New Times,
New Thinking.

The Liberal Democrats’ shallow soul

Only a party with no imagination would resort to such frivolous stunts.

By Josiah Gogarty

Why is he always grinning? There is something manic and unsettling about the relentless good cheer with which Ed Davey is waging his election campaign. This week, the leader of the Liberal Democrats has embarked on a series of increasingly perilous stunts. On Tuesday he went paddle-boarding on Lake Windermere, during which he fell off said paddle board five times in 15 minutes. Images of Davey bobbing about in the water with his life jacket riding over his chin was a low point in the lofty history of British liberalism. On Wednesday he cycled down a steep road in the Welsh town of Knighton, giggling as he stretched out his legs either side of the pedals. On Thursday he squeezed himself into swimming trunks and a wetsuit top before barrelling (twice!) down a Somerset waterslide.

Whatever Davey is doing, he is certainly not applying for the role of prime minister of the United Kingdom – an office that still commands some scant vestige of respect. But his high jinks on this election campaign are justified as a means to draw attention to the party’s proposed policies. The Windermere episode was an apparent riff on England’s sewage crisis; the slide was in reference – somehow – to Davey’s plans to install mental-health experts in every school. Maybe the slide was a metaphor? Somewhere out there is a Lib Dem apparatchik who knows.

It might be amusing if it were not so shallow; if the Liberal Democrats hadn’t strayed so far from the seriousness of their roots. But what should we have expected? During the coalition years the cuddly Lib Dems revealed their willingness to swallow principles for attention. When Davey’s shiny orange battle bus hoves into view, observers will not be reminded of the ideas of Roy Jenkins or the party’s Whiggish provenance. Broken promises over tuition fees and slapstick paddle-boarding missions will loom larger.

These antics speak to a truth about the soul of the party – though, for the first time in a while, this is not something Davey would smile about. The Liberal Democrats in their current form are unambitious lightweights. Take their plan of attack for Britain’s polluted rivers: appointing local environmental experts on water companies’ boards, and various other bits of regulatory deckchair-rearranging. Capitulate to the wishes of the Great British public and renationalise the firms? No chance.

And so, in place of ideas, they resort to japes. As light-hearted as it is, the Lib Dem addiction to cheesy political theatre – like driving a tractor into a pile of blue hay bales, as Davey did at the launch of last year’s local election campaign – is as cynical as any Malcolm Tucker wannabe. Forget change: the stunts are the substance.

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This vibes-based electoral strategy has worked. Davey won a brace of by-elections and council seats in southern England by positioning the Lib Dems as a wholesome alternative to the “poisonous” and “divisive” modern Conservative Party. But they are Conservatives with friendlier faces; Tories with a bigger slide. They still support, in practise if not in manifesto-theory, the fanatical Nimbyism that immiserates the country. They offer no alternative to the de facto Conservative policy of importing cheap labour rather than raising wages and productivity.

This lack of imagination is cloaked with tweeness. It’s a problem endemic to the liberal centre, which capitulates to whimsy in the face of an immensely challenging world. Climate apocalypse? Great power competition? Just suck your thumb, keep calm and carry on. This attitude comes with derision of the fringes – those who have the impudence to believe things could be substantially different to how they currently are. But Liberal prime ministers once remade the country. Gladstone fought for Home Rule for Ireland; Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith founded the welfare state. Today’s Lib Dems just want to relay the turf on the village green.

[See also: Can the SNP avoid electoral disaster?]

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