Monday, 10 March 2014

The real evil is power without purpose

I am old enough to have worked in the Liberal assembly press office back in 1986, the year of the ‘ten-fingers-on-the nuclear button’ furore which tore apart the Liberal-SDP Alliance.

I remember the raging arguments in the corridor after David Steel’s furious speech, tearing into his own party:

“I’m not interested in power without principles, but I am only marginally interested in principles without power.”

It will certainly be in Duncan Brack’s excellent new Dictionary of Liberal Quotations.

Looking back, now the party has power of a kind, this opposition of power and principles seems to reek of the peculiar culture of Liberals. I’m not even sure it is the right question.

The real problem in Westminster is that it is packed to the gunwhales with highly skilled professional politicians, who are adept at the techniques of gathering power to themselves. They imbibe it in their mother’s milk, have it in their tea at Eton, learn it in the corridors of power as research assistants and special advisors and finally they do it themselves.

The problem isn’t that they are power-crazed tyrants; it is altogether different. They get the power only to find that they haven’t got the foggiest idea what to do with it.

For the sake of argument, let’s call it the Blair Paradox. You might also call it the Brown Paradox, because the two great rivals shared it.

They tweaked the system so much that they were able to gather the reins of the nation’s horse in their hands.

But by then, they had become so much a part of the complex system of government that they found it next to impossible to imagine anything much outside the status quo.

This is important for the Lib Dems because they have survived the trauma of coalition – and it has been an exciting roller-coaster but deeply traumatic at times – by suffusing themselves in the science of political pragmatism.

The sheer intractability of the system drove them to become experts in the details of making things happen in Whitehall. I am impressed by it but nervous about it too.

The bitterest battle at the Lib Dem conference in York was over regionalism, which seems an appropriately Liberal cause to get cross about.

It wasn’t between the people with principles and the people with power, it was between those who wanted to think through the philosophy from first principles, and those who wanted to put up with an untidy solution because that was the only way anything would happen.

Now, it happens that I believe in untidy solutions. They are consistent with localism and with human beings.

But I felt I detected the revival of the logical thinkers at the conference, re-thinking the way the world is.

Was it that, or was it just the last throw of the old defunct causes which we clung to during the 1970s and 1980s?  I don’t know.

But it is important. Liberalism will survive in the long-term by nurturing both kinds of knowledge – the purity of imagination, to see the world differently, but also the hard-headed business of making it happen.

When St Augustine urged us to be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves, I have a feeling he was talking directly to the Lib Dems.

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