Thursday, 4 September 2014

Simon Titley has passed away

Simon Titley passed away this weekend, following the news in June that he had been taken ill.  He will be missed terribly by the Liberator Collective, those who enjoyed the Liberal Revue, and many people beyond whose lives he touched by his wit, incisive writing and instinctive, passionate Liberalism.

Originally from Lincolnshire – a heritage of which he was always proud – he went to Keele University, becoming a ‘highly political’ sabbatical officer.  For a long time he worked for the Liberal Party’s central organisation, moving to work for the GLC's successor organisations and finally organising Paddy Ashdown's tour for the 1992 General Election before eventually being coaxed away by the lure of PR.  He preferred the world of the political backroom, but did stand for Parliament once, in Grantham in 1983; as a local eccentric still shot silent newsreels for the town's cinema and filmed one of Simon's campaign meetings he thought he was probably the last UK general election candidate ever to appear in a silent film.  Preferring policymaking (serving on the Europe policy working group until last year) and commentary, his unwavering commitment to numerous personal political causes [Europe and Palestine two constants] always came first, sometimes to the detriment of his career.

Although Simon started to contribute to Liberator in the late 1970s, he was only persuaded to join the Collective in 1985.  His close friend and Liberator Collective colleague Mark Smulian describes Simon’s relationship with him and the magazine:

The first time I met Simon I inadvertantly nearly poisoned him as it turned out the cheese used to stuff rolls at a Liberal student conference in 1977 had spent the night in an underground car park and was thus richly flavoured with petrol fumes.
Alarming as this was to such a noted gourmet, it was start of a long friendship. Simon had contributed to Liberator from the late 1970s but became fully involved around 1985 when he found a book review he’d written had been insensitively edited. On being told this was to make room for a picture of a cat, Simon – fond as he was of cats – decided the only way to prevent such future vandalism was to join the collective.
From then on he, without imposing himself, provided much of Liberator’s political direction and its most telling analysis of events…. he despaired of the Liberal Democrats failure to build a core vote and to instead chase transitory grievances and split the difference in the ‘centre’.
Simon was noted for his love of fine food, wine and beer. He was deeply serious about politics, yet a satirist of great ability and the driving force behind establishing the Liberal Revue, which entertained conference goers on and off for 24 years.
He had a vast collection of erudite books on politics and economics, yet his favourite entertainment was the innuendo-strewn 1960s comedy show Round the Horne.
Simon leaves a huge gap not only in his family and friends’ lives but in the party’s resources for thinking about its future.

While the volume and quality of Liberal publications has declined considerably, even more so since Conrad Russell’s departure a decade ago, Simon fought what was almost a one-person campaign to keep the processes of Liberal thought going. His publications included Really Facing The Future [with David Boyle, 2011], a direct challenge to the party’s attempt to set out a policy programme in ‘sterile and detached language’.  He contributed to Reinventing the State, the 2007 social liberal response to the Orange Book.  His regular contributions to Liberator were supplemented by two periods of prolific blogging on all manner of topics.  His 2004-5 foray as the Liberal Dissenter was supplemented by more recent work on this blog.  

As Mark says, the culture brought to the Liberator and Liberal Revue teams by Simon was distinctive too.  Days out or even occasional weekends away were characterised by his love of the finest food and where possible a visit to the nearest record shop (politics is not the only interest we shared).  Simon was unafraid to stand up against tired received wisdom and lazy thinking – or confront those guilty of either.  The irony of some of those who whined about his blunt observations joining those mourning is not lost on some of us.  However, they are in exalted company.  Vince Cable has written this tribute:

Like many people in the party, I have been greatly saddened to see the passing of Simon Titley, long before his time.

He was in Liberator especially a tough irreverent critic of the party establishment and of conventional thinking.

I want to record my appreciations of his insights, originality and sharp wit. I benefitted personally from his advice and what he had to say was always thoughtful, considered and helpful. He will be greatly missed.

