Author Archives: Stephen Howse

Liberal England died a century ago and we still haven’t learned anything

I have a strong interest in political history and in liberalism. Despite that, I am ashamed to say that I have only just read George Dangerfield’s seminal The Strange Death of Liberal England for the first time.

However, I am also glad that I waited so long, because the parallels between the situation in which the great Liberal Party found itself in 1914 and the situation into which liberals have got ourselves today are striking. Many of the tragic mistakes made by the Liberal leaders in the pre-war years have been repeated, with the lessons the Conservative Party taught the country about itself during the great People’s Budget and Home Rule crises either forgotten or ignored.

Yet again, the Conservatives have set the terms and we liberals have failed to grasp how and why things have changed around us. Dangerfield describes the pre-war Liberal government as “dying with extreme reluctance and considerable skill” – and if today’s liberals continue to fail to learn the lessons set out clearly in his book, that is the fate that awaits our movement as it drifts aimlessly and with no obvious purpose through these post-Brexit, post-liberal settlement times.

I am no Marxist, but there is truth in the notion that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. It was a tragedy that Asquith, with his Victorian notions of fair play and gentlemanliness, singularly failed to either anticipate or to respond effectively to the Conservatives’ evidently unfair and ungentlemanly attempts to wreck the People’s Budget.

The irony of the Liberals talking radically while remaining unflinchingly committed to a parliamentary solution, while the Conservatives made appeals to the sanctity of the constitution while making every effort to destroy it, should not be lost to modern liberals. We spent the May and Johnson eras patting ourselves on the back for each parliamentary defeat, only for Johnson to simply close Parliament down; we congratulated ourselves for playing by the parliamentary rules, only for Johnson to simply rewrite them by repealing the Fixed Term Parliaments Act and secure an eighty seat majority (while ensuring the liberal, anti-hard Brexit Conservatives who had stood up to him inside the Commons chamber were booted out of politics forever). Liberals stood for the status quo and for institutional stability while the Conservatives made the radical case for change, and when that happens, the Conservatives usually win (see also: Thatcher).

There are echoes of the Brexit campaign and its aftermath in the Conservative response to the Irish Home Rule crisis, too. Again, those on the Liberal side of the argument – the Irish Party leader John Redmond, David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and the rest – spoke in radical terms of Irish freedom from England while expecting the parliamentary system to deliver it, at the same time as the Conservative Edward Carson was overseeing the creation of a citizens’ militia and the formation of a provisional government in Ulster should there be any attempt to include that province within an independent Irish state. As a result, Home Rule was weakened and eventually destroyed, with six of the nine counties of Ulster immediately contracting out of the Irish Free State that eventually came into being.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged and | 53 Comments

Labour has chosen its new leader – time for us to get on with it ourselves

At the time of writing, we have no idea who the new Labour leader is. Whoever it is, I wish him or her well in their task of holding this most incompetent and mediocre of Tory governments to account.

It shouldn’t have taken this long for Labour to choose their new leader, of course. The contest has been interminable. The hustings have been tedious. The debates have been largely dull. But at least they’ve managed to get a new leader in post in 2020 – something which, apparently, is beyond the wit of our own party.

Instead, we’ve to wait another year on top of an already very generous transition period. I can’t say I’ve seen a single argument made in favour of doing this which stacks up. Indeed, every single reason not to choose our new leader during the Covid-19 state of uncertainty and looming crisis can be flipped on its head and turned into quite a good reason to plough on as originally planned. For example:-

We need an experienced hand at the tiller just now. Ed Davey, the argument runs, has the experience and gravitas needed to take us through this difficult period. Never mind that it’s frankly outrageous for a supposedly liberal party which is supposedly in favour of democracy to suspend its own democratic processes in this way. Never mind that we have other MPs who have been involved in crisis situations in their careers outside of politics, and never mind that nobody is really paying attention to us at the moment anyway so who cares. On which…

We’ll get more attention if we wait until the crisis is over. I’m not convinced anyone outside of the party, certainly outside of the political sphere, is really going to care any more next year than they would if we did it in 2020. Why would they? Indeed, I think we might get more positive attention from the press at least if we do it now – we’ll get props for having the first ever digital-only party leadership contest. And we’ll get a nice press release out of how much CO2 we’ve saved by not ferrying the contenders and their coteries across the country for months on end.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged and | 18 Comments

