Catherine Bearder on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty Images
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The last Liberal Democrat: meet Europe's lonely liberal

Last month’s defeat for the Liberal Democrats was bad, but their defeat in last year’s European elections was even worse. One year on, Catherine Bearder is struggling with her role as the lone voice of British liberalism in Europe.

It’s a Wednesday afternoon at the European Parliament in Brussels, and a group of students visiting from the University of Winchester is listening to a mild-mannered 66-year-old MEP named Catherine Bearder.

“I’m the last Liberal Democrat left in the European Parliament,” she tells the students with a touch of melancholy. “But I’m the lucky one, at least I’m still here.”

From her face, it seems Bearder is not entirely sure how lucky she is. The Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament, considered by many to be the most influential British delegation in the previous term, was almost completely annihilated in last May’s European Parliament election. Their count of 12 MEPs dropped to just one.

It is the peculiarity of the UK’s electoral system that thrust Bearder, a largely unknown MEP, into this pivotal role. While most member states have one national party list, the UK votes in 12 individual constituencies, each with their own candidate list. Bearder found herself at the number one spot on the Liberals’ list in the UK’s Southeast region, the country’s largest, after Sharon Bowles decided not to stand for another term.

The 11 other sitting MEPs from other constituencies weren’t so lucky. The Liberal Democrats lost their Brussels heavyweights like Graham Watson, Andrew Duff and Ed McMillan-Scott.  If the UK had national party lists like most other European countries, the one MEP returned to the Parliament would have likely been Watson, who now leads the pan-European liberal party, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats.

Bearder recalls the bittersweet moment in May 2014 when she learned she had been re-elected. “I had us down as probably four coming back,” she says. She watched as, one by one, her colleagues were eliminated. For a moment it looked as if the party could be completely wiped out. And then late in the night Bearder got the call. She had just squeaked by with a victory, and would be the only one returning.

“It wasn’t survivor’s guilt that I felt,” she recalls. “It was huge relief, but also I was feeling desperately sorry to lose all those years of experience. And then it dawned on me - this is going to be a completely different job than I thought.”

“I had thought that when I came back I would concentrate on environment and human trafficking issues,” she says. “I realised, I’m going to have to change the office, to make sure we cover all the committees. Plus we were in government so they needed me to be flagging up to them what was happening. It was a bit terrifying really.”

No time for wildlife

Having long been involved in local politics in Oxfordshire, Bearder entered the European Parliament in 2009. During her first term she concentrated on her two pet issues – wildlife conservation and human trafficking. She is married to a zoologist and spent many years in Africa studying hyenas.

But now that Bearder is the sole representative of the Liberal Democrats in the EU institutions, she can no longer afford to dedicate herself to her pet projects.

“I thought I was going to come back and concentrate on the environment and trafficking, but that keeps getting pushed out of the way really,” she says. “That’s frustrating. All the local parties will want me to come and do the dinner circuit in the Autumn. And because there’s only one of me I have to cover the whole country. So it will pull me away from here I suspect.”

At the start of the new term in July 2014, Bearder inherited what was left of the Liberal Democrats infrastructure in Brussels. Parliamentary civil servant posts are doled out based on the size of national delegations, which means that 90% of Liberal British employees in the European Parliament got the axe last year. Those that are left are walking Bearder through the big issues. She now finds herself issuing press releases on every EU development even when she is not expert in the subject, from banking reform to migration to the FIFA scandal.

This has led to some tension between Bearder and the Liberal Democrat machine in Brussels. They want her to focus on the big issues, but she wants to spend more time on wildlife conservation.

“A lot of us are helping her out on a voluntary basis, not just her staff at the Parliament,” says one Liberal Democrat who works outside the Parliament in Brussels. “She’s only one person and she can’t do everything…but there are people who want her to focus more on the big issues.”

Bearder’s busy schedule is compounded by the fact that she was also elected as a qaestor, something akin to the ways and means committee in the Westminster parliament. She is the only British MEP in this bureau, which sets the rules and administrative procedure for the Parliament. This election came much to her own surprise, but with the plurality of the British delegation largely uninterested in the administration of the European Parliament, she was one of the few Brits who put herself forward for the role.

