David Steel should have been the warning. His conversion from young liberal firebrand to eager defender of the status quo in the House of Lords ought to have shown us that it’s very easy to go into power with grand intentions of reforming it, and then end up defending all the things you used to complain about. You can call it going native, being captured by the establishment or whatever you want, but there’s no denying that it happens. The rebel gets co-opted by the system, and then works to defend it isn’t much of an original plot, anyway.
That’s a long-winded way of saying that I shouldn’t be surprised that a huge chunk of the parliamentary Liberal Democrat party appears to have been captured by the establishment and now happily repeats their propaganda. I’m waiting for the week when we get the message from someone high up that we have to support ID cards now, because if we don’t the terrorist paedophiles will have won and anyway, we shouldn’t complain, because they’re entirely in line with liberal principles. If you squint a bit. OK, a lot, and don’t notice that the book of liberal principles you thought you were reading from has been replaced with the Big Book of Security Theatre Justifications.
I shouldn’t be surprised by this, as we all know that power seduces and corrupts, but it still hurts to watch. I used to have a very rough analogy/theory of British party politics which held that Tories were bullies who were happy to keep the system they same so they could carry on bullying; Labour were people who had been bullied, who now wanted to turn the system upside down so they could bully their old bullies; and Liberal Democrats wanted to create a system where no was doing any bullying. Unfortunately, it seems that the party’s current leadership see their role as being the kid who’s so pleased to not be bullied for once that they’ll hold the bully’s coat for them while someone else gets abused. To borrow from Orwell “Who wields power is not important, providing that the hierarchical structure always remains the same.” The party in government has become (to borrow a phrase from Michael Franti) a shining example of the system it set out to destroy.
In the midst of writing this, I’ve just read Mark Steel’s account of the current problems in the SWP which has this great line “cults aren’t circles of people who took too much acid and dance naked in the woods, they’re people who took one small decision to forego independence of thought for the defence of their group, and once they started couldn’t stop.” Going back to my post from earlier in the week, it does feel sometimes – especially in the comments and the forum at LDV – that there are some people who want the party to behave in that cult-like way, to cheer on every capitulation and herald it as a victory and above all, to stop being so damned liberal about things.
I wrote last year, that it’s time to end the coalition and I stand by that. Indeed, I suspect if I was to repost that now, I’d not only have plenty more reasons for doing it, but would get even more positive reaction. However, on top of the fact that it’s been bad for the country and bad for the economy, a more selfish reason is that I want us to begin rebuilding the party, learning the lessons from government to make the party less susceptible to the system if there’s a next time.
I’ll be honest and say that there are times over the last year or so when I’ve considered quitting the party, but I’ve always stayed because no matter what problems the party has at the moment, and even though we’re being led down a dangerous track by the current leadership, I think the party remains the only one in Britain that can make the case for liberalism and the liberal values that other parties just don’t place as too high a priority. Even if the leadership has let us down on those values, the reaction of the membership recently has shown me that they are still important to the bulk of the party.
That’s not to say that taking back the party and moving it forward would be an easy process, or a quick one, but it’s something I think is possible and worthwhile. I can understand why people have left the party – especially those who’ve quite over secret courts in the last week – but I think the aim should be to create a party that they, and others like them, would be willing to come back and rejoin, to take up the fight again. Because if we don’t fight for liberalism, who will?