Can the Liberal Democrats save the United Kingdom?

The revival of the long-standing Scottish liberal tradition could help thwart the SNP's bid for independence. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Are the Liberal Democrats about to save the United Kingdom? Their performance in the recent EU elections indicates a return to a degree of popularity, with the party progressing from one MEP to 16. With nearly 20 per cent of the vote, it came second only to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.

Since then, a number of Westminster polls have put the Lib Dems in first place. This surge may not last — it didn’t in 2010, when Nick Clegg seemed on the edge of a defining breakthrough. But something is happening.

The Lib Dems are clearly benefitting from identity crises among voters of both left and right: soft Tories aghast at the idea of an extreme Brexit and cosying up to Farage and his supporters, and alarmed by the grisly prospect of PM Boris Johnson; and Labour voters disillusioned by the party’s cynically muddled stance on Brexit and by the broader unpleasantness of the Corbyn project.

Having seen off the threat of Change UK, the Lib Dems now seem the most likely vehicle for any centrist resurgence in British politics. The performance of their new leader — we should learn on 23 July whether that will be Jo Swinson or Ed Davey, with internal surveys currently favouring the former — will be crucial. Clegg brought an air of vigour and competence to his party’s public image, something that has not always been a given. Those looking for an alternative to the two main parties will need to see something similar from whoever emerges triumphant from this contest.

Never let a good crisis go to waste. The solipsistic behaviour of Labour and the Tories has given the Lib Dems a surprise opportunity to recover their standing. The 2010 coalition with the Tories seemed to have finished them off — in 2015 they plummeted from 57 seats to just eight. Now, if they can offer moderation, decency and professionalism, and avoid the eccentricities which have unmoored them so often in the past, they may soon find themselves a significant parliamentary and political force once more.

This could have consequences for the survival of the Union too. Swinson is a Scot who represents the East Dunbartonshire seat. This would go some way towards addressing the ongoing Anglicisation of the two main parties. It would show Scots, unhappy with the direction of travel at Westminster and perhaps tempted by Nicola Sturgeon’s siren offering of a second independence referendum, that there is still a front-rank place for them in UK politics.

It would be no bad thing for that long-standing Scottish liberal tradition to be revived. After the first elections to the new Scottish parliament in 1999, the Lib Dems found themselves in government with Donald Dewar’s Labour. Their leader Jim Wallace was a popular and high-profile deputy first minister. But by the 2016 election, they had fallen from 17 seats and 14.2 per cent of vote in 1999 to just five seats and 7.8 per cent. They have, largely, vanished from public debate, silencing an important voice.

The EU election wasn’t as successful for them north of the border as it was in the south. This is largely due to the anti-Brexit SNP, which scooped up many of the votes that might otherwise have gone to the Lib Dems. But the party still came a credible third behind the nationalists and the Brexit Party — indeed, there was only a single percentage point between them and Farage’s outfit, and they comfortably beat Labour and the Tories.

What, then, is the Lib Dem offer in 2019? It’s clear that Britain’s institutions are in a process of upheaval and in need of reform, that many of its political conventions are being uprooted, and that traditional party affiliations are breaking down. This is all classic Lib Dem territory — constitutional reform, as it affects devolution, the Lords and the voting system, are long-term party passions. Their internationalism, at a time when Britain’s global reputation is taking a self-inflicted battering, is a positive. Given a fair wind, their record as David Cameron’s coalition partner stands up well.

Neither PM-elect Boris Johnson, nor Jeremy Corbyn, seems likely to return British politics to a state of calm consideration and build the kind of mainstream coalition among voters that usually delivers governments with credible majorities. We are living through a period of revolution in which the old rules no longer seem to apply. There are a sizeable number of voters newly detached who are looking for somewhere to call home.

If there isn’t to be a shiny new centrist force, then the Lib Dems are pretty much the only option left. Cometh the hour, cometh the woman? Does Jo Swinson have it in her to save Britain?

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).