"Every boy and every gal,
That's born into the world alive,
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conserva-tive."
So said W. S. Gilbert, but even when he was writing (Iolanthe, 1882), something was going on to confuse matters. The split in the Liberal Party over Ireland was made permanent by the rise of socialism - fear of socialism kept important strands of Liberalism muddled into the the conservatives well into the 20th century. They still are.
As a result, there are now two kinds of Conservatives (I am rather simplifying here, so please bear with me):
- Those who believe that, if the rich and powerful are allowed to exercise their wealth and power, there will be advantages for everyone (the traditional conservative view, and by the way also Tony Blair's basic stance).
- Those who are motivated by independence, and a revulsion for those who would mess around with them (which includes an old-fashioned Liberal support for 'free trade').
The problem is that, although the former are undoubtedly conservatives, the latter would have been recognisable as Liberals a century ago, and sometimes more recently too. They do not actually sit together very easily.
Free trade as currently interpreted confuses matters. The former support the right of the powerful to exercise their power. The latter support the right of small business to disrupt the powerful. These are not the same.
There are signs that this Auld Alliance is beginning to unravel, on both sides of the Atlantic. A fascinating article in the Guardian yesterday (thank you, Jody!) describes the divisions emerging over solar power in the Tea Party movement, in the Australian right and in parts of Europe too.
On the one hand, the Tea Party is funded by entrenched oil interests which pour scorn on solar power, along with all renewables. In some parts of the world, they are lobbying to tax it (in Spain, for example), just as - in Latin America - corporate interests have made collecting rainwater illegal, in case it reduces dependence on the water utilities.
On the other hand, there are those in all these places who are coming to see small-scale renewables as a guarantee of independence from state and corporate monopolies, and are reacting with fury to proposals to restrict or tax their right to adopt it.
In Western Australia, the utilities are horrified to find that demand for their energy is dropping fast. In Georgia, rebel Tea Party members have forced the monopoly utility to open up to more solar power, to the rage of their national organisers.
This is important. The fear of socialism is no longer enough to keep the Auld Conservative Alliance together. Nor is it enough, it seems to me, to allow those institutions which straddle the divide - the NFU and CBI, in this country - to survive either without choosing sides.
Are they backing the right of the big corporates or the big farmers to exercise unfettered semi-monopoly power (conservatism), or are they backing the right of disruptive small-scale enterprise to provide people with a measure of independence (liberalism)? Whose side are they on?
None of this would matter if this wasn't the key political faultline of the next decade - but it is. It spells real problems for conservative parties - who are also struggling with divisions between social conservatives and social liberals inside their ranks.
The real division of the next decade is the one which Liberalism was designed to fight - it is small versus big, independence versus dependence, people-power versus unfettered corporate power.
And I know which side I'm on. So before Liberal Democrats cast themselves completely adrift from the coalition, don't let's assume that they can't take a hefty chunk of the Conservative Party with them.