Author Archives: Douglas Oliver

Fight where we can win

Canvassing on the doorstep in South London over the weekend, one thing was clear: despite the excitement of a “Lib Dem fightback” this will be a tough election for the party, and we must fight hard to beat the Tories and Labour where we can win on 8th June.

In Carshalton, where I canvassed for Tom Brake MP on Saturday, it is clear he is being ruthlessly targeted by the Tory Party. Next door the Sutton Tory MP Paul Scully – who has spent two years agitating for Brexit since beating us – is being buttressed by a similar CCHQ campaign, despite a strong national and local campaign on Brexit and the NHS led by our candidate Amna Ahmad. Meanwhile, in places like Bermondsey and Southwark, Labour are not, yet, falling away easily.
It is crucial we are more than equal to the Tory and Labour task and focus our fire on those seats where we remain strong, if we are to make a mark in Westminster after 8th June.

Whilst we rightly snigger at the vacuity of the Tories “Coalition Chaos”, there is no denying that it has some resonance around the country, and we must fight fire with fire. It is up to us to make the case for a return to the pragmatic politics which existed before 2015 – and be as unsentimental as the Tories and Labour about where we make our political case.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 31 Comments

Carswell, Brexit and Gladstone

As we know, there were several fairly eccentric and spurious reasons given by the Leave side for supporting Brexit last summer. One of the most bizarre reasons, however, is that made by erstwhile UKIP MP Douglas Carswell, that it represented the fulfilment of the legacy of Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone, perhaps our greatest political forerunner as Liberal Democrats. It needs challenging.

According to Roy Jenkins’ 1995 biography, Gladstone did as much to define Britain’s Victorian golden era as the Queen herself. Nonetheless, his name is only vaguely recognised today-– he died in 1898, on the cusp of recorded sound and in 2002 he was not even included in the BBC list of 100 greatest Britons. Despite this contemporary obscurity, and total lack of importance in the referendum (compared to promises of a reinvigorated NHS), the Gladstone-Brexit argument is no less peculiar – and perhaps all the more revealing.

Carswell, and certain Brexit allies across the Tory Party, have frequently cited Gladstone as an inspiration. On April 19th last year:

It’s because UKIP is the closest party to Gladstonian liberalism today that this picture of the Grand Old Man appears in our Welsh manifesto. UKIP – like Gladstone – stands for freedom. Like him, we’re against a big, intrusive state.

Carswell keeps Gladstone’s painting in his office.

Gladstone’s career is too epic to effectively summarise– he spent 63 years as MP and 19 as Chancellor, and is the only person to have served as PM four separate times. Nonetheless, there are six clear ideas in his long life, which suggest somewhere behind a famously stern poise, he would be wincing with us in fear, bemusement and embarrassment at Britain’s upcoming Brexit disaster.

First, and most important, Gladstone was British history’s greatest advocate for free trade. He broke with the Tory party in 1846, because it would not support his mentor Robert Peel’s efforts to reduce tariffs on corn. Their triumph helped the emerging working and middle classes-build railways and initiate a second industrial revolution- whilst it hit the sclerotic land owning gentry.

1846 and 2016 have often been compared, lately by The Economist (set up in 1843 as an anti-Corn Law pamphlet) and many others, as triumphs and disasters over the same issues of British free trade. Whilst Carswell sometimes vaguely spoke of “soft Brexit” as a path to Free trade – this now looks forlorn, just as was obvious before last June for those of us in the Remain campaign. As George Osborne recently observed, leaving the Single Market would appear “the biggest act of protectionism in history”.

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Political elites and why we think we need them

Scenes Frontispiece

The blessed work of helping the world forward, happily does not wait to be done by perfect men; and I should imagine that neither Luther nor John Bunyan, for example, would have satisfied the modern demand for an ideal hero, who believes nothing but what is true, feels nothing but what is exalted, and does nothing but what is graceful. George Eliot

The only thing that has kept the race of men from the mad extremes of the convent and the pirate-galley, the night-club and the lethal chamber, has been mysticism — the belief that logic is misleading, and that things are not what they seem.  GK Chesterton

We have been told a lot lately that recent political upheavals represent a revolt against the “club” of “elites” dominating western politics. On reflection, I wonder if it actually meant the opposite: the realisation “elites” are not very elite at all, but in fact every bit as flawed and tangible as ourselves, just as they always were in the days before television. I was thinking this, recently, wandering around the National Portrait Gallery transfixed by the mesmeric eyes of inane bully Henry VIII – and wondering if we have traded these faintly Tory myths, for the more dangerous oil paints of the Spectator butterfly.

George Eliot’s words from the 1850s are a double-edged sword. Writing in “Scenes on clerical life” she pointed out the great secret of progress, and good politics: normal people like ourselves. This is not always easy. It was, I think, one of the great joys of Coalition for many Liberal Democrats, one which we were too slow at times to appreciate, that we were actually changing quite a lot. With hindsight, I wonder if it felt hard to believe the strength of policies like the Pupil Premium and Shared Parental Leave, not because the Tories did it, nor even that Nick Clegg did it, but because we did it.

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Roy was right – and so was Nick

Nick Clegg’s excellent book, Politics: Between the Extremes, released in September, provides a useful perspective on the new parameters which seem to define British politics. As became clear in 2016, politics is not just a battle between right and left or statist versus anti-statist perspectives any more, but between open versus closed economies and Brexit versus Remain.

But I think Clegg’s analysis would have benefited from exploring more deeply how old and therefore un-random these changes are.  Specifically, Clegg’s Twelfth Chapter Was Roy Right? suggests Roy Jenkins– who died in 2003 and in the 1980s was the leading political and intellectual force behind the SDP and Lib Dems– would not have agreed with his view of cross-party cooperation, or that the only division in politics is between left and right.

There is, in fact, plenty of evidence to suggest that Jenkins would have shared Clegg’s analysis. Indeed, I think Jenkins would have likely been his strongest supporter in the Coalition years and would have spoken against the criticisms made of Clegg, implicitly in his name, principally by Lord Oakeshott, Jenkins’ former Special Adviser, who see the Liberal Democrats as effectively a subsidiary of the wider left.

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On the other side of silence

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it be would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.
– George Eliot, Middlemarch, Chapter 20.

With the US Presidential election upon us, there has been scant defence of the “competence” let alone the “intelligence”, of electorates around the world in 2016, but I think it needs more thought. For all that is said about the …

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EU Referendum: a vote to define ourselves

It has been affirming, in recent weeks, to meet so many people working together, making sacrifices small and large for the “Remain” campaign. We are united of course in our bemusement at what we perceive to be what The Washington Post called the “insanity” of the Brexit case; our case feels hard, in large part, because I think it is. But when the dust has settled and tempers cooled, however, I wonder if we might better understand their apparent eccentricity by recognising some of it within ourselves.

Because, at the personal level, few of the sacrifices make obvious sense – meanwhile, some of our own ideas are sometimes too firm. Whilst it has been heart-stirring to see people stuffing envelopes and giving money and travelling across Europe to help, it can also be head-scratching, too. In Casablanca, Rick Lane’s character makes a common declaration of apparent cynicism “the lives of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world” –it is echoed in politics often. Whilst voting is easy, it is still a sacrifice of time: as big a mystery as the millions voting for Brexit, are the millions voting at all.

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