Want to know what the Lib Dems are for? You'll find out tomorrow.

How lovely it is that we've started setting the agenda.

In the Autumn Statement, a Tory Chancellor will announce a set of Liberal Democrat policy initiatives, and, all things considered, be congratulated on his foresight and wisdom by his Labour Shadow.

I'll let you all chew that over for a moment. OK? Right then, onward...

Up until May 2010, the easiest way to poke a Lib Dem into fury was to announce, "I often ask myself, what is the point of the Lib Dems?". I seem to recall Anne Leslie was especially good at putting a lot of vitriol into it. I've no idea what was said next, as I was too busy shouting at the TV by then.

Since the last general election, everyone has found it rather too easy to answer that question.

If you're on the left, then the Lib Dems are a bunch of never to be trusted pseudo Conservatives determined to shove a right wing regressive agenda on an unsuspecting public.

If you're a Tory, then we're a crowd of yellow livered wets stopping them thrust a fiscally driven tidal wave of horrid tasting medicine down the throats of Britain.

In truth we are neither of these things. But we did leave a bit of a vacuum -- so we've no one to blame but ourselves.

For 12 months, pursuing a line of "not a cigarette paper between us" did indeed make us look like we were interested in pursuing nothing but a Tory agenda. This was not true and the grassroots hated it. But a narrative was set.

Fortunately, since the nadir of May 2011 -- and our own dose of electoral medicine -- we've started pointing out the opposite is true. Now we get credit all over the place for stopping the Conservatives doing all they want - from the Conservatives. Here for example, is the delightful Nadine Dorries

Mr. Speaker, the Liberal Democrats make up 7 per cent of this parliament, and yet they seem to be influencing our free school policy, health -- many issues -- immigration and abortion. Does the prime minister think it's about time he told the deputy prime minister who is the boss?

Hmmm...

Anyway, while we've delighted in playing the role of Tory handbrake, going forward it does beg the old question of what we're "for" once again. Because we can't just be seen to be playing defensive to the Tory bouncers. We need to get on the front foot -- and remind people what we're actually about.

So how lovely it is that we've started setting the agenda.

Last week, Martin Bright (once of this Parish) wrote a good summation of the Youth Contract entitled "So this is what the Lib Dems are for".

And now we'll see George Osborne announcing a whole heap of other initiatives -- infrastructure investment, raising the bank levy, extra school places, cheaper borrowing for businesses -- that have Lib Dem stamped all the way through them. And which Ed Balls, to his credit, has welcomed as the right things to do.

No doubt there will be a ton of measures announced by George Osborne tomorrow that grassroots Lib Dems will find difficult -- any freeze on tax credits, for example, will be especially hard to swallow.

But at least there is clear yellow water between plan A and Plan A+, with A+ combining fiscal accountability with social responsibility.

Which is what the Lib Dems are for, by the way.

 

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

 

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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