Looking over our shoulder?

The statue of Lloyd George in Parliament Square

As a relatively new member I’d like to share an observation. I’ve come to suspect that there’s a propensity for retrospection within our party, a tendency to look back to days gone-by, to times of greater influence and power, to reminisce of beloved leaders of a bygone era.

A sense of shared history can help any group of people to bond, to define the group identity. It can provide a sense of comfort and continuity. It can even provide hope. Yet there’s a subtle difference between that and a common outlook, a shared purpose. One looks back, while the other looks forward.

It’s inevitable that senior party figures – who’ve been at this a long time, or even a lifetime – will define their current understanding of the party by reference to its history, particularly the shared endeavour in which they themselves participated. It also infers a seniority – because they were there, they’ve been doing it longer, and have earned their stripes and scars. Nothing wrong with that, you might say, quite rightly so. The flip-side of this inferred seniority is that others are (by definition) inferred inferior. This is not a leap, or even a judgement, simply logic. Just as it’s impossible for newer members to comprehend the commitment given over many years, often rewarded with little in the way of result, and yet compounded by perseverance, so too must it be difficult for members with many years under their belt to appreciate what joining the party must feel like today.

Few will join a political party of any persuasion to bask in its past glories. They join because they want to be a part of its future. From a bird’s eye view, of the major parties the Liberal Democrats are arguably the most universally in-tune with the current zeitgeist. We are not chained to defending any vested interest, funding source or 20th Century ideology. If there’s an issue around equality, justice, opportunity or diversity, we’re onto it. We are ‘woke’. That is something I’ve been very impressed by, and it seems pretty universal in our membership. Being tuned-in to what’s new, being first onto the issues, you might’ve thought that the Liberal Democrats would automatically be forward-looking. Yet my impression – and it may only be an impression – is that within our membership we are not.

It’s almost as if collectively, we believe we are right, and have been right about many things for some time – it’s just the electorate has yet to understand that and catch up with us. That our problem has been communicating our message in a hostile media-driven melee, disproportionately disadvantaged by first past the post. If one believes oneself to be right, and that is collectively reinforced, there is little motivation to change. Why tear-up the rulebook if it was all correct? Why rethink policy positions when we are so self-assured?

The answer to these last two questions is, “Because we haven’t been winning with them.”

As any author or computer programmer will attest, it’s really hard to throw away a body of work which you’ve agonised-over. What they will also tell you is that it’s only when you do so that you free yourself to progress. I’m not saying our policies and strategies are wrong – far from it – these are our building blocks. What I am saying is that to build a new future, we need to have a culture that believes it needs to be built, then envision what it could look like, and then engage our resources on building it. It’s by doing-so that we refresh and reset… until the next time.

* Adrian May is a member in Edinburgh

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  • In my view, this is an excellent post. My own observations over many years confirm the conclusions drawn. i have lost count of the times people here have blamed everything and everyone for the poor performance of the party.

    The feeling of self righteousness is often palpable. Some who post hear talk about hatred for political opponents who are clearly regarded as evil. On the other hand, liberalism is the key to everything wonderful. Liberal values are supreme.

    The public perception of the party recognises these traits and produces disinterest or a negative response. The party’s perception of itself certainly does not. I’m aware that I am simply amplifying your points, perhaps degrading them from being subtle to crude, but really, there is nothing of substance to add, you have said it all.

  • Paul Holmes 2nd Jun '20 - 1:14pm

    Adrian -there is little to disagre with in the concept of always looking with an open mind at new situations, new ideas and new stratagies and learning from them.

    On the other hand the last 10 years have seen ‘us’ tear up past approaches twice ( first under Nick Clegg and then under Jo Swinson) in favour of exciting new innovative ways. As both a Historian and an active Lib Dem campaigner for 37 years I can only note that the last 3 General Elections have been an utter and complete disaster for us and our Council Base plus Scottish/ Welsh Parliaments and London Assembly representation has been throughly trashed too. After the best results in a century (1997, 2001,2005) we are back to struggling for survival, as the Liberal Party was right up to the 1970/74 elections.

    There are famous quotes all the way back to Cicero about the dangers of forgetting the Past -or if you prefer a less historical version “Don’t throw out the baby with bath water”.

  • Excellent post.

