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.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

    £13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

    £18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

    Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

    £20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

    Day In a Page

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before