One woman, 12 jobs

Bearders concentration on wildlife and trafficking in the previous term was typical for the role of an MEP within a large delegation, where each person usually takes on a niche issue on which to devote their issues. With her 11 former colleagues now out of the Parliament, Bearder’s office receives many calls from former MEPs who want to tell Bearder how to use the Liberal Democrats’ one vote.

McMillan Scott, voted out last year, wants Bearder to continue his work on the ending the Parliament’s so-called “travelling circus” of holding sessions in Strasbourg, France once a month.

“I single-handedly resurrected the campaign for a single seat in the European Parliament,” he notes. “I rather shamelessly used my position as a vice-president, where you can be more impartial, and formed a cross-party group. The campaign moved the issue from silence to 78% of members voting to scrap the Strasbourg seat in the last term.”

Without McMillan-Scott’s leadership the single seat campaign has largely gone silent in the new term, and Bearder hasn’t yet had time to get involved in trying to revive it. Such has been the fate of many issues which Liberal Democrats had championed.

“There were some big personalities in our delegation,” says McMillan-Scott. “Andrew Duff with his hard federalism, Sharon Bowles who was chairman of the economics committee, Sarah Ludford who was a vice-president of the Parliament. I sympathise with Catherine that she has to carry all these burdens on her own.”

“They’re always on the other end of the phone,” Bearder says of her former colleagues. She notes that former MEP Chris Davies, instrumental in reforming the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy in 2013, is helping her with fisheries issues. Ludford now sits in the House of Lords and is a crucial lifeline to Westminster. Bowles is now a director at the London Stock Exchange.

Comparing the situation to a national parliament, it is notable that the MEPs who were the most successful in the European Parliament were the ones voted out, while an MEP without much legislative achievement was re-elected. But this is the reality of the European elections, which are fought almost entirely on national issues rather than European ones, particularly in the UK.

“That’s the world we live in,” notes one former Liberal Democrat official. “The other MEPs got a lot done in the European Parliament, but Catherine has always been very good at local politics and she was in her constituency often. That’s where she excels, she’s very personable. But it seems that the more successful work you do in Brussels and Strasbourg, the less likely you are to be re-elected.”

A transformed pan-European group

The Liberal Democrats aren’t alone in their misfortune. In the previous term they and their liberal colleagues from the German FDP party were the two largest parties in the Liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament. Both were decimated in last year’s European election – the FDP fell from 12 seats to three. The pan-European liberal group is now made up of a motley crew of small parties. The largest party is now EDP, the liberal alliance of France, with seven MEPs.

“The fact that we were decimated was an important feature in changing the character of the ALDE group,” says former MEP Andrew Duff. “The group is now composed of quite a large number of small parties from small countries. It makes the cohesion of the group rather more problematic than it had been previously.”

With the cacophony of voices now in the pan-European liberal group, it has fallen to Bearder alone to represent British liberalism. “In the group, I’m the spokesman for all the Brits,” says Bearder. “When I speak now, people do listen, wheras before if you have heavyweights like Andrew and Graham in the party, you can just sit back and relax.”

There is concern within the liberal democrat ranks that Bearder may not have the stamina to occupy such a demanding role for the full five-year term. However Duff believes that with the help of the Liberal Democrat infrastructure in Brussels, she can hold the fort.

“One ought not to underestimate the problems that we face, but having said that, Catherine has got broad shoulders, and we are preparing to recuperate from this electoral disaster,” he says. “But I’m not certain it can be done in a great hurry.”

Bearder believes that Britain’s upcoming in-out EU referendum will give the Liberal Democrats more visibility, as the most pro-European British party. It will fall to her to do much of the campaigning for the yes vote.

“We need to concentrate on selling our values, the things that make us Lib Dems,” she says. “The voters need to see that there is a reason to vote for us.”

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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage