Liberal jottings: Stephen Tall’s weekly notebook

Status Quo’s winning record

Painful though it might be for liberals to admit the fact, Britain is a fundamentally conservative country. Opposition is more often expressed with a tut or a sceptically-arched eyebrow than a revolution. And then things generally revert to how they were before. Which is why, though I’m more careful these days about predicting what will happen next in British politics, I remain sure ‘remain’ will win the EU referendum.

A few years ago, after our AV knock-back, I looked back at the history of referendums in this country (starting with the first ever UK plebiscite, the 1973 Northern Ireland sovereignty referendum). Doing so, I formulated what I’m going to call Tall’s Law in the hope it catches on (though Tall’s Rule of Thumb would be more accurate): “the public will vote for the status quo when asked in a referendum except when the change proposed in a referendum is backed by a coalition of most/all the major parties”. Come the EU referendum, we will see the Conservatives and Labour (to one degree or another) as well as the Lib Dems united in favour of Britain’s continuing EU membership. Sure, take nothing for granted — but a defeat for ‘remain’ would be an unprecedented occurrence. And precedent is a very British custom, for better and worse.

Burnham down

Tom Lehrer famously quipped that the decision to award Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize “made political satire obsolete”. I was reminded of the remark by Andy Burnham’s latest U-turn. In last week’s Jottings, I noted sarkily that “for all the talk of new politics, Labour’s shadow home secretary Andy Burnham is supporting [Theresa May’s surveillance] plans — though I guess that means there’s a good chance he’ll take the opposite position by next week.” Sure enough, by Monday he’d reversed his initial warm welcome. It’s better to have a reputation to live up to, Andy, than to live down to your own parody.

Opportunity knocks

I attended this week’s re-launch of CentreForum. Formerly “the liberal think-tank” it’s now re-branded as “the opportunity think-tank” headed by new executive chair, David Laws, one of last May’s many defeated Lib Dem MPs. Introducing him, its principal funder and Orange Book co-editor, Paul Marshall, recalled Winston Churchill’s famous riposte to his wife’s consoling remark (“It may well be a blessing in disguise”) after the electorate booted the Conservatives out of office in 1945: “At the moment it seems quite effectively disguised.” David in turn introduced their keynote speaker, education secretary Nicky Morgan, and gave her advance notice that CentreForum would continue to deliver both welcome and unwelcome advice to the government. “Much like our experience in Coalition,” he added.

Wry asides aside, CentreForum’s decision to focus on education, mental health and prison rehabilitation makes a lot of sense. There’s a coherent thread linking these three areas — how public policy can help those in disadvantaged circumstances make the most of their lives — and a genuine prospect of influencing government thinking. However, a bit of me is saddened that CentreForum, which was named UK Economic and Financial Think Tank of the Year in 2013, won’t be furthering the post-crash debate on what a liberal economy looks like. It also presents a challenge to the Lib Dems: where does serious, liberal policy-thinking happen beyond the party’s own much-reduced function? Hopefully the party can develop its links to think-tanks like the Social Market Foundation and Resolution Foundation for further intellectual bolstering.

Orange is not the only colour

The next night I was at my local party’s AGM. Guest speaker was some chap off social media called Dr Mark Pack and it was nice to make his acquaintance. He was asked a question about whether the Lib Dems are simply too ideologically divided between economic and social liberals to stick together under one banner. Mark made the point that the divide between, say, David Laws (on the party’s ‘right’) and Evan Harris (on its ‘left’) was much less wide than its equivalents in other parties. Think Jeremy Corbyn and Tristram Hunt, or Ken Clarke and Dan Hannan. (Though it maybe helps that our tent is smaller to start with.) He also noted that it was David, together with his fellow Orange Book-identified Lib Dem Norman Lamb, who as schools and care ministers respectively had pushed for additional national funding for policies important to them: the Pupil Premium and mental health.

It’s a fair point. There was a curious irony in the last parliament that the two most popular Lib Dem ministers on the party’s social liberal wing, Vince Cable and Steve Webb, were also responsible for the most strident market reforms pursued by the Coalition. Not only did Vince back the Browne Report on student fees, he also privatised Royal Mail, something even Michael Heseltine and Peter Mandelson didn’t dare pursue. Meanwhile, Steve abolished compulsory purchase of pension annuities (“if people do get a Lamborghini, and end up on the state pension, the state is much less concerned about that, and that is their choice”) and even defended the bedroom tax. Sometimes it’s not about what you say or even how you say it, but about who you are when you’re saying it.

Beyond our Ken

Is Michael Gove the new Ken Clarke? Under Margaret Thatcher, Clarke was a combative education and then health secretary who once outraged ambulance crews without training as paramedics by calling them “professional drivers”. He then re-invented himself as a loveable cigar-chomping, hush puppy-wearing, Europhile Tory moderate (assisted by the eruption of hard-right über-Thatcherism in his party which made him seem relatively much more liberal than he actually is). Michael Gove, famously shunted aside by Lynton Crosby because of his unpopularity with teachers and parents, is now a justice secretary busily executing U-turns to reverse his predecessor Chris Grayling’s appalling judgments. Gone is the ban on family and friends sending books directly to prisoners; potentially in is the idea of earned release, so that prisoners committing themselves to learn and acquire skills would be set free early. Suspend your cynicism for a while, and let’s now see if Michael Gove continues to walk the talk of ‘one nation justice’.

Arsène about

And speaking of unlikely liberals, I’m going to leave the last word to Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger. In an interview for L’Equipe Sport and Style (translated from French over at Arseblog), he was challenged over fans’ impatience for another Premiership title victory and Thierry Henry’s statement that Arsenal “must win this season”. This was his rather wonderful reply: ““Must” can be used for death. We must all die one day. In my life, I prefer replacing “must” with “want”. Wanting more than having to. If you tell me, you have to go out tonight, I don’t want to go out as much. If you tell me do you want to go out? Yes, I want to! That’s love for life. Must, must … I mustn’t do anything!”

* 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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  • Most countries are small c conservative. We’ve chopped as many kings heads off as the French. In truth you only get revolutions in fundamentally socially unstable countries and where the idea is introduced. I would argue that this is a very divided nation and the referendum will be incredibly close and that whatever happens just as with Scottish independence this is really only the beginning of the story. I’ll be voting to stay in, but quite frankly I suspect we’re heading out because it will come mid term and will end up being a referendum on immigration an issue on which the evidence suggest us liberal internationalist are fundamentally at odds with the majority of the population on.

  • Richard Underhill 14th Nov '15 - 12:20pm

    Vince Cable has said that the dichotomy was always there. He had been an active member of the Labour Party in Glasgow while teaching economics.
    On the Post Office we should recognise that the Business Secretary was not in The Quad. His visible discomfort was obvious during a fringe meeting at a Liberal Democrat conference when the Chancellor announced the price for a sale of Royal Mail shares .

  • It’s possible to overdo the point about Britain’s “fundamental conservatism”. Leave aside different degrees of conservatism between England, Wales and Scotland. Some countries with a tradition of revolt (France, Greece, Mexico, Bulgaria say) or a history of some violent or radical upheavals (Russia, Argentina, USA) show more apparent than real change. When the dust has settled a lot of things have different names but are really much the same. There have been major political changes in Britain in the last seventy years: the Welfare State, decolonialisation, a massive shift to liberal social attitudes and laws (note the small L) characterised by Roy Jenkins, the Thatcher privatisation and anti-union revolution… and it may be harder to quote really big changes since Thatcher because we’re still too near to them. What is characteristic of Britain is conservatism over the political system and constitution.

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