Mark Oaten: can he set the record straight?

by Stephen Tall on January 13, 2006

A number of Lib Dem bloggers have been pretty beastly to Mark Oaten in the last few days. This has left some others bewildered as to what might have prompted such antagonism for a fellow Lib Dem.

A lot of this suspicion can, I suspect, be traced to an infamous passage from John Harris’s book, So Now Who Do We Vote For?:

Sitting in Parliamentary café, we began talking about his membership of the nascent SDP as a first-time voter repulsed by Thatcherism, but almost as alienated by the Labour Party. … “And then,” he continued, his conversational tone suddenly brightening, “this new modern party comes along that has its own credit cards, that has rather nice logos, that has a modern, professional media launch.”

He now sounded positively evangelical. “They’re wearing suits. They’re driving round in Volvos. It’s claret and chips. It was different, exciting, dynamic. There wasn’t necessarily a philosophical belief: the important thing was, it wasn’t Tory or Labour. And it was modern, it was different.”

The next bit was so startling that I had trouble maintaining my composure. “I only really got a philosophical belief about three years ago,” he admitted. “I’ve gone through this whole process as a pragmatic individual, who’s just by quirk ended up in Parliament. It was only about three years ago that I got it. I was suddenly able to call myself a Liberal, which I’d found difficult to do in the past. It suddenly clicked. Before that, I’d become a Liberal Democrat, I’d got elected to Parliament – but I hadn’t really defined what being a Liberal Democrat meant. …

“Once I got over this barrier of the word Liberal, I suddenly clicked that if you have a philosophical belief that being Liberal is being laissez-faire and not wanting a nanny state, you can suddenly start to impose that on a whole load of political situations. I’ve now been able to get my head around doing it.”

Did Mark really say all this?

If he did, then no-one should be surprised that Lib Dem members view his leadership bid with real scepticism. If he did not, he should set the record straight.