Have the Lib Dems left it too late to leave the chorus of reticence?

Share

It was 15 years ago when I first realised that politicians were determined to talk about what they rather than we wanted to talk about. I can remember the precise circumstances in which it struck me. It was at a Labour Party press conference during the Mid-Staffs by-election of 1990. The candidate was Ms Sylvia Heal, who was perhaps ungallantly described by Paddy Ashdown as a "Barbie doll". What he meant was that she was an identikit figure supplied by party headquarters. Certainly it was the party that was responsible for the way things went. Ms Heal had nothing to do with it.

It was 15 years ago when I first realised that politicians were determined to talk about what they rather than we wanted to talk about. I can remember the precise circumstances in which it struck me. It was at a Labour Party press conference during the Mid-Staffs by-election of 1990. The candidate was Ms Sylvia Heal, who was perhaps ungallantly described by Paddy Ashdown as a "Barbie doll". What he meant was that she was an identikit figure supplied by party headquarters. Certainly it was the party that was responsible for the way things went. Ms Heal had nothing to do with it.

"This morning," the apparatchik announced, "we're going to talk about Health."

"Oh no we're not," one of us said. "We're asking the questions here."

"So you may be," the man from the party said, "but it's our press conference, and we'll run it the way we want."

The result was a virtually complete victory for the party machine. And so, at general elections and by-elections alike, has it been ever since. There have, naturally, been events which disturb the parties' plans: a woman with a delayed operation, a younger woman stabbed by a crazed criminal, a statement by a respected body to the effect that taxes will have to go up, irrespective of which party wins on 5 May. But on the whole both main parties have been remarkably successful in what everyone now calls controlling the agenda.

Of course, they want to control it in different ways, Labour emphasising the health service and the Conservatives, immigration and asylum, and so forth: though there are signs that the association between one party and a single topic may now be breaking down. There is, however, one question over which the two parties are united in not wanting to have discussed at all. That is the Iraq war.

When, last year, Mr Michael Howard said he would have voted against it if he had known then what he learnt later, there was embarrassment all round and a charge of hypocrisy against Mr Howard. Mr Karl Rove, Mr George Bush's somewhat sinister man-of-business, warned him never to darken the doors of Mr Bush's White House. To some of us, this might be the same as being told that we had failed to secure an apprenticeship with Sir Alan Sugar. To the leader of the Conservative party, it was undoubtedly a blow; all the more ungrateful, perhaps, because Mr Howard's predecessors had both of them adopted postures towards Mr Bush beside which Mr Tony Blair appeared a figure of sturdy independence.

Even so, it is easy to see why Mr Blair likewise does not want to mention the war. It reflects great credit on Mr Jeremy Paxman that last Wednesday he made him talk about it.

The late Sir Robin Day did not wholly approve of Mr Paxman, considering him rude when he had no need to be, and lamenting that he did not attend the Commons as often as Sir Robin did. In fact his practice was to turn up for Prime Minister's Questions (then held twice a week) and to leave at 4.30 or so, having enjoyed several cups of tea. It was his greatest lifelong regret that he had never been able to have a drink in the Smoking Room as an MP. For he was a political romantic, who had read the old biographies, or some of them, and looked back to an era which had ended probably with the death of Aneurin Bevan in 1960 and certainly with the departure of Winston Churchill from the Commons four years later.

Mr Paxman is not like this. And Mr Blair is a new kind of politician too. He made one fresh admission, which was that he had been responsible for leaking the name of Dr David Kelly. He had originally denied this. All it shows is that the Prime Minister does not always or even usually tell the truth, which we knew already. He certainly could not bring himself to give an honest account of the genesis of the war. He could not bring himself to admit that, for reasons of state - which Charles de Gaulle had correctly anticipated in the 1960s - he had decided to back America come what might.

The parade of inspectors and resolutions that followed then turned into a village pageant, reluctantly acquiesced in by Mr Bush and designed to provide a justification of sorts for the parliamentary party. When the resolutions failed, and the inspectors were withdrawn, the young war criminal went on his way regardless, no doubt with a troubled heart, but with the reluctant agreement of a majority of his party in the House. To secure this agreement, he had to tell numerous whoppers about the military capacity of Saddam Hussein.

No wonder Mr Blair does not want this to be gone into all over again. His reluctance is as understandable as the silence of Mr Howard. But why has Mr Charles Kennedy joined in this chorus of reticence? One explanation we can, I think, safely dismiss. This is that the Liberal Democrats are anxious to take Tory votes in Tory-held seats. Accordingly they must make Tory-like noises.

Do the poor boobies who write these things not realise that discontented Conservatives are more likely to switch to Mr Kennedy precisely because of their party's cheerleading performance in the war - and Mr Kennedy's opposition to it? From what people tell me, Conservative hostility to the war was greatest in the West and South-West, in associations whose officers and members had some experience of military matters (and were therefore quite old) and were also worried about this country's subservience to the United States.

There is another explanation, which is that the Liberal Democrats were not really opposed to the war, or not to an extent sufficient to satisfy the peace party at this late stage of the proceedings. Thus the party stopped opposing the war once British troops had gone into action. It was notably coy about when they should be brought home, and in what circumstances. What is mentioned less often is that, at the time, Mr Kennedy was sparing in his television appearances, leaving it to Sir Menzies Campbell to pound the Newsnight beat.

There is something in all these considerations, but they do not add up to a satisfactory explanation of why the Liberal Democrats have stayed so silent on what is, after all, the principal issue which separates them from the other two parties. The true explanation is, it seems, that they did not want to bring the question out too soon and so to bore people. It is the desire once again to control the agenda. This week there will, we are promised, be eloquent speeches and impassioned meetings. It seems they have left things till rather late in the day.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam