Monday, April 02, 2012


“I am a Liberal and I am against this sort of thing” – Time To Remember What We Stand For

It looks today like Lib Dem Ministers have learnt the wrong lesson from history. Recent history is of the vast majority of Lib Dems supporting the Coalition even when some things it’s done have been sickening, not just because of the give-and-take of agreeing to some revolting Toryism to get good Lib-Demmery through, but because most of the nasty stuff has had a simple justification: there’s no money left, so we’re forced into it. But plans to attack civil liberties aren’t like that. They’re not forced. They’re actively choosing to do something illiberal, wrong and against all our Liberal history. So wake up, Minister, or you’ll suddenly discover the point at which every party member outside Westminster tells the Coalition to fuck right off. This is your most dangerous moment, so stop being so bloody complacent and going with the flow.

Many Lib Dems, rightly, think it’s important when in Coalition to communicate more clearly what we stand for, so we’re not submerged at elections. Well, it’s even more important to remember what we stand for for the people inside the Coalition, and Lib Dem Ministers should take a moment to think about our history as their civil servants urge them to just act like “the Government” always acts. We all knew that the Tories’ discovery of civil liberties in Opposition would melt away once they had all the goodies of power back in their hands and all the whisperers of the security state back in their ears. We all know that one day it would be up to you, Minister. Today, Lib Dem Ministers, remember that you’re Liberals and what the fucking point of being there is.

The latest news on Government plans for new cyber-snooping powers are virtually indistinguishable from anything Labour came up with, or any other securocrat-written authoritarian rubbish that’s always put forward by “the Government”. Yes, Labour would have done all this instantly and it took the Coalition two years to go native. That’s not good enough. It’s not worth all the pain of being in Coalition to mildly delay being just like Labour. You’re even trampling the Coalition Agreement on which this Government was founded, signed in the heady days when the Tories still said they believed in freedom.

Hearing on the news that the Liberal Democrats may have some concerns but “support the plans in principle” is exactly the sort of thing that makes me wonder – for the first time – if we ought to vote down the Coalition. There’s a lot it’s done that I don’t like, and I daily feel personally scared by the approach to benefits (because I’m still waiting for my next ATOS summons). But there’s a difference between every choice being a nasty choice, every cut a painful cut, because Labour destroyed the economy, and signing off on something that isn’t forced on you by financial necessity but deliberately turning the Coalition into an authoritarian force for evil (and not saving but wasting more money to feed the securocrats’ wet dreams!).

I’ve often wondered what my own “Red Lines” would be. I’m not grateful to Lib Dem Ministers for drawing them for me.

A fortnight ago, Minister, Liberal Democrat Conference said exactly what we thought about governments thrashing civil liberties and spying on our privacy (and one of the key movers of that motion, Julian Huppert MP, is worried today). You were there, Minister. Had you already seen your briefings? Did you decide it was wiser not to hear the Conference pre-emptively tell you, “No, Minister”? Or did you simply nod, applaud, and then flush it out of your brain as you went back to your desk at the Department of Doing Things the Way Governments Always Do Them?

Today, some Lib Dems are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. We like you. We’re glad you’re in Government. But it’s difficult for most of us not to start shouting when you say stupid things like “the Liberal Democrats support the plans in principle”. We do not. Millennium Dome, Elephant does not. Richard Morris does not. Jennie Rigg does not. Neil Monnery does not. Zoe O’Connell does not. Charlotte Henry does not. Mark Valladares does not. With every minute of this ticking time bomb, more Lib Dems will not. These are not just the usual suspects. If you want a party to come back to when you return to your constituency at the weekend, stop this thing now.

Freedom isn’t always popular. The securocrats are already shouting ‘Look – terrorists!’ and ‘Look – paedophiles!’ as if that answers every question. The papers and the Labour Party will be foaming at the mouth for more, more, more. But there is absolutely no fucking point in being Liberals if we don’t stand up for freedom.

Before the last General Election, I stood up and told Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander that I was deeply worried when they’d written a draft Manifesto in our name that stopped talking about “Freedom” and replaced it with “Safety” and “Strength”. You can watch my speech in which I pointed out just who that sounded like (you might think ironically, in hindsight). And, afterwards, I was told I had a point, and they’d listened, and the real Manifesto would be better – and it was, a bit, though I might have hoped that when it came to the first Manifesto since 1992 that I hadn’t been on the Policy Committee to write bits of it, I wouldn’t be proved to be the only member of the FPC who remembered to put in a little thing like “Freedom”.

