Are the Lib Dems really ‘nation before party’?

By Alex Stevenson

The Liberal Democrat conference, while rather uneventful in overall news terms, was nevertheless genuinely surprising on one level.

I had assumed, in my first blog post, that all political parties were ultimately interested in only one thing: the acquisition and retention of power. That's why they need watching closely as they try messing around with the 'rules of the game'.

Imagine my consternation and surprise, therefore, when during my discussions with party activists at the Lib Dem autumn gathering in Birmingham many of them seemed to embracing a strange, alien notion: that although they might lose out politically as a result of joining the coalition, everything would turn out for the best because they were doing it in the national interest.

Nick Clegg made the idea a central theme of his speech. He got thunderous applause when touching on this issue:

"We put aside party differences for the sake of the national interest. People before politics. Nation before party…

"Because let me tell you this: you don't play politics at a time of national crisis. You don't play politics with the economy. And you never, ever play politics with people's jobs."

Normally this would be written off as mere rhetoric. But his claim touched a nerve. For the grassroots' comments had suggested this conviction seemed to run deeper.

Peter Chapman from Beaconsfield: "Tim Farron said in May 2010 he feared going into coalition was right for the country, but costly for the party. My view is if that's the sacrifice we have to make for doing some good for the country, well, so be it."

Peter Whyte from Berkshire: "I think when history comes to be written you could say Liberal Democrats put the national interest first, yes. That is unusual. Whether there's a dividend from it remains to be seen, but I think it is the right thing to do."

Maybe it's just Lib Dems called Peter, but there you are.

All of this is just fine and dandy. Still, however exceptionalist they may be – "we are in nobody's pockets", as Clegg said so firmly to even more thunderous applause – the Lib Dems are really just like any other political party.

Take the reaction of one mid-ranking MP when I bumped into him before Clegg's speech yesterday. I explained my thoughts on this nation-before-party business. "Yes, that's all very well," he said. "So long as there's a long-term pay off – in 2015."

Add to that the fact that when it comes to constitutional tinkering, rather than the big strategic political calls, the Lib Dems are just as motivated by party interest as anyone else (why else would they want a more proportional form of voting?), the scales soon begin to fall before the eyes.