Whether on European or on wider international issues, the Liberal Democrats sometimes strike others as a party obsessed with issues beyond our borders. Yet there are moments when that strong streak of internationalism, which is part of the party’s history, proves wholly relevant in the present. This is one of those moments.
In 1989, the Liberal Democrats were on the verge of bankruptcy. They had just been beaten into fourth place (and just 6 per cent of the vote) by the Greens (who boasted 15 per cent) in the European elections, while national opinion polls put the party within the margin of error of not existing.
Then came the June massacre in Tiananmen Square. Paddy Ashdown, who had studied Mandarin Chinese as a mature student in Hong Kong, rushed to join protesters outside the Chinese embassy in London. He called for citizenship to be guaranteed to all Hong Kong citizens. He believed that such a move would underpin the UK’s protection of the only democratic part of China, to which the UK owed so much.
He had utter conviction that, at a time of crisis, it was important to speak out for what he believed in, even when he knew it was deeply unpopular with most of the UK population. He just believed it was the right thing to do.
As it turned out, his readiness to be unpopular but to say the right thing was like a moment of emergency heart surgery on a dying party. Later, his persistence in the face of outright opposition to intervention in Bosnia was another moment when the party felt unpopular but right.
Often, it is the handling of events such as these which defines a political party and its leaders. The Liberal Democrats are to the very core of their being law-abiding liberal interventionists, as explained here by Ashdown’s aid in Bosnia, Julian Astle. This is why it was wholly in their make-up to oppose the illegal war in Iraq, though at the time there were more wobbles in the leadership’s thinking than they would care to let on.
Therefore, it comes as no great surprise that, in the cabinet, the Liberal Democrats were wholly in support of intervention, according to Andrew Rawnsley’s column.
When it comes to international law and intervention, this is a party that does not worry about opinion polls. Last night’s ITV/ComRes poll revealed a three-way split on Libya. This is a party that has shown a history of belief in intervention, strengthened, of course, by the calls for assistance from the Libyan National Council and the Arab League, and the certainty of the retribution Muammar Gaddafi was preparing for his own people.
So there was a united view at the meeting of the parliamentary party yesterday afternoon. While the Conservatives had one rebel, the Liberal Democrats had none. If the party were ever to split over anything, or show itself to be different from the government, this would be neither the issue nor the moment.