Focus: Liberals: The powerlessness that tends to corrupt

Short cuts to power, as Lloyd George discovered to his cost, can lead to electoral distrust and political oblivion
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Whoever wins the leadership of the Liberal Democrats tomorrow will inherit a tribe that is inclined to trust its leaders. The advantage of this is that a new leader can, barring scandal or ill health, count on about a decade in which to frame their strategy.

At the moment, the big strategic question remains unresolved - the survival of "the project", the supporters of which see it as their role to bring the progressive forces of the centre-left into closer alliance, even fusion. Terribly modern, this, but in reality, for Liberals, it is a very old danger indeed - that the leader is seduced, once again, by the idea that there is some short-cut to power.

Such attempts have not always served the party - or those it seeks to represent - well. The leader most addicted to the aphrodisiac of power was Lloyd George. His 1920s "project" was to create a centrist party, naturally with himself at the helm, that would house most Liberals and the Tories, to deal with the challenge of Labour. Instead, Lloyd George became a prisoner of the Tories until they discarded him, and he and his party never held office again.

The next Liberal leader who felt confident enough to echo Lloyd George and call on his activists to go back to their constituencies and prepare for government was David Steel. His alliance with the SDP was meant to bring politicians of stature and experience - Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and David Owen - into a political grouping that had always lacked that kind of credibility.

The Liberal-SDP Alliance, with 50 per cent-plus poll ratings in 1981, promised a great leap forward. The short cut nearly worked. But by 1987 the fabric of this project of realignment had collapsed into the wreckage that Paddy Ashdown had to deal with when he became leader. It was only rescued by Ashdown's determination to rebuild the party's strength on the ground. He went about this even as the bailiffs were knocking on the doors of the party HQ in Cowley Street. More and more councils were won from the Tories and Labour, and the strategy of "targeting" key parliamentary seats, where the party's meagre (but honestly gained) resources would be concentrated, paid off in 1992 and 1997. Ashdown saved the party.

Now that progress is jeopardised by the meretricious attractions of the latest project. Lib Dems have to ask themselves if - given Labour's record on health and education, on freedom of information and on asylum - they want to go into the next election as a sort of brand-engineered lager version of New Labour, reaching the parts like the South-west that Tony Blair cannot reach.

It looks more like a rat run than a short cut. HH Asquith, the last Liberal to be elected to lead a government, made this timeless appeal when he resigned as leader in 1926:

"A great political party should never allow itself to succumb to the temptation to degenerate into a bargaining counter. Independence is essential to self-respect and, whatever it may cost you in the short run, it is the only way in the long run of securing the respect of the country."

The writer is a former aide to Paddy Ashdown.

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