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.

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.

 

A Lib Dem conference attendee. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.