Leading Article: Now Mr Blair must offer the Lib Dems some real power
Monday 16 November 1998
Last week's joint statement was an innocuous-seeming document, bathed in the Blairite reasonableness of "working together where parties agree", and yet no one can doubt that it is a significant step towards coalition. The paradox is that a formal coalition would be a good thing: it would have to be open, negotiated, clear about its terms. Instead we have the hugger-mugger of spin and speculation around an ambiguous relationship between two party leaders.
Above and between Mr Blair and Mr Ashdown smirks the Cheshire Cat, Roy Jenkins, the old man in a hurry behind it all, Mr Blair's guarantor of intellectual and historical respectability and Mr Ashdown's biggest asset, wheeled into last Wednesday's fractious meeting of Lib Dem MPs to help win the vote.
But the imprimatur of Lord Jenkins cannot conceal the real motives of the principals. Mr Blair would like to absorb the Lib Dems into a coalition called New Labour, an ambition candidly expressed by Philip Gould, the Prime Minister's pollster, in his book tellingly entitled The Unfinished Revolution. While Mr Ashdown, another impatient man, cannot really want to lead his party into a third election and is looking for a proper job where he gets to make decisions which are not immediately voted down by a polytechnic of obstreperous local councillors.
In any case, the intellectual basis of the Jenkins reading of history should be challenged: he argues that Labour and Lib Dems should work together because the division between the liberal and socialist traditions handed over the government of Britain in the 20th century to the Conservatives. But the real reasons for Tory dominance in the 1930s and 1980s were because the Labour Party itself split. And in the 1950s the Tories managed to win three elections in a row when hardly anybody voted Liberal. As an intellectual tradition in Britain, socialism may have lacked self-confidence - but Mr Blair has sensibly replaced it with something else, and whatever the something else is, it is not really liberalism.
Isaiah Berlin's biographer has revealed that Mr Blair wrote to the philosopher last year, shortly before his death, asking for his help in "appropriating the great aspects of the liberal tradition". But Berlin thought, with some justification, that Blair did not like the core idea of liberating the citizen from the oppressive state.
All the more need, then, for the Lib Dems to preserve their identity as the liberal conscience of the nation. That does not mean that they should refuse to work with Labour. But the basis of co-operation should be that Labour won only 43 per cent of the vote last year, and that, in return for their support, the Lib Dems should have real influence in a libertarian direction. Mr Ashdown argues that his gamble is worth the prospect of electoral reform, but that is still a distant and uncertain possibility.
A proper coalition would make it easier for the Lib Dems to retain their distinctive identity. And it would not mean that the parties should cease to contest elections - indeed, it is essential that they should continue to do so. The Lib Dem executive should reject the joint statement today, and require Mr Blair to offer the party something tangible in return for its support in future.
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Top 20 misconceptions people believe are true
- 2 'We're not heroes, just tourists': Swedish police officers on holiday stop vicious assault on New York subway
- 3 Head transplant: man will be attached to new body in under an hour and aim is immortality, doctor says
- 4 Anti-vaccination group defends advert comparing immunising children to rape
- 5 Australian student Tommy Connolly, 23, adopts his pregnant, homeless 17-year-old cousin to give her a chance at 'a better life'
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Katie Hopkins on LBC: Listen to caller taking The Sun columnist to task over migrant comments
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
Rupert Murdoch berated Sun journalists for not doing enough to attack Ed Miliband and stop him winning the general election