A cornucopia of Liberal Democrat bloggers have responded on their sites to Simon Jenkins’ comment piece in yesterday’s Guardian, in which launches a bitter but slightly confused attack on the Liberal Democrats.
I see no point in adding to James Graham’s fisking. Nor can I ever hope to match the wrath of Cicero. I have not the time to rival Mind Robber’s essay. I cannot hope for a wide a readership as Stephen Tall. I will defer to Duncan Borrowman's acidity.
The only way to add value to this debate is to take it to its source. I have therefore written an email to Sir Simon in which I point out that he has, himself, demonstrated what the Liberal Democrats are for in his most recent book.
I have also sent a truncated copy to the editor, in the hope of it being printed. Were it to be, I would have a wider readership than Stephen (for just one day). However, as I imagine Party grandees are even now formulating an official response, I suspect it is a vain hope. The full version would anyway never see the light of day, so I am reproducing it below. I hope you enjoy it.
I was surprised that you should question the role and purpose of the Liberal Democrats in your article in yesterday’s Guardian, as the answers were clearly contained within your most recent book.
Your article suggests that you continue to analyze politics through the lens of a right-left antithesis. Yet in Paradoxes of Power, on which you leant quite heavily for the first part of Thatcher and Sons, Alfred Sherman wrote that “We should long since have been liberated from shibboleths inherited from the parade of the Estates on the Versailles tennis court in 1789”. This is undoubtedly true.
As Friedrich Hayek suggested in explaining why he was not a conservative, there are in fact three distinct political traditions, each competing for space in the political arena. In answering your question, therefore, I would point out that the Liberal Democrats continue a long political tradition of liberalism, as opposed to both socialism and conservatism.
Of course the divisions between the political parties are not always as clear as ideology would suggest. There is a Social Democratic tendency within the Liberal Democrats, just as Roy Jenkins et. al. represented a liberal tendency within the socialist Labour Party. David Cameron claims to be a liberal Conservative, though in practice he seems to lean more towards a paternalistic High Tory dirigisme that shares ground with the socialists.
Ironically, Thatcher and Sons also indicates how this ideology translates to distinct policy, and further suggests that this policy is one with which you have sympathy. You note that the Thatcher government’s attempt to denationalise and deregulate the economy, to break up corporate interests and to inject market discipline into public services (the “First Revolution”) was pursued by means of a massive centralisation of authority in Whitehall, in the Treasury and within the office of the Prime Minister (the “Second Revolution”). While recognising the need for the first, you lament the second as both a failure and an encroachment on the liberty and diversity within British society. Yet as you clearly demonstrate, this centralism and arrogation of power has been the policy of both Conservative and Labour regimes for three decades.
The Liberal Democrats have consistently supported an alternative, local agenda that is in keeping with the liberal tradition that decision making should take place as near as possible to the citizen. While agreeing wholeheartedly with the First Revolution, the Liberal Democrats would seek to reverse the second, injecting greater power and autonomy into decrepit and demoralised local government. The Lib Dems would hand power to national, regional and local authorities that are more responsive to individual citizens, empowering individuals and communities and so encouraging greater political engagement.
The bulk of your article is in fact an expression of genuine concern that the outcome of a truly representative voting system may have on the unity and authority of the executive branch. This is a serious matter and deserves greater attention (though to continue with the status quo is not a satisfactory answer). However, to suggest that the difficulties presented by a system of proportional representation warrant the dismantling of one of Britain’s oldest and greatest political parties, with a distinct ideological tradition and substantial electoral success, is illogical.
Sincere friends of freedom may be rare, but no matter how the British polity is constituted, they will find a home within the Liberal Democratic Party.