On the face of it, there is much for liberals to admire in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. They want to introduce a time limit for immigration detention. They want smaller, local prisons; a digital bill of rights to protect internet users against security agencies; a second freedom bill to counteract heavy-handed policing of protests and protect free speech.
The cynical response is to ask whether they will do any of these things and it must be said that the cynical response is the most sensible one.
For a start, these liberal issues appear almost as a footnote. Nick Clegg didn't even mention them during his speech. He focused almost exclusive on education and mental health – both fine causes, but not specifically liberal ones. Once you access the manifesto online, the order of priorities is quite clear. Most prominent is the economy, then health, education, tax, climate change, the environment, jobs and welfare, young people, pensions and then, finally, at the end, the issues liberals traditionally care about: crime and punishment, immigration, freedom and reforming politics.
These final, forgotten issues are the ones where we see most starkly the relationship between the citizen and the state. These are, unfortunately, minority concerns in British politics. That's why they don't figure prominently. Lib Dems privately recognise the deeply illiberal record of the last three years of the coalition, but insist that they were wiser to spend political capital on measures with potentially big public support, like free school meals, rather than matters like legal aid or judicial review, which are completely alien to most people.
Whether that's strategically true is questionable. It's not as if these big ticket policies have led to a rise in public support for the Lib Dems, whose brand remains completely tarnished. If they survive the election as a major political force – and I expect they will – it will be because of their formidable local campaigning, not their national narrative. But their failure to stand up to the Tories on authoritarian issues has alienated many of their core supporters.
Clegg didn't mention liberal issues while presenting his manifesto
Politically, it is much more troubling. It's doubly important that the Lib Dems stick to liberal principles because they are the only party which does so. The Tories talk the talk in opposition but revert to their authoritarian instincts in power. Labour don't even do that. Even fringe parties like the SNP, which opposed ID cards when Labour tried to introduce them, buckle in power and are currently trying to introduce ID cards through the back door in Scotland. When the Lib Dems give up on liberalism, there's no-on left to support it.
That's partly what makes the Lib Dem manifesto such a painful read. Take the section on prisons. It's like the last five years never happened.
"Crime has fallen to an all-time low since the Liberal Democrats entered government. But our work has only just begun: we are focusing on what works to cut crime, protect victims and save money. For too long, the other parties talked tough but made no difference: that’s because simply locking more people up in prison is expensive and will not cut crime.
"We will roll out this evidence-based, ‘what works’ approach across the whole criminal justice system. We will use community sentences better and tackle the long term causes of crime like drug and alcohol addiction or mental health problems."
It all sounds great. Less use of prison, an end to the pointless of waste of sentences for drug possession, evidence-based policy making. So it seems strange that the last five years involved the very opposite: a justice secretary who slashed prison funding and stuffed even more inmates in there, leading to soaring rates of suicide and assault and prisoners spending up to 23-hours a day locked in their cells. A complete indifference – even hatred – towards evidence. A needless and chaotic privatisation of the probation services which rehabilitate offenders and cut reoffending.
Protestors hold up books to protest the prison book ban as Grayling gives evidence to a select committee
Even on its own terms, this section makes no sense. The Lib Dems can't pretend that these liberal principles were enacted while they've been in power, but they still try to claim credit for a fall in the crime rate. That crime rate statement, by the way, is utter hogwash. It's been falling for 20 years across the western world. We're not sure why, but we can safely assume it's not the result of a completely powerless Lib Dem influence in the Ministry of Justice.
Because the truth is the Lib Dems left the justice brief to the Tories. They thought Ken Clarke was one of them (he was) and then when he was replaced by Chris Grayling they did nothing to challenge him. When it emerged that he banned books being sent to prisoners, Lib Dems laughed at those calling for them to distance themselves from it. Simon Hughes literally tweeted the ministerial lines to take word for word. He then had the gall, a year later, to say he would scrap the policy if the Lib Dems had a majority. It was a judicial review, worked by lawyers acting pro bono, which ended the policy. The Lib Dems did nothing.
That judicial review will be more difficult in future, because Grayling has acted to make it next to impossible for the individual to challenge the state in court. The Lib Dems marched into the Commons to support him.
There is much to admire in this prison section of the Lib Dem manifesto – just no reason to believe they will do any of it. They failed to last time and they've given us no reason to think it would be any different this time.
On immigration, there isn't even much to admire, outside of a commitment for a time limit to detention. Elsewhere, it’s the same anti-immigrant scaremongering and half-truths we see from the other parties.
No party is willing to celebrate immigration, either economically or socially
There is little mention of the boost to the economy immigrants provide or the rich social benefits they bring. Instead, the party promises more border checks with "visible security and firm control". They will ensure people "can speak English and are willing to work" – although they have few details on how they'll achieve that, except for a promise to encourage schools to run evening classes for parents.
Immigration is the area where the mighty power of the state is at its most obvious: families are torn apart, people are locked up without charge. But the Lib Dem section offers nothing for those desperate to hear something sane or humane from a mainstream British political party. It's all basically indistinguishable from Labour or the Tories. The only mainstream party willing to stand up for immigration has given up the job. Take this section, which could have come from any party manifesto:
"We'll ensure that migrants, including from the EU, come to work or study, not to claim benefits. And when it's time for them to leave, we will make sure they return home."
It's the same old nonsense, from a party which, in its heart, knows better.
Unfortunately, liberals don't have anywhere else to turn. There are few parties which share their sympathies and even a weak, distracted, promise-breaking Liberal Democrat party will uphold them better than Labour or the Tories. The sad fact is that Clegg's central political message is true: liberals do need the Lib Dems to ameliorate the excesses of Labour and Tories. But what a shabby, irresponsible offering this is.
It's not that the Lib Dems don't care about liberalism anymore. It's that they care more about staying in power.