In 1900, Henry Campbell-Bannerman wrote to his friend John Spencer.
‘I am half surprised to find that as I go on I get more and more confirmed in the Liberal principles, economic, social and political, with which I entered Parliament thirty years ago.’ CB, who one historian christened ‘the only radical Prime Minister', may have died over a hundred years ago, but the ideals and principles with which he won the last Liberal landslide of 1906 still have a place in today’s Party.
The current centre-ground in British politics now has both a choice to make and a challenge to beat. The governing forces and the membership must choose in which direction the party is to go. It is a choice between the classically liberal group the ‘Orange Bookers’, or a group made up of a large part of the remaining members from the Social Democratic Party, normally further to the left. The challenge is to persuade voters that the doctrine of Liberalism formed by John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham and Adam Smith, is still relevant today, and that it addresses their concerns.
Many of the political situations that face us at the moment are due to a distinct lack of pragmatism, which had been seen as a strength in this country’s decision-making since Elizabeth the First attempted to settle the religious divide and violence of the sixteenth century. We have all viewed and lamented the ideology and identity politics that have shaped the Brexit issue and the moral decline in the discourse of the Conservative Party. A public perception of a lack of empathy and cooperation from the Westminster elite has almost inevitably led to a similar disenfranchisement and polarisation, evident in the rise of populism across Europe and America.
In these times of hyperbole, you might think that this country’s centrist party would be making a positive case for four-cornered liberalism, but you would be unfortunately gravely mistaken. With Vince Cable at the helm, the Liberal Democrats have moved further away from the potential Party of government we saw under Nick Clegg and towards a fringe protest movement that seems stuck on Brexit. If this current condition is allowed to reign supreme, then once the UK has left the the European bloc, the party could end up with its eternal foe UKIP in the pit of single-issue politics.
For the Liberal Democrats to move away from their current state, they will need to reclaim their liberal roots before both are lost forever. Despite widespread bitterness and condemnation, Clegg was acting in what Theresa May would call ‘the national interest’ when he entered into government following the 2010 election. During the coalition years, where policy was based on both the 2004 publication that many Cabinet members contributed to, and the 19th century Liberal maxim of ‘peace, retrenchment and reform’, and for all the administration’s faults, the deficit was cut, though not as much as was possible, the NHS encountered encountered some much-needed reform and unemployment rates were at record low levels.
Clegg and his party paid a high political price for working with the Tories, but the work done by the Orange Bookers during those five years should not be dismissed by the modern Party. Despite the hard toll taken by the party at the polls in 2015, moving away and distancing the party from it’s Gladstonian roots will not secure a long-term future.
The widespread success of Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche Party in France has been much mulled upon by political commentators and the liberal intelligentsia, looking forlornly for a sign of both a force standing up to the wave of populism and a figurehead of radical centrism gaining a majority of electoral support.
Much can be learned from Macron’s political mix of faith in country and push for fundamental reforms, but the French voters and le Parlement Francais are a very different kettle of fish from the somewhat archaic forms of democracy and confusing legislative processes in this country. The very nature of a presidential election compared to what we endure every five years means that building a cult of personality around the leader comes before promoting the party, while in Britain, it is vice versa. Failing to realise this has dire consequences for any campaign team, as Theresa May found out during the snap election in 2017. If the Liberals are to really portray an energetic, radical, forward-thinking and pragmatic image, they would need to encounter a face-lift first.
In the instance of a general election being called after the 29th March next year, I cannot see the current political message leading the current Liberal Democrats, of which I am a part, into a positive campaign or impressive result. As Andy Briggs has rightly pointed out, Diet Corbynism won’t save the party, and they need to return to their original purpose and function to sell their ideas and show voters what this country’s standard-bearers for what Campbell-Bannerman called ‘the politics of common sense’, really stand for.