Politics needs a Liberal party, but just maybe not the Lib Dems

“Where have all the rebels gone graffiti” by Robert Anasch on Unsplash

I read the Oped this morning by Matthew Parris in The Times on Vince Cable and the future of the Lib Dems. [Vain Vince is the biggest failure in politics https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/the-vanity-of-vince-cable-has-blighted-politics-qkkjztxpp ]

I set out wanting to say the article was a bit unfair but by the end agreed that the Lib Dems are going nowhere if they continue to cherry pick the bits they liked about the coalition years. It’s too late now but there was a lot more than wind farms and bag taxes they should have defended. Otherwise what was the point of their time in office and was suffering the electoral setbacks they then subsequently suffered worth it for the fleeting taste of power and the minor victories they claim credit for?

I will state now that what I am about to write is not going to be popular with Lib Dems, but sometimes an external view of an organisations travails is better than one from behind the wall.

Cable spends a lot of his time talking about how he wants to be like the Canadian Liberals but these analogies rarely work because Canadian politics throws up radical voting shifts in the way UK national politics does not. Remember the Canadian Conservatives? I think the issue for them is a simpler one, they are very confused as to what they stand for and there are constant contradictions between the various factions that make up the Lib Dems.

History is always helpful here. The Liberal party of the mid-nineteenth century was formed from a Whig splinter, free trade Peelites and a few radicals. This type of realignment through alliance is, in my view, the only way a third party could emerge again. Remember, before the SDP split in the 80’s the then Liberal Party had about 19 MPs — sound familiar? What is clear is that the current Lib Dem party is not a traditional Liberal party as it does not really support free trade or Liberalism. The then Liberal philosophy of Steel, Beith, Ashdown et al do not sit as comfortably in the party of Farron, Cable and Swinson. In the battle between Liberalism and social democracy that has raged since the SDP merger, it is clear that the more left-leaning social democracy has won. The Lib Dems are not the centrist party they claim for they are left-leaning, unless somehow being avowedly pro-EU is centrist and everything else is radical? Putting aside my view that the centre is never static and the centre merely represents which political orthodoxy of the time has become ascendant, it was not that many years ago that the Lib Dems were proud that they would not be categorised as left, right or centre but then opportunism never breeds consistency.

Even amongst the recent senior Lib Dem members this dichotomy is visible. The Liberals of which David Laws was a prime example (happily at home working with the Conservatives) has fled the scene. Those in the party now do not have a Liberal pedigree; Vince himself was a Labour member who went with the SDP, Ed Davey has frequently commented that his first political intention at University was to join the Green’s (certainly not a liberal party). The party itself in both national politics is far more comfortable banning things, fining behaviour or creating laws and regulations, none of these is the sign of a Liberal view on the rights of the individual. I accept they are keen to stand up to the rights of “some” individuals when it suits them but they are less keen when that behaviour threatens their view of the world.

As an example, standing up for the rights of the LGBT+ community is widely accepted but you will not find any Lib Dem speaking up for what are really Liberal policies such as Free schools, Foundation Hospitals, the power of free markets, the power of the UK as a free trading nation, the liberty of a sovereign state or, it seems, even the freedom of democracy to take a decision with which they don’t agree. Their lack of values even means they cannot stand and speak for the Government they were part of and helped sustain, even though the lesson is that constantly attacking the Conservatives brings them no electoral gains. Instead, the Lib Dems have become a lost soul, statist, European social democratic party which believes more in the power of the state to regulate than it does liberal values. When the only thing the party stands for is rigging a second referendum to stay in the EU then it is little surprise it gets little media airtime.

Given all this, what should they do if they wish to survive in the post-Brexit world? I agree with Cable that debating their future is almost pointless until after we have left the EU. Today, debates about Liberalism or social democracy are irrelevant to the Lib Dems because of their stated Brexit position. Both sides of the argument exist in the Conservative party, that is not the case in the Lib Dems. Unsurprisingly, the British people are not that interested in a party that offers only one thing. After Brexit, like all parties, they need to redefine themselves. It won’t be clever policies that helps them but a different identity and that needs to be done in the context of deciding what Liberalism is. In a post Brexit world a truly free trade Liberal party, that moves away from its social liberal past and truly embraces the traditional liberal values of a free society with individual freedom, civil rights, democracy, secularism, gender and race equality, internationalism and the freedoms of speech, the press, religion and markets could well be something that would be attractive to those who desire to be centrists — just as long as you don’t boringly call them moderates.

The Labour party appears to want to be a New Socio-Communitarian party, the Conservatives seem committed to a balancing of state interventionism, public duty and rights whilst a truly Liberal and Libertarian ideology might well flourish.

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