Here’s why Lib Dems are wholly behind the Libya intervention

Support for action against the Gaddafi-led army is entirely in keeping with the party’s history.

Whether on European or on wider international issues, the Liberal Democrats sometimes strike others as a party obsessed with issues beyond our borders. Yet there are moments when that strong streak of internationalism, which is part of the party's history, proves wholly relevant in the present. This is one of those moments.

In 1989, the Liberal Democrats were on the verge of bankruptcy. They had just been beaten into fourth place (and just 6 per cent of the vote) by the Greens (who boasted 15 per cent) in the European elections, while national opinion polls put the party within the margin of error of not existing.

Then came the June massacre in Tiananmen Square. Paddy Ashdown, who had studied Mandarin Chinese as a mature student in Hong Kong, rushed to join protesters outside the Chinese embassy in London. He called for citizenship to be guaranteed to all Hong Kong citizens. He believed that such a move would underpin the UK's protection of the only democratic part of China, to which the UK owed so much.

He had utter conviction that, at a time of crisis, it was important to speak out for what he believed in, even when he knew it was deeply unpopular with most of the UK population. He just believed it was the right thing to do.

As it turned out, his readiness to be unpopular but to say the right thing was like a moment of emergency heart surgery on a dying party. Later, his persistence in the face of outright opposition to intervention in Bosnia was another moment when the party felt unpopular but right.

Often, it is the handling of events such as these which defines a political party and its leaders. The Liberal Democrats are to the very core of their being law-abiding liberal interventionists, as explained here by Ashdown's aid in Bosnia, Julian Astle. This is why it was wholly in their make-up to oppose the illegal war in Iraq, though at the time there were more wobbles in the leadership's thinking than they would care to let on.

Therefore, it comes as no great surprise that, in the cabinet, the Liberal Democrats were wholly in support of intervention, according to Andrew Rawnsley's column.

When it comes to international law and intervention, this is a party that does not worry about opinion polls. Last night's ITV/ComRes poll revealed a three-way split on Libya. This is a party that has shown a history of belief in intervention, strengthened, of course, by the calls for assistance from the Libyan National Council and the Arab League, and the certainty of the retribution Muammar Gaddafi was preparing for his own people.

So there was a united view at the meeting of the parliamentary party yesterday afternoon. While the Conservatives had one rebel, the Liberal Democrats had none. If the party were ever to split over anything, or show itself to be different from the government, this would be neither the issue nor the moment.

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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