Remembering Liberal Democrat history isn’t just about learning from the triumphs, avoiding repeats of the disasters and celebrating our tribe. It’s about remembering that the only reason we’re still here: the only reason Liberals survived after nearly a century of splits, near-oblivion, faltering revivals and then near-oblivion again is that we stood for something no-one else can ever be trusted with. Freedom.

Minister, don’t betray that trust, or you might just destroy your party.

Just a few weeks ago, Mark Park came to me with the idea of an article about Party history, one that would let people know that the arguments we have today are ones we’ve had before, that principles we hold today are ones we’ve held before, that splits we’ve had today are… As yet, nothing like as bad as we’ve had before. We threw around some ideas and – horrors – constrained by a tight word limit we wrote six bullet points for the party newspaper, Liberal Democrat News a week and a half ago. Last week, Mark republished it on Lib Dem Voice. But before I republish it myself below, today it seems appropriate to remember a seventh moment from our history – not from an MP, not from a Minister, but simply from an ordinary party member who threw back for a time what “the Government” always does.

Stopped by a securocrat and told to do what he was told for no reason other than that’s what securocrats always do, Clarence Henry Willcock (no, no relation) said
“I am a Liberal and I am against this sort of thing.”
And freedom prevailed.

Nick, you once said he was one of your heroes. Let him be again. Remember your history. Remember what you stand for. Listen, again, to Lib Dems telling you that freedom is more important than strength and safety. Say “No,” Deputy Prime Minister.

Some Thought-Provoking Reminders of Our Liberal History

Paddy Ashdown once admitted to under-estimating the importance of a party’s history:
“A political party is about more than plans and priorities and policies… It also has a heart and a history and a soul”.
Yet there is no “history of the party” training session for the keen Conference representative nor history briefings for new members. So here are six snippets from the party’s history to entertain, elucidate and illustrate our heart and soul in ways that should still strike a note today.

1. Impressive Firsts

The first Jewish Member of Parliament was Liberal Lionel de Rothschild, elected in 1847 but not able to take his seat until 1858. The first atheist MP was Liberal Charles Bradlaugh, elected in 1880 and finally able to take his seat in 1886. Both fought in Parliament and in multiple elections in order to establish their rights. Also, Robert Throckmorton, elected MP for Berkshire in 1831 as a Whig and then Liberal, was the first Catholic in Parliament for more than 300 years, following the Relief Act of 1829.

The first Asian MP was Liberal Dadabhai Naoroji in 1892. The first female Liberal MP was Margaret Wintringham in 1921, when she succeeded her deceased husband in a by-election. The first female Liberal MP without such a family route to Parliament was Vera Woodhouse in 1923. The first out gay Liberal Democrat MP was Stephen Williams in 2005.

2. Left/Right Confusion

Wanting to make deals with Labour isn’t historically associated with being left-wing. It used to be people seen as being on the party’s Liberal Party’s right (such as Richard Holme) who were keenest on deals with Labour. Conversely, being pro-market forces has not historically been associated with being pro-Conservative. During his time as Leader, Paddy Ashdown both pushed for a much more hard-edged free market attitude and also saw the Liberal Democrats as being part of a common centre-left political mission with Labour.

3. Disputes We’d Rather Forget

The longest and most bitter row after the Liberal Party and the SDP merged to form the Liberal Democrats in 1988 was not over philosophy, policy or even personalities – simply over the word “Liberal” (with no distinction between ‘social’ and ‘economic’). For a while, the new party was named the Social and Liberal Democrats; a mouthful, this was officially shortened to “the Democrats”. Most of the party rebelled and insisted on “Liberal Democrats”. It took several years, an all-member referendum and a constitutional amendment before the name simply became “Liberal Democrats”. Then everyone could get on with shortening it to “Lib Dems”…

4. Heroics We’re Happy To Remember

In 1989, with the new-ish party badly split, a very distant fourth in the European Elections and described by Leader Paddy Ashdown as within the margin of error of nothing in the opinion polls, the most unifying issue the party became known for was a liberal policy on immigration. With Hong Kong about to return to Chinese rule, the Lib Dems were united in saying that Hong Kong residents were entitled to British passports. In contrast, the Conservative Government said only the richest could buy their way in; the Labour Party voted with rebels on the Conservative far right to keep every single one out.

