The Strange Undeath of Liberal England

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.



5 thoughts on “The Strange Undeath of Liberal England

  1. Hi there Dan,

    Good to see you touching on the political again…

    I saw the newsnight debate. On the one hand I found myself feeling very sympathetic to Orr- now is pretty much an abysmal time to be a member from the social democratic wing of the lib dem party- on the other hand, I found her complaints to be quite ridiculous. You say ‘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’ I never realised that Ashdown, Kennedy or Campbell stood against the free market consensus? She almost, to me, tried to make out the Liberal democrat party to be something it never has- some sort of modern day descendent of socialist principles. She isn’t simply a left leaning Liberal who’s disapointed in current policy but some anti establishment idealist who somehow managed to trick herself into supporting the wrong party. Of course, there are a hell of a lot more where she came from and the lib dems did nothing to discourage these types of voters when benefitting from their votes in opposition.

    As for Clegg, I haven’t particularly noticed a change of tone. Clegg has never particularly had statist leanings. Also, Clegg has always spoken about the Union’s as vested interests, right from his very first speech as party leader ( or at least his second). I don’t see this as a- shock horror Clegg has suddenly changed his views now in government! Clegg has always viewed the torys as the competition and Labour as the opposition. The trouble is Clegg has never been able to sell this old liberal view to a predominantly socially democratic party membership.

  2. danhartland says:

    I’m not sure you can absolve the Lib Dems – and Clegg’s Lib Dems in particular – of precisely courting voters like Orr. Let’s assume for a second that you’re right, and that she’s not a Liberal or a Social Democrat, but an airy-fairy anti-establishment idealist (you do her a disservice, I think!); she would not, then, have rightful reason to feel aggrieved that Nick ‘New Politics’ Clegg has, as soon as he is able, abandoned all the policies he so clearly never believed in and embraced a liberalism which emphasises the power of markets and enterprise?

    On which note, allow me to hold my hands up and confess some exaggeration on the ‘consensus converts’ front! But the point behind the rhetorical effect remains the same: where the Liberal Democrats once emphasised state action and equality of outcome, they now place their trust in freeing individuals and equality of opportunity. That really is a matter of making the best of what we have rather than seeking to transform it. You’re absolutely right that Clegg has always been on the right of his party – what I’m arguing is that he is beginning to embed his vision more permanently in its make-up.

    (And I owe you an email, don’t I? :))

  3. After reading some of Orr’s articles perhap’s I was too quick to make assumptions… she’s not as bad as I thought. I still have my doubts that she’s is actually a liberal, though!

    Again, Nick Clegg has always stressed ‘freeing indivduals’ and ‘equality of oppurtunity’, throughout his time as leader, to the point that that sort of rhetoric defines his liberal outlook. I fail to see much of a change in Clegg’s emphasise- at all really. Where I agree is that he never managed to sell that to the party as a whole(or the public for that matter). What I don’t get is this argument of ‘He beleived in one thing prior to the election and another in government’. I mean, don’t you find this to be a rather simplistic argument? Surely, one doesn’t expect the party who came third in the general election- a party that has the fewest votes and the fewest seats- to be able to lay down the law when it comes to what’s implemented and what isn’t? The fact they have as much influence as they do is pretty incredible, to me.

    It come down to this, really- Those on the left are angry that the lib dems turned out NOT to be the labour party, something which should have been pretty obvious from the out set. There’s a difference between genuine lib dem members and supporters who feel uneasy- or in some cases angry- about the coalition and those on the labour leaning left who feel aggrieved by what the lib dems are doing. Essentially, a large amount of people who never voted for the lib dems, were never particularly supportive of the lib dems and, in fact, never took the lib dems particularly seriously now feel that they were personally betrayed by the lib dem party? I’m sorry but I find that somewhat laughable. To dislike the idea of coalition politics is legitimate, to dislike this government and their policies is legitimate but to paint the lib dem as snakes is just a whole load of cynical spin by those on the left who can’t get over that the tories are back in power and need to find a narrative to help Labour back on it’s feet (Which is ironic considering it was Blair’s labour party, and not the lib dems, who provide the biggest example of selling out in post war British politics).

    • danhartland says:

      You’re absolutely right that the ‘Clegg the turncoat’ argument is facile. You’ll recall I was telling everyone who’d listen not to vote Lib Dem at the last election, and there was a reason for that: I’d actually listened to what Clegg was saying. πŸ˜› I do think, though, that he has been emboldened by government to snip away the social democratic trimmings from his shop window.

      I’m an equal opportunities attack dog: you’ve seen me lay into the Tories just as much (and I don’t think much of Ed Miliband so far, as you know). My problem with Clegg and the Lib Dems is less that they betrayed me – I didn’t vote for them, and you’re right that therefore they’re incapable of betraying me. My problem is that their current platform seems to me profoundly unsound: Clegg seems to want to improve equality whilst undermining the institutions which make equality possible. His party seem supine in their willingness to let him trash their recent history in favour of some rose-tinted vision of Joe Chamberlain.

      More of this as the parliament grinds on, no doubt … πŸ™‚

      • Forgive me, I wasn’t referring to you in my post! I was talking in general about the standard of left wing commentry in recent times (I have to point out that I have nothing against the left philosophy. I just think where the centre left of this country stands, nowadays, is in a pretty shoddy position- for various reasons).

        Keep up the political posts…!

        ps. On a completely different note, in the ‘Sounds we like section absolutel;y agree about the new Marling. It might be her best yet, even…

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