It has been a mixed year to be a liberal. The Government has pushed ahead with schemes to introduce compulsory ID cards, yet the House of Lords crippled the plans for 42 day detention without trial. We have seen little progress in tackling ongoing international problems yet have celebrated the election of Barack Obama with his message of hope and change. As always with politics, much is decided by the underlying economic conditions. McCain’s economic policy weaknesses helped Obama get elected, and the shear cost of the government’s ID card plans may yet see them defeated. The current recession continues to affect and shape government policy.
As Liberal Democrats, we are incredibly lucky, for we have the MP for Twickenham, Dr Vince Cable, on our side. Vince has been consistently right about the economy. He has warned about the US housing bubble and rising levels of debt in this country for years. Contrasting this with the Prime Minister and the Tories we are left with a pretty clear picture. Gordon Brown believed that he had eliminated the boom and bust cycle forever, and George Osborne appears to be spending more time on yachts than he is formulating a policy for economic recovery. Certainly, he is all at sea. Vince, on the other hand, called for the nationalisation of Northern Rock the moment that the crisis it was in became clear; Labour and the Tories dallied, with the Prime Minister finally making the decision months later, having caused needless insecurity. When Vince was acting leader, he dazzled the commons with his skill. He now continues to impress the public with his abilities as an economic spokesman. He certainly has many disciples in Cambridge, and those of us who heard him speak this term came away with one thought. His economic foresight coupled with his clarity, left us in no doubt – this is the man who should be leading our country out of the recession.
Yet it is here, in the drive to end the economic downturn, that we must be careful. The recession will surely be the driving force behind politics for much of the next decade. But there are other crises which must also be addressed. Global warming and the imminent threat of climate change must not be forgotten. As Liberal Democrats, we were the first major political party to address these concerns, and, even as Labour and the Tories are prepared to jettison their environmental policies in these difficult times, we must stand firm. Principles must not be principles only in times of fiscal health, like the Prime Minister’s Economic Golden Rules. There is overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is a real threat and the most pressing danger we will face in the 21st century. We must not jeopardise our future for a little more economic security in the present; we must not jump out of the frying pan into the fire. Nick Clegg seems to understand this, and has called for a “green road out of the recession, creating jobs and leaving a legacy that will save energy, put[ting] money back into people’s pockets and fight[ing] climate change.” Nick correctly calls for the scrapping of the meaningless VAT cut, which will not encourage people to start spending, instead proposing that the money saved should be used to insulate schools, hospitals and the houses of those in fuel poverty. Other plans include building 40,000 extra zero-carbon social houses and increasing energy efficiency, both in the home and in public services. The plans aim to make a “real difference to people’s lives now, create new jobs today, and leave us with the infrastructure for a long-term, green economic recovery.”
These plans have my total support; they are formed in today’s harsh economic reality but do not forget the universal call to the fight for social justice and environmental protection. But to my mind, we, as a party and a country, should still be doing more to fight climate change. Nick Clegg is right in ensuring that we do not throw away environmental concerns in our battle against the recession, but we must go further. We do not just need a green path out of the recession. We must also have detailed plans to tackle the climate crisis in its own right. We have Vince Cable masterminding our plans to fight the recession. Who will take the lead on climate change? At the moment, we seem to sit on the fence on this issue. We call for greater measures to safeguard the environment, but also reject the use of nuclear power. Nick Clegg recently spoke in Cambridge, claiming that nuclear power was too expensive and is an ineffective use of public money. I do not buy this argument. It is a difficult choice, for he is right that nuclear power is expensive, but I do not see an alternative. Recent studies show that other forms of renewable energy cannot alone replace our current power stations. Nuclear power would not contribute to global warming and any potentially dangerous waste products can be safely managed. Indeed, nuclear power is used to great success on the continent – nearly eighty percent of France’s electricity comes from nuclear power stations. We must therefore reaffirm our commitment to fighting climate change, and lend our voices to the call for experienced engineers to start developing a new generation of nuclear power stations for Britain’s future.
As a party, we are often accused of only saying what people want to hear and not making the hard decisions since we have little prospect of forming a government. I do not believe this – indeed, I believe that our policies are strong, thought through, and have a consistent message born from the belief that government has an obligation to help, but not to impose upon the individual. However, I do believe that there is some truth in the charge when it comes to the issue of nuclear power and climate change. We must change this. Even whilst we face the recession, we must not forget the battle against climate change. We must take the bitter pill, and accept the necessity of nuclear power.