A Lib Dem search for blandness and the path to self-destruction

Pity the Liberal Democrats. The only time they are given prominence in the media, outside election periods, is when they knife their leaders. This they have done with a ruthlessness seldom shown by the bigger parties. Within weeks of his poll rating falling, Menzies Campbell was dispensed with. How long did Labour take to rid itself of Tony Blair? Four long years after the Iraq war. The Conservatives have forced out a succession of leaders, but not before they had enough time to inflict considerable damage on their own party.

Campbell was a decent, honourable man, whose instincts were invariably sound. As his party's foreign affairs spokesman, he was one of the most articulate opponents of the Blair-Bush misadventure (Robin Cook was another). When Charles Kennedy was cast aside due to his drinking habit, Campbell seemed the obvious choice to harness the various strands of liberal democracy. It was not to be - not because of his age (although, after chemotherapy in 2002, the former Olympic athlete wore his age badly) and not because he presided over poor policies; it was because he failed to show those attributes of leadership that are imperative in the media age.

Ours has become a superficial polity. It is one that requires blandness. The most likely candidates, Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne, will better meet this requirement. They are more telegenic; they are confident in public and parliamentary speaking - they are centrist and very safe.

Much of the Tory surge over the past few weeks has been at the expense of the Lib Dems. As Tara Hamilton-Miller points out on page 14, the Tories are particularly fretful about a possible Clegg leadership. So can Clegg become a more convincing version of a modernising Tory than David Cameron? That appears to be the strategy of the younger generation of Lib Dems as they seek to repackage Campbell's mantra of "free, fair and green". They will try to portray Cameron as a fraud (referring to his political record) or as an uncomfortable bedfellow in a party that has John Redwood and other right-wing misfits in its ranks. They will wonder out loud how the Tories' visceral anti-Europeanism can be reconciled with anything contemporary or open-minded. They will pour scorn on the Conservatives' new-found affection for civil liberties after the brutality of the Thatcher and Major eras.

Once more, one must pose the often-asked, but seldom-answered question: what exactly are the Lib Dems for? As they chase the same floating voter who is wooed by the other parties, the Clegg-Huhne approach fails to present a distinctive purpose. The Lib Dems have ceased to brandish the "left of Labour" tag that was at its apogee in the 2005 general election, when the New Statesman encouraged readers to vote Lib Dem to give Blair a bloody nose. There is also, it seems, little appetite for projecting themselves as the repository of tactical voting, used by Labour to such effect in 1997 to rid the UK finally of 18 years of Tory rule.

Yet many of the policies agreed at the Lib Dems' conference last month should be attractive to progressives. They are the only party with a convincing track record on civil liberties; they started to push a green agenda long before it became fashionable; and they have supported stronger powers for local authorities and groups. They are the least bashful of all the parties in using the tax system for an overtly redistributive purpose, noting the absurdly low rate of 40 per cent of income tax for very high earners. Nonetheless, they too have toned down the tax message over the past few years, focusing their attention now on tax cuts. In other areas, they are tracking back.

This realignment, which began under Campbell's leadership, and will accelerate under his successor, goes to the heart of the malaise. Parties fight ferociously in order to present themselves as inoffensive. There is no room for risk-taking, for taking on vested interests, for moulding the public debate rather than following it. One would have thought the Lib Dems, if only to mark themselves out as distinctive, would want to take on that challenge. If they choose not to do so, if they go out of their way to avoid giving offence, they remove any reason to be considered as a serious political force.

It’s enough to make you weep

Rarely has a book been made to sound less appealing. “Depressing”, “grim”, “unflinching”, “ bleak” – these were a few of the adjectives used of Anne Enright’s The Gathering, the surprise winner of the Man Booker Prize. Enright herself described it as “the intellectual equivalent of a Hollywood weepie”.

Such faint praise is unlikely to get shoppers hastening to Waterstone’s – and so far they haven’t. The Gathering has sold 3,253 copies. But even for the determinedly high-minded Booker panel, it is a perverse choice. The saga of the dysfunctional, suicide-torn Hegarty family triumphed over the bookies’ favourite, Lloyd Jones, the NS favourite, Indra Sinha, and the shortlist’s only heavyweight, Ian McEwan.

The chairman of the judges, Howard Davies, made a valiant attempt to praise the novel. “It’s somewhat bitter” and “a little bit bleak”, but at least, he reassured readers, “it is not pornographic”. His diffidence was as dispiriting as the travails of the Hegartys. It was surely reasonable to hope for a Booker winner that displayed brilliance, originality and wit, rather than competence – one, in fact, that judges didn’t have to apologise for.

The blame lies not with The Gathering, but with the increasingly dysfunctional Booker – described by Robert Harris as “swollen like a monstrous boil” – and with the stultifying conservatism of British publishing. “A sad tale’s best for winter,” wrote Shakespeare. The Booker judges may agree, but it’s unlikely British readers will.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s afraid of Michael Moore?