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