18 July 2019

The forlorn quest for the British liberal compromise

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Something about the British Liberal Party (leaving aside their less time-hallowed, increasingly vacuous Democratic epithet) inspires funny stories and unforgettable titles, from The Strange Death of Liberal England to A Very British Scandal. For a century now the Liberals, free from the cares of leading governments, have enjoyed vestigial, instinctive association with the old ‘Establishment’, and have now and again approached sniffing distance of power, albeit of a subordinate kind. With the polls showing a four-way split and the Liberal Democrats on around 20%, such a sniff might be in the offing.

In certain respects, Liberals can claim to incarnate the conscience of the country’s body politic more closely than can their historical nemesis, Labour, or their ancient enemy turned occasional domineering spouse, the Conservative Party. For a long time their image was disproportionately, even patronisingly, harmless and benign, their plenitude of sometimes exotically patrician misadventures not damned, but smiled upon as a reassuring, even patriotic oddity.

The Liberals, born into raw, oligarchic power as the old Whig Party, retained more of that power’s cultural vestiges than they would ever be fool enough to boast about. Under Nick Clegg they appeared, momentarily, to be a thrillingly untarnished alternative to established duopoly, especially in their explicit and plucky opposition to the long unchallenged sway of the House of Murdoch. He went on to make some difficult, arguably principled decisions (entering government, defying his party’s studenty base), as well as some tactically cloddish ones (taking a gaudily meaningless deputy’s post instead of a meaty department).

The two most eloquent and far-seeing speeches of Clegg’s career were both delivered in defeat: after his resignation as party leader in the wake of the Liberal Democrats’ near wipe-out in 2015, and then after he lost his own seat in 2017. In 2015, Clegg paradoxically claimed that five years of coalition had left Britain ‘a more liberal country’, despite its now sudden dearth of MPs. He appealed to the authority of the history books over that of the ballot box for vindication (an attitude with which some, if certainly not all, historians have so far sympathised). Warning of a Europe-wide “politics of fear”, placing Scottish nationalism and ‘English conservatism’ in a bracket that had bite, Clegg built up to the “cruellest irony of all – it is exactly at this time that British liberalism, that fine noble tradition that believes that we are stronger together and weaker apart is more needed than ever before”.

‘Fine’ and ‘noble’ are adjectives, like the noun ‘honour’, rarely heard in contemporary politics without ironical inflection. Used sincerely such terms retain great purchasing power at the risk of sharp and sudden debasement, as Clegg, loved and then hated over tuition fees, had already learnt. He repeated his warning with greater spontaneity at his concession speech in 2017, after the advent of Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit and Donald Trump. Clegg implored MPs on all sides, including his Corbynite conqueror in Sheffield Hallam, Jared O’Mara, “that we will not pick our way through the very difficult times that our country faces if in the next parliament MPs of all parties simply seek to amplify what divides them”.

In the 2017 speech Clegg had also claimed he never ‘shirked from political battles, never retreated from the political battlefield’. But this would become an excellent speech most obvious false note. In a book published later that year, How to Stop Brexit, the passionate defender of the flame of liberalism urged political moderates to infiltrate the two largest parties in an attempt to reverse the population’s majority decision. Clegg was knighted in 2018 and took up a new vigil as global communications director role at Facebook.

In this dispiriting behaviour Clegg mirrored British liberals and centrists at large. Instead of taking on board any of Clegg’s implicit advice in his speeches from defeat, the Liberal Democrats pursued their niche not in compromise but in clarity, occupying the role of Britain’s leading anti-Brexit force. Arguments for a settlement that might possibly reconcile a fractured country came instead from the ideologically pure but strategically conflicted Corbynites and, more substantially, from individual Tory intellectuals such as Sir Oliver Letwin (like Sir Nick Clegg knighted on the beaten plain of Remain) and Nick Boles. When the ever-changing Change UK formed from Labour MPs disgusted with Corbyn and Tories maddened by Brexit, the new party, along with the Liberal Democrats, actually helped scrap any chance of compromise around a Norway Model, a customs union, or Common Market 2.0. If Britain leaves the EU without a deal, Clegg’s various heirs will share the blame alongside the Faragist and ERG faithful (as well as the cynical and fickle Corbynites).

The flame of Clegg’s appeal for reason was instead picked up this year by a Tory, Rory Stewart, to the gleefully expressed horror of all his Conservative opponents. The Conservative leadership election followed upon a farcical and confusing European Parliament election, in which political centrists who accepted the result of the 2016 referendum were presented with no voice whatsoever. Suddenly, in Stewart, they unexpectedly had one. He was immediately accused of being a Liberal in disguise; he rightly wore the charge as a badge of honour, confessing he preferred the support of Liberals and Labour moderates to that of the Brexit Party. But he too, as Clegg himself said all politicians must, ‘lived by the sword and died by the sword’.

Stewart, who has admitted to admiring Corbyn as a campaigner, now appears to be contemplating a blueish version of Momentum to take back the Tory party that spurned him. Those re-galvanised by his campaign are now left tantalised by two faint hopes for the political centre ground: the Stewart rising in the Conservative party, and the relatively resurgent Liberal Democrats, now undergoing their own (comparatively discreet) leadership ritual. At the time of writing the Liberal Democrat contest is theoretically much more interesting than the Conservative, with Jo Swinson having been so douce that she is no longer a total shoo-in against yet another Remainer knight, Sir Ed Davey.

There is something a bit embarrassing about Davey. He exudes pride for his unpopular ministerial record and his retro spurs of chivalry; he emits Mean Girls-esque signals towards his necessary Remain allies in poor discombobulated ChangeRUK; and at one point he attempted to benefit from Stewart’s anguished denials of a double life as a secret agent by declaring that he himself had been tapped on the shoulder, but had gallantly declined the call-up. Nonetheless Davey’s long-shot scheme for a brief Government of National Unity is, at least, an imaginative and spirited contribution (if something of a long shot).

Such is the attention-grabbing ability of the Conservative frontrunner and all but anointed Prime Minister that few political commentators muster much interest in whichever Liberal emerges. The debate has surged on, as the Johnsonians have hoped, to what may come next – the new Cabinet, prorogation, No-Deal, and an early election to catch Corbyn napping. We that are young await, perhaps in vain, a persuasive figure and a ‘burning bush’ alliance that can capture the qualities of Clegg and of Stewart in their finest moments; some yet pragmatic Tory bough wedded to a still noble Liberal flame.

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Minoo Dinshaw is a biographer and author of Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman