A lot of Lib Dem friends, from all wings of the party, have been enthusiastically recommending an article by long time Lib Dem activist and thinker David Boyle. It essentially contrasts what he believes the party represented at the point he joined, with how it presented itself in the election campaign just gone:
I remember how thrilled I was to sweep through a neighbourhood delivering Focus leaflets with 20 or so other young people, at a jog. We believed in the inevitability of the cause – to take power in order to give it away. We felt like the political wing of the counterculture that grew up at the same time. Since then, I’ve watched those I ran with age at the same rate as me (possibly even faster) and take their seats in parliament. I saw them wrestle with government.
What happened? There was a clue in the email I received yesterday morning from one of the party’s radical stars of the 1990s, taking exception to the slogan “stability, unity, decency”.
“I joined the Liberal party because I hungered for change,” he wrote, “radical change to make the world a better place, not to keep things as they are.” The problem is that the trauma of coalition moulded the party into a deeply pragmatic force, provided them with the dullest manifesto in political history, with all the hallmarks of having been written in Whitehall.
They say that Labour’s left-leaning campaign has been tested to destruction. That may be so, but the opposite is true for the Lib Dems. The idea that they could win territory campaigning just to mollify the extremes of the others has also now been tested to destruction. In fact, I’m not sure there is a role for the party unless it rediscovers its capacity for crusading in the country, rather than just quietly in the corridors of power. Nobody else could have performed with the skill and charisma that Nick Clegg has, and I’m proud of what my party achieved in power, but there appear to be no votes in compromise – at least for its own sake.
I understand the appeal of this idea. However, it is one I recoil from. Indeed I would prefer that our default position was to “keep things as they are”.
A strain of conservatism entered my thinking at a very specific moment. It would have been some time in March 2009, when I was still a councillor in Oxford. The County Council had invited us to a briefing on plans to pedestrianise the city centre. One side effect of this was going to be re-routing the coaches to London. During the discussion, one of my colleagues warned that there would be complaints from commuters who’d bought houses along the existing route so they could easily get the coach.
T his was a fair though hardly decisive point. It was in all honestly a side issue affecting a modest number of people. However, for me it illuminated a larger truth. Whether or not a policy, even one as trivial as bus routes, is good or bad people will still make plans based on it. And when you change the policy, you disrupt those plans.
This conservative idea actually has had a significant place in the Liberal tradition. Edmund Burke, who injected it into political consciousness with his critique of the French Revolution, was a Whig not a Tory. His ideas would underpin much of the Victorian Liberal Party’s ideas about the British constitution: they saw its stability and tendency to gradual evolution to be one of its chief virtues. Then in the mid-Twentieth Century, Isaiah Berlin would, with more than one eye on Communism and Fascism, argue that the plurality liberals so valued demanded that politicians be modest in their aims; utopianism was doomed to fail because we could not agree what utopia would look like. And then in the 1980s, Roy Jenkins would argue that there needed to be a third party to restrain Labour and the Tories from taking Britain on an ‘ideological big dipper’. It also came through strongly in the party’s resistance to the Blair government constantly attempting to reinvent public services.
While this way of thinking is more present in the liberal tradition than one might expect, it is substantially less so within the conservative movement. This is most obvious in America, where the dogmatism and revolutionary zeal of the Republican Party leads them to absurdly utopian conclusions about their ability to, for example, transform Iraq into a democracy or heal all social ills with tax cuts for the rich.
Nonetheless, it applies in Britain as well. The voter who told Conservative MP David Willetts that “you guys are the wrecking crew” was onto something. The Conservative Party at least since Thatcher has been very happy with radical social engineering, provided it is towards ends they approve of. Indeed, in the last parliament we saw Conservatives attempt massively ambitious overhauls of health, education, community law and welfare. The incoming administration seems set on continuing these and bringing about another one to our constitution.
My feeling is that the Liberal Democrats would be in a stronger position now, both morally and electorally, if we had expended more political capital on stopping these unnecessary pieces of Tory radicalism rather than on our own radical plans for constitutional reform.*
None of this is means we can’t make reforms when appropriate. There will be many cases in which the benefits of reforms will be large enough that they outweigh the cost of the disruption that ensues. And sometimes the status quo may prove unsustainable and reform may become necessary in order to prevent more disruptive change down the line. I suspect we are approaching just such a situation with our electoral system. Indeed, Burke himself wrote that “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation”.
It is, however, perfectly possible to recognise that sometimes policy has to change but still see an intrinsic value to stability. Its presence allows people to adjust to their environments and form useful habits. By contrast, radicalism is at best a necessary evil justified only by the need to rectify great iniquities or avoid impending catastrophe. We should never mistake it for an end in and of itself. Therefore, tempering the radical excesses of other parties would indeed be a most worthy role for the Lib Dems, if the only electorate would allow us to fulfill it.
*I am of course not denying that as it was we did restrain these plans. But a lot of damage was still done while we were fiddling around with the AV referendum and an elected House of Lords.