Thursday, March 02, 2006


It’s Today

Everyone loves to make historical parallels. But before we say “It’s just like Blair / Portillo,” “He’s not as good as Paddy / Charles,” or find ourselves missing Conrad Russell even more than usual when there’s no-one to point out the very similar event “In 1659…”, take a deep breath and remember that history doesn’t always repeat itself. This is our Leadership, today, and if 2006 isn’t (sadly) 1906 there’s no rule that it’s another ‘false dawn’ Liberal revival either. Whoever wins, give them a chance in their own right instead of making instant comparisons. I’ve already been proved wrong on my guess of a low turnout, and I’m delighted that 72% of members voting means our history of disappointing participation for internal elections hasn’t been repeated today.

There are obvious dangers in the ‘year zero’ approach – especially in a country where the Prime Minister wants to chuck out thousand-year-old liberties because they don’t go with his new combats – but what I’m advocating is keeping an open mind and to forgive, not to forget. There’s a difference between learning from the past and wallowing in it. For my part, I will indeed now shut up about who did for Charles, and why, unless it becomes appropriate to draw parallels down the line if people start gunning for today’s victor (please don’t). I think I’ve said quite enough about the contest, anyway, though – while I don’t agree with every word they’ve written – Iain Sharpe and Andy Darley each have rather persuasive round-up pieces, even if Andy’s makes me blush (I wanted just to thank him by e-mail, but the addy listed in his profile bounced. So here’s a more public ‘gosh!’).

No doubt the press will attempt to push today’s result into the box of previous contests, but that won’t be because it’s the same. It’s because they’re lazy, and dismissing an event as something that’s already happened means they don’t have to think through the implications of novelty. Mr Balloon is appealing now to this tendency with his attempt to present his recipe for apple pie as his “Clause 4 moment”. It isn’t, and the way it sank without trace after such a big buildup from Nick ‘Mate of Dave Cameron’ Robinson suggests even lazy journalists can sometimes spot when history isn’t being repeated (as even Nick ‘Mate of Dave Cameron’ Robinson has subsequently admitted).

This is the 2006 Liberal Democrat contest, and tempting as the comparisons may be, the candidates do not include Charles Kennedy, David Cameron, Michael Portillo or Tony Blair (or, for that matter, Nick Clegg, Susan Kramer or Phil Willis). Rushing between shops in the downpour before the final hustings last week, I bumped into a leading member of one of the contenders’ campaigns in the doorway of HMV, and we went off for a drink and a gossip to get out of the rain. It was a fun and informative couple of hours, and, no, we couldn’t resist the ‘history repeating’ game either. Perhaps, it was suggested, there was ill-feeling towards Chris from others of ‘his generation’ because he’d decided to change the ‘understanding’, like Tony and Gordon in 1994. No, I replied; it’s not 1994, but 1992. Chris is greeted with the outrage for being a young upstart that Tony or Gordon would have been met with had they had the bottle to challenge the ‘establishment right-winger’ who everyone expected to win rather than just backing him and leaving the contest to the ‘established left-winger’ who everyone expected to lose. I thought it sounded very plausible at the time, but maybe it was just the hot chocolate talking: a contest that hadn’t finished yet, just like a contest that never took place? Well, if you’re going for a spurious historical comparison, you might as well make it original.

So when I say that the leadership result is today, I mean that today inevitably leads to tomorrow. Not yesterday. Good luck to the victor; make your own mark.

I can’t resist one last slightly indiscreet leadership contest observation, though. Overheard at the London hustings last week, as a Ming supporter attempted to sway a waverer with the promise of a ‘caretaker’ leader: “A Ming is for life, not just for Christmas.” “I know… And that’s what terrifies me.” If you win, Ming, Chris, or Simon, the very best of luck to you, and may your reign be long, be inspiring, and make it to the history books for the right reasons!

Ow. I miss Conrad.

I've been reading some of his histories of the Civil War lately. Boy, oh boy, could he write!

A privilege and a pleasure just to read the words he's written, never mind the phenomenally sharp analysis behind them. Jenkins is a very fine writer, but the analysis tends to the flabby. Conrad's is never that.

Thank you for reminding me of that wonderful man.
So do I. I put that line in because “Hmm, I wonder what Conrad’ll say to that,” still comes into my head all the time, and his trademark on the FPC was to introduce a 17th Century comparison in just that way. It may have come across as a bit flip, but it’s a way of remembering him that makes me smile.

Curiously enough, I recently bought one of his Civil War histories too, but haven’t read it yet, and still more curiously because I’ve just started Jenkins’ Gladstone, which I’d sternly told myself to read first. It’s been knocking about on the shelf for years, and I was given a little rush of enthusiasm for it by BBC7’s This Sceptred Isle a few weeks ago.

I gave a speech at an LDYS Conference three days after Conrad’s funeral that pretty much turned into a eulogy. I’d meant to write it up and submit it, but all the notes for it are still in the same bag I took along, and I’ve not been able to bear going over it again. I’d like to one day, and if so I might post it here – but not soon. In the meantime, we’ve been building up a shelf of improving books to keep in the bathroom, and a spare copy of An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Liberalism is obviously sitting there to be dipped into.
A bit baffled to find the email bouncing - seemed OK when I tested it?

Sorry to embarrass you, but I was just telling it like it is...

Actually, it's not the first time I've mentioned you in writing: you make an un-named cameo appearance near the end of this piece from the 2001 election, which I wrote for the Independent's website.
(The Indy 2001 coverage has long since evaporated, of course, so that's the version on my site.)

And I agree completely about Conrad Russell, though I was only lucky enough to meet him once.
Thanks Andy - I resent it this morning, and it's not yet returned to me (fingers crossed).

It wasn't even your Heathrow address ;-)

And no need to apologise; it's quite possible to mix embarrassment with pleasure, and you did for me.

The cameo was entertaining. I can't remember if I read it at the time, but I certainly remember the event; a bunch of is posing out the back of the NLC, but all quite fun, as I recall. Goodness, have I even seen you since?
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