Leading article: What is the point of a liberal who fails to stand up for individual liberties?

Share
Related Topics

Sir Menzies Campbell was forced, somewhat contrary to expectations, to fight hard for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats. But the political honeymoon that might have followed his comfortable victory never came. Nor did the hoped-for gains in the local elections. Indeed, ever since he took over, the party's poll ratings have been on a downward trajectory.

Now, support for the Liberal Democrats is down to 16 per cent. Sir Menzies is having to defend himself against criticism from his own MPs. In the country at large, a bare 8 per cent - according to yougov.com - believe that, of all party leaders, he would make the best prime minister. No wonder he has decided that it is time to take a more assertive approach.

For yesterday's first in a planned series of high-profile speeches, Sir Menzies chose the subjects of the moment: our criminal justice system and law and order. The clear purpose was to counter the public perception of his party as "soft" on law and order. To that end, he called for new restrictions on foreign criminals who cannot, for whatever reason, be deported and for a new register of violent offenders. Rejecting outright a proposal by his predecessor, Charles Kennedy, before the last election, he said that those convicted of serious offences should not have the right to vote while in prison. And there was more in a similar vein.

It is always sad when an individual admired and noted for his strength of character trims his sails to the prevailing wind. But it was especially sad to hear Sir Menzies Campbell speak in such terms, given the personal stand he took against the Iraq war and the eloquence with which he subsequently presented his party's defence of civil rights against the illiberalism of the Government's anti-terrorism Bill. The consequences for the country are potentially even worse. If Sir Menzies continues down this path, we will lose the last source of real opposition to the hard-line Blairite consensus on law and order. If Sir Menzies and the Liberal Democrats are not prepared to speak up for personal liberty, we are compelled to ask who will.

In appearing to jump on the law and order bandwagon, Sir Menzies is drawing quite the wrong conclusions from his own and his party's current difficulties. So long as Charles Kennedy was leader and Sir Menzies was spokesman on foreign affairs, the party's appeal was only enhanced by its lone opposition to the Iraq war and its defence of individual liberties. The party achieved its best showing ever in last year's general election. At a time when so many voices are calling for a clampdown - whether on foreign offenders, early releases or lax parole - it is all the more important that a distinctive Liberal Democrat voice is heard.

Unfortunately for Sir Menzies, the party's immediate problem stems less from its policies - which are still under review - but from his own invisibility and the lacklustre performances he has produced in Parliament. He may resent the Prime Minister's Questions syndrome, whereby a politician is judged by his ability to score points in an often raucous debate but, as a veteran parliamentarian, he knew what he was getting into. And in the past, he has held his own.

There is no intrinsic reason why this "quiet man" should not score points in these debates. Nor yet on the media circuit, which is every bit as important for a modern British politician. But he will have to sharpen his focus. It is not only his confidence that Sir Menzies must rediscover if he is to become a convincing leader, but - most crucially - his own, and his party's, authenticity. The whole point of the Liberal Democrats is to be liberal and democratic: otherwise what is this party for?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Case Manager - Occupational Therapist / Physiotherapist

£28000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Content Manager

£26000 - £31000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Content Manager is re...

Recruitment Genius: Senior .Net Application Developer

£40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: I would tackle our looming dementia crisis

Susan Greenfield
 

Letters: NHS data-sharing is good for patients

Independent Voices
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee