I was never afraid of Jeremy Corbyn, never afraid of Momentum. I’ve never really feared Britain’s hard left at all. They’re wrong, of course, and they can do some serious localised damage; but their ideology is so obviously daft and has so comprehensively failed wherever in the 20th century it was tried that they occupy in my mind a position similar to that of Satanists. Grisly, yes, but a threat to civilised society? Hardly. The hard left always gets found out in the end, and always will. Their doctrines have no natural appeal to the middle-of-the-road British (which is most of us) and in the unlikely event they were ever elected to government, they’d soon enough crash the car.
So in this new century I observed the takeover of the Labour party by Momentum-recruited entryists with a shrug. It may be a while (I thought) before Labour eradicate these crazies, but if they don’t then they will never win another election, and a new centre-left party capable of appealing to the masses will have to be formed. It will just be a matter of time, and in due course the party will turn against its extreme left, or die.
It is too early to say Sir Keir Starmer’s counter-revolution has succeeded, but the prospects look hopeful. Labour is surely unlikely to succumb again soon to this madness, and outside Labour, what harm can these nutters do? The danger is obvious. The threat, being tattooed on to their foreheads, is too easily identified. In politics the real ogres don’t usually look much like ogres.
And this brings me to the sad case of the Liberal Democrats. They too have been the victims of a kind of takeover: but a very slow and generations-long takeover that has been wholly peaceful, well-intentioned, and in no sense a conspiracy, because the invasive force has not so much usurped the existing Liberal establishment as been sucked in by a vacuum where the establishment once was. The party that used to be home to British liberalism now houses soft-left squatters who bid fair to acquire the title deeds through long and largely uncontested occupation.
Gradually over my political lifetime, the old Liberal party, now the Lib Dems, have become the herbivores of British politics. If they were an animal species, they’d be the rabbits. If they were a biscuit, they’d be soggified by the milky tea they were dunked in. If they were a building, they’d be a one-storey local community centre with unisex toilets and elaborate, no-expense-spared disabled access. Good people, most of them; public-spirited, most of them; my friends, some of them; but chronically and fatally undermined by an instinct to duck every hard question and channel their considerable energies into identifying need and siding uncritically and almost reflexively with the needy.
Well what’s wrong with that, you ask? Nothing. The world needs vicars, social workers, grief counsellors, petition signers, empathisers, good listeners, hardworking local councillors, leaflet deliverers and volunteers. Any party will benefit from a complement of these. But the Lib Dems are now swamped by them. Real politics throws up genuine dilemmas whose solutions are likely to hurt: critical choices between paths that are all of them rocky in their way. I can remember — just — a Liberal party that relished facing up to uncompromising truths. But with the ejection of Nick Clegg, the loss of David Laws and the death of Paddy Ashdown, a political tradition that had a place for spikiness and even for aridity — a place for those who could sometimes say no — is all but gone.
I should not exaggerate the strong-mindedness of the mid- to late-20th-century Liberal (then Liberal Democrat) party. Post-Lloyd George there has been no golden age of muscular Liberalism, and a third party squeezed between the right and left will always be susceptible to a reflex to duck, to try to be ‘something in between’.
Nor is the modern Lib Dem instinct for munificence with public money entirely new: even the old-style Liberals placed a concern for the poor near the core of their thinking, and Lloyd George invented the concept of national insurance. But the Liberal belief in freedom and in the individual and the party’s once-tribal hostility to socialism emerged in leaders as different as Jo Grimond, Jeremy Thorpe, later Paddy Ashdown, and finally the ‘Orange Book’ Liberals and the 2010-2015 coalition. It was never possible to imagine this strand of politics weaving easily into a ‘moderate’ Labour party, and Liberals used to be solid for commerce and free enterprise. I’m afraid that has gone, and you can’t blame the merger with the Social Democrats, many of whom were flintier in their politics than the party they merged with: think of David Owen or, later, Danny Alexander.
The soggification has happened not so much by entryism as by exitism: there’s been a flight of serious political ideas as successive general election ice ages shrivelled the parliamentary party and left local councils and ‘focus-group’ pavement pounding as the residual habitat for Lib Dem thinking. Tim Farron was basically a Christian socialist. Jo Swinson was basically against the packaging of chocolate Easter eggs. Ed Davey, so far as I can see, is basically in favour of a national memorial for NHS workers felled by the coronavirus pandemic.
Study the party’s election manifesto last year. It ducks Trident by calling for a ‘minimum’ nuclear deterrent while worldwide disarmament is arranged. It advocates ‘a legal right to food’, the abolition of rules that pinch welfare benefits, an increase in the bereavement allowance, a rise in corporation tax, and ‘free, high-quality childcare from nine months for all working parents’. All these are well-intentioned; some may be advisable; but where is the whiff of intellectual cordite that characterises a winning battle plan? Only on EU membership was that manifesto ready to risk coherence, and this secured my vote. I still had hope. But that one clear, brave policy is now dead. Run for the town hall: another ice age may be on its way.