LibLink: David Steel: We need liberalism more than ever

David Steel has written an article for the Scotsman explaining why liberalism is needed more than ever in the face of both domestic and international challenges. He praises both Tim Farron and Willie Rennie and urges liberals to “re-assert themselves and support them.”

His comments about the SNP also struck a bit of a chord with me. It’s not just that they stitched up the Scottish Parliament with their majority, giving themselves control of the committees so that they couldn’t be effectively scrutinised, it’s their general attitude to politics. They are reminiscent of Labour in the ’80s and ’90s, with such a sense of entitlement to power and objection to even the mildest, most evidence based criticism. Yesterday, we had three shouty nationalists in the space of a couple of hours in our office. Clearly such intimidatory tactics are designed to spook us. Actually, we enjoy the fact that they are clearly rattled by the scale and success of our campaign. It is very like the days in Derbyshire when Labour thugs would shout at you as you delivered leaflets and it’s sad to see that kind of politics.

Anyway, back to David’s article. He wrote:

Having now been in political life for over 50 years, I cannot think of a time when Liberalism was more needed. That is true internationally, in the UK, and in Scotland.

Having just returned from my latest visit to South Africa, it is depressing to see how the hopes and standards of the two first democratic Presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki have been betrayed under the current President Jacob Zuma; the only bright light being the steady progress of the Democratic Alliance which I expect to see continue in their upcoming local elections.

It has been my good fortune and pleasure to attend no fewer than seven party conventions in the USA and thereby to admire much in their democracy; but it is horrifying to see how a man with nothing except a large mouth and deep pockets can be taken seriously as a contender for their highest office.

Here in the UK we see a yawning gap between a party supporting the wealthy at the expense of the poor, and a party led by a doctrinaire socialist. We also see so far a relatively low-level debate on the European Union question, ignoring the high ideals of its founders. We also have the failure to respond to the refugee crisis in the Middle East.

In Scotland we have the likely spectacle of a parliament unable to call to account the one party in government enjoying a dangerous quasi-monopoly.

Against that background the case for a strong Liberal force has never been more needed. Fortunately in Tim Farron as UK leader and Willie Rennie as Scottish leader Liberal Democrats have found two energetic young people who have emerged from the wreckage of the last general election. Tim, together with the two MP former leaders Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell, voted against the disastrous volte face on student fees, and Willie has clearly distanced the Scottish Party from that coalition debacle. Now is the time for Liberals to re-assert themselves and to support them.

When I say that Liberalism was never more needed I have in mind Alan Paton’s definition: “by Liberalism I do not mean the creed of any party, nor any century. I mean a generosity of spirit, a tolerance of others, a commitment to the rule of law, a high ideal of the worth and dignity of man, a repugnance of authoritarianism, and a love of freedom.”

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Bruce Hosie 22nd Apr '16 - 9:29am


    How can a political party stitch up a majority, can you , just for once, take off the rose sprinkled galsses. We live in a democracy, or something close to it given our stitched up system to use your words, the voters voted for an SNP majority and will again. That is how democracy works, rather than carp and moan on the sidelines the Liberal Democrats need to come up with a vision that appeals to Scotland. The longer the party is seen as i-liberal then it will slowly die a death and rely on the list for life support.

    I cannot stand the rubbish that comes out of peoples mouths and the hypocrisy, because we don’t like the result from the VOTERS Holyrood is a dangerous quasi-monopoly. The continuing dominance of the SNP in Scotland is due to the unionist parties being perceived, rightly, as not representing or protecting Scotland’s interests and until such time as they change and actually become Scottish Parties they will continue to suffer. I would argue that rather than moan on the sidelines and alienate every yes voter in the country, who are from a wide range fo political beliefs, the unionists need to come up with policies better than a penny for education. I think I heard that before somewhere in the 90’s.

  • I fear that the Lib Dems are making that same mistake that Labour made during the last parliament. They are spending their time engaging in (largely academic) debates among themselves rather than responding to the demands of the voters and core supporters. Politics is not a debating society, you don’t win by adding up the points for who has the best arguments. You win by engaging emotionally with people and understanding their desires.

    Labour has the benefit of being the second party of a two party system. When they lost touch with their members their members recognized that there was no where else to go and fought back. The Lib Dems do not have that luxury. If the party doesn’t return to supporting the radical reform agenda it will find that no one outside of the traditional liberal base will even listen to them. The chant that “we’re nicer than the Tories and more sensible than Labour” didn’t work last year and it won’t work any time soon.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 22nd Apr '16 - 10:25am

    Well, Bruce, a poll showed that 51% of voters backed the idea of a penny for education.

