Bruce Anderson: Does the Liberal party still have a reason to exist?

Without a useful political identity, Liberals are under threat from Brown and Cameron
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The Independent Online

It is easy to understand why many Liberals are cross with Charles Kennedy. He created their present difficulties by doing far too well for his party's good.

While the Liberals were on the margins, no one took them seriously. That is their ideal habitat; when not taken seriously, they flourish. But once they have 10 per cent of the MPs and a fifth of the vote, they come under scrutiny; a process which they find desperately uncomfortable.

Up to now, Liberal policies did not matter. At elections, the party produced a manifesto, but hardly anyone read it, least of all Charles Kennedy. Liberal MPs would disappear to their constituencies and say whatever they liked - or, rather, whatever their constituents liked to hear. They would make different pledges at opposite ends of the constituency; quite often, at opposite ends of the same street.

If you talk to experienced Labour and Tory canvassers, there was one topic which always leads them to forget their disapproval of one another: Liberal canvassing methods. False rumours about the private lives of other candidates, entirely different messages for different audiences, opportunism, lying; but that is not all. The other parties would not find the unscrupulousness and dishonesty quite as revolting if it did not come in choirboy garb. It is the shameless deceit masquerading as high-mindedness which is really infuriating.

In future, that will be harder. At least until Liberal numbers are substantially reduced, commentators will pay attention to what Liberal candidates say. That unwelcome process should help to ensure a significant number of Liberal losses. If so, it will be no loss. It is not clear whether the Liberals do deserve to survive. They are certainly unworthy of their illustrious name.

It is worth noting, however, that the great era of Liberal history was brief and troubled. It was only in the 1860s that Gladstone's party emerged from its Whiggish antecedents. The Liberals made their appeal to the urban middle classes who disliked the landed interest and especially to Nonconformists, who disapproved of the Church of England's privileges. The Liberals also won support among new working-class voters; the Labour Party began its life under Liberal tutelage. None of this was a secure basis for 20th-century success. As Labour strengthened, it devoured its Liberal patrons, while the threat from socialism was a recruiting sergeant for the Tories.

Little remained of the Liberal constituency. The party did appeal to left-wingers who disliked trade unionism and to free marketers repelled by the Tories' enthusiasm for empire and for sanguinary penal policies. But the main support came from voters who regarded all politicians as pompous, pretentious and self-seeking. Especially at by-elections, they were drawn to the Liberals because they seemed non-political and nice. (I know, gentle reader; "nice'' means precise. But precision is not applicable to Liberals. They are the sort of people who compulsively misuse the word nice.)

It is true that many Liberal MPs are Euro-federalists, though they are often curiously reluctant to share that enthusiasm with their constituents. Liberals are also aware that at least 10 per cent of the electorate have hysterical views on the environment. There is nothing wrong with taking environmental questions seriously, but a serious approach requires hard thinking on topics such as nuclear power. That is the opposite of the Liberal fanatics' outlook, which is best described as jumble-sale environmentalism; unless everyone stops using plastic bags at supermarkets, the world will come to an end in 2010. Most voters who emote like that tend to be a) likely Liberals and b) the owners of pussycats which scoff songbirds in industrial quantities.

But none of this, even songbird destruction, is a basis for a useful political identity. Without one, the Liberals are under threat, from David Cameron and from Gordon Brown. There are at least 250,000 middle- and upper middle-class people who voted Tory until the 1990s, but then concluded that it was no longer respectable to do so. Most of them went to the Liberals. David Cameron has already won them back. Lower down the social scale, there are a large number of Poujadist voters who also deserted the Tories for the Liberals. Gordon Brown will win them back for the Tories; his menacing body language will convince them that he is a financial threat.

None of the candidates for the Liberal leadership has an answer to those problems; they are insuperable. There is only one sensible conclusion to be reached by the half a dozen Liberal MPs who can be regarded as sensible: to join one of the other two parties while they can still command a good transfer fee.