It’s not Britain that’s illiberal, Martin – it’s our political culture

by Stephen Tall on September 12, 2009

Was The Guardian’s Martin Kettle right yesterday to argue, as per his article’s headline, The biggest problem for the Liberal Democrats is illiberal Britain. It was a long, thoughtful piece – and, hey, it’s much better to be talked about than not, especially if you’re a Lib Dem – but, still, it was at best a partial explanation.

Let’s start with the positive stuff. First of all, Mr Kettle acknowledges the various ways in which the party has “been right on so many issues”:

By so many yardsticks, the Lib Dems deserve to be higher in the polls than they are. Michael Meadowcroft, intermittent party loyalist and former MP for Leeds West, listed several of them in a typically forceful Guardian letter today: the economy, Europe, ID cards, Iraq and localism. On all of them, as he says, the Lib Dems have been consistently right. One can add others to the list that Meadowcroft omitted: climate change, police powers, tax, electoral reform. All big subjects on which the Lib Dems have been right most of the time in ways that put the other parties to shame.

Couldn’t have put it better myself. But then there’s the problem of the current opinion polls: the Lib Dems have been tracking in the high-teens, occasionally breaking the 20% barrier. Not too bad by historical standards (as I noted here), but still some way, far too far away, from the long-desired breakthrough. All this at a time when the Labour party is imploding and the Tories’ support remains fragile.

A couple of years ago, Lib Dems might have been tempted to pin the blame, publilcly or privately, on then-leader Ming Campbell. But Nick Clegg is rated positively by the public – indeed, more so than David Cameron according to some polls – while Vince Cable has emerged as the chatterati’s sweetheart, the Lib Dems’ very own David Attenborough.

Mr Kettle identifies three reasons for the party’s failure to soar. First up is David Cameron:

Before Cameron – BC – they were most voters’ default second choice. After Dave – AD – they weren’t. A liberal Tory leader – and Cameron is, whatever anyone says – has stopped the long-familiar Tory-to-Lib Dem swing vote in its tracks.

I’m far less convinced than Mr Kettle that the Tory leader truly is a liberal Tory, except perhaps on social issues (at least these days, anyway: this is the guy, let’s recall, who happily voted for Section 28, even if he did later apologise). But politically and economically he seems to be traditionally Tory: tax cuts only for the rich, an anti-Europe neo-con, opposed to electoral reform, not serious about the environment. That a Guardian columnist should view a political leader who holds these views as a liberal says more about Mr Kettle’s Blairite view of liberalism as a flexible, cosmopolitan, lifestyle choice than it does about Mr Cameron’s actual views.

However, whatever I think about Mr Cameron, it’s fairly clear the Tory leader has persuaded enough of the public that he’s not unpleasantly right-wing; and, in the face of an unpopular Labour government, that in itself is perhaps just about sufficient to neuter the Lib Dems’ appeal to easily biddable folk like Mr Kettle.

(However, I can’t allow Mr Kettle’s lazy argument that the party’s failure to win either the Henley or Norwich North by-elections proves “the Lib Dems have lost the art of winning byelections”. This is unhistorical nonsense, as I argued here on LDV in July.)

Onto the second reason:

… the Lib Dems have become part of the establishment. For decades they have prospered as the anti-politics party, running against the system, apostles of new politics. Now, particularly after the expenses scandal, they have woken up to discover that they are seen as part of the problem. The cosy two-party system is suddenly the cosy three-party system, and the Lib Dems are a cosy part of it. Meanwhile, other small parties have seized the ground the Lib Dems once thought to rule unchallenged. If you want to vote against the establishment, you can now vote Green or Red or Ukip or even BNP.

I think this is undoubtedly the case. I would add to the expenses scandal the party’s messy defenestration of Charles Kennedy, which – whatever your views on it – severely undermined the party’s ‘nice guys’ brand with that part of the public which appreciated the Lib Dems’ fundamental decency.

However, there is a more positive way of viewing Mr Kettle’s argument that we’ve lost our anti-establishment schtick: that the Lib Dems are now genuinely seen as a party fit for power. The support we attract is increasingly ideologically coherent, much less reliant on so-called ‘protest votes’. (In reality all political parties attract vast numbers of ‘protest votes’: the Tories attract the support of those who hate the Labour party, and vice versa). This, to me, is a Good Thing. I’ve met voters in the past who have told me they’ll cheerily vote Lib Dem so long as we don’t have a chance of winning. Frankly, the party needs to learn to do without those votes.

Finally, to Mr Kettle’s third reason for the perceived failure of the Lib Dems to sweep the nation:

… Britain may not, after all, be as liberal a society as many of us would like, and sometimes pretend. I don’t think there is any doubt that the Lib Dems stand for liberal values and that the voters understand this. … The truth is simply that most Tory and Labour voters are not instinctively liberals. … In the end, the reason the Lib Dems are not doing better is simple. Not enough other people are liberals.

All fair comment, I guess (at least if we ignore the wide-eyed credulity of a Grauniadista’s bewilderment that Britain isn’t always as liberal as liberals would like). It’s a thought which has, I’m sure, struck many of us before. I recall Nick Clegg’s barn-storming 2006 conference speech in which he made a cheekily patriotic pitch for Britain to return to its true liberal values: “We want our country back”. However liberal this country is, it’s still the case that – to take just three examples – a majority of voters support the re-introduction of the death penalty, and a significant number will petition for blanket CCTV coverage, and willingly carry compulsory ID cards.

The weak point in Mr Kettle’s closing argument, though, is this: he sees everything through a tribal, party prism. Note his talk of “Labour and Tory voters”, as though they are homogenous blocks – yet less than one-third of the public strongly identify with either Labour or the Tories.

There is a visceral liberal/progressive tradition in this country. But, as a result of the quirks of history and the rigidity of our electoral system, it is spread across the three main parties: what’s termed the liberal diaspora. Equally, there is a conservative/reactionary disapora, principally concentrated within the Labour and Tory parties.

The Lib Dems’ role in politics is, it seems to me, two-fold. First, to campaign for liberal causes when they are inconvenient to, and/or unpopular with, the other two parties. And, secondly, to transform the political culture of this country – electoral reform to ensure representative pluralism, the decentralisation of power to the lowest level possible – to enable the liberal diaspora to come together in common cause, regardless of party tribalism. That’s the best, probably the only, way truly to make Britain a more liberal country.