Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Liberal Democrat definition

Nick Clegg's speech to federal conference in Glasgow went down very well in the hall (I watched it on BBC-Parliament) judging by the tweets recorded on Liberal Democrat Voice and on Facebook. I found it an anti-climax - or rather, it reached its climax too soon. (I suspect Gareth Epps will be rather more severe; I haven't read his comments yet.)

It started iffily. A large minority of the party. while appalled by the beheading of non-combatants in Iraq and Syria, is not enthusiastic about any military intervention in the area and I thought Nick struck a false note with cheer-leading for the government on this. Later, he spent rather too much time on education and health, without explaining that he would expect the devolved administrations to match the promises for England and that national Liberal Democrat parties would be fighting for them too. With Clacton and its large retired population in mind, I feel he also missed a trick by emphasising what the party had done in government for security in old age, and what we were committed to in future. He was right, of course, to castigate the Conservatives for aiming to balance the budget on the backs of the richest while giving a further tax hand-out to the richest, but this was such a strong point that I felt it could have come towards the end. The speech closed on an aspirational note, which may, like the main manifesto, go down well in London and south-east England, although not so well in areas where it is a struggle not so much to get on as to get in to work and feel secure there.

But for me he could just as easily have stopped after this early section:
Al Murray – he of Pub Landlord fame – said a great thing on Trafalgar Square in the days leading up to the Scottish referendum. I was there stood in the crowd with thousands of others and it really stuck in my mind. He said that there is something wonderfully vague about being British. After all, he said, that’s why we call ourselves Brit – ish. And it’s true. You can be British as well as Scottish, English, Northern Irish, Welsh…ish. At the same time you can be black, white, Asian, Indian, African, European, mixed, not-mixed. You can be gay, straight, bi-sexual, transgender. Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, atheist.

The Scottish referendum was not only momentous because it reaffirmed Scotland’s place in the UK – and for that I will be eternally grateful for the unbelievable efforts of Willie, Alistair, Danny, Jo, Mike, Charles, Ming, the whole Scottish team… The Scottish referendum was also brilliant because it forced us to hold up a mirror and think about who we are. Four nations, yes, but also 64 million people with identities which are distinct yet overlapping, because these Isles of ours are among the most diverse and inclusive in the world.  

And yet something very un-British is taking root in our politics. A growing movement of people who want to pull us apart. Salmond, Farage, the bitter tribalism of left and right – in their different ways they’re all doing the same thing. A growing pick-a-side politics, in a world of us-versus-them. Worried about your job? Your business? Your children’s future? Your way of life? No matter, just blame Europe/Brussels/foreigners/immigrants/the English/the South/professional politicians/Westminster/big business/anybody claiming benefits/ even onshore wind farms… …Life is so simple when you know who – or what – to blame.

It’s seductive and it’s beguiling. That much may even be proved tomorrow, if the people of Clacton give the UK Independence Party an MP. But resentment, the politics of fear, doesn’t pay the bills or create a single job. Claiming to address people’s acute anxiety about the modern world, it provides nothing but the false comfort of grievance. Dressed up as the politics of hope, it is in fact a counsel of despair. Why do you think I took on Nigel Farage in the TV debates at the European elections? Because I thought it would be easy? – me defending Britain’s membership of the EU, him bashing Brussels? No, I did it for the same reason this party must now come out fighting: because someone has to stand up for the liberal Britain in which we and millions of decent, reasonable people believe. For tolerance, compassion, openness, unity – the values this party holds so dear.  

Perhaps part of the feeling of come-down resulted from several inspiring debates earlier in the morning, shamefully under-attended considering, as one speaker reminded us, they dealt with matters so ingrained in traditional Liberals. A motion reaffirming our commitment to further devolution in Wales - and English cities/regions but only by consent - and all the commissions' findings, including addressing Wales under-funding, was passed overwhelmingly. "Rebanking the UK" would increase diversity, encourage peer-to-peer lending, and reduce the dependency of local businesses on the Big Five banks, among other things. Finally, in "Protecting Private Tenants", an injustice in tenancy law was addressed. (The point was made that neither the Conservatives nor Labour - with a few honourable exceptions on the back benches - were interested, for their different reasons, in the situation of private tenants.)

David Laws in his speech yesterday introducing the debate on the pre-manifesto virtually said that if the Liberal Democrat party didn't exist it would have to be invented. (More here if his speech goes on-line) It was not just the fairness in the way we propose to balance the books, but also the way we uphold the rights of the individual against an intrusive state - and the rights of journalists to protect their sources. These would be under threat from majority Labour or Conservative governments.

Ian Birrell and others have asked what the Liberal Democrats are for. In a later article, Birrell even suggested that we had "lost sight of our crucial historic purpose". Mr Birrell, in singling out just Jeremy Browne among LibDems for praise, seems to believe that purpose is solely economic liberalism. I take the contrary view. Traditional Liberal and LibDem themes cropped up again and again in debates in Glasgow 2014 - yea, even land value taxation!

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