    And the SNP has stitched up every Holyrood committee and is abusing its power. The Parliament was meant to have very strong committees holding the government to account. The SNP puts in a majority of SNP MSPs who are forbidden from disagreeing with the party line. How is that good for democracy? You can have a majority without removing your government from effective scrutiny.

  • @caron Lindsay

    I think you are making a very basic mistake that stated support for one policy translates into general support. There is no polling evidence so far that the Party is making any headway in the Holyrood campaign at all. The latest poll shows it in fifth place on both constituency and list votes significantly behind the Scottish Green Party. The posts on here reminds me of all those hopeful posts in the 2015 GE that private polling showed how well the LDs were doing.

    ‘re Holyrood Committees are you saying that the SNP has illegally or unconstitutionally established committees? Or is that it’s overall majority simply translates into a majority on committees?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 22nd Apr '16 - 12:58pm

    Excellent piece from Lord Steel.Particularly glad to see him quote Alan Paton, a great Liberal who , with the late great Helen Suzman, was one of those people who kept Liberalism and its values of true humanity , alive in apartheid South Africa. Paton, in his renowned story “Cry the beloved country “,showed that tyranny and wretchedness are every decent persons concern, but he was also a liberal with a large L too !

    And well done , David Steel on the USA comments , he has longstanding links with the Democratic Party , we need to forge them ever closer , the mere presence of President Obama , a wake up call re Trump !

  • John Mitchell 22nd Apr '16 - 6:07pm

    I agree with Lord Steel and Nick Clegg. Liberalism is needed now more than ever in the face of a resurgent conservatism and rampant nationalism across the world. As NIck Clegg said after the 2015 general election, “Fear and grievance have won, liberalism has lost, but it is needed now more than ever.”

    Unfortunately, I do not believe that the Liberal Democrats indicated that reform of the Scottish Parliament was on the agenda. The committees are woefully inadequate and I believe that a second chamber is absolutely necessary as Holyrood becomes more powerful. I also feel that within the next parliament serious questions need to be asked as to why Holyrood is following the Fixed Term Parliament Act of Westminster (which we helped bring in) of five year terms. This was with no debate and it’s unhealthy for democracy to have a party with a majority potentially for so long. I would say this about any party with a majority and not just the SNP. I don’t like five year parliamentary terms. It is too long.

    As far as I’m aware, none of the political parties are proposing substantial reform at Holyrood despite having the power to do so. I know for certain that the Conservatives do not back a second chamber in Edinburgh which given all the inconsistencies of the current system I thought was disappointing.

    The election campaign in general has been quite dull. It’s a real shame too because there is so much to debate in an important election. I would also add that I don’t think there has been enough televised debates during this campaign.

  • @John Mitchell As I understand it Holyrood has not switched to 5 year terms . This election was put back by one year so as not to clash with the 2015 UK GE as the Con/LD UK Govt overlooked that the Westminster Fixed Term Act produced the clash.

  • Stephen Booth 23rd Apr '16 - 7:55am

    Well spoken David Steel, who incidentally dropped into a meeting I attended earlier this week in Portcullis House on Popular unarmed resistance in Palestine by Marwan Darweish and held under the auspices of CAABU (Council for the Advancement of Arab British Understanding) and thereby demonstrating his long concern over one of the world’s great injustices.

    I am afraid that Messrs Hosie’s and Gardner’s comments show they do not understand what liberalism is or what a genuine liberal participative democracy should look like. I’m not sure if it was Churchill or Lloyd George but I think one of them once said “Liberalism is the cause of the left out millions”. Never has there been a time when Liberalism is needed as people drift ever deeper into a miasma of constant cynicism and contempt for politics and its practitioners. The party needs to stop licking its self-inflicted wounds and get out there again on the streets. So that’s it folks, I’m off to press the flesh of Stevenage this morning!

  • I love that definition from Alan Paton. We should repeat it on every communication we issue until it is seared into hearts and minds. Even more we need a leader who can win hearts and minds and Farron, for all his good points, is not Kennedy and Ashdown. Other parties are led from outside the Commons and they’re doing pretty good.

    This morning my postal vote arrived and for the first time in 35+ years of ballot papers there is no Lib/SDP/LD candidate. I was shocked; this is a major metropolitan borough. I hadn’t realised quite how bad things were, though given my own current lack of interest it shouldn’t have been a surprise.

