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Commentary 331 – February 2009
14 February 2009 (15:07:27)


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 ministers.”

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.


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 something else.

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 party.

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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