5. Policies That Have Gone From ‘Eccentric’ To Conventional Wisdom

In 1992, the three issues Jeremy Paxman threw against Paddy Ashdown in interviews repeatedly as proof that the Liberal Democrats were extreme and out of touch were Hong Kong passports, green taxes and (what were then called) gay rights. One issue passed; the others are now the mainstream.

6. Avoiding A Coalition Didn’t Work Last Time

The Liberal Party for a short time kept the Labour Party in office in the late 1970s after it lost its majority in the House of Commons. The so-called Lib/Lab Pact was seen by most in the party as at best a missed opportunity and at worst a failure as it did not contain a list of significant policy promises. PR for the European Parliament was lost as the deal only promised a free vote, not the support of Labour MPs.

* Yes, the Liberal Democrat tradition is lists of three things to remember. But there are two of us, OK?

Thanks to Mark Pack for the idea and the drafting, and to Oranjepan for reminding us about Robert Throckmorton.

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I'm also hacked off that to placate the members they got Lynne Featherstone to send out an email which not only attempted to gloss over the detail of the proposals but performed a classic bait and switch (we will never sanction the reading of your messages, when it's clear the membership is concerned about the concept of recording who contacts who without the need for a warrant). All with the implication, as with the health bill, that we just don't *understand* the proposals.
Fab post Alex - agree 100%. Love the profanity and your turn of phrase - certainly makes it an enjoyable read.
Yes. Nick and Lynne are possibly the Ministers I've known and respected longest... But they both need to listen rather than blather on this. I winced at the rubbish both of them were coming out with yesterday.

On the bright side, it's striking how this has vocally united all sides of the Liberal family like nothing else since the Coalition was formed: no excuse; no patience.

And thanks, Lev! I usually try to moderate my profanity levels, but there are occasions on which it's cathartic. And you should have heard my phone conversation with a 'Party insider' last night...
Greg, I had a woman from the Lib Dems' recruitment section tell me that I didn't understand or know what the party were doing regarding benefits and the NHS the other day, while she was trying to sign me back up after I deliberately let my membership lapse, then trying to find out - through a multiple-choice question! - why I did. She was incredibly pompous about it, and had she given me her name, I'd have reported her.

I know as much as I can find - and that's a LOT - about what is going on with both. I know from personal experience, too. I'm on ESA, DLA and Housing Benefit, so I've been keeping a very close eye on that. I also know that the cuts to the NHS began by the back door before the bill was even passed - my local hospital hydrotherapy pool was closed in December 2011, the only useful treatment they could give me besides morphine. The nearest one now is 2 hours each way on the bus for a 1 hour session - pointless.

I'm still disgusted that she had the attitude to say such a thing to me because I decided I didn't want to be part of the party any more.

We should split again, honestly. A more people-driven party that actually knows what it's doing about issues such as the NHS, benefits and the internet is something I'd nearly kill for - and if I weren't too sick to work, I'd try to set it up myself!
Good post, and it expresses what a lot of people are thinking.

I'm not so keen, however, on the bizarre elision in your 'notable firsts' section. You rightly point out that the first atheist, Catholic, Jewish, and Asian MPs were all Whigs or Liberals, but then you go on, as if it were part of the same list to note the first Liberal female MP and the first liberal out gay MP.

These are hardly the same thing. Sinn Fein and the Conservatives had female MPs before the Liberals did. Boasting that the Liberals were almost the last party in Parliament to have a female MP isn't quite what the beginning of the list promised.
Thanks, Nathaniel.

And yes, you're right about the 'firsts' - we thought about those, but decided that if we didn't include them, people would ask why not, and wonder if we were trying to airbrush out women or LGBT people. So we still thought these were milestones worth marking - even if people could draw their own conclusions that 'that's a bit late, isn't it?'
The overwhelming consensus on this law amongst the British people is that it blows. Nevertheless, the government still intends to try to ram it through?
Maybe, Farmland, maybe not - the Tories seem to want it, despite being against their manifesto, but the Lib Dems are coming across ever more strongly against.
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