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20 January 2010

Which way for the Lib Dems?

"Equidistance" may not be sustainable

By James Macintyre

Shortly before becoming leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg was warned by a fellow guest at a private dinner that he might be seen as interchangeable with certain members of the Conservative front bench. Clegg looked aghast. “But I’m a liberal!” he protested.

Clegg’s critic was being unfair: he has little in common with David Cameron, other than a private school education and (now amended) a floppy fringe. Indeed, the current neo-Thatcherite Conservative Party is diametrically opposed to Lib Dem values on crucial areas, from Europe and immigration to redistribution and political reform.

Last weekend, at a Fabian Society conference event chaired by Jonathan Derbyshire, the New Statesman‘s culture editor, I put this to the Lib Dem science spokesman, Evan Harris, and asked him to rule out a coalition with the Tories. Eventually, after a few attempts to talk his way out of giving an answer, Harris in effect did so, calling the Tories “anathema” and denying that his party’s policy was “equidistance”. When I pointed out that he had contradicted Clegg’s stated position, Harris said: “What’s wrong with that?”

Under the leadership of Charles Kennedy, it was widely understood, if not openly said, that the Lib Dems would never “get into bed” with the Tory party. Under Clegg’s leadership, that perception at least appears to have changed. The change is entirely understandable for short-term tactical reasons, which I outline in my column for this week’s magazine, out tomorrow.

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But today’s Lib Dem leadership would do well to recall the important, dignified and powerful words Kennedy uttered on the day he resigned in January 2006 (you can watch the speech by clicking on this link). It is worth quoting his remarks at some length:

As I have acknowledged before, there is a genuine debate going on within this party — somewhat crudely caricatured at times as being in rather redundant terms as between left and right; in rather simplistic terms as between social liberals and economic liberals; in rather misleading terms as between traditionalists and modernisers.

I have never accepted that these are irreconcilable instincts — indeed, quite the opposite. And I believe that unity remains fundamental to our further advance and success. It should be a debate driven by ourselves. It must not be allowed to become dictated by others who do not share our long-term hopes and goals. We must stand and argue — politically independent and intellectually self-confident.

And it must be based on time-honoured, sound philosophic liberal principles — principles which have stood the test of generations and remain not just as relevant to, but even more essential, in British politics today. The leadership personalities change from time to time in politics, but principles should not. Civil liberties; justice and rule of international law; Britain again seen as a force for good in the world, through our unique amalgam of roles within Europe, the United Nations and the Commonwealth; a far greater regard for our environmental challenges today and what we bequeath to future generations; and a far fairer social deal for the have-nots in our society. I look forward to continuing to contribute to that ongoing debate in due course.

My sincere parting advice as leader to the party is to keep that debate within the parameters of these principles — and not to get unduly distracted by the machinations in other parties or what the vagaries of the British voting system may offer up at a future general election. That route will blur our identity and turn away the very voters who are still looking to us — rightly so — as their best hope for the future.

For an explanation of Lib Dem tactics over “equidistance”, and for an analyis of the setbacks and achievements of Nick Clegg’s leadership of the party, see this week’s Politics Column in the edition of the NS out tomorrow.