As Mark and Simon say, Liberalism and Liberal thought in particular are weaker today.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Go Back To Your Constituencies... And Prepare For A Change Of Font

An interesting missive has reached Liberator from Party Headquarters, sent to party organisations taking part in Federal Conference (it is not believed to have been sent to us, but we should embrace it in the way our readers would appreciate):-

"I'm emailing regarding our corporate identity. Many of you will have 
noticed that our logo and branding has changed recently. This is in large 
part due to a substantial amount of work carried out by our in-house designer, which has culminated in the attached branding guide.  [Sadly this document has not yet reached us]

Autumn Conference represents an excellent opportunity for us to get our
branding and corporate identity right. I?d ask that you all review your logos and branding, and where practicable, update them so that they are coherent with our new branding. For some of you, such as ALDC this isn't appropriate, given that you have your own branding, but for others, it represents a great opportunity to refresh the look and feel of your logos.

Much as I would like to, I can?t at this stage promise that Steven will be 
able to devote any time to refreshing your logo himself. If you have a specific request of him, please let me know, and I?ll pitch it to his line manager (who is off this week). Unfortunately, I don?t have access to the correct fonts to carry out the task myself, but I can send over logos and other materials if that would help. If you have any further questions, 
please either get in touch with me, or email

I know that the conference team are keen to make sure that our directory and conference exhibition are as on brand as possible. Thanks in advancefor your assistance."

We may be getting slaughtered in the polls at 6% but have no fear, brand identity is here.  Quite who it is designed to impress at the Conference exhibition remains a little less clear.

"Go back to your constituencies, and prepare for a change of font!"  

Of course, rather more progress could be made if rather than branding exercises an approach was taken to identify the Liberal Democrat brand with its values. People identify with brands based on what they think they mean to them, and that depends on what values they associate with the brand. It appears that whoever commissioned this exercise in getting often voluntary bodies to redo their logo has not grasped that basic fact.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Liberator 366 Is Out! - and an unhealthy row emerges...

Issue 366 of Liberator will be landing through subscribers' letterboxes this weekend.

Unsurprisingly, it contains a wide range of advice for Nick Clegg, little of which he will welcome.  Articles from a range of authors review the outcomes of May's elections at home and abroad; former Scottish Liberal Democrat Chief Executive Andy Myles explains why he is arguing for a Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum.  And Lib Dem councillor Mathew Hulbert explains the thinking behind a new campaign to promote the Fairtrade movement within the party.

There is also mention of an unhealthy row over the Public Services working group.  Charles West, a Shrewsbury GP and former Parliamentary candidate who led the charge against the Health & Social Care Act, the ramifications of which will return to haunt the party, has written an article which sets out a series of complaints against the way the working group was run and proposes an alternative paper - a rare move.  The secrecy rules of the Federal Policy Committee mean I had better not comment as a member, but Radical Bulletin contains the following:


A series of rows has marred the work of the Lib Dems policy working group on public services, resulting in both an expected minority report and a complaint to Federal Policy Committee chair Duncan Hames about the way the group has been run.

FPC set it up with a unwieldy brief to examine education, health, transport and ‘cross cutting public services’, each of which could probably have sustained a working group in its own right.

There was a dispute right at the start when the chair was awarded to Jeremy Hargreaves, a long-serving denizen of the party’s policy processes, and not to former Romsey MP Sandra Gidley, who is viewed as unsound by what many refer to as ‘the Clegg children’.

They do not of course mean his actual children but rather the coterie of academically bright but politically clueless young advisers with whom he has seen fit to surround himself.

Most prominent among the dissidents is Charles West, a general practitioner who fought Shrewsbury and Atcham at the last general election.

In is complaint to Hames, West has noted: “You may be aware of the fact that a number of us in the policy working group discussing public services have been seriously concerned   about the way in which the group has functioned.”

He went on to set out concerns that Hargreaves had acted autocratically and rejected input with which he disagreed, and that votes had not been held on contentious matters.

West has elaborated on his concerns and it now looks like the Glasgow conference in October will be presented with either a lot of options or amendments.

Hargreaves told Liberator that disagreements had arisen over West’s wish to commit the party to ending the purchaser/ provider split in health. He said the rest of the group had simply not agreed with West.

