What is Simon Jenkins for?

by Stephen Tall on May 9, 2007

Actually, I have a lot of time for him: an excellent and genuinely rounded polemicist, he writes like a dream, and has long championed decentralisation as vital to the restoration of civic life to our communities.

But he has, has always had, a blind spot when it comes to the Liberal Democrats and our predecessor parties – he just does not want us to exist, and today he takes great pleasure in elaborating on this aversion. Why he wants the Lib Dems, and our 26% of the vote, just to vanish is hard to say. After all, anyone who believes in the transformative value of competition should surely welcome a plurality of rival political parties. It’s unlikely any individual will agree wholly with what any one of them says – certainly I don’t agree with all Liberal Democrat policy.

But those of us who believe in the importance of political activism, and the need to engage with our governing institutions, choose a party closest to our views, and recognise we’ll be travelling in the same direction, even if it’s sometimes along parallel lines.

It’s a shame Simon Jenkins hasn’t used his scalpel-sharp intelligence to mount a more interesting critique of the Lib Dems – because there is one to be had, and many of us engage in it, usually behind closed doors, sometimes in public.

As someone on the socially and economically liberal wing of the party, I’d like to see the Lib Dems allow individuals the freedom to lead their own lives. This means putting more trust in the free market, which is usually better than government at reflecting the wishes and needs of individuals. And it means not legislating to outlaw behaviour which offends but does not harm others.

Many in the party will disagree with my prescription. I have no doubt that if we can avoid the temptation to mud-sling (tainting the other side as either ‘Thatcherite’ or ‘Socialist’, according to taste, is never constructive) we can reach an accommodation. That, after all, is the function and value of coming together as a political party.

If the Tories can contain both Edward Leigh and John Bercow, and the Labour Party both Dennis Skinner and David Miliband, I see no reason why the Lib Dems can’t benefit from the talents of both Simon Hughes and David Laws.

Mr Jenkins may feel this compromise results in “a susurration of platitudes”. Certainly that’s the risk, one which applies to all other parties. The alternative is to sit on the sidelines, safely pontificating from the berth of a well-upholstered desk in Faringdon Road or Wapping, and never troubling to get your hands dirty.

And of course it’s not only the Lib Dems who are quite capable of saying different things in different places – that pure-as-the-driven-snow ideologue Mr Jenkins has form.