Tim talks to a room of students – and energises the #LibDemFightback in Newcastle


Students at NUSU Tim Talks

Of all the drops in the Liberal Democrat vote in May, the drop in the 18-24 vote was harshest. From 30% of the total vote of this age group in 2010, our vote collapsed to just 5% in May. Hope springs eternal in Newcastle, though – and we were delighted to welcome our leader, Tim Farron, in hosting a ‘Talk to Tim’ event at the Newcastle University Students’ Union on Monday night.

Tim was in fine form, answering questions from the packed room of well over 100 students on issues ranging from the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership to fracking and from the government’s proposed Teaching Excellence Framework for Higher Education to just what, exactly, is the point of the Liberal Democrats.

The questions were reasoned, varied and detailed. If this event was any indication, if we listen to young people and show that we genuinely care about what they have to say, we will win their respect and, in time, win back their support.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged and | 10 Comments

A Corbyn victory means there’s not much chance of a realignment of the left

It was Paddy Ashdown’s dream, and pre-1997 it looked to be tantalisingly within reach, yet with the imminent coronation of Jeremy Corbyn increasingly likely, the realignment of the anti-Conservative Left looks to be further out of reach than ever. Indeed, Corbyn’s happy band of followers have spent months labelling everyone else involved the contest as a ‘red Tory’, particularly Liz Kendall (whose father, let’s not forget, was a Liberal Democrat councillor) and including such known Conservative sympathisers as Harriet Harman and Neil Kinnock.

As Guido Fawkes has demonstrated, the Conservatives’ plan to deal with Corbyn is to paint him as a threat to Britain’s security, both at home (because of his views on economic policy) and abroad (because of his views on foreign policy). We have a real opportunity, if we want to take it, to own the acres of political space between a far-left Corbyn-led Labour Party and a Conservative government which will not be able to resist nudging further to the right (which would in turn put off that party’s own moderate supporters) – a space in which the majority of the British people have made their political home. We may have only eight MPs, but we are about to be gifted a huge opportunity to position ourselves politically between those two extremes and present ourselves as a moderate, sensible party which rejects both Corbyn’s reflexive ‘daddy knows best’ statism and the Conservatives’ love of taking away from those who have least to give.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged , and | 76 Comments

Opinion: Never mind ‘One Nation’; let’s bring back National Efficiency

Edwardian school License Some rights reserved by freeparking :-|There is a rule in British politics – non-codified, but always there, like the British constitution – that long-forgotten ideas will at some point come back into fashion. Witness Ed Miliband’s stuttering ‘One Nation’ pitch and the Tories’ tentative return to a hotchpotch of local relief schemes as a means of providing welfare.

There is one such Liberal concept which I believe could be updated and refocused as a thoroughly Liberal alternative to the New Right’s turbocharged capitalism and the New Left’s corporate-bashing fury: …

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged and | 8 Comments

Opinion: Liberalism – it’s not a set of policies, it’s a state of mind

8-5-10: They didA couple of things have struck me in the wake of the publication of Race Plan, Jeremy Browne’s personal liberal manifesto.

Don’t worry – this isn’t an article about the book itself. We’ve had enough of those over the last few days (as I write this, the top 5 most read articles on LDV are about it!) – I’d wager there have been more angry comments about the book on LibDemVoice than there are people who have actually read the thing.

Rather, this article concerns the nature of Liberalism.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged and | 71 Comments

Opinion: Why aren’t Liberal Democrats complaining loudly about draconian new family immigration rules?

It’s not often that I find myself on the same side of an argument as Sayeeda Warsi. It’s even less often that I find myself on the same side when it comes to marriage equality.

I am thankful, however, that the Baroness was in Cabinet to lead the charge – along with Liberal Democrats – against the Home Secretary’s outrageous plans to impose a draconian income threshold (of up to £40,000) on British citizens who wish to bring their spouses to live with them in this country. The Coalition’s harsh immigration cap is hard enough for a Liberal to stomach without …

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