Waterloo Lodge in the snow
Michael Meadowcroft & Liz Bee

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Goodbye purity

by Michael Meadowcroft

I must confess to feeling slightly baffled by the sudden turn of events. I make what is, in national terms, the wholly minor decision to join the Liberal Democrats and days later both the party leader and my local City Council Group leader resign! Well, as one who has always tried to stress the primacy of ideas over image, so be it, but I do agree with Paddy Ashdown's comment that Ming Campbell's resignation says more about the nature of politics today than it does about Ming. Age brings wisdom and wisdom brings judgement and politics can ill afford to diminish either.

On the Monday evening following Ming's resignation a couple of friends were at my home indulging in some elegant wine tasting and some even more elegant discussion. Neither are Liberals though both have liberal instincts. Their question was simple: "What is the point of the Lib Dems? Do they have a purpose?" In return I asked them, without the Lib Dems, and, in effect, without a Liberal political force in today's politics, who was going to make the judgement that going to war against Iraq was bound to bring catastrophe to the Iraqi people? It required an awareness of the historical background to the region, and a realisation that people have to get rid of their own tyrants, to say no to the Bush-Blair adventurism.

In politics it is no use taking the Hillary Clinton position: "If I had known then what I know now, I would have voted against the Iraq invasion." Politics is about taking key decisions on the basis of one's judgement on the spot, at the time.

Second, without a powerful Liberal force, who is going to make the case that today's overweening surveillance society is hugely dangerous. Anyone who has seen the recent film Other People's Lives, or even the earlier thriller Enemy of the State, should never support any extension of the state's power to amass and control information on individuals' lives. The government's determination to use identity cards as the main means to create a massive database on every citizen is a huge threat to our privacy and to our essential civil liberties. Perhaps, with ample doses of optimism and good will, you might trust the present Home Secretary with the control of this database, but can you trust the next Home Secretary, or the one after that? The Conservatives' belated opposition to ID cards is welcome but all too much based on cost rather than principle.

Third, without the Liberal Democrats there is no political force in parliament that is enthusiastic about European unity. There are individuals in other parties who are genuinely committed but their parties are at best lukewarm. The bright vision of a united Europe is under serious threat from xenophobes and conservatives of Right and Left who believe that somehow the British Isles can be floated off into the Atlantic in contradiction and defiance of their geographical location and their European heritage.

The European case is potentially very powerful. History is on its side: the cause of peace in Europe, a continent for so long fractured and bloodied by war, has been upheld by a union that from its inception realised that the social, political and cultural integration of former enemies was the only way to diminish hostility and to prevent hostilities. The cause of identity is on its side: within a federal Europe regions whose language and whose sense of community had previously been stifled by fearful nation states can now express themselves with confidence. Catalans, Basques, even the Welsh and the Scots have large measures of autonomy and, should those now termed Belgian so decide, the Walloons and the Flemings can separate without threat to each other or to their neighbours.

The cause of democracy is on its side: not only in encompassing former Soviet Union and Yugoslav states, but also in the example of Spain, Portugal and Greece who were in the hands of fascist dictators or a military junta only thirty short years ago. The history of the Balkans next door demonstrates vividly what can happen when a federal structure disappears and the individual states resort to war.

The case from issues and from culture can be added to the argument, and my two colleagues, perhaps wishing they had never asked the question, took the point - if only to grasp the opportunity to replenish their glasses!

It is however true, alas, that we live in an increasingly illiberal world. In the name of fighting terrorism an ever-increasing list of constraints and restrictions is forced upon us. From the tracking of our Oyster card journeys, the recording of our mobile telephone calls and the CCTV cameras in our streets, to the ubiquitous ID card database, we are watched and followed more than ever before. Any 'plane journey today is fraught with frustration and delay. It seems that everyone is trying to catch the last terrorist not the next. For politicians the key question is "why?" If we cannot discover why the terrorist seeks to regard the innocent as the guilty it is unlikely we can ever live without fear.

The fourth issue of our day, the ecological imperative to which, in its potential for global disaster, all else is subsumed, is, I sense, won. There remain huge questions as to methodology and political courage, but I believe that the public is ready for challenges forthrightly put.

This agenda is not in itself particularly new, so why at this point join the Liberal Democrats? I have two political reasons and one personal.

First, the superficiality of politics in the twenty-first century is a mockery of the intellectual rigour and commitment that is required if society is to grasp hold of these challenges that threaten its survival. I have been active in politics for almost fifty years and I still hold fast to the belief that politics is an innately honourable calling and that in the ability of men and women to work together in political organisations lies the power to create a secure and sustainable environment within which their life chances can be enhanced. We will not achieve this aim without a far better quality of politics than is doled out to us from the two major parties today.

My disillusion with the Blair leadership is immense. I never expected to agree with much of a Labour agenda nor with its methods of delivery, but I genuinely expected to see a government whose instinctive response to helping the poor, to understanding the developing world, to being considerate to the needs of refugees, to defending civil rights, to building houses to let and to espousing comprehensive education, would issue from a political position on the Left of the spectrum. But all its historical sensitivity has evaporated and the pragmatic dissection of its honourable history has not lead to a new expression of idealism but instead to a conclusion that nothing is too illiberal or too harsh for new Labour. To ditch Clause Four is one thing but to replace it with the focus group and a reliance on spin is quite another.

The public disillusion with what it rightly identifies as politics without principle, expressed most clearly in the tumbling electoral turnouts and in the declining adherence to political parties, is extremely dangerous. More than ever it is up to all who see that danger to seek the most effective ways of reversing it.

My second reason follows directly from my first. The issues we face today, as outlined above, are complex and threatening. There was arguably far more of a case twenty years ago to try and promote an untarnished Liberalism, but today it is no use watching from a position of the utmost political purity as the vehicle of public survival trundles inexorably towards the precipice. It is instead a time to make a slightly higher compromise than hitherto in the effort to turn the car around.

Inevitably one's decisions are affected by one's background. I was fortunate to discover very early on that I was a Liberal by instinct, but, as with all those similarly enlightened, the discovery meant that one acquired a permanent Liberal millstone of commitment and struggle. After a brief few years as a bank clerk it became clear that I needed to find jobs that would keep me in politics. Over the thirty years from then to the merger I reckon to have done just about every task within the "backroom" and on the "frontline", and, in addition - thanks largely to William Wallace and to the importunate "Liberator" magazine - to have written on just about every subject. The archive is there on my website. Faced with those who lacked confidence in the potential of their Liberal beliefs, the task was to furnish them with the material to support them in debate and on the hustings.

One of the consequences of being in print is that to remain consistent it is difficult to turn against the opinions expressed. That, plus having spent fifteen years dislodging Labour hacks in Leeds and in achieving the election of a Liberal in Leeds West in place of a social democrat, made it seem rather perverse in 1988 then to join them.

But that was almost twenty years ago and one has to examine anew the abject state of politics and to decide how best one can have any influence in reversing the trend and in persuading the electors that it is in Liberal solutions alone that the transformation of society lies. I am much encouraged by the apparently universal self-description of those in the Lib Dems as "Liberals" and by the recent heavyweight book of essays: "Reinventing the State".

The personal reason is that, having spent most of the past seventeen years in international politics, assisting new and emerging democracies, I now have the luxury of being able to spend much more time in the UK. It is high time I got stuck into domestic politics again. Some of my friends in the Liberal party are, I know, hurt by my decision but they will no doubt continue to fight for the purity of the message locally. The national scene is somewhat different and, though I have no great sense of personal importance, I feel it is now imperative to be in the mainstream of politics. I have therefore joined the Liberal Democrats.

21 October 2007