It was quite usual for FPC to be given differing views by a working group but Hargreaves said West had suddenly called for a vote on the split long after the group had rejected the idea and this had not been taken. He described the group’s work as “very consensual”. How consensual will no doubt become apparent at Glasgow.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Orange Book: Still Absurd After All These Years

There has been more inaccurate material written about the "Orange Book" than just about every other recent Liberal publication combined.

I described it at the time [] as "quite an absurd and ill-timed set of policies that seem more to do with self-advancement than the party's election prospects."  That is still true.  What I and others took time to appreciate, though, is that it was far from a coherent and pre-planned set of ideas, but a suite of disparate thoughts from disgruntled Parliamentarians.  While they were happy to write a set of articles that, combined, added up to a deliberate attempt to undermine the presentation of the Party's pre-manifesto (and in so doing undermine Lib Dem electoral fortunes), they were certainly not all signed up to the timing.  One of them privately confirmed to me that he felt conned and used in a stunt.

The articles themselves largely reflected the personal hobbyhorses of individual authors.  Some, such as Steve Webb's, were faith-based.  Nick Clegg's piece on EU reform ironically would have been better received in the 2014 elections than the lines that those institutions should stay broadly as they are.  Much of it was pretty turgid, with only the chapters by its co-editors Paul Marshall and David Laws providing the controversy.

More important to remember is that it was hardly that new at the time.  I have many tracts written by people then regarded as Liberal Democrat policymakers in Westminster, such as sometime Clegg adviser Julian Astle, espousing the same sort of unfettered free-trade, 'we must never be seen to be left-wing' propaganda - but from the period of Paddy Ashdown's leadership. His successor Charles Kennedy, who let his frustration at the damage caused by the Orange Book be known, sowed some of the seeds by encouraging the then tiny organisation centred around Mark Oaten, Liberal Future.  David Laws had entertained a role as something of a controversialist, emphasised when the late Conrad Russell and I supported him in resisting for sound economic reasons a Conference attempt by Steve Webb to promote restoring the earnings link.

Liberator's reaction at the time can be viewed at

Today the book finally got the launch that the long-quiet Paul Marshall cancelled at the time due to the incendiary reaction it caused within the party.  Due to its timing during the working day, I was not there; but from observation the event was what James Graham would have described as a circle jerk.  It was most notable for an appallingly male-dominated line-up; giving a platform to Conservatives and others well beyond the pale of the Liberal Democrat mainstream; in the main, deliberately emphasising a political divide that Norman Lamb described as false between economic and social liberals within the Liberal Democrats; and a refreshingly naïve absence of electoral political reality, as Stephen Tall (promoting local pay, emphatically rejected only two years ago by precisely the poorest areas that Stephen mentions) puts it:

'All-too-often missing from Orange Book-inspired discussion (as indeed it was missing from Jeremy Browne’sRace Plan, in some ways its natural successor) has been the question that’s key to any political party: “Who’d vote for this?” For instance, in the session I did attend Paul Marshall set out some of the ideas he said would be top of his list for an Orange Book v.II: ending the cap on senior public sector executives’ pay being no higher than the Prime Minister’s; local pay-settlements for public sector workers; making strikes illegal in hospitals and schools; and requiring a minimum 50 per cent turn-out for strike ballots. One of those has merit, I think: local pay, as I’ve argued before, is a potentially important way of ensuring we can recruit to vacancies in the poorest areas. The rest strike me as largely symbolic policies likely to use up a lot of political capital and achieving little. Though an Orange Book sympathiser, I’m not an Orange Book purist: there’s no point putting forward authentically liberal policies without knowing how you’d sell them on the doorstep to a sceptical public. That way lies the fate of the FDP.'

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Simon Titley – Living Obituary

John Swarbrick’s lesser known cousin Dave is one of the few people who have had the dubious pleasure of reading their own obituary. But if ever a man deserved to hear good things said about him it is Simon Titley so, while there is still time, I want to write this living obituary to one of the great Liberals and one of my best mates.

Many of us have been devastated by the tragic news that our life-long chum and Liberal colleague Simon has a massive,inoperable brain tumour and probably doesn’t have long to live. Some of us have been worried about his health for some time but, like many stubborn men, he didn’t get it checked out and he was stuck down while enjoying Sunday lunch with his family. Now, Simon likes his food and you may think that if you have to go, there are worse ways than tucking into a Sunday roast. But, and for me and I’m sure for many of you it’s a big but, we hadn’t quite finished with him.