    We may need more liberalism but it won’t happen with well-meaning and honourable leaders who fail to inspire and excite. It won’t happen whilst we look inwardly and ignore what the voters said last year. I’ve said elsewhere that I’m personally disillusioned with politicians of all hues, especially those who regularly go off on junkets to warmer climes – nothing will change whilst most politicians are perceived to have their collective snouts in the trough. It won’t happen if I can’t actually vote for liberalism because there is no candidate. Despite my disillusion had I realised we had no candidate I would have put my name down so at least there was a box to tick. So my own fault, not that you’d want me as a councillor really.

  • Bill le Breton 23rd Apr '16 - 1:55pm

    Stevan, thank you. Your final but one sentence especially is a real tonic, a reminder of the fellowship of Liberals.

    “Despite my disillusion had I realised we had no candidate I would have put my name down so at least there was a box to tick.”

    Thanks also to Stephen for reminding us that “Liberalism is the cause of the left out millions”.

    For the last 7 or 8 years we seem to have advocated that this cause be left to ‘the invisible hand’ that miraculously does its work by increasing the scope for individuals to pursue their own self interest.

    As Tony Greaves wrote elsewhere, ‘Free trade is nor fair trade’. And unregulated markets, trickle down economics and a depleted state do nothing for the ‘left out millions’ other than make their exclusion all the more severe.

    With such very different meanings attached to the word Liberalism, it is not sufficient to use the word without distinguishing which is meant.

  • John Mitchell 23rd Apr '16 - 5:05pm

    @Andy Allan

    I’d argue that the franchise in Scotland has extended to five years, by stealth. It certainly will in the next parliament and this may continue. The notion that no more than one election can be held in a given year insults voters’ intelligence. The Americans vote in November, why must our elections be in May? The answer is they don’t have to be.

    Further powers are to be distributed to Scotland through the Smith Commission in terms of elections and regulation. Indeed, the Scottish parliament has voted to lower the voting age to 16. There is simply no excuse for the SNP to say that the reason for stalling and copying the Westminster system is because of Westminster. It isn’t and is just a poor excuse that lets them stay in power for one additional year.

  • Stevan Rose 23rd Apr '16 - 9:57pm

    “a poor excuse that lets them stay in power for one additional year.”

    The fact that they appeal to 50% of the electorate, with Lib Dems on 7.5%, and have a leader with a +21 approval rating when the LD Scottish leader has -7, is an excellent reason that lets the SNP stay in power for 4 more years. It would have been the same had the election been last year. Sniping at the SNP will not increase the Lib Dem vote but it does make us appear sore losers and we’re better than that. Why are they so popular? Given it isn’t independence since they lost that one.

  • @John Mitchell the decision to extend this parliamentary term was a cross party one. There is no suggestion that the next parliamentary term will be extended. I think Lib Dems need to get beyond the SNPbad mentality.

  • John Mitchell 25th Apr '16 - 4:19pm

    @Stevan Rose

    The point I was attempting to establish was on the democratic system or frequency of elections and is not party political. If any other party in Scotland had a majority I would be making the same criticism.

    The election of a Conservative government at Westminster with a five year term is equally democratically questionable and on less of the vote nationally, but unlike in Scotland that’s been amended through an Act of Parliament. Which I would like to see any future government reverse or at the very least investigate alternatives.

    We will have to agree to disagree here. When Glenn Campbell opened the first debate he said whichever party wins the election will be in power for the next five years. I know, Campbell, doesn’t make Scottish government policy but unless something radical happens and there’s a change of thinking, it looks as though it is five years. You’d also be ignoring the fact that the SNP don’t need cross party consensus and could just vote through amendments anyway or block a date that the party didn’t think worked for them with a majority. Unless there is some sort of super majority system that requires two thirds of parliament etc to do this which may be the case.

  • Richard Underhill 13th Jan '17 - 4:30pm

    David Steel has announced his intention to retire at the next general election (assumed to be 2020). “Conversations – David Steel” 25/12/2016 BBC Parliament Channel. He criticised political analysts for disregarding large chunks of LUCK, two in his case, the first of which was the parliamentary by-election caused by the death of a Tory MP.
    When he visits his former constituency some people call him David, some call him Mr. Steel, a few call him Sir David, none call him Lord Steel.
    He asserts that the Asquith and Atlee governments both wanted the system in the second chamber to be different from the Commons. He favours election from the devolved assemblies (thereby indirect from the public and dependent on the devolved institutions being elected proportionally). He did not comment on the patchy, incomplete and inconsistent devolution in England.

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