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

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
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

Read Next
Labour leader Ed Miliband unveils Labour's pledges carved into a stone plinth in Hastings  

Election 2015: Smash two-party system! Smash the voting system!

Armando Iannucci
Tactical voting is a necessary evil of the current first-past-the-post system, where voters vote against what they do not want rather than in favour of what they do  

Election 2015: Voting tactically has become more fraught in the new political order

Michael Ashcroft
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
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