I suspect that one of the things that most irks Simon Jenkins is that despite the fact that he clearly loathes the Lib Dems, so many of us have a grudging affection for the old git (okay, not all of us). Maybe we’ll end up killing him with kindness. His article in the Guardian today is a real shame because while the first half is dreadfully woolly headed hack journalism, he does actually have an important point to make.
Okay, first the dreadful hack stuff:
Ask a Liberal Democrat what he or she is for and you get only a susurration of platitudes.
Ask the member of any political party in the abstract what they are for and you will get platitudes. Clause 4 is one long list of platitudes. The Conservative Party’s Big Brain Oliver Letwin got enormous publicity for his speech yesterday that sought to define his party with lots of platitudes.
The “what are the Lib Dems for?” rhetorical question is a peculiar one because it would appear that we are the only party who are required to answer it. In truth, all parties struggle to develop meaningful narratives and definitions. At best, parties can only articulate their principles with the broadest of brushes. When Letwin claims that the Conservatives are essentially a pragmatic party, the fact remains that all mainstream parties are fundamentally a mixture of pragmatism and ideology. The precise balance at any one time varies depending on a whole range of factors. That doesn’t make his point wrong – Labour and the Lib Dems are broadly more idealistic than the Tories – but it does suggest that no crude delineation will ever be sufficient.
So to answer Jenkins’ question with an inevitable platitude, the Lib Dems are about freedom. We might disagree from time to time about how much emphasis to put on economic, social and political freedoms. Occasionally – like all other parties – we may lose the plot entirely; we certainly have a problem persuading certain people at the top of the party to talk about such things. Similarly, Labour are ‘for’ social justice, the Tories are ‘for’ continuity and the status quo. If anything they have been less consistent over the past two decades than we have.
In Scotland the Lib Dem leader, Nicol Stephen, has decided it would be inappropriate to maintain Labour in power yet has told Alex Salmond’s nationalists he will not coalesce with him. He cannot tolerate a referendum on independence. That the party of Irish home rule should reject so liberal a proposal as territorial self-determination is odd. Nor was Salmond demanding support for independence, merely for a vote on it. Under PR there is a majoritarian argument against almost any controversial decision. So what do the Lib Dems fear? Instead they have exchanged responsibility without power for power without responsibility, and are retiring to carp from the backbenches. They will smoke potency but not inhale.
Here, Jenkins gets very confused as this paragraph directly contradicts his later assertion that we shouldn’t have anything to do with coalitions in the first place. But to answer his point (which is being made in lots of other places at the moment I notice), Nicol Stephen is correct to hold out against an independence resolution because that is what his party has just been elected on a platform on. You can guarantee that the same voices denouncing us for not going into coalition with the SNP on this basis would be just as shrilly condemning us if he had done so (indeed Jenkins’ article does read as if he wrote it before the party ruled out coalition thus requiring him to shoehorn in an alternative reason for having a dig).
Why are we any more spoilers on this issue than Labour or the Tories? If a vote on independence is such a trivial matter, why isn’t Annabel Goldie not being denounced for not cuddling up to Salmond equally? The biggest crime that Stephen (and, for that matter, Mike German) seem to be guilty of is not fulfilling what other people have judged is our preformatted role as kingmakers.
It would be ludicrous to go into a government where most of the cabinet was looking at every issue through an independence referendum prism. One of the things I have repeatedly tried to point out on this blog over the last few weeks is that separatism is not a simple matter: it will have an impact on every single policy issue and will potentially have all sorts of unforeseen consequences. I’m all for Citizens’ Initiatives, and I’m surprised that the SNP have not yet called the Lib Dems’ bluff by calling them to support a Bill for a general Initiative & Referendum system, but for independence to happen you need an executive fully committed to pushing it through in fine detail. It isn’t ‘just a vote’ for the simple reason that, despite Salmond’s assertion, independence is not reversible.
Frankly, it would be foolhardy for any government that doesn’t enjoy a majority to attempt it, as I suspect the Scots are about to witness. Refusing to pander to the SNP’s dogmatism isn’t ‘undemocratic’ – it is simple, old-fashioned, common sense.
I don’t entirely disagree with Jenkins however, although I really don’t understand why he feels it only applies to the Lib Dems:
Lib Dems claim a bizarre interpretation of democracy, that the share of votes should be reflected in a share in power. This confuses quite different concepts: executive government and assembly representation. The first requires a coherent team, a declared programme and some mechanism to account for its delivery to the electorate. To this end, France and the US directly elect presidents, governors and mayors. They are checked by a second concept, that of a separately elected assembly, in which PR is both fair and just.
It is true that the Lib Dems have no policy to decouple the executive from the legislature and are unlikely to adopt one in the foreseeable future. I would even agree with Jenkins that it would be nice if we did so. But is this really a criticism of the Lib Dems? Labour and the Tories are hopelessly confused on this point as well, it’s just that they work on the opposite misapprehension that the electoral system should be about electing an executive-by-proxy (the worst thing about this is that first past the post can’t even guarantee such an outcome – look at Canada where hung parliaments are now the norm). Don’t expect to see Cameron or Brown calling for full separation of powers any time soon.
In fact, the Lib Dems do at least acknowledge the problem. We have a longstanding commitment to reduce the payroll vote in the Commons and the Lords. We fight to promote the independence of Parliament and don’t use the whip in anything like the heavy-handed way Labour and the Tories do. I suspect there are more people in the Lib Dems who support full separation than there are in the other two parties combined.
In short then, Jenkins is attacking the Lib Dems for being both kingmakers and refusing to be kingmakers, for supporting a constitutional situation supported by all UK parties and for failing to define ourselves any better than any other party. Deadline or no deadline, he really ought to be able to do better than this.