Leading article: Feeble attacks and reprehensible smears

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The Independent Online

The vested interests of British politics are fighting back. The Liberal Democrats' remarkable surge in the opinion polls has provoked a deluge of attacks and smears on the party from those who would like to preserve the traditional two-party status quo.

The Conservatives unleashed their business spokesman, Ken Clarke, this week to issue dire (and unconvincing) threats about the disaster that would befall Britain's economy if the election resulted in a hung parliament. But that was mild compared to the abuse that some of the Tory party's friends in the press have heaped on the Liberal Democrats in recent days.

The Liberal Democrat proposal for an amnesty for illegal immigrants who have been here for 10 years has been branded "crazy". In fact, it is perfectly sensible (and indeed supported by the Conservative London Mayor, Boris Johnson). The estimated 600,000 irregular migrants in the UK are most unlikely to be deported because the authorities do not know where they are. The sensible policy would be to regularise their status and require them to pay tax on their earnings.

The Liberal Democrats are supposedly "weak" on national defence for rejecting a like-for-like replacement of Trident, as if this hugely expensive and obsolete nuclear weapons system were all that stood between our islands and invading armies. The party is also accused of being soft on crime for proposing a move away from short-term prison sentences. These critics act as if the policy of cramming ever more people into our prisons has been an unmitigated success. The mud does not stop there. Nick Clegg is criticised for being pro-European and open-minded about the case for Britain joining the single currency in the future. It has also been implied that his half-Russian father, Dutch mother and Spanish wife somehow makes him untrustworthy. This is pitiful, xenophobic stuff.

And the attacks have not only come from the right. Partisan commentators from the left have accused Mr Clegg of posing as an "anti-politics" candidate and have been falling over themselves to point out that he is simply "another politician" in the business of attracting votes. Of course he is. But the real crime of the Liberal Democrat leader in their eyes is not his supposed "holier than thou" stance, but the fact that he has crashed a party that supporters of the two larger parties thought they had to themselves.

Most ridiculously of all, Mr Clegg has been attacked (from all sides) for advocating reform of the voting system. A system of proportional representation would, we are told, create chronic political instability and give disproportionate power to smaller parties. They cite the case of Italy. They tend to ignore the example of Germany which has had a proportional voting system and stable coalition governments for decades. These critics of reform also need to explain why, if the great virtue of our first-past-the-post electoral system is that it always delivers single-party governments with a clear majority, do we appear to be on course for a hung parliament?

We are not blind to the Liberal Democrats' faults. Scrapping university tuition fees would shift the cost of higher education on to taxpayers, rather than those who economically benefit from it. And the Liberal Democrats are almost as vague as the other parties on how they would cut the deficit. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out, they are probably over-optimistic about how much revenue their proposed clampdown on tax evasion would raise. But where the Liberal Democrats' policies are liberal, democratic, and fiscally responsible, they should be applauded. And where their leader urges an open-minded, co-operative approach to Britain's relations with the wider world, he deserves the full-voiced support of those who share those values.

The old elites are shifting uncomfortably. Complacency has evaporated. Politics is in ferment. These are all reasons to welcome what Mr Clegg and the Liberal Democrats have brought to this election campaign.