Amol Rajan: Liberalism deserves its real name

Renaming the party would reunite it with a grand tradition, and address its chief quandary at present, which is indistinguishability

Share
Related Topics

It is an unfortunate curiosity of modern Liberalism that the political party in Britain best equipped to enact its virtues advertises itself to the world not according to the merits of this venerable tradition, but rather in honour of a civil war among agitating egotists nearly three decades ago. This is an undesirable state of affairs at the best of times; but in the present circumstances, under the pressure of a hung parliament, and with the history of coalitions smirking unpropitiously over Westminster, it is a passport to self-immolation.

The Liberal Democrat conference, which begins on Saturday, will be the most eagerly watched event of its kind in the history of the party. That is because, when stretched over four days, an identity crisis is a gripping spectacle. The best way to resolve that crisis is to use the party's long history to lay claim to this country's bright future.

The party should be renamed: The Liberals.

The old Liberals were nearly destroyed by Labour. In 1988, they merged with the Social Democrats, a Labour splinter group with whom they had formed an alliance during Baroness Thatcher's onslaught. The Social and Liberal Democrats, as they briefly were, chopped their name down to the Liberal Democrats. Each faction got a word. But, as Timothy Garton Ash has pointed out, the adjectival result was, if not tautologous, plain obvious. They weren't the Illiberal Democrats, of course; most liberals don't go in for autocracy.

That party had no experience of government until the deliverance of a hung parliament in May, which has caused them to realign the centre-right, rather than the centre-left as they had hoped. That is a source of huge anxiety to most of those with an abiding fealty to the party, born of three factors: first, Osbornomics; second, poll figures suggesting support for the party falling precipitously; third, the history of coalitions, which as Roy Hattersley's lucid and timely biography of Lloyd George points out, only ever produces one winner.

Even those steeped in political history are wont to focus on the occasions since 1880 when the Liberals have co-operated with the Tories, each of which led to the splitting of the Liberals and the consumption of at least one faction by the Tories, leaving the right fattened and the left emaciated. But the precedents go further back than even that.

In 1834, Edward Stanley led a rebellion from Earl Grey's Whig government (the Whigs were the Liberals' forerunners) in protest to Irish Catholic demands. "Stanleyites" then joined Robert Peel's Conservatives. Stanley eventually led three Tory minority governments. In 1794, William Cavendish-Bentinck, Duke of Portland, led more than half the Whigs into Pitt the Younger's government. Charles James Fox led a shrivelled party in opposition. "Portlandites" were soon rendered obsolete.

In history, there is no future; only futures. But the history of coalitions bodes ill for Liberal Democrats. Their poll numbers are falling. The foot soldiers' ankles are sore. What to do?

Send for the engraver. Rediscover your roots. The public will do its collective meerkat impression, you will have an audience, and, really for the first time since the Iraq war, a clear identity.

The case against such a renaming goes like this. First, "Liberal Democrats" is a familiar brand; familiarity breeds comfort; comfort breeds trust; and renaming the party will damage that trust and break a bond with loyal voters. This, of course, is a purely conservative argument, and Lib Dems who endorse it should consider whether they are in the wrong bit of the Coalition.

Second, it would stick two fingers at social democrats who still identify with the party. This argument has some credence; but there are simply not enough people who wander around Worcester or Billericay thinking "I'm a social democrat, I must vote Lib Dem rather than Labour" for this to be significant. Social democrats will feel more at home with a Miliband for the foreseeable future.

Third, it would reopen a tedious argument about whether Lib Dems believe in a big or small state (answer: it depends). To this, other than pointing out that the two figures most associated with the growth of state power in the 20th century were Liberals (Beveridge and Keynes), the other obvious rejoinder is that this argument is not going to go away any time soon. Fourth, a fresh party website, along with a lot of new badges, stationery, and leaflets, will have to be designed, which requires effort. Well, this is no time to be lazy.

Against that, the case for renaming the party is twofold. First, and most urgently, it would address its chief quandary at present, which is indistinguishability. Conservatism is a disposition before it is anything else, one not fully compatible with the liberal sensibility. That fact is currently being submerged. Yet renaming the party would say clearly to the public: "We're liberal; they're Tory; and that's how it will stay." This would make a swallowing of Lib Dems by Tories much less likely. The Conservative and Unionist Party, as it is still properly known, is happy to be known as the party of the union; but most of its members would rather eat dust than belong to The Liberal Conservative and Unionist Party, or some variant thereof.

And second, it would reunite the current party members with their illustrious forebears, reawakening a tradition of which Lloyd George is the face, Maynard Keynes is the brain, and Gladstone is the soul: not a bad triumvirate to boast of as one's own. Far from conveying transience, this would give the renamed party precisely the air of permanence its present predicament seems antithetical to.



I am not a member of the Liberal Democrats. But on the grounds that pluralism is a benefit to democracy, that this party has evinced intellectually persuasive and unique positions on several policies in recent years, and because it contains several of the most talented politicians we have, its subjugation to the Tories would diminish the life of the nation.

Far from being an admission of fear, such a renaming would be a robust declaration of intent. At a stroke, it would show the party is serious about its predicament, serious about Liberalism, and serious about Britain. In short, it would show the party is serious about power.

Then again, before it could happen, Liberal Democrats would have to be serious about power.

a.rajan@independent.co.uk

For further reading: 'The Progressive Dilemma', by David Marquand (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999)

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
RIP Voicemail?  

Voicemail has got me out of some tight corners, so let's not abandon it

Simon Kelner
A sculpture illustrating the WW1 Christmas Truce football match in Liverpool  

It's been 100 years since the Christmas Truce, but football is still changing the world

Jim Murphy and Dan Jarvis
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there