There is a narrative of current trends in the Liberal Democrats (repeated most recently in some of the comments here) that says David Laws and Nick Clegg are joined in some sort of conspiracy to move the party rightwards. It’s not as simple as that. There is an important philosophical difference between Laws, who is motivated by ideology, and Clegg, who is motivated by an idea of pragmatism.
Laws believes that Liberalism once existed in a pure form, the classical liberalism of the mid-nineteenth century. Since then, it became polluted by association with socialism and social democracy. The task is therefore to “reclaim liberalism” (as the cover of the Orange Book put it), purify the party and return it to an unsullied state – hence all the low tax, small state stuff. (This view is shared by Clegg’s former adviser Richard Reeves).
Clegg, on the other hand, believes in a notion of pragmatism (explored more fully in an earlier post). He is too young to have any adult memory of politics before the Berlin Wall fell, so has no recall of politics as a battle of ideas. He assumes that the basic ideological questions have been settled for good and sees himself as a post-ideological pragmatist (rather like Tony Blair and David Cameron – the coalition works in part because Clegg and Cameron share the creed of politics-as-management).
Clegg does in fact have an ideological standpoint (which is evident in the whole set of tacit assumptions he makes about moral questions concerning public policy) but he doesn’t see it that way, preferring to present his opinions as self-evident truths or incontestable facts. It’s only other people who have ideologies, which get in the way of what needs to be done. This is why Clegg turns impatient and tetchy with anyone in the party who disagrees with him. “Can’t you see?” he seems to be saying, “My way is the only possible way. If you disagree, you are living in the past, an immature and hopeless idealist who doesn’t recognise the realities of modern government.”
While Laws has a surfeit of imagination (so much that he believes he can restore an imaginary past), Clegg has a poverty of imagination (so little that he cannot imagine an alternative future). What they share is a denial of possibilities, which stifles debate about the sort of society we want to live in.
Laws and Clegg remain close allies because the former’s ideology happens to overlap with the latter’s idea of what is pragmatic. But when the orthodoxy about ‘what works’ changes (and it will), they will no longer see eye to eye.