He’s a human being and so he is infuriating and severally flawed, but he is quite simply one of a very few people on the planet who just gets it – all of it. His sharp wit; his radical liberalism; his excellent taste in music; his hilarious sense of humour; his love of great food, good beer and fine wine; whatever it was Simon enjoyed it and for the most part he got it right – spot on right. For those who have enjoyed his company and his writing over the past four decades will know, although a stubborn bastard at times, Simon had one of the best brains in the party – his ability for clarity of thought and his skill at putting that succinctly in writing was a talent to be prised and revered. There is a manifesto’s worth of good ideas out there and I hope they can be collected together for future generations to appreciate and for the party to fully understand what it has missed.

Simon’s contribution to our sense of fun has been as great as his contribution to our beliefs and understanding. It was largely his idea in 1984 to start the Liberal Revue and for many years he wrote and directed shows that had hundreds in stiches with some of the sharpest satire anywhere in British politics. Senior journalists from Vincent Hanna, to Elinor Goodman, to Michael Crick would seek him out for comment because they knew he would not just have his figure exactly on the issue of the day, but he would say it in a pithy, witty and memorable way.

Of course like most great Liberals Simon’s mind was ahead of its time and often out of step with what some might call mainstream thinking. But for those who have followed his many contributions in Liberator over the years know he has been proved right time and again and the party would have done well to have listened to him more often.

Sadly he will write no more and we will have to learn to think for ourselves. Laughter will seem a little hollow for a while and even favourite songs may sound off key. Simon, before you go, I want you to know that I and many, many others hold you in great regard – a friend and a brother, greatly loved and respected – you will be sorely missed you old bugger.

Roger Hayes


Friday, 23 May 2014

The Blame Game

Many Liberal Democrats, including Liberator Collective members Tim McNally in Southwark and John Bryant in Camden, will be going through that pit-of-the-stomach sensation where they try and work out exactly who is to blame for their losing their council seat.

Some have already done it - see - and blamed Nick Clegg. To echo the words of a former leader, they say, greater love hath no man than this - to lay down half the Liberal councillor base in England (more than half the base in urban areas) for the goal of perpetuating leaders' backsides in Cabinet Daimlers.  With so little to show for it, and a 'zombie Government' careering into the final session of a Parliament with little direction, dozens of Coalition pledges left incomplete, it is tempting to agree. Not that I am commenting on the website linked to above.

Liberator has tended to argue that the problems affecting the Liberal Democrats are broader and more fundamental.  From a Headquarters operation that treats activists with a combination of bewilderment and contempt (see the crass correspondence at, as well as the eight emails despatched to some activists in the last 24 hours of the campaign) to a dysfunctional Parliamentary organisation of which I'll write more, the strong impression is of a party that has lost its way. A party that has lost a grip of its values, exhibited by the spectacle of Mike Hancock given a clear run to stand in Portsmouth while suspended by the Party, supporting a narrative which predictably damaged the wider Lib Dems and have unnecessary succour to UKIP.  Ambling around in the middle of the road under the bland 'stronger economy...' narrative, the party is more likely to be hit by a truck, as has just happened.

If activists think the loss of all councillors up in Liverpool, Manchester, Lambeth, Islington and other places isn't bad enough, Sunday's European election results promise little respite other than in the material of the Liberator songbook.  The initial signs of activist revolt may give the run-up to that result some added spice.

The Death Of Satire - Again

There will be plenty of time to pore 
over the local and European election results this weekend.

Perhaps Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians should take time to reflect, too.  Because it does seem that some of them appear to have been following an altogether different set of elections, on a parallel universe where a 'successful' strategy deployed by the Liberal Democrat leadership has led to tangible success.

