Doesn't suit you, Sir, sucking up to Mr Tony

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Quite early in his speech on Thursday, Mr Charles Kennedy referred scornfully to "Jack Straw's closed lists". He was talking about the European elections, in which the Liberal Democrats did not do as well as they had expected. Mr Kennedy's remarks won loud and prolonged applause. It was not clear whether he was objecting to closed lists because they were wrong in principle or because they had proved disappointing for his party. Either way, coming from him this was rich, not to say fruity.

If I were not in a charitable mood, I should call Mr Kennedy a humbug. For in the numerous debates on the voting system to be adopted in the European elections - sparsely attended and virtually unreported as they were - the speakers on Mr Kennedy's side expressed one or two perfunctory doubts about closed lists and then marched solidly through the lobbies in support of them. It was one of the examples of that Lib-Lab co-operation about which we were all supposed to be hearing so much. In fact the delegates mostly occupied themselves in discussing endless resolutions on party policy. They go on for pages and would tax the ingenuity of the highest paid Chancery practitioner in the land. I am, however, prepared to bet that if an opinion poll put down "Has no policy" to be ticked against all three parties, the Lib-Dems would come out top.

In a sense this would be unfair: for they have policy coming out of their ears, though you have to buy up the entire contents of the Liberal Bookshop to discover what it is. But in another sense it would be fair enough: for by "policy" most people mean a cause or even a slogan which they can understand.

In this sense Mr Kennedy indeed has no policy. He echoes a previous Liberal leader, H H Asquith: "Wait and see." This, by the way, was not an example of Asquith's supposed indolence and procrastination. Instead he repeated it combatively four times when he was speaking on the Parliament Act in 1910.

Like Asquith, Mr Kennedy is fond of a drink. He is probably a more engaging character than his early 20th century predecessor was. But unlike Asquith he was not always a Liberal. He was originally a member of the SDP. And yet he is often described as a "former Liberal".

It is easy to see why. He has a certain attractive negligence about him which Liberals had made peculiarly their own. It may be also that people imagine he was a Liberal because they cannot associate the North of Scotland with the SDP, which is connected in their minds with South-east England, claret, Volvo cars and holidays in Tuscany.

His immediate predecessor was always a Liberal but showed more interest than Mr Kennedy seems to do in power, the prospect of power or even the vain appearance of power. In his valedictory speech, Mr Paddy Ashdown warned the party against "moving to the left", as it is called. What this means in plain English is that he advised the party not to be awkward with Mr Tony Blair. It is the great progressive cause of the moment. After he had finished, there was scarcely a dry eye in the house. As with the death of Little Nell, it would have taken a heart of stone not to laugh.

The Liberal Democrats are still composed of two parties, the Liberals and the Social Democrats. The cause of not moving to the left - of not being beastly to Mr Blair - is the distinguishing feature of the old Social Democrats. Last week I watched them, grouping and regrouping in the lobbies and the lounges: Lady Williams, Lord McNally, Lord Rodgers, Sir Ian Wrigglesworth. Lord Jenkins I missed. Party conference are not his favourite occasions. I think he may have come and gone before I arrived. But his was the presiding spirit none the less.

Three of them had left the Labour Party to form the SDP. Only Lord Owen was absent from the reunion. If you want a peerage, join the Liberal Democrats. You could hardly buy a drink in Harrogate without sticking your elbow into a member of the Upper House. These other lords and ladies were not politicians who had done the state some service and, according to the rules, merited a place in the Lords if they wanted it. They were persons of the utmost insignificance. The Lib-Dems clearly know how to look after their own.

Lord Jenkins is renowned for his cultivated taste. Lord Rodgers was one of the founders of the Good Food Guide, which may surprise you in view of his lean and hungry aspect. But they are tough nuts all the same. So are the others I have just mentioned: hard men, with one hardish woman in Lady Williams. In Mr Kennedy's peroration, if such it can be called, there was an echo - or a straight lift - of Lord Jenkins's thought for the day: that while the 20th century was Conservative, the 21st must belong to the Radicals. Alas, Lord Jenkins had put this apercu to Mr Blair before he took the trouble to mention it to Mr Kennedy, if he mentioned it to him at all.

Mr Blair has embraced most of the changes for which Lord Jenkins and his chums were prepared to leave Labour to set up another party of their own. In fact Mr Blair has gone further in all kinds of ways. He has welcomed contemporary capitalism with a zeal which Lord Jenkins certainly could not match. But he is not so strong for the single currency as the old members of the SDP would wish. This is the one cause which Mr Kennedy supports wholeheartedly. Only Lord Phillips of Sudbury disagrees with the official line.

Europe may lead to a falling-out between Mr Blair and what we should now call the New Liberal Unionists, who want a merger between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. But they have already swallowed Mr Blair's rejection of Lord Jenkins's model report on electoral reform and his refusal to honour his manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on the subject. Here it is electoral reform which is the flea and Europe the gnat. If Mr Blair refuses to hold the promised referendum on the single currency, the New Liberal Unionists may refuse to swallow the gnat.

These politicians also used to be libertarians, more or less, Lord Jenkins more rather than less. Mr Kennedy still is one. Mr Blair is nothing of the kind. One gains the impression that he would like nothing better than to transform this country into Switzerland, where everything which is not prohibited is compulsory. There can surely be no harm in tweaking his tail over drugs, as Mr Kennedy still wants to do? But the new orthodoxy - of the prig press as well as of the New Liberal Unionists - is that nothing must be done to upset Mr Blair. It is a policy which will do Mr Kennedy no good at all.

Comments