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Commentary 319 – July 2007
08 July 2007 (12:04:50)


Menzies Campbell was right to reject Gordon Brown’s offer of ministerial posts for Liberal Democrats, but wrong to hesitate and issue equivocal denials before he did so.

Brown’s offer was an obvious trap – accept and the Lib Dems would be neutered as an independent party; reject and they would be cast as the obstacle to realignment. Campbell should have replied immediately and publicly with a well-known phrase involving sex and travel.

The damage done by responses about “not responding to tittle-tattle” gave added life to the story and caused alarm in the party.

That alarm did not stem just from Brown’s offer, but from a weight of past history of shadowy and disreputable dealings between senior Liberal Democrats and Labour.

Paddy Ashdown’s diaries lay bare how he deceived his party over his relations with Tony Blair before and after the 1997 general election. Campbell was at that time one of few senior figures who supported Ashdown in these endeavours, and his inept speech at Harrogate (Liberator 317), in which he appeared to set conditions for a coalition with Brown, reawakened old suspicions.

Given that toxic background, it is no wonder that the party erupted in baffled anger that Campbell should even have discussed the idea of Liberal Democrat ministers, let alone failed immediately and publicly to reject it.

Campbell was forced to respond with a welcome assertion that the Lib Dems are a “strong, confident and principled voice of opposition” and an independent party.

Despite this, there are still some party members who cannot grasp that concept. Even as Campbell sought to undo the damage, the media and party websites filled with observations from half-wits about how the Lib Dems had ‘rejected power’ or preferred to ‘remain pure’ rather than take up Brown’s offer. Such critics obviously cannot tell the difference been making compromises and being compromised.

Brown did not offer power. He offered a bit of window-dressing in a Labour government, which is not remotely similar to a post-election coalition in a hung parliament and would have ensured that almost all Lib Dem MPs who face a Tory challenge would have lost their seats.

There are, sadly, still Lib Dems who see coalition politics as an end in itself. Coalitions might be the normal consequence of proportional representation but we do not have that at Westminster and, even if we did, a coalition should be only a means to the end of implementing Lib Dem policy.

Recent events in Scotland and Wales show that, even under PR, there can be perfectly sensible reasons for declining to enter a coalition.

The delusional idea that the public will necessarily prefer parties to collaborate was tested to destruction (and very nearly to the Liberal Party’s destruction) in the Lib-Lab pact.

There are also people who cannot grasp that Labour is an enemy to be fought, not a collection of vaguely misguided people with whom the Lib Dems should collaborate.

Liberal Democrats, and the Liberal Party before them, wasted 25 years – roughly from the Lib-Lab pact to Charles Kennedy’s quiet assassination of the joint cabinet committee – pursuing another delusion: that the way forward lay through Labour’s right wing.

The record of the Blair government should have finally buried the notion that Labour is in some way like the Lib Dems and believes in similar things.

That was the line peddled by those who thought that all would be well if only Labour could get its left wing under control and be taken over by social democrats.

Since 1997 we have had a government unambiguously led by Labour’s right wing, and a repellently ugly thing it has been.

Under Blair, Labour has become the party that supports illegal warfare, the facilitation of torture, corrupt arms dealing, dodgy peerages, a widening gap between right and poor, interference with the secrecy of voting, and an assault on civil liberty on a scale undreamed of even by the Thatcher government.

It is the last point that ought particularly to have sent Campbell running from Brown’s presence and ought to make the party deeply suspicious of any overture from Labour.

While led by that same right-wing that so many Lib Dems said they admired, Labour has sought to turn Britain into a police state in which citizens will have to carry identity cards that contain information they cannot control; account on demand to the police for their movements; be recorded on a DNA database when they have committed no crime; have their movements recorded by CCTV; and; if they transgress any of these measures, appear before judges the government has done its best to intimidate.

It would be bad enough had Labour under Blair merely been indifferent to civil liberty. Instead it has shown itself to be actively opposed to civil liberty and, as such, is an enemy to be fought every bit as much as are the Conservatives.

Were the next election to produce a hung parliament, the Lib Dems can at least take comfort that they will have real negotiating power, with both the other parties making equally likely, and equally uncomfortable, partners.

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