government; that it has, for the first time in many decades, a voice which is not just limited to priggish and implausible sentiments, but able with practical effect to say, for instance: "Look, the cap on immigration is just not working."

What the anti-Coalition Liberal Democrats want, it seems to me, is first of all government on their own, undiluted terms; secondly, a coalition with the Labour Party; thirdly, ongoing opposition. None of these positions is all that honourable. The first will never happen. The second, considering what the Labour Party did to civil liberties in the past 13 years, would rip up cherished Liberal Democrat beliefs – it would hardly deserve the title of "progressive," and it is hypocritical and delusional to aspire to it. The third is not a position any active politician should aim at.

It would need a psychologist, or an anthropologist of tribal behaviour, to inquire into the almost visceral revulsion felt by many sincere Liberal Democrats at the Coalition. Many think themselves "herbivores", in Michael Frayn's deathless formulation. Many of them have read any number of terrible novels about the evils of Mrs Thatcher, and have for decades sneered in the most snobbish way imaginable about the rise of the estate agent.

Now they are given a quite unexpected opportunity to run the country. They are given it in difficult circumstances, true. They are having to make compromises and difficult decisions which may be said to be somewhat in excess of the compromises and difficult decisions which any government has to make. But they have power, and in a government which has only a little more ideological breadth than most governments of the past 50 years, even if it comes with two labels. What are they going to do? What, as Freud would say, do the Liberal Democrats want?