The economic crisis has created an unfamiliar sense of freedom in British politics. For the first time in more than two decades those old, unchallengeable truths about the efficiency of the market, pay in the private sector and acceptable levels of taxation suddenly look eminently challengeable.
In his closing speech to the Liberal Democrat conference in Harrogate yesterday, Nick Clegg rushed to plant his party's flag on the virgin territory that has revealed itself. He proposed closing tax loopholes, increasing capital gains tax and scrapping pension relief for high earners. A few years ago such ideas would have been dismissed as anti-aspirational or harmful to business. Now, in the midst of a recession brought on by the excesses of high finance, they chime with the public mood. But Mr Clegg's message was more subtle than a simple "hike taxes and punish the rich" cry. One of his party's flagship policies is a tax cut for low and middle- income workers.
On the banking crisis, Mr Clegg is more radical than either the Government or the Conservatives. His party has been arguing for the full nationalisation of stricken banks and public direction of their lending. Not long ago this was regarded as extreme. Now it looks sensible.
But here again, Mr Clegg's position is not an ideological one. He wants the banks privatised again as soon as conditions allow (albeit with much stricter regulation of what sort of business they can engage in). The Liberal Democrats have, in many ways, been ahead of Labour and the Conservatives in their response to this crisis. This has not translated into much of a reward for the party in the polls. Yet they are holding reasonably steady. And the political dynamics of this crisis may yet favour Mr Clegg's party.
The general election is widely expected to be held in spring 2010. In politics a great deal can happen in a year. And in the context of a fast-changing crisis like this, the opportunities are still greater.
If Mr Clegg and his party can remain ahead of the political ideas curve, there is no telling where they might find themselves when polling day arrives.Reuse content