Monday 26 May 2014

We still need Clegg - but we need to release him from Prison Whitehall

"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'..."

That was what the BBC European Service daily directive said in February 1942 when Singapore fell. It seems to me an appropriate thought for today, not just because of the Lib Dem results but because a party which forces Moslem schoolchildren to eat pork has won the support of a quarter of all French voters.

But, as the directive said, we have to be authentic at times like this. The excision of emotions by spin and bureaucracy is partly responsible for our plight.

The BBC European Service at the time was actually independent of the BBC and run by a maverick propagandist, and Liberal, called Noel Newsome. He was kicked out by the BBC at the end of the war, which has lived off his reputation for telling the truth ever since. Newsome stood for the Liberal Party in 1945 in Cockermouth and very narrowly lost.

He also believed that his wartime wireless service, operating across three networks, for 36 hours a day and in 20 languages – still the biggest broadcasting operation of its kind – would be the foundation stone of a new Europe. The British government vetoed the idea. Needless to say.

It is worth, today of all days, taking that story a little further, because it provides another background to today. Newsome was involved in the reorganisation of the Liberal Party in 1946, and ten years later that party had become a force capable of building up slowly – and these things have to build slowly, as Nigel Farage will discover – to turn the UK government upside down.

Jo Grimond’s Liberal Party provided an intellectual critique of technocracy. That was what gave the Liberal Revival electoral power. It is what enabled it to turn local government inside out in the 1980s and 90s. And, speaking personally, it absolutely captured my imagination.

As a new graduate in 1980, I remember having a wager with my grandparents that the Liberals would get 50 seats at the next election. In the event, the rise and fall of the SDP put paid to that, but we achieved it in 2001, long after my grandparents had died.

What kept me going during those years as an activist, and kept the electorate committed, was the continuing relevance of the Liberal critique. It was populist, but not by pandering to temporary emotions, but because it was based on an intellectual critique and an intellectual tradition. It had real ideas at its heart,

As I trudged the pavements, and canvassed myself hoarse in my twenties, during the early Thatcher years – I canvassed the night the Sheffield sank, and everything changed – it was a set of ideas I believed I was representing: that people had needs and capabilities that the technocratic systems were ignoring. That people mattered.

What I feel most strongly today is that this will have to remain true. The Lib Dems will not survive unless they develop these ideas and that critique – unless there is a depth and a purpose behind their existence that answers people’s needs, fears and aspirations.

If the ideas are allowed to corrode, we will go back to what we were in the 1930s, desperately seeking a compass, committed to the worn-out compromises of a generation before.

It also matters very much whose side we are on – and Ukip have portrayed themselves as being on people’s side, the ‘peasant’s revolt’, as Boris Johnson put it.

My reading of the tea leaves, for what it is worth, is that the Lib Dems will win 46 seats at the general election and Ukip will win no more than three. But for that to happen, the Lib Dems will need to have a reasonable claim to be a peasant’s revolt too. Because, if the only political force declared against technocracy – as Jean-Marie le Pen used to put it – is the far right, then they will garner the votes.

In that respect, the disaster of 2014 is partly the political fall-out from the banking collapse of 2008, delayed, potent and ferocious. In the UK, it is partly also about the failure of the Lib Dems to demonstrate unambiguously that their ultimate purpose is to represent the peasants, so to speak. Not to look after their interests, in a distant, paternalist way. Not to support the unsupportable because it will be good for them in the end. But to give them power and trust them with it.

Given that, the great failure of the party has been partly to trust to positioning rather than passion, and partly their failure during the decade before going into government to develop that intellectual critique.

In other words, the decline in support for the Lib Dems began in 2001, not 2010, and has been primarily an intellectual failure, not a failure in marketing.

Yes, we were right to go into government, but we were foolhardy to do so without having hammered out an agenda for the economy and public services beforehand. Of course we lacked enough of a recognisably distinctive agenda once the doors of Whitehall had closed behind us, at least on those to crucial policy areas.

There lie the seeds of the party’s difficulties today, and they are the fault of ten wasted years and not the fault of the leader. Neither on the right nor on the left of the party were the years of preparation spent developing our intellectual critique – and especially not in economics.

Everyone appears to be searching for someone to blame. Personally, I blame the euro: I always said it would risk fascism in Europe and so it has proved. I blame the failure to tackle the banks. But I blame the Lib Dem result on ten fallow years when the party seemed to believe that everything could be achieved through an ecstasy of clever positioning.

So, no, I don’t share the opinion that the Lib Dems need a new leader, and not just because dropping the pilot at this stage throws out the party’s best hope of a convincing narrative – that we acted to save the nation, and suffered for it.

Nor because my admiration for Nick Clegg has grown steadily over the years, as he has dealt with skill and humour with the vilification thrown and him, and the exhausting effort to force anything through a complex, constipated system of government. 

Nor because I believe history will vindicate his difficult decisions, if not every decision - by any means - taken by the coalition.

It is because the party’s losses have been the result of a collective intellectual failure by the party, lulling itself into an intellectual cul-de-sac where they believed they were some kind of giant Royal Commission, weighing up evidence, and where they lost the passion for that intellectual crusade which had begun to gather steam back in 1946, out of the seeds of defeat.

It is because Nick Clegg is the only potential leader who seems to me to be able to provide that edge we need – a crusading idea, to claw back the tentacles of technocracy, to break those tired old compromises – that will allow us to claw back, at the same time, the dozing liberalism of the nation.

He can do it. If he has channelled the disapproval of the left, he has done so on behalf of the party and the mistakes and omissions we all made – and it can only dig us deeper in the hole to drop him now.

I’m a bit wary of offering him advice, partly because he won’t see it, partly because he gets too much of it already. But it is this: get out of the Whitehall prison, and grasp your destiny – which is to articulate the new intellectual crusade to put people first.

It sounds portentous to say so, but I have come to believe that the future of Europe now depends on him doing so.


Felix Dodds said...

Dear David,
As always your blog is an interesting read. This time from a cafe in Apex North Carolina.
As someone who also blogs I recognize that not everything can be put in to it that would create the fuller picture.
I do enjoy the historical references and you are absolutely right about the lost ten years where economic policy has been like a vacant lot in the street of policies :-) Saying that its not as if there hasnt been someone in the party who could and at times has been able to profoundly comment on the financial problems and that has been Vince.
On the leadership the problem with Liberals is at times we are just too nice. But leadership in the party is also about recognizing when the present leader has to go. We hasnt lead us well on economics (a disaster by Liberal terms), on education we broke a promise he made to everyone on tuition fees which the party has never recovered from, he has taken the party to the right on green issues like nuclear power. The mess on Chris that he has overseen. The policy of Syria which was prepared to ignore the UN (unliek our policy in opposition which gained much support). A new leader would enable the party to do what you and I would like to see and would show the general public that we are listening to them and would be able to present a new agenda for the next election.
There are huge challenges ahead with new technologies that are coming with the energy, food and water nexus of the next 20 years and climate change and where is the party on these issues. Time not only for a new leader but for a Liberal Commission on the economy and 2030

Unknown said...

Hmmm. The LibDems were wiped out in Islington this week. They ran the borough until 2010. The official opposition is now the Green Party, with their one councillor. Were I a LibDem councillor or local supporter I suspect I'd like to see Clegg & Cable et al tarred and feathered...

Anonymous said...

But to give them power and trust them with it

But the Liberal Democrats don't trust the peasants -- the peasants who were against same-sex marriage, who want to restrict immigration and have a more distant relationship with Europe rather than 'ever closer union', the peasants who rejected electoral reform -- with power.

And the peasants know it. They know that the Liberal Democrats are only 'Democrats' provided the demos agrees with them.

I find the Lib Dems actually the most paternalistic and condescending of the parties, because with the others, you get the impression that they understand you might just disagree with them. That they realise that politics is a question of priorities: whether you prioritise social welfare over personal autonomy, for example, will determine where you stand on low taxes vs public spending. There isn't a 'right' answer. It's a question of where you draw the balance.

But talking to a Lib Dem, you very often get the impression that it's not about priorities, but in fact that all political questions have correct answers, and that those are the answers espoused by the Liberal Democrats, and that if you don't agree with them then either they haven't explained them well enough so they will do that more SLOWLY and CLEARLY, or there is something wrong with you (you're not intelligent enough, you're a bigot, you're a 'tribal voter' who doesn't really think for themselves, you're working to perpetuate the old system because you benefit from it, etc).

It's very condescending and people don't like it and people won't vote for it.

The Lib Dems will be very very lucky to have thirty seats this time next year (and UKIP still won't have even one).

Matthew Green said...

I think anonymous provides a vivid illustration of what David is trying to say, though I don't think she or he thinks you can be liberal and with the peasants at the same time...

Unknown said...

As someone who lectured on the subject of "Marketing" may I take you up on a couple of lines in your blog... You said "In other words, the decline in support for the Lib Dems began in 2001, not 2010, and has been primarily an intellectual failure, not a failure in marketing." In fact "Marketing" INCLUDES formulation of the PRODUCT as well as advertising and promotion - so the intellectual failure you refer to WAS part of the marketing effort - or rather lack of it - the LibDem PRODUCT was deficient and not fit for purpose.

You are correct, of course, in identifying the fact that it was an intellectual failure but the electoral key to the decline in support is that a large proportion of the LibDem support base felt betrayed because they were to the political left and the party provided coalition support for their nemesis. So far the LibDems have not yet managed to explain how that might have benefitted their support base.

john Laband said...

I would have thought tending ones resignation was a matter of good manners if the party has lost half its electoral support under Nick's lrsdership. The party may not accept it but it should be given the chance to decide. This isn't china under Mao after all. I think Vince versus farage might have been a better choice.