Most of the people receiving the following letter just emailed 'from' Annette Brooke MP to Lib Dem activists, including Sir David Williams who lost the Ham and Petersham ward in Richmond held for 40 years or colleagues in Liverpool and Manchester whose huge effort resulted in losses across the board - not to mention others - may not appreciate its sentiments. Truly beyond satire, it reads as follows:

As the results continue to come in from the local elections a clear pattern is emerging. In our held seats, where we have strong and established campaigns, we're seeing some very good results.

In Sutton, where we have two MPs, we have gained seats. In Birmingham Yardley we won nearly 50% of the vote and beat Labour into a distant second. Here in my own constituency we gained a seat from the Conservatives which pushed Purbeck District Council into no overall control. In Colchester we won 7 of the 8 seats and in Eastleigh we comfortably held the Council and drove the Conservatives' vote share down to 12%. There are too many examples for me to list them all.

All of these results tell the same story - in many of our strongest areas we are winning elections.

Of course many of our fantastic Councillors and candidates worked incredibly hard in these elections and didn't get the result they deserved. I hope each and every one of them will get their names back onto the ballot paper as soon as possible.

We're now less than a year away from the General Election and these results in our held seats show that we have everything to play for. Your efforts made the difference this time, as they will next year.

Best wishes,

Annette Brooke MP
Chair of the Parliamentary Party

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Better Together?

Scottish Liberal Democrats could campaign more effectively for genuine federalism outside the all-party Better Together campaign, argues Tony Greaves
In 1987, during the merger talks between the Liberal Party and the SDP, David Steel said I was a “North of England Nationalist”. We were of course discussing how to fit the demands of Liberal and SDP negotiators from Scotland and Wales – for Scottish and Welsh autonomy within a federal constitution – with the conundrum of the much larger England.

I remembered this while watching Willie Rennie call for the No campaign to get some “sunshine” into its strategy. I never understood why the proposal for a ‘Devolution Max’ question on the ballot paper was so strongly opposed by all the Westminster lot – including Liberal Democrats – since it would have provided something positive to campaign for. I still do not understand why the Scottish Liberal Democrats are not running a much clearer and separate campaign for a federal solution which, as I understand it, would mean going just one step further than dev-max.

But who am I to comment? My involvement in Scottish politics has been minimal. A couple of branch visits when I chaired the Young Liberals. A week or so at the Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles by-election in 1965 (that man Steel again), when I ended up running the polling day organisation in Hawick. A couple of days at Kincardine and Deeside, where those of us with English accents were sent to canvass Labour voters on the housing schemes on the edge of Aberdeen (some were thinking of voting SNP, so I entertained them with Liberal theories of sovereignty, and autonomy within a federal system. It didn’t seem to do any harm, though they were more interested in getting their bins emptied).

And a couple of days at the Dunfermline by-election (that Rennie lad again). Apart from that, I’ve been to Liberal Assemblies at Edinburgh and Dundee, and Liberal Democrat conferences in Glasgow, and I did various training sessions in Scotland back in the ALC days. My wife is half Scottish and we’ve spent many holidays in the Highlands and Islands, most recently in the wonderful remoteness of Uig on the Isle of Lewis. And I’m a fervent fan of the Highland rock band Runrig!

All this is not to prove my deep personal experience of Scottish politics, but the reverse. By and large, English natives either think Scotland is part of England (my mother once came back from a Mediterranean cruise to report they had met “a really nice English couple from Edinburgh”) or recognise that, while it is not exactly foreign, it is, in undefined and mysterious ways, a bit different.

The Scottish referendum campaigns, with six months still to go, are already building an astonishing crescendo. For what it’s worth, I have felt for some time that there will be a No majority but small enough for the issue not to be killed off, and another referendum within five or six years. But it could go the other way and if UKIP ‘win’ England in the European elections in May it might tip the balance.

So I ask myself what I would do if I had a vote. I am getting requests to phone voters in Scotland, even at this early stage, but what would I say to them? I’m afraid that following a script laid down by HQ is not my style – I don’t believe that Liberal politicians should be automatons! I am not going to say things I think are nonsense, and much of the No campaign as we hear it south of the Border seems to me to be nonsense, and counter-productive nonsense.

