Wednesday 13 May 2015

It's time we renamed the Lib Dems

There is a well-known story about George Bernard Shaw and Ellen Terry, which her biographers have dismissed as apocryphal.  But then Shaw was always complaining about being importuned by women, so who knows.

"We should have a baby," she is supposed to have told him.  "Then it could have my looks and your brains."

Ah yes, said Shaw - "but what if it had my looks and your brains?"

I was reminded of this in the last few days of the general election campaign, with the Lib Dems producing tweets with characters from the Wizard of Oz, offering to be the brain of Labour and the heart of the Conservatives.

Ah yes, I wanted to say - but what if we ended up as the heart of Labour and the brains of the Conservatives.  A terrible fate, one of them sentimental, mushy, deeply old-fashioned and rather intolerant.  The other atrophied from lack of use.

The trouble with the heart/brain analogy was that you wanted to probe more deeply.  Yes, you want to be the heart of one and the brain of the other - but what are you?

There was something unnerving about it, in retrospect.  Like someone coming to your door and telling you that they could be whatever you wanted them to be.

In the same way, the strange - slightly Vichy-esque - triptych, Stability, Unity, Decency, which the Lib Dems adopted in the final hours of the campaign, begged the question.  Stability for what?  Unity for what?  Not, surely, for their own sake.  They were the means to an unstated end, an unarticulated objective.

But I have been wondered whether the problem is deeper than that, and lies in the basic dualism that has fractured the party in recent years.

Orange Bookers versus Social Liberal Forum types.  Unresolved issues between Libs and Dems.  Hearts versus brains.  As if we are somehow expected to choose one or the other.

I don't know if Tim Farron was seriously proposing changing the party name, but I think he would have been right if he was.  It isn't a solution, but it is a step towards one.

There have always been divisions between the Whiggish types who cluster around the top of the party and the Distributist types, localist, individualist, able to knit together an economic approach and a way to tackle tyranny and slavery.  These are the traditional divisions: they have been pushed out a little by the new Lib and Dem shorthand - a sort of small C conservative version of social democracy that sees little further than defending the institutions of the 1970s.

By suggesting that the party reverts to its original Liberal name, I'm not choosing right against left.  Quite the reverse, in fact.  I'm old enough to remember when the Lib represented the radicals and the Dem represented the line, caricatured by Adrian Slade at the 1982 Liberal assembly in Bournemouth.

Slade pretended to be Roy Jenkins, perhaps unaware that Jenkins would arrive in person, together with David Steel, whose wife Judy then emphasised the embarrassment with a very public giggling fit.

At the height of his peroration, Slade-as-Jenkins described the Alliance as a "great crusade ... to change everything ... just a little bit".

There is the besetting sin of the Lib Dems, to aspire to change everything just a little bit.  At least, I think that is how the public perceives it sometimes.

So I propose that the party launches itself again under its original name, which was after all a proud name - with a great tradition - so that we should no more struggle to hold the two sides together, heart and brain, Lib and Dem and should wrestle to articulate one approach.

Continuing as Lib Dems simply perpetuates the unresolved dualism.  It is lazy; it allows both sides of the divide to wallow in their own versions of conservatism - whether it is defending the 1970s or defending the 1860s (apologies for the caricatures). We need to be forced to be coherent, to hold the two sides together in a new synthesis.  One approach which looks ahead.

One approach that also has to embody the elusive philosopher's stone of the Left - a convincing, effective approach to creating prosperity.  That's what we need to shape and articulate, and it will help us to do so with a party name that doesn't start off by emphasising that it's a compromise.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't that annoy the Liberal Party ( ), a bit?