In 1999, something interesting happened. Newley elected leader Charles Kennedy, in a break from his predecessor, came out and supported the Lib Dem party line of holding a Royal Commission on drug use.
And you know what? The world didn’t come crashing down around his ears. Remarkable!
Kennedy went on to make a point of intervening on the asylum and immigration debate in the midst of the election season in April 2000, putting forward the liberal case and denouncing the populist posturings coming from the Tories and Labour. The Lib Dems went on to win the Romsey by-election a couple of weeks later, despite the huge swing needed and the received wisdom that he had blown it by talking on such a touchstone issue. And while the Lib Dems didn’t make the huge inroads we would have liked to have made in 2001, we ran what felt like a refreshingly honest, upbeat and liberal campaign. And it was something the media picked up on.
The reason I’m saying all this is because it appears that liberals have lost so much ground over the last four years, from 11 September 2001 onwards. The 2005 Lib Dem campaign had us attempting to “tough up” our image, thanks to Mark Oaten and his cohorts. Yet all the polling evidence I’ve seen suggests that this neither helped nor hindered us. I’m not saying the 2001 campaign and manifesto were the best we’ve ever produced, but at least I felt back then that we were fighting the good liberal fight and not ducking and covering every time an issue such as immigration came up.
And now we find the rightwing press going nuts over David Cameron’s refusal to confirm or deny if he took drugs as a student. Personally I’m torn between whether he should just come out and frankly and honestly say what he took, and whether his sealed lips approach is the right one. Either way, I have no doubt that it is indicative of how the country’s mood has changed. Remember when the Tory front bench opted to get William Hague and Ann Widdecombe to cool it over the war on drugs by outing themselves as former users? It seems a world away now. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are living under an oppressive cloud, and that has as much to do with Cameron’s decision to give a non-answer as it has to do with the Main and Standard’s witch hunt.
(side point, but is it just me, or was Ken Clarke’s response “I have never taken cocaine” rather reminiscent of Dracula’s famous line “I never drink… wine”? Somehow though, I just can’t picture Ken Clarke as an opium fiend.)
And again, in 2001, when LDYS decided to set up a website to contribute to the party’s internal review on drugs policy, LibDemsOnDrugs.org.uk, barely no-one raised an eyebrow. When Ian McCartney predictably attempted to use this to prove the Lib Dems were soft on drugs, it looked to a lot of us that it would simply backfire. Yet now, the same sensible heads who would have advised Kennedy to avoid the asylum and immigration issue like the plague in the run up to the Romsey by-election have gained ground. LibDemsOnDrugs, which could now be a great forum for holding a liberal, honest and open debate on drugs policy, is dead as LDYS attempts to fall over itself to demonstrate how “respectable” it now is, as much a victim of self-censorship as pressure from on high.
We do need to start a backlash against this attempt to make large swathes of policy no-go areas. For a long time, up until 2001, it appeared that we were succeeding, yet so many politicians these days seem to be extraordinarily careful about what fights to pick; the result is that they avoid fighting almost any battles at all.
An alternative analysis would be that with civil liberties under such a full frontal attack from the government and fundamentalists at the moment, that people are simply fighting the bigger issues. Yet, the rot seemed to set in long before Labour started getting really potty and people started threatening to burn down theatres, and such acts only seemed to happen once people on the left had already self-consciously retreated. It’s a chicken and egg question we will perhaps never be able to answer adequately.
My guess is that if people stuck their heads above the parapet a bit more, they’d find fresh air rather than bullets, but it takes a lot of guts to be the first to do it. Anyone fancy a challenge?