The Sketch: Gazing into the empty well of Lib Dem philosophy

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The Independent Online

Is integration or multi-cultural development a core Liberal value? How about exit controls – would the Liberals be instinctively for them or against them?

A National Border Force? Is that something they'd like or not like? How about forcing immigrants to learn English. Do Liberals want to do that?

They do, actually. They do want to require immigrants to have English. Or Welsh, according to a successful amendment.

But – en passant – what a snub was delivered to one of the vulnerable minority groups in the hall. I was quite shocked. When the amendment was proposed in Welsh, the sign-language translator simply gave up. How excluded they must have felt, how sidelined they suddenly were, the hearing-impaired Welsh speakers in the hall. I've seen someone signing Welsh. It looks like trying to plait fingers, with interludes of trying to throttle an angry swan. It's what they have instead of ballet.

Leaving that to one side. It's a more serious discussion than they were having seven years ago, but they're very far from being in any kind of shape. Their philosophy bulges and sags like a shoplifter's tights. This, that and the other. The only thing they proposed which sounded distinctly Lib-Dem was a tax on immigrants. Now that's a core value.

"No one has been brave enough to say these things," a speaker told us. I must have dozed off; what had I missed? It all seemed pretty sensible; the other parties are saying similar sorts of things. Earned citizenship for 600,000 illegal entrants? Is that brave? Maybe it is. Is it distinctively Liberal? Maybe it's not.

On to another Nick Clegg-event. A panel of co-ruminants spoke at some length about "seeking new perspectives on balancing support of the individual with delivering greater social equity". The nice young man sitting next to me said: "Clegg shouldn't let himself be seen with these sorts of people."

Baronness Hamwee took 10 minutes to say nothing at all. Dr Bari from the Muslim Council of Britain caused a great glazing of expression (it's a particularly Lib-Dem look of attentive disengagement used when confronted with someone beyond criticism but also beyond understanding). And Clegg spoke urgently, convincingly and passionately about so many things I became quite depressed. Less is more. Much less is much more. He reminds me of that line from Pope (and possibly Pascal): "I'm sorry to have written you so long a letter; I didn't have time to write a shorter one."

Incidentally, it was an admirable charity putting on the event. They take derelict land, mobilise volunteers and create sports sites (200 so far). Why couldn't we hear about that instead of listening to fretful ruminants unloading their interiors into the room?

These Conference events really need taking in hand. All we've learnt so far is that Clegg's time is some years away, and that Ming is, in fact, perfectly all right.

simoncarr@sketch.sc

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