People who check this site often will have spotted that I haven’t written about politics properly in some time – this despite the fact that, in the wake of the last General Election, I actually joined a political party for the first time. I was thinking about this falling away of the blog’s political content – and it could easily be seen as a function of my lower levels of blogging activity in general – whilst watching last night’s Newsnight coverage of Nick Clegg’s speech to the Liberal Democrat conference.
The segment ended with Fraser Nelson, the endlessly juvenile editor of the Tory house magazine, the Spectator, snorting with amused discomfort as Paxman moved on to the paper review. See, the other panellist, the Guardian’s Deborah Orr, had just spoke at some emotional length about the ‘hollowing out’ of our political system. A disillusioned Liberal Democrat, Orr railed against the duopoly of Tory and Labour for years, but now finds her party in power and plainly manifesting as another sad iteration of the 21st centuries enervated, discredited, and directionless free market consensus. Nelson, a fully paid-up member of this great politician-manager’s game, didn’t quite know where to put himself – he had been expecting the usual knockabout fun.
Minus the emotion, this was her argument in yesterday’s paper: “Fresh thinking is needed, if we are to move on politically, economically, socially, even morally. Instead the Lib Dems have allowed themselves to become the focus of the nation’s frustration, a dire warning, supposedly, of what happens when a party doesn’t know whether it’s left or right.” The difficulty for Orr, and perhaps having watched Clegg’s speech between the piece being published and Paxo putting her to the question she had realised this, is that the modern Liberal Democrats know exactly where they stand. It is on the right.
These may not be easy times for us as a party. But much more importantly: These are not easy times for the country. Economic insecurity. Conflict and terrorism. Disorder flaring up on our streets. Times like these can breed protectionism and populism. So times like these are when liberals are needed most. Our party has fought for liberal values for a century and half: justice, optimism, freedom. We’re not about to give up now.
This conference centre is on the site of the old Bingley Hall where William Gladstone stood a hundred and thirty years ago to found the National Liberal Federation. Gladstone observed that day that Birmingham had shown it was no place for ‘weak-kneed Liberalism’. No change there then.
This is not the rhetoric of a social democrat – indeed, that half of his party was entirely absent from Clegg’s speech, with its focus on financial rectitude and moral goodness, on bashing Labour and out-flanking the Tories. Tim Farron, the party’s president, can tell as many jokes about the Conservatives as he wishes; Chris Huhne can conjure a phantom tea party tendency from nowhere in an attempt to burnish his left-wing credentials; and Vince Cable can continue to look pained and isolated every time he posits a policy position, only for it to be torn down by Andrew Neil hours afterwards: Nick Clegg has put it better than anyone else could. What are the words that best some up the Liberal Democrats’ policy positions? “Not easy, but right.”
Still, he was correct in one key regard: Labour continue to seem clueless as to how to respond to the economic nightmare engulfing Europe and the USA. In an interview with his critical supporter Mehdi Hassan in the latest New Statesman, Ed Miliband promises to “tear up the rule book”: “what I am going to be arguing is that the set of things I’ve talked about – the squeezed middle, what’s happened to young people, responsibility at the top and bottom – they’re not coincidences or accidents; they’re part of an economic and political settlement of some decades and that settlement’s got to change.” This sounds OK – but to do any of this effectively Labour must emphasise truly collectivist policies, and Miliband find it in himself and in his party to abandon cold political calculation for an evangelical spirit that can shift a paradigm. The last party leader to achieve such a shift from consensus, and to set up a new one in turn, was of course Thatcher – and she had the luxury of springing it on her electors whilst in office. Labour has in the last eighteen months shown none of the muscle necessary to begin this work in opposition, despite some notable hard-hitting during the phone hacking scandal. They need to find that strength now, in no small part because the leader of what was once one of the two main progressive parties in the United Kingdom yesterday argued that union ‘barons’ are morally equivalent with bankers and media moguls.
When there is a political voice that will speak out against those sort of veering right-turns, expect more politics in these pages. Meanwhile, I’ll be with Deborah Orr in the corner.