The more I listen to the Better Together campaign, the less I like it. I was appalled by the threats by the Westminster parties, including ourselves in the person of Danny Alexander, over the pound. The view that a currency union would be out of the question, full stop, not to be discussed; and that it could not be negotiated in any circumstances; is or is not sensible policy. But as a blunt statement at this stage, it was stupid politics and anyone with an ounce of common sense could see that.

It is a perfectly reasonable argument and probably correct that the best currency arrangement for both Scotland and residual UK (rUK) is the status quo: a single currency, the pound, within a substantially unitary state. (I say “substantially unitary” because more powers are likely to slip away to Scotland whatever happens in September, and some federal or quasi-federal elements – entrenched checks and balances – are not out of the question). If it is true that the status quo is better than any of the four options put forward in the Scottish government’s white paper, that is certainly a good argument for voting No.

But to present it as a patronising threat is stupid. It’s common sense that, if there is a Yes vote, all these things will be on the table. The question for the Westminster negotiators will then not be “Can we frighten the Scots into voting No?” It will be “What is now best – or least worst – for rUK?” It is at least possible that, if the status quo is no longer on the table, a currency union is the least worst option. Or at least that it should be considered and negotiated to see whether that is the case.

I cannot see that the Noes are helped at all by posh rich English Tories such as Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne lecturing the people of Scotland on these matters. And Danny Alexander may represent a Highland constituency but I guess that, for many Scots, he is just another government minister in that remote south-eastern corner of Britain that nevertheless acts as though it has an eternal right to rule the roost over the rest of us. And if here in the North of England Pennines we sometimes feel like that about “that London” and its arrogant metropolitan ruling elite, how much more must it resonate in Glasgow and Aberdeen, not to mention on the Isle of Lewis.

So why might we have got it so wrong? When I talk to Liberal friends in Scotland, I hear a lot about Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon and the SNP. I hear them denouncing “the nationalists”. And often with a fervour that seems to me to go beyond reason. As I write this, Alistair Carmichael has just made his call to arms and his warning that “the nationalists” have more hunger as well as more money. Yet it is becoming clear that the Yes vote already includes many people who are not committed SNP voters, and many who consider their usual ideological attachments to be elsewhere on the ordinary spectrum.

From outside the hothouse of Scottish politics, it’s easy to forget that Scotland really is different. There is a political culture, a regional (or to Scots national) forum of politics, politicians and debate, with its associated media and the Scottish parliament and government at the heart of it, that does not exist anywhere in England except to an extent in London, where it is much more intertwined with national (i.e. Westminster/English) politics. It seems to me that this Scottish insularity has led to an obsession with Salmond and the SNP. Salmond may be a an unprincipled opportunist who would dip his granny if it served his advancement, and the SNP may indeed be full of English-hating Celtic racists and local political thugs urged on by the likes of Ms Sturgeon. I am not close enough to know.

But looking from outside, these views seem to me to be exaggerated, rather like the caricatures I might sometimes express about the Labour Party! Perhaps it is necessary to develop such myths when faced with an efficient political force led by a person of undoubted political competence and charisma. When it throws Liberals into bed with and under the leadership of our natural political enemies in the Labour Party and the Conservative and Unionist Party (its official name since 1912, when it absorbed the Liberal Unionists).

I am astonished that the Scottish Liberal Democrats are now content to be labelled as Unionists. Back to anecdotes at David Steel’s by-election (and there are many) – the Tories had strung a huge banner across the main street in Galashiels. A certain Liberal agent had a small car (a Morris Traveller?) on which he placed a step-ladder, which he climbed with a big pair of shears. The car was pushed slowly under the banner and the shears did the trick. The point of the story is that the banner simply said “Vote Unionist”.

Perhaps some conscious uncoupling is needed to create some of Willie Rennie’s campaign sunshine and the promotion of a distinctive Liberal Democrat version of dev-max. Secretary of State for Scotland Alistair Carmichael is probably one of the few members of the present government who has credibility in Scotland as an independent-minded Scot, and I think he is right to start to bang on about the positive side of the union, though promoting the coalition’s policies will not be easy in areas such as the welfare cuts, undermining of employment rights and public service cuts in general, when the view from north of the Trent/Watford Gap, never mind Hadrian’s Wall, is more of a gang of upper-class Tory right-wingers using austerity to line the pockets of the London-based elite.

