Ten years ago, the last time the Labour Party enjoyed a double-digit poll lead, a remarkable thing happened in the Liberal Democrats, which if certain people have their way will never happen again. It was the story of how a party, from the bottom to the very top, seized the zeitgeist and found itself, somewhat to its own amazement, the right side of an era-defining political moment.
I was one of those (alongside Martin Tod) when James Graham and Donnachadh McCarthy got the party’s Federal Executive to show some leadership, possibly for the only time in the existence of that body. All of us were members of the FE at the time; unfortunately neither James nor Donnachadh are members of the Liberal Democrats any more. (That in itself speaks volumes).
Charles Kennedy had to be dragged, almost kicking and screaming, to the march. However, his more nuanced approach was
repeatedly proved right in subsequent political debate. Detailed policy resolutions at both 2002 Federal Conferences (current FCC please note...) set out a composited position. A January 2003 Federal Executive resolution maintained that there was no evidence to justify Liberal Democrats backing a war. The FE then, uniquely, unanimously voted to support a resolution from James and Susan Kramer backing both the march and an organised official party presence on it.
Kennedy’s aides were reportedly particularly nervous at being closely aligned with pro-Palestinian campaigns, some of them tending towards the radical. Co-operation from key party staff to organise the presence was in short supply
(with the usual combination of veteran campaigners and young Liberals coming up trumps). Then, after two weeks’ tension, Kennedy said yes to David Frost... and everything changed.
At that time, I was a councillor in West Oxfordshire, and helped set up a local Stop the War group in an area with
significant numbers of forces personnel. A public meeting in Witney, at which I shared the platform with one David Cameron, saw some moving accounts from Forces families of the effects of their loved ones serving in a war they could not support. It was thus perplexing that Kennedy insisted, immediately after the invasion, on a position that opposed the war but supported the troops, which was confusing to many and convinced virtually no-one.
And, as James Graham has recorded at some length, the amazing coalition of Liberals of all parties and none rather
imploded against a sea of recriminations, largely at the way the party appeared to be instructed to disobey the decision of the party. [The full documents of the recrimination can be spared – for now.] By contrast, very
many Liberals old and new felt reinvigorated by the high-visibility campaign.
Ten years on, and it barely seems conceivable that the Liberal Democrats could do another Iraq. Indeed, Nick
Clegg and his former strategy advisor Richard Reeves have (overtly and covertly) suggested that all those left-leaning liberals who joined over Iraq should leave the party and go somewhere else. (The fact that many of those instrumental in the efforts over Iraq predate Clegg let alone Reeves in active politics, of course, is clearly
forgotten). More sadly, there is no political party to which the vast majority of those people could now turn.
Were fate and international events to throw up a parallel situation today, indeed, what might happen? The answer is far from clear, especially as, since their accession to government, the Liberal Democrats have scarcely discussed foreign policy at all and appear to have largely forgotten about the wider world. One thing is true, though: any military action in the Middle East in particular is likely to be the subject of considerable anguish against the backdrop of an increasingly overtly pro-Israeli Liberal Democrat leadership and the prism of the coalition. The vituperative responses to careless statements from parliamentarians about Palestine, and the almost crazed
response to serious challenges to the leadership such as that seen at Gateshead over the NHS Bill, do not give rise to much hope.
One significant test of the party’s international outlook will come when the party follows the Trident alternatives
review and decides whether it goes into the general election pledged to a reduced deterrent, or – as a majority of activists currently think – none. A metaphor for the party’s strategy: the squeezed middle ground of centrism, or a return to the radical roots the party has followed since the days of Grimond.
While the need for the party to develop its own economic vision is critical, the dangers to the Liberal Democrats of 2013 posed by international events are great indeed.