My advice to young Lib Dems — rise above the tribalism

Vince Cable describes how, from his student days at Cambridge to one of the highest offices in the land, he has walked and crossed the fine line between Liberalism and democratic socialism.

A Lib Dem conference attendee. Photograph: Getty Images

One long-standing dividing line in British politics has been the split on the centre left between those who regard themselves as both liberal and social democratic but are divided by party. For well over a century they have largely agreed about policy and philosophy but been divided over tribal loyalty and power: from the split in the pre-1914 Liberal Party, which gave birth to Labour, to the Labour civil war of the 1980s, which led to the creation of the Social Democratic Party, the SDP/Liberal Alliance and then the Liberal Democrats, and latterly to the differences opened up by the coalition government.

My half-century of political activities has been spent on that fault line, surviving the earthquakes but constantly reminded that conflict between siblings can be more brutal than working with ideological opponents. As a politically impressionable teenager, I faced two competing sources of intellectual inspiration. One was Anthony Crosland’s book The Future of Socialism (1956). His message was egalitarian and communitarian, but he was also trying to distance Labour from hostility to a market, capitalist economy, and from the Marxist legacy of the industrial state and proletarian struggle.

The arguments over the Labour Party constitution’s Clause Four may seem as remote today as the great political debates on the Corn Laws or Catholic emancipation. But for those of us who were trying then to understand the relevance of the left in an increasingly affluent, socially mobile and materialistic postwar Britain, Crosland was a breath of fresh air.

The other breath of fresh air was Jo Grimond, the leader of the Liberal Party from 1956 to 1967. The Liberals were politically peripheral (literally so in the case of Grimond, who represented Orkney and Shetland), with only six MPs. But they seemed to have the best ideas; and seemed, unlike Labour and the Tories, to be as comfortable with business as with organised labour, more liberal on civil liberties and more outward-looking, as in the ongoing debate on Europe. Grimond was also witty and irreverent, and the Liberals lacked the tribal certainty and pomposity of the two main parties. I decided to join them, encouraged by my mother, who voted Liberal as a private act of defiance against my uncompromisingly Conservative father.

As an active member of the micro-party, I was quickly promoted to edit the student magazine while at Cambridge University in the Sixties. The subjects of my first ventures into student journalism, I now realise, were quite prescient: the power of the press barons, a liberal approach to immigration and the need for legislative reform on moral issues such as abortion and gay rights.

Student socialists ridiculed this agenda and insisted that the future lay in “bread-and-butter” issues such as the nationalisation of steel and cement, the class struggle in the car industry and the thoughts of Mao. All of this was to the great discomfort of Labour’s student social democrats, with whom I also identified.

When I reached the heady heights of president of the Liberal Club (membership: circa 30), I tried to reconcile the traditions of Crosland and Grimond by attempting a merger between my small Liberal army and an equally small army called the Campaign for Democratic Socialism, inspired by two Labour MPs, Dick Taverne and Bill Rodgers.

The merger negotiations were a disaster, as both sides formed obscure theological points on which to disagree, proving themselves every bit as sectarian as warring Trotskyite sects. I was disowned and the warriors went back to their tribal armies.

In due course, I migrated to Harold Wilson’s Labour Party. I was attracted by a non-ideological leader who was also a Yorkshireman and an enthusiast for science. I stayed there, mostly happily, for a decade and a half, until those of us who identified ourselves as social democrats came to be seen, at least in revolutionary centres like London, as capitalist cuckoos in the socialist nest. The SDP provided an escape route.

In this way, some of the descendants of Grimond and Crosland eventually came together in the newly formed Liberal Democrats. But others remained divided, and still are. And having walked along both sides of the dividing line for half a century, I recognise the bitter intensity of these small differences and the strength of tribal affiliation.

My own descendants are aspiring Liberal students faced with hostile Labour social democrats. They no longer have the moral superiority and innocence of opposition; but they do have the understanding of a party of government. I trust they will not repeat my mistake, dissipating energy into an attempted merger. But they should rise above tribalism, not least because many shared beliefs and values are being challenged more than ever.