David Owen: Lib Dems should “campaign for a role in a government of national unity”

by Stephen Tall on October 16, 2009

To be a fair, a former Labour minister, ex-SDP leader and Tory voter is probably the natural person to advocate a national unity government – and that’s exactly what David Owen has done today in an article in The Times:

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, and his deputy, Vince Cable, need to position themselves as ready to shoulder the burden of responsibility for hard economic choices, and help to provide, with one of the big parties, the principled, practical government that the country so sorely needs. That means talking to voters about participating in a government of national unity.

The Liberal Democrats, from now until the election, should repeatedly assert not that they are going to form the next government — which is not plausible — but that they intend to be part of the next government. They should also establish a principled position that they intend to negotiate with whichever party has the largest number of MPs after the election.

Lord Owen sets out just two absolute conditions the Lib Dems should set their preferred political partner:

1) “immediate legislation to ensure a fixed term for Parliament” and
2) “the right to demand a firm commitment to a referendum on proportional representation”.

And how should that preferred political partner be? Here Lord Owen’s powers of argument defeated me. For a start, he seems to have watched an entirely different Tory party conference to me – the one m’Lud Owen witnessed “emphasise[d] [David Cameron’s] party’s green credentials, its civil liberties record and its proposals on decentralisation”. This contrasts with the one I saw: Europhobic, blinkered to market failure, determined to prioritise tax-cuts for millionaires over tax-cuts for the poorest.

And he then allows his own deep Euroscepticism to get the better of him, urging the Lib Dems to avoid a deal with Labour because of Labour “reneging on its manifesto commitment to a referendum on the Lisbon treaty” – given this was also Lib Dem policy (wrongly, in my view, but that’s another matter) it would be peculiar for the party to flick the V-sign to Labour solely on this account. There are plenty of other bigger reasons – Iraq, ID cards, tuition fees – why the Lib Dems would be most unlikely to prop up a tired, discredited, defeated Labour Government.

Bizarrely to my mind – though perhaps time will prove Lord Owen to be a much better prophet than me – he sees the biggest challenge of the next Parliament featuring a Lib Dem / Tory national unity government to be “whether Liberal Democrats can be party to a Queen’s Speech that contains a promise to have a referendum on the next EU treaty.” Says Lord Owen: “It would be a big prize if the Liberal Democrats, as part of the Government, negotiated improvements to the Lisbon treaty and then won a “yes” vote in a referendum on the new treaty.” Hmmm, maybe. I somehow doubt the Lib Dems would gain much credit for obsessing about Euro treaties at a time when public spending cuts are biting hard.

However, let’s finish on a positive note, with Lord Owen’s conclusion that even the most anti-merger Liberal would find hard to disagree with:

There is a widespread feeling in the country, after decades of political incompetence, spin and sleaze, that there must be root-and-branch reform of British politics. Only a few of our politicians have yet grasped the gravity of the challenges we face. Yet many voters believe that a continuation of the failed one-party system of government — with the adversarial language and attitudes that it engenders — should not continue in the 21st century.