“Liberalism shouldn’t be about the safe option, it should always be a risky thing to take on.” Alistair Carmichael on life in the Coalition as Lib Dem chief whip

by Stephen Tall on October 30, 2012

There’s a terrific interview with Lib Dem chief whip Alistair Carmichael in this month’s Total Politics magazine, in which he gives a typically candid view on what life is like as within the Coalition — and how the Lib Dem whipping operation differs from Labour’s and the Tories’. Here’s a few excerpts:

“I would say the difference between us and the other two parties in this place is that we can get to a position of unity. In fact, it’s much more important to be able to persuade a liberal, because you’ll not easily coerce them,” he explains, with resignation and a glimmer of affection, “and when you understand that, then you understand that the heavy-handedness for which whips, rightly or wrongly, are famous is just not going to work.”

So, what exactly are his methods? He must have to prey menacingly from the shadows occasionally?

“The way in which we run the whips’ office here is a good example of the difference. The Liberal Democrat Whips’ Office in Westminster is Lib Dem-central for the whole of the House of Commons. People will come in, and every MP’s got a pigeon hole here. They know the staff outside, and my door is generally open if they want to stick their head round the door, shoot the breeze.”

“If you’re a Labour or a Tory MP, you really only go to your whips’ office if you’ve got a reason to go there.”

And almost as if it were planned, I see this for myself 40 minutes into our interview, as Carmichael scampers off to the chamber for a vote, and I’m left alone in the Lib Dem Chief Whips’ Office with the other half of his Kit Kat he’s given me to keep me occupied (there were “no Clubs”, his intern told him apologetically). Almost immediately, Tessa Munt MP marches straight into his office, no knocking, and, seeing it whipless, recommends merrily for me to “give him shit, I say” before making her exit.

On working with the Tory whips:

He meets the Conservative whips’ team every day of the week parliament is sitting, and they are studiously supposed to keep each other informed of their respective difficulties. Their golden rule for making the system work is ‘no surprises’, although Carmichael jokes that this can sometimes be intuitive: “I know that anything involving the words ‘Europe’ or ‘human rights’ is probably going to be tricky handling for the Conservatives, whereas that’s a fairly easy sell for the Liberal Democrats.”

Carmichael reveals the most difficult instances of coaxing his MPs into toeing the government line: “NHS reforms were very difficult, the Welfare Reform Bill was very difficult…” He pauses, grim-faced: “Tuition fees was a day that I don’t want to live through again.”

But even here, he suggests that he tried “as far as possible to maintain a degree of respect and never to burn bridges, because we’re going to be back here next week, dealing with issues again, so you try not to trash that relationship.”

On sticking with the Coalition:

He does look rather wistful when he describes it as “the easiest thing in the world to strike the pose, to say, ‘I’m ideologically pure and everybody else has compromised and sold out’.”

But just hours before our interview, Theresa May had made her statement blocking the extradition of Gary McKinnon, and Carmichael reflects on this achievement – something he had campaigned for in opposition, as well as ending the detention of children for immigration purposes. “Actually, no,” he affirms, “I’ve achieved a lot more in government by holding my nose and sticking to a coalition agreement that I signed up for than I would by striking a pose… and that’s part of the growing-up process the party has had.”

And his liberal motto:

His favourite song is Supertramp’s The Logical Song because of the line, ‘Watch what you say/now they’ll be calling you a radical, a liberal, fanatical, criminal’.

“I think,” he grins, “that’s the company that liberals should be in, the radicals, the fanaticals – maybe not the criminals. But liberalism shouldn’t be about the safe option, it should always be a risky thing to take on.”

I can’t see a link online to the full interview yet — please do post in the comments if you find it.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.