To be fair, Ming Campbell and Michael Moore have been leading a call for more powers for Scotland and a federal relationship with rUK, though this is not easy when the party’s policy on devolution or federalism in England is in such a mess. Moore’s call for “True federalism [which] will allow for a system of government that accommodates for the expression of different identities within one system, but combines with it the additional influence and strength which comes from co-operation and common purpose” is spot on, but as a party we don’t know how to achieve it, which is a bit awkward at this stage of the debate.

So what do I conclude? First, that the referendum will be decided by Scots (i.e. residents of Scotland) in Scotland. And that the rest of opinionated UK should let them get on with it. Second, with six months still to go, what else is there to say and who else to say it? In which context generating scare stories from London will have less and less effect unless that is counter-productivity. And third, that Willie Rennie’s strategic sunshine is unlikely to beam out from the Better Together lot since it depends on having a vision of the future which they can’t produce because they don’t agree about it.

It’s time for our friends north of the Border to crystallise their Liberal Democrat vision for Scotland, disengage from all-party establishment mush, and join the likes of Michael Moore on a distinctive Liberal campaign trail. Or we might all be saying bye-bye.
(This article appears in Liberator 365, now out)

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Off at Least One Fence

[Commentary from Liberator 365, which will be with subscribers next week]

Nick Clegg’s decision to challenge Nigel Farage to television debates on the European Union was certainty brave – even if Clegg’s jokes suggested a career in stand-up comedy does not await him after politics.

Although commentators mostly said Farage had won the debates, Clegg was able to say reasonably enough that he could not reverse decades of populist eurosceptic bile and alarmism in two hours. What he did do was make the pro-EU case unabashedly in public – a refreshing change from previous European elections when the Liberal Democrats campaigned on more or less anything except the EU.

As Charles Kennedy has now revealed, in 2004 he wasn’t allowed (it remains unclear by whom) to run an avowedly pro-European campaign, and the Liberal Democrats duly concentrated on local issues and government bashing. Things were no better in 2009, when Clegg was still trying to disentangle himself from Ming Campbell’s attempts to appease anti-EU voters by making convoluted promises about referendums.

As Liberator has long pointed out, every opinion poll shows a pro-Europe vote vastly in excess of the number of people who have ever voted Liberal Democrat, and it ought to have been self-evident long ago that this was the pool in which the party should fish. Instead, it muttered about referendums in an attempt to buy off those minded to support UKIP or the Tories.

Finally, the Liberal Democrats have realised that anti-EU voters have a choice of two parties that really mean their hostility, and there is no earthly point in trying to posture as the third such party by promoting something in which they do not believe anyway.

Whatever viewers may have thought of the debates, Clegg has established himself as the country’s most prominent pro-EU politician and has given his party something on which to fight the European Parliament elections.

Will this approach be extended? Clegg has clearly come down on one side on the question of the UK’s membership of the EU. Yet on other matters, he keeps insisting that the Liberal Democrats are ‘in the centre’, a stance interpreted widely as meaning the party simply wishes to split the difference between the Conservatives and Labour.

As has been often repeated, though it would seem not often enough, if you are in the centre you allow those on either side to define your position. It is also meaningless as a political stance. By declaring oneself to be there, what are you and what are you against, and in power what would you do? Why would being ‘in the centre’ at the next general election give people any particular reason to vote Liberal Democrat?

Clegg has learnt the lesson that his party cannot again fight the European elections by campaigning about nothing in particular and seeking to offend no one. Indeed, by cultivating the pro-EU vote for May, Clegg has explicitly set out to offend eurosceptics and signal that he doesn’t seek their votes.
Good. Maybe this step will see the party at last drop the delusion that it can ‘win everywhere’ and realise that it needs a core vote, of which the pro-EU one is an important part but not the whole.

Misguided or (at best) forced decisions in coalition have alienated the students, young professionals and rural poor who were the main props of the party’s support in 2010. Perhaps the party will now see who it should appeal to and who it should not waste its breath trying to cultivate, and so develop a platform that stands a chance of enthusing some badly needed voters.