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How I nearly joined a cult of men in yellow jumpers - but got out in time to dodge Nick Clegg

It's great being a Lib Dem - you don't have to believe in anything. For a brief moment in 1996, I thought I'd found my people.

Oddly I do know how someone can become a Lib Dem. It happened to me in 1996. For an entire day I thought I was one. It was quite freeing. You could, I felt, be a Liberal Democrat and just think whatever you liked. You didn’t have to believe anything. Amazing.

Obviously this didn’t happen out of the blue. Someone had sent me to a Lib Dem conference, where I wandered around, lonely as a Lembit.

Up until then I’d never actually met a self-confessed Lib Dem in my life, and I think the fact that these people could just blast out policies with no coherence whatsoever must have been what I found most appealing.

Earlier that year had been the horrible massacre at Dunblane, but there I was, listening to loons saying we should all have greater access to handguns. Wow, I thought, these people are kinda out there. All of these excitable blokes and Shirley Williams induced in me some kind of trance. I went to bed thinking I’d found my people.

When I came to, I realised that my people were not middle-class men in jumpers and I felt bloody awful.

That morning, at a fringe meeting about why there were so few women in the party, only blokes spoke.

A woman put her hand up to say something and the chairman said, “Let’s take a question from the little lady in canary.”

Christ, what had happened to me? Some sort of alien abduction? I left and, like most people, never thought about them again for a decade.

Then suddenly, just before the last election, they started banging on about civil liberties and I found myself sitting next to Vince Cable at a discussion. Cable, who had prophesied the recession, said it could bring about all the preconditions for fascism.

“Blimey,” I thought. “Am I a Lib Dem?” It was happening again. Even unlikely people got taken over. At the same conference, Brian Eno was milling about in the green room. He had become one! When I suggested to the organisers that they get him on stage to do a speech, they had no idea who he was. Politicos have the collective cultural hinterland of a whelk.

“Roxy Music,” I found myself yelling at puzzled Liberal Democrats.

“Never heard of them.”

So when Cleggmania happened, I thought: I won’t get fooled again. I went to another Lib Dem gathering for which my notes for an entire week read, “Went up a tower for dinner with Norman Baker. (Transport?) He had an altercation in a taxi and is a conspiracy theorist. I just want to go home.” No one else appears to have made any impression on me whatsoever.

But that’s how they do it. This blankness is like political Rohypnol. How else can you explain their power? Trust me, you really don’t want to stand too close to them.

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.