Where are the Liberal Democrat journalists?

As a nation, we are pluralist, but the print media seem to be lagging 20 years behind.

As a fellow sufferer, I love the Catherine Tate sketch where people are in a refuge for redheads called Russet Lodge. If you are a journalist who is a card-carrying member of the Liberal Democrats, I think it must be similar.

"No wonder," I hear you scream. "It is a result of the utter betrayal of the past year." But this blog is about the past 20 years. So let me ask just one simple question. Given that roughly one in five people has supported the Liberal Democrats, or their predecessor parties, over the past 20 years, where are the well-known Liberal Democrat columnists? Why have editors passed up the opportunity of hiring one?

Halfway through the 2010 general election someone at editorial level of a broadsheet phoned me. "I need to understand about the Liberal Democrats, their philosophical base, how they got here, where they are in policy terms." I instantly sent him in the direction of Julian Astle, who at the time was director of CentreForum, the liberal think tank.

I admired this journalist for his honesty and for his genuine interest. I think that many opinion-forming journalists, pre-2010, had a tendency to consider us useful only when we were a moderate influence on Labour's excesses on civil liberties or constitutional reform. They rarely took a good look at us for what we were in our own right: a party with a strong philosophical base of liberalism, however heated the debate between the "social" and "market" strands.

The dismissive approach of the papers on the right barely needs explanation. Or rather, it was explained by David Yelland, in a brilliant piece written during the election. The sense from him was that if the Liberal Democrats ever got into power, editors would have no idea who to pick up the phone to, although his account includes a bit of exaggeration.

Always take the weather with you

When I asked on Twitter for people to name a columnist at a paper who is the Liberal Democrat equivalent of Daniel Finkelstein at the Times, or Kevin Maguire at the Mirror, there were no answers.

Someone mentioned David Mitchell, another Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, but neither matches what I am talking about.

I do not mean someone who views us as a tactical convenience. I mean a fully declared, card-carrying member of a political party – it may be an often critical friend, but one who will continue to support and explain that party, through thick and thin.

For the Tories: Matthew Parris, Andrew Pierce, Matthew d'Ancona, Fraser Nelson – the list is endless. For Labour, there's Jackie Ashley, Polly Toynbee, Steve Richards and others. Of course, there are those who are rabidly opposed to all parties, those who are truly objective, and those who follow the political weather, snuggling up nicely to the next lot in power in order to ensure that they have good access with each new government.

Right now, I can think of five journalists, all working in print media, all of whom at some point have been part of the Liberal Democrat party, but who would run a million miles before declaring themselves long-term supporters. Is it that career-destroying? Or is it, as I suspect, a sad fact that while the UK has moved to a scenario where we are a pluralist nation, the print media remain 20 years behind?

Therefore, credit to the Telegraph, which currently has Julian Astle blogging for it, and to the New Statesman, which asked me to give the Liberal Democrat view, and to the FT, which publishes Miranda Green. But we are rarely in print. (By the way, this is not a pitch for a column – I struggle to keep up with my small commitment to this blog. It's a pitch for others.)

No wonder that, when we are written about, by columnists from other parties, our story is viewed through red or blue-tinted spectacles, never yellow. Inevitably, it rarely reads well.

So this is a direct question to the editors of all the print media. You employ people from Labour or the Conservatives, who then appear in the broadcast media with insights about their respective parties. Why no Liberal Democrats? It can't be that difficult, especially when you have a readership that's gone beyond the two-party system.

Come on, Alan, Simon, James, Tony and Lionel. Isn't it time you caught up?

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser