Something strange is happening in Liberal Democracy.
If truth be told the Liberal and Liberal Democrat party has always in its highest echelons consisted of two tribes: Asquithians and Provincials. The creative and social tension that existed when Lloyd George and Asquith vied for power has never altogether disappeared.
* Asquithians are well connected (city, army, bar, media), internationalist and economically liberal and at times libertarian;
* Provincials have strong community roots, favour social liberalism,regional autonomy and at times a degree of moral conservatism.
Jeremy Thorpe was the very archetype of the former. Cyril Smith the latter.
However there is little doubt that the tribes recognise each other. Most Asquithians know and take uncanny cognizance of the background – schooling, pedigree of other Asquithians. Provincials on the other hand are more interested in the humdrum, political machinery that underpins their fellows.
The party is normally led by someone of the Asquithian tradition – Thorpe, Ashdown, Clegg et al, or those in awe of it (Campbell). Analysis of the educational backgrounds of recent Lib Dem shadow cabinets would repay attention from students of social diversity.
In normal times there is a creative tension between the two tribes around such issues as the role of markets and the function of the state. It would not be unfair to say that Asquithians in recent times have hoped to wean the party away from what they saw as an unhealthy addiction to statist solutions.
However we are not in normal times.
Free markets in capital inadequately restrained by the state have unleashed havoc in every area of the country and in every aspect of economic life. State ownership and regulation is touted as a solution and not an evil. The state, far from being opposed to liberty, is seen as the only means to protect ourselves from the blind, unfeeling tyranny of the market. The Provincials find themselves on the same page as the Asquithians.
This is potentially a golden opportunity for the party to act with one soul, and carve out a vision for the country, both inspiring and realistic, where the state becomes the embodiment and preserver of freedom – not the restraint upon it. We are not quite there yet but we have a leader in Nick Clegg who has the charm and the intellect needed to seize the moment.
* John Pugh is Liberal Democrat MP for Southport.