“Liberalism shouldn’t be about the safe option, it should always be a risky thing to take on.” Alistair Carmichael on life in the Coalition as Lib Dem chief whip

There’s a terrific interview with Lib Dem chief whip Alistair Carmichael in this month’s Total Politics magazine, in which he gives a typically candid view on what life is like as within the Coalition — and how the Lib Dem whipping operation differs from Labour’s and the Tories’. Here’s a few excerpts:

“I would say the difference between us and the other two parties in this place is that we can get to a position of unity. In fact, it’s much more important to be able to persuade a liberal, because you’ll not easily coerce them,” he explains, with resignation and a glimmer of affection, “and when you understand that, then you understand that the heavy-handedness for which whips, rightly or wrongly, are famous is just not going to work.”

So, what exactly are his methods? He must have to prey menacingly from the shadows occasionally?

“The way in which we run the whips’ office here is a good example of the difference. The Liberal Democrat Whips’ Office in Westminster is Lib Dem-central for the whole of the House of Commons. People will come in, and every MP’s got a pigeon hole here. They know the staff outside, and my door is generally open if they want to stick their head round the door, shoot the breeze.”

“If you’re a Labour or a Tory MP, you really only go to your whips’ office if you’ve got a reason to go there.”

And almost as if it were planned, I see this for myself 40 minutes into our interview, as Carmichael scampers off to the chamber for a vote, and I’m left alone in the Lib Dem Chief Whips’ Office with the other half of his Kit Kat he’s given me to keep me occupied (there were “no Clubs”, his intern told him apologetically). Almost immediately, Tessa Munt MP marches straight into his office, no knocking, and, seeing it whipless, recommends merrily for me to “give him shit, I say” before making her exit.

On working with the Tory whips:

He meets the Conservative whips’ team every day of the week parliament is sitting, and they are studiously supposed to keep each other informed of their respective difficulties. Their golden rule for making the system work is ‘no surprises’, although Carmichael jokes that this can sometimes be intuitive: “I know that anything involving the words ‘Europe’ or ‘human rights’ is probably going to be tricky handling for the Conservatives, whereas that’s a fairly easy sell for the Liberal Democrats.”

Carmichael reveals the most difficult instances of coaxing his MPs into toeing the government line: “NHS reforms were very difficult, the Welfare Reform Bill was very difficult…” He pauses, grim-faced: “Tuition fees was a day that I don’t want to live through again.”

But even here, he suggests that he tried “as far as possible to maintain a degree of respect and never to burn bridges, because we’re going to be back here next week, dealing with issues again, so you try not to trash that relationship.”

On sticking with the Coalition:

He does look rather wistful when he describes it as “the easiest thing in the world to strike the pose, to say, ‘I’m ideologically pure and everybody else has compromised and sold out’.”

But just hours before our interview, Theresa May had made her statement blocking the extradition of Gary McKinnon, and Carmichael reflects on this achievement – something he had campaigned for in opposition, as well as ending the detention of children for immigration purposes. “Actually, no,” he affirms, “I’ve achieved a lot more in government by holding my nose and sticking to a coalition agreement that I signed up for than I would by striking a pose… and that’s part of the growing-up process the party has had.”

And his liberal motto:

His favourite song is Supertramp’s The Logical Song because of the line, ‘Watch what you say/now they’ll be calling you a radical, a liberal, fanatical, criminal’.

“I think,” he grins, “that’s the company that liberals should be in, the radicals, the fanaticals – maybe not the criminals. But liberalism shouldn’t be about the safe option, it should always be a risky thing to take on.”

I can’t see a link online to the full interview yet — please do post in the comments if you find it.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • Matthew Huntbach 31st Oct '12 - 10:59am

    OK, but I am concerned that “risky thing to take on”, like “thinking the unthinkable”, always seems to be something outrageously economic right-wing, it is never balanced by taking a position which is surprisingly leftwards in political terms. So I’m afraid that I see these comments as yet more softening us up to giving on to the demands of the wealthy in our society that we defend their privileges at the expense of everyone else because all wealth is created and owned by superior human beings without whom we could not exist.

  • Roger Hodgson, co-founder of Supertramp, is the singer/songwriter of the classic, “The Logical Song.” Roger gave us the majority of the band’s greatest hits to include not only The Logical Song but also Breakfast in America, Take the Long Way Home, Give a Little Bit, Dreamer, Give a Little Bit, School, It’s Raining Again, Fool’s Overture, and so many more! Many people don’t realize that although Roger and Supertramp’s other co-founder shared writing credit, they actually wrote and composed separately with each singing their own respective songs.

    I had the great fortune of seeing Roger in Liverpool at the Phil last year and he’s coming back for a tour of the UK in May 2013! Do not miss Roger’s show. His band is fantastic and Roger’s voice sounds even better today than on my Supertramp vinyls. His shows are a slice of heaven and the feel-good feelings one takes away last for days, if not weeks. I am going to take an extended holiday and try to catch as many shows as possible on Roger’s UK tour. He’s that good. I saw all of the tour details on his Facebook page – http://www.facebook.com/RogerHodgsonOfficial. See you there!

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 31st Oct '12 - 2:16pm

    Matthew, Alistair Carmichael is as far from a right winger as you could get . I would never associate him with the mindset you suggest.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Nov '12 - 12:25pm

    Caron Lindsay

    Matthew, Alistair Carmichael is as far from a right winger as you could get . I would never associate him with the mindset you suggest.

    I’ve no idea what his politics are (I mean in terms of the internal dimensions of the LibDems), and actually it isn’t the job of a Whip to have politics – the best whips are those who put their own internal party politics aside. However, my concern is that the forces pushing our party to the right – and I believe to destruction – are pervasive, they seem to come up all over the place, sometimes in arguing here for what used to be pretty much standard Liberal Party position I feel myself as a sort of embattled defender against hordes of attackers. This does leave one feeling rather cynical and I’m afraid, yes, slogans like the sort used here ARE being used within the party as part of the push by some at the top to move it rightwards.

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