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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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear