The Diary: Labour trips over Liberals in a comedy of errors

"PARLIAMENTS ARE like cats: they ever grow curst with age." Charles I was not famous for his jokes, and he may not have realised that this remark was a joke. It is the classic executive view of parliaments: they are an infernal nuisance. Of course they are: that is what they are for.

Perhaps the most startling event this week is that the European Parliament became curst for the first time. It was not, in the end, what it looked like being halfway through the week: the moment when the Parliament came of age. It was the moment when it achieved adolescence. It threw its first major tantrum, frightening enough to make the grown-ups shake in their shoes, but not sustained enough to achieve results. It did not claim its first scalp, but next time it probably will.

It was helped by the usual arrogance of an executive which thought itself unaccountable. Mme Cresson, for example, is the sort of person created to encourage legislatures to call her to account. Like the proverbial servant with the open testimonial, "she has discharged her duties entirely to her own satisfaction". Future commissioners will be more cautious.

The paradox of this story is that while it is Eurosceptics who complain about the unaccountability of the Brussels bureaucracy, it was not they but the pro-Europeans who went to the wire. The Christian Democrats and the Socialists backed off, while the Liberals and the Greens (far more pro-European than their British counterparts) voted to call Commissioners to account.

This should not, I suppose, be so surprising. It is an old historical rule that "two groups who never meet cannot fight", and only those who recognise the reality of the European Union can effectively call its bureaucracy to account. A Europe-wide bureaucracy must be held to account by a Europe-wide Parliament: no one else can have the authority to do it. The European Parliament has a bright future in front of it. I only wish that I could say the same for the British Parliament, which is too old to be curst: it is growing comatose.

IN WASHINGTON, we have a very different story of an executive being called to account. Bill Clinton is being called to account for things for which he is not accountable. Executives are accountable for the discharge of their official duties. Since the Americans have abandoned hereditary monarchy, the President can have no sexual duties to the American people. He was not elected for stud purposes.

It is now a well-established principle that what happens between "consenting adults in private" is no concern of the public. The Republicans might have found a case in which there could be a question about the first word of the phrase or about the last. They have shown their intellectual bankruptcy by picking a woman whose consent was all too painfully obvious. Only prurience can justify the intensity of interest in this case. The Republicans should remember the fate of the original Peeping Tom. He was struck blind.

Ah, we will be told, but he lied. Whether he lied or equivocated is a question which will make us all equivocate if we pursue it too far. Even if he did lie, he lied about what he should never have been asked about. The demand for testimony came perilously near asking him to incriminate himself. We will be told that private life affects public behaviour. So, of course, does digestion: does that mean a President can be put on oath and interrogated about the state of his bowels?

Even if there is a correlation between matrimonial fidelity and effective rule, it is not clear which way it goes. Among the kings of England, the most blameless private lives belonged to Richard II, Henry VI, Charles I and George III. The first three were deposed, and will any American tell us that George III was a great king? We all have vices and weaknesses, and perhaps it is as well that rulers should keep them out of their jobs. If they do, we should let sleeping vices lie.

PERHAPS THE richest comedy of the week has been between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. This comedy of errors bears a resemblance to one of those masked balls in which everyone is pouring out their feelings while under a severe misapprehension about which partner they are dancing with.

Tony Blair gives out that he wants to embrace Liberalism in order to get away from John Maynard Keynes and get back to the laissez-faire which he sees as the hallmark of Liberalism. John Prescott wants to get away from Liberalism in order to embrace Keynes.

If Keynes is casting a sardonic eye over all this political pirouetting from some celestial vantage point, he is probably feeling like the Pope when confronted with that fierce Catholic and formidable Daughter of the American Revolution, Mrs Clare Booth Luce. The Pope was found saying nervously to her, when she was American Ambassador to the Vatican: "But my dear Mrs Luce, I am a Catholic." Keynes probably would want to say: "But my dear Mr Prescott, I am a Liberal."

The laissez-faire Liberal party for which Blair expresses affection is a figment of his imagination, and his love for it approaches auto-eroticism. Laissez-faire was a fashionable theory in the middle of the 19th century, and affected some Liberals much as, in the 1950s, Keynesianism affected some Conservatives. It never controlled the party, and it was never the essence of the party. Even in Manchester, most Liberals did not believe in "Manchester Liberalism".

J S Mill, a true free-market theorist, went out of his way to explain that his free-market principles were purely pragmatic and had nothing to do with his belief in liberty, which could exist entirely independent of them. For most Liberals, it did.

The wellspring of the party was the desire to protect the underdog against the abuse of power. The most free-market policies - repeal of the Corn Laws and free trade - were defended as assaults on the economical over- mighty. Lloyd George's description of protectionism as "stomach taxes" captured this in a tiger's soundbite. Where they saw natural monopoly or unequal competition, Liberals were always ready to use the state to control arbitrary economic power.

The Plimsoll Line to prevent owners of ships from abusing monopoly economic power by overloading, was the achievement of a Liberal MP. In debates on the Game Laws, or on drink, it was the Conservatives who appealed to laissez-faire to protect the mighty, and the Liberals who called for state action to create a level playing field to give opportunities to the weak. In health and safety, they were always ready to consider state action. The cholera did more to defeat laissez-faire than Labour ever did. Perhaps John Prescott may recognise some of these things. It would be a pity if our two parties, having very properly reasserted their independence, should replace mistaken love with an outburst of equally mistaken hatred.

Lord Russell is social security spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords.

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