FIRST SHOOTS OF SPRING?
Nick Clegg is to be congratulated on his criticism of the Israeli
assault on the Gaza Strip. While leaders of the other parties were indulging in
the usual hand-wringing platitudes in an effort to appear ‘even-handed’, Clegg
spelt out a clear moral stand.
In an article in the Guardian (7 January), he argued that “Israel’s approach is
self-defeating: the overwhelming use of force, the unacceptable loss of civilian
lives, is radicalising moderate opinion among Palestinians and throughout the
Arab world. Anger in the West Bank will make it virtually impossible for Mahmoud
Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, to continue to talk to Israeli
Clegg also called for a halt to British and EU arms exports to Israel. His
no-nonsense approach was echoed by both Ming Campbell and Ed Davey in
parliamentary debates. None of them seemed the least bit deterred by any threats
from the pro-Israel lobby.
A few days later, in an interview in the Financial Times (20 January), Clegg had
the courage to say what few other leading politicians will admit, when he argued
that Britain must prepare to ditch the pound and join the euro, to salvage the
public finances and prevent the “permanent decline” of the City.
In the same interview, Clegg attacked leading figures in the City and the
“shameful elevation of greed and corporate overreach”, with chief executives
hypnotised by the “vain belief that size matters”. Clegg added, “It makes you
livid, it beggars belief that the one industry that is supposed to count your
money in and out cannot say how much money it has lost.”
Until now, Clegg has tended to make bland, media-massaged statements full of
clichés about ‘struggling families’. The advice of the conservative PR men in
the bunker clearly predominated and there seemed to be an overriding fear of
causing offence to the Daily Mail.
Clegg is rumoured to have spent his Christmas holiday agonising over the
concocting of a new set of ‘core messages’. Our advice is not to bother. He has
more impact when he trusts his liberal instincts. His recent statements on Gaza,
the euro and the City are morally right, clear and distinctive. The party needs
more statements like this and less of the PR twaddle.
BLUES UNDER THE BED
How much longer will the Liberal Democrats continue to tolerate
acts of subversion within their party?
There have been intense efforts in recent years to convert the Liberal Democrats
from a social liberal party into a classical liberal or even libertarian party.
The latest example is Mark Littlewood’s fringe group, Liberal Vision. But the
plotting began at the beginning of the decade when some new converts from the
Tories joined Mark Oaten and others to move the party to the right.
The first manifestation of this trend was the launch by Oaten in 2001 of the
Peel Group, whose stated aim was to attract defectors from the Tories by making
the Liberal Democrats more like the Tories.
Defectors from other parties are always welcome provided they are attracted by
the values and policies of the Liberal Democrats. What is not acceptable is to
do what Littlewood and his allies have done: defect from the Tories, find the
Liberal Democrats uncongenial and so set about trying to turn the party into
At the root of this problem is the fact that classical liberals in Britain do
not have a party of their own. In the late nineteenth century, liberalism
underwent a schism because of fundamentally different ideas of what constitutes
‘freedom’. Classical liberals believe only in negative freedoms and the primacy
of property rights. Social liberals believe also in positive freedoms, that
individuals cannot be free without positive rights such as education and
health-care. These two philosophies cannot co-exist in one party because the
differences – in particular over whether social justice is a legitimate
political goal – have such profound implications for policy.
The Orange Book travestied political history by claiming the party had
somehow been ‘stolen’ from classical liberals and that they wanted it back. This
was a bogus narrative and the authors knew it.
The Liberal Democrats belong firmly to the social liberal camp. This is
unambiguous in the preamble to the party’s constitution, which includes the aim,
“no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”.
The derisory 6% vote for Liberal Vision’s Chandila Fernando in the party’s
recent presidential election suggests that classical liberalism has little
appeal. No wonder Liberal Vision seeks to abolish party membership and all
internal democracy. But while these right wingers are unlikely to succeed in
their objectives, they are capable of causing a great deal of instability in the
So here’s a challenge to the people in and around Liberal Vision. Have the
honesty and the guts to propose a constitutional amendment to the party
conference, which calls for the deletion from the preamble of the words “and in
which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”. That’s what
this argument is basically about, so let’s just cut to the chase.
Then when the debating and voting are done, accept your defeat and clear off.
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