On Monday morning I settled down to breakfast in a rural hotel in Olvera in the Sierra de Cádiz. I had found a copy of Sunday’s El País in reception and flicked through the pages as I munched on my mollete. I stopped at a page on which there was a picture at the top of a grim David Cameron and Nick Clegg facing away from each other and decided to read intently.
My main reason for doing so is I believe there is a lot to be learned from how others see us. However having read the lengthy piece I was rather puzzled. There was nothing wrong with the report indeed it was a very British review of the state of the coalition two years on from the last general election. Yet there was no Spanish angle to it. I checked the by-line in case it had been written by a British journalist: by the name I suspect not. Perhaps the plight of the Lib Dems is plain for all to see whether you are British or Spanish.
One key point the article made is that the next major challenge to be faced by Nick Clegg will not be in parliament or at the polls but before his own party. In September he will have to address the Lib Dems party conference. He will do so with the Lib Dems two flagship policies in the bin. The changes to the voting system were kicked in to touch by the electorate in a referendum and the plans to reform the House of Lords have been dumped by Cameron because he can’t deliver the required votes amongst his Tory MPs. So Clegg will have to stand before his party to defend the coalition but with nothing to show for it. The leader will have no clothes.
In all likelihood at that conference will be the Leader of Gibraltar’s Liberal Party Dr Joseph Garcia. He has attended before but never as the Deputy Chief Minister of Gibraltar. Like Clegg he is the leader of a junior partner in a coalition government but the differences between the two could not be more marked.
In Britain the centre left Lib Dems are in government with the centre right Conservatives whereas we have a coalition formed by two parties of the left. The Lib Dems in their grab for power could have sided with either the Tories or Labour and probably backed Cameron due to the national loathing of Gordon Brown. Yet in Gibraltar the GSLP and Liberals went to the polls as long term partners on a joint manifesto. The Lib Dems manifesto still haunts them.
The Lib Dems are not just in trouble with the Tories but the electorate. Those MPs who were elected, some of whom now sit at the cabinet table, won their votes on promises they never expected they’d have to keep. My niece voted Lib Dem. A graduate just out of uni she believed Clegg and his cohorts when they pledged they’d oppose any rise in university fees. She feels betrayed and won’t be voting for the Lib Dems again. The next UK election will be fought out between Labour and the Tories: if the Lib Dems are lucky they will be reduced to a rump.
If our Liberals have a problem it is one of identity: just what in the GSLP Liberal manifesto is theirs? I know for a fact that Dr Garcia worked hard on drawing up the document with Fabian Picardo with input from both parties but what measures are socialist and what are Liberal?
We had a united GSLP Liberal opposition and now we have a very united GSLP Liberal government. Apart from the obvious names do you know which ministers represent which party? In the UK the differences between the coalition partners are all too plain to see.
The GSLP is of the socialist tradition, a sister party of the Labour Party in the UK. The Liberals are closely aligned to the Lib Dems in the UK and to the Liberals internationally. Unless the parties are to merge I believe it is important they still maintain distinctive identities for I suspect for many Gibraltarian voters the GSLP Lib Dems are already one party.
Perhaps the political miracle was that the then younger Dr Garcia was able to marshal his forces alongside the old political war horse Joe Bossano to deliver an effective GSLP Liberal opposition through several parliaments. The job in government is far easier as after all Fabian Picardo cut his political teeth as one of Dr Garcia’s troopers. Picardo now leads and when Dr Garcia attends the Lib Dem conference Nick Clegg should ask him for a tip or two on how to follow but more importantly how to make a coalition work.