Monday 11 May 2015

Liberalism isn't dead, it's just been hit by a truck

"We're British people, with all their qualities and faults, with feelings and emotions, and not denationalised, impersonal polyglot cynics with the generous emotions of a fish, intimidated by fears that what we feel like saying will be 'bad propaganda'."

Any guesses? It was the morning directive written by the director of the BBC European Service, Noel Newsome, on the news of the fall of Singapore in 1942.  It isn't quite how we would express ourselves now, but I thought of it on Friday after the news of the general election results.

Newsome led a staff of 500, broadcasting in more than 30 languages, the biggest broadcasting operation in the world, then and now.  He was also a Liberal.  He believed that, for the BBC news to sound authentic across occupied Europe, it must not be spun.  It had to sound British.  It's origins had to be obvious.  It was a sophisticated and controversial point of view.

I think he was right.  You have to be human about these things.  You can't spin them.  You can't pretend, as Nigel Farage did, that you somehow don't mind.

That was, anyway, my feeling when I was woken at 5.45 on the morning of May 8 by the Guardian, asking me to write about it for Comment is Free.  I had an hour or so to work out what other disasters I had missed in the previous few hours and get my thoughts together.  Here it is.

I was pleased, of course, that they decided to publish it again in the paper the following morning.  But nervous.

For one thing, my raw feelings of 24 hours before had changed somewhat.  I'd begun to see things a little more clearly.  For another, they stuck a headline on which said that the Liberal project was 'dead', which I emphatically didn't believe, and didn't say.

Yes, it had been hit by a ten-ton truck, and was in intensive care, but it was definitely, emphatically, still alive.

I was also little ashamed that I was wallowing in my own grief - and the results felt to many of us like a bereavement - when I had it easy compared to so many others.  I had not given years of dedicated, imaginative and tough-minded service to the nation and the party, only to find myself out of office and out of a job - and on television too.

People who had genuinely made a difference like Danny Alexander, or pioneered the revival of apprenticeships like Vince Cable, or been a brilliant and much-loved MPs like Tessa Munt and Martin Horwood and Andrew George and so many others.  It seemed so desperately undeserved. I will write about Nick Clegg in a few days' time, but I feel particularly proud to have been involved in the party under his leadership.

No, they didn't get everything right - who does? - but my goodness they tried, and nothing I wrote should detract from that.

I have realised in the last few days how much I have needed to believe, throughout my adult life, that the world was improving, the causes I've devoted so much energy to growing in strength.  To encounter such a setback has been a profound shock for many of us - especially as we are now ruled by an elected-yet-unelected selection of privileged people who don't understand the modern world, and whose power is now unfettered.

But I'll tell you what I did.  I went for a long walk last night, up on the past behind my house and onto the South Downs Way, the old white track used back to the Stone Age.  It put these disasters into the context of history.  A little.  History fluctuates, after all.

Speaking of which, I keep thinking of the 1945 general election as a disappointment for Liberals almost as great as 2015 - reduced to 12 seats, a charismatic leader who had been a successful coalition minister, a campaign focusing on international issues when the  voters wanted to hear about social ones, and huge Liberal hopes...

Noel Newsome, mentioned above, left his job running Radio Luxembourg to contest Penrith and Cockermouth  for the Liberals and came within 2,600 votes of unseating the sitting Conservative. These days, the seat is next to Tim Farron's where he managed to win more than 50 per cent of the vote on Thursday.

More of Newsome another day.  In the meantime, I hope those non-Liberals who read this blog will forgive me for my single-minded focus on Liberalism for the next few days - I can't help it...

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Iain King said...

Nicely put, David. But the flipside of putting it all in the historical context is that, and assuming it'll eventually flow back the the other way again, is this: even things which felt eternal when they were brought in (the Human Rights Act, Fixed Term Parliaments, even the more liberal approach to LGBT issues etc) are made transient and temporary. Progress ceases to be the bankable achievements which infuse Lib Dem rhetoric. Rather, it becomes a force pushing against another, sometimes winning, sometimes losing.

David Boyle said...

I agree, Iain. I'm trying to rid myself of the Whig view of history!

Penelope Newsomet said...

The Liberals had not contested Penrith and Cockermouth for the twenty years before Newsome stood in 1945. The local organisation was almost nonexistent. However, Newsome , very popular with voters as The Man in the Street on the BBC had an excellent chance of winning . What lost him the seat was the sudden lossof support from the local branch of the National Farmers'Union , on the grounds that Newsome was standing against Churchill."A crowning irony " wrote Newsome "in the light of my deep devotion to the great man "( during his many years of supporting Churchill as Director of the European Service at the BBC and as a journalist writing against appeasement of Hitler from as early as 1933). The NFU put up their own man as an Independent and, splitting the farming vote, took the 2,600 votes by which Newsome lost the seat. The Conservative won.

I campaigned for tactical voting at the last election, begging smaller parties not to split the opposition , knowing that splintering the votes would let in the Conservatives and lose the seats for many good Lib Dem and Labour MPs. I wouldn't like to have to always recommend tactical voting, but until we get a good PR electoral system it seems the only way to avoid a totally unrepresentative outcome. Some deals over seats between opposition parties may have to be done if we are not to have the Tories in power for yet another term after this.