19 September 2019

The Lib Dems embrace the polarisation they claim to decry

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Nobody has quite gone full David Steele and told them to “prepare for government”. However, it is fair to say the thronged masses of Lib Demmery gathered in Bournemouth this week are not in a particularly humble mood. New recruit Chuka Umanna talks effusively of winning 100 parliamentary seats, leader Jo Swinson maintains she is a genuine candidate for Prime Minister, whilst visiting Belgian uber-liberal Guy Verhofstadt said something typically zany about Empire. On Tuesday, the party’s leading lights even took time to defy one of Britain’s deepest political superstitions and gave a press conference directly from the beach. Whatever else all this eccentricity means, it feels reasonable to conclude this is not a party burdening itself unduly with the management of electoral expectations.

And why should they? After all, there can be little doubt the imminent contest presents the Lib Dems with a remarkable opportunity. To have one opponent as unpopular as Jeremy Corbyn can be regarded as merely fortunate.

But to be presented with a second as sabre-rattlingly illiberal as the Prime Minister must encourage even their most downbeat West Country door-knocker to embrace such political carelessness. Yes, I know, the centre-ground of British politics is not quite what it was. But there are surely still a few votes to be found in its reasonable suspicion towards both full socialism and a No Deal Brexit. Not to mention some more from those who might view a rising populist fervour in our politics as something to be resisted, rather than harnessed for those twin ideological ends.

Alas, it is on this last point that Jo Swinson has failed miserably and perhaps decisively this week. For in the decision to shift her party towards revoking Article 50 and outright cancellation of Brexit, she has needlessly tied herself to the wagon of Remainer purity. Thus, she places a ceiling on her party’s long-term political ambitions that belie her more extravagant conference predictions.

This is not however, because revoke threatens democracy. Of course the decision was greeted with the predictable betrayal cries from Leavers determined to preserve their monopoly on stretching the notion of what constitutes a democratic mandate. But anyone who feels such outrage keenly might want to run a little check on their levels of political partisanship. To be sure, there are legitimate objections that can be made about putting such an obviously divisive Brexit conclusion to the people via the imperfect medium of a general election. Yet in doing so Swinson is only presenting our Brexiteer Government with its Remainer mirror-image.

No, the real issue with revocation emerges from the other side of the Lib Dem’s nominative heritage. For contemporary political liberalism, at least in the textbooks, is supposed to grant a primacy to pluralism and the tolerance of legitimate dissent. One need hardly dust down the John Rawls tracts to grasp what this means for Brexit either. Party grandee and North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb put it plainly when suggesting Swinson would be better served trying “to find ways to re-unite our country”. Wilfully embracing such polarisation, he continued, could even “break the social contract”.

As a long-time supporter of a soft Brexit compromise, I have a great deal of sympathy for Lamb’s view. But in truth my exasperation with Swinson’s gambit goes way beyond high principle or arcane political philosophy. Rather it is with the poverty of ambition her retreat into Remainer populism reveals. I am, admittedly, perhaps a little too sympathetic to the view you could form a credible, anti-populist, unifying liberal movement out of the country’s revulsion towards a choice between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. Yet it should be abundantly clear that this admirable task cannot even begin whilst you continue to seek the most divisive line on the biggest political question of the day.

What is worse, the move comes at almost the exact point when the strategic demands of this project seem most easily reconcilable with the tactical need to harvest anti-Brexit votes. Indeed, the Lib Dem’s long-term bet that a second referendum would seem more pragmatic and less partial over time, was beginning to come good. Instead, it is difficult to imagine what group of voters will be attracted by revoke that would not have been equally attracted to a referendum. And it places Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, equipped with a well calibrated referendum ‘in sorrow not in anger’ message, firmly in the vacant Brexit centre ground.

Perhaps we should see this departure as the final nail into the coffin of liberal British centrism. But if Jo Swinson truly believed her rhetoric about a genuine realignment of politics she should display a little more faith in her creed.

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Alan Lockey is a former adviser to a Labour MP