Monday 13 April 2015

The antidote to nationalism: Liberalism

It is now four days since an incredibly bored Daily Telegraph correspondent on the Lib Dem battlebus tweeted in desperation that the bus had just run over a pigeon.

It was a dull day on the election front - it usually is (did you understand a word of Ed Balls' interview on the Today programme this morning?) - and the political media fell about laughing, presumably because they believe the Lib Dems are doomed and that this was some kind of omen.  I was even commissioned to write about it for the Guardian.  You can see what I came up with here.

But the exercise made some things come home to me powerfully.  One was what makes this election different from others: this will be remembered as the nationalist general election.  It is the election where the real issues have become confused because it isn't clear where the heart of the debate lies.

The truth is, it isn't really about spending commitments or otherwise - which most of the electorate take with a pinch of salt.  The central debate is about nationalism, English and Scottish.

This is the case most obviously in Scotland, of course.  One of the peculiarities of UK politics is that Liberalism and celtic nationalism often look a bit like each other.  They both seem to back local self-determination.  I remember my great-aunt (a liberal and a Liberal) saying that the only nationalism that English Liberals have a soft spot for is Irish nationalism.

In fact, the contrast could not be greater.  Liberalism is about self-determination at every level, local, regional and personal.  For nationalists, it is the nation and only the nation that counts - and that overrides local interests just as it over-rides personal ones.  That is why nationalism ends up sooner or later in intolerance.

That is all the more important in England where the intolerance is clearer and where, I have come to believe, that there is some kind of reverse relationship between Lib Dem and Ukip support. It seems clear to me that the Ukip vote is now falling and the Lib Dem vote rising, but so little that this isn't obvious yet.  Even so, I predict that Ukip will end up behind in the national vote share as well as seats.

That would then be for me the main message of the campaign, if it was to come about: tolerance and genuine self-determination faces down nationalism.  And in Scotland, I have a feeling that only a Lib Dem vote will achieve it.

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