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.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.