  • Sue Sutherland 2nd Jun '20 - 1:25pm

    This is a very brave and perceptive post Adrian, given that there are quite a few old fogeys like me who enjoy commenting on LDV. I’m an ex SDP old fogey, not a Liberal though, so my history isn’t as long as the Liberal one, but I’m very happy if I can find an example from Liberal history to back up my argument. I’m particularly fond of the 1909 budget, the first which had a redistributive aim.
    However, I’m in awe of those members who joined since 2015, who want to see the party flourish and are carrying on campaigning and it’s good to know that you believe we are “woke” and more in tune with the current zeitgeist than other parties. We old fogies certainly can’t argue with that.
    I think there are enough party members, even those who turn to history to reinforce their beliefs, who want to see change both within the party and in wider society to bring about that change. The Thornhill report seems to be widely accepted and hopefully will be implemented. This dreadful pandemic has highlighted the need for one of our basic premises, ‘the harm principle’ of JS Mill, to become accepted by the present government as it is accepted by most of the population. The pandemic has also created an opportunity for us to take a step back and think about the future and what it requires of us as a party.
    So don’t be put off by us old fogies, long running arguments ( how many leaflets to put out springs to mind), and people who find new computer systems difficult to operate etc. Instead become part of the growing numbers of members who want change and articulate this at every opportunity. Go back to a time before Liberalism, go back to Shakespeare and take the tide of affairs at the flood and help us to achieve fortune at last.

  • I’m not sure we look to the past too much, but there is definitely an element of arrogance in our attitude that we’re always right, and that will be enough to win us an election some time before the end of the world. And we are definitely too happy to play the victim card when we don’t get enough coverage, or the right sort of coverage, or those nasty Tories start lying again. We don’t seem able (willing?) to talk to large sections of the electorate (pretty much anyone other than people who could easily be tarred with the ‘liberal elite’ stereotype) without coming across as patronising. We need to toughen up and stop preaching to the converted.

  • James Fowler 2nd Jun '20 - 1:43pm

    While I like the optimism and call to look ‘forward not back’ there are a few things here that – regrettably – I disagree with here.

    It is simply, and sadly, untrue that the LDs are the Party most in tune with the current Zeitgeist. The dominant political force of the last decade has been a nativist, populist nationalism, visible everywhere in the country from Cumbernauld to Clacton and confirmed in government just a few months ago. The LDs, along with the other ‘progressive’ movements have failed to defeat or even seriously check it. As liberals we quite rightly continue resist and reject this politics, but we should not pretend for moment that the tide has been with us or that there is a ‘silent majority’ which is in some mysterious and invisible way on our side.

    There are many reasons why this has happened since the high point of open borders and open societies in Europe around 20 years ago. One of them – since it is celebrated in the post above – has been the liberal left’s embrace of ‘woke’ politics which has sundered its connection to identities rooted in working class solidarity. However, this is much more of problem for Labour than us as we never had a working class to lose.

    I agree though that liberal politics is a good match for the woke agenda: The autonomous individual striving for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. A society based on rights and rationality not obligations and traditions. But we should not forget that the woke agenda will likely remain a minority and rather intellectually elite agenda because it requires custom and belief to be subordinated to a more abstract individualised rationality about what it is to be a person.

    I’d personally be more comfortable with a narrative that emphasised social liberalism generally rather than specifying one particular current catchphrase. One of history’s lessons is that they don’t age well.

  • Barry Lofty 2nd Jun '20 - 2:02pm

    Speaking as old fogey I find it sad that the different generations cannot exist more amicably together in the party and in general life but I suppose that has been the same over the centuries. My wife and I have a great relationship with our grandchildren we learn from them and they hopefully learn something from us! And I bet when you reach old age, Adrian, you will reminisce the same as we do, anyway I hope your generation get to experience a Lib Dem government and great to see you have joined the party, well done!

  • I must agree with Paul Holmes. It’s a brave, foolish, or naive person who claims there’s nothing to learn from past experience or past events.

    I’d also gently say to Joe Bourke there are serious holes in “a Liberal Party led by Campbell-Bannerman achieve a landslide victory of(f sic) the back of working-class vote that had been nurtured by Gladstone and a middle-class vote that saw the necessity for social reform”.

    Any study of the 1905/6 campaign, Joseph reveals a negative campaign more against than for, on a male only property based franchise which excluded many working class males…. to a House of Commons where Members were not paid. It’s instructive to analyse the 57 Liberals elected in Scotland in December, 1910 – every single one was a rich man with assets equivalent to over £ 1Million in modern values.

    The outcomes were far better than might have been expected.

    And no, Lloyd George was not the ‘man who won the war’….. although he modestly claimed that he did.

  • Peter Martin 2nd Jun '20 - 3:10pm

    I’m not quite sure why anyone thinks Lloyd George deserves his statue in Parliament Square. If he’d had his way there would have been a negotiated “peace”, which would have been little more than a total surrender to Germany, in the early years of WW2. He would have gone down in history as “the man who lost the war”!

    Michael Foot included Lloyd George, along with other defeatists like Halifax and Chamberlain, in his list of Guilty Men in his postwar book of the same name. The Labour victory in 1945 wasn’t so much a rejection of Churchill personally as a rejection of the entire pre-war Tory, National Liberal and Liberal Establishment.


  • Lorenzo Cherin 2nd Jun '20 - 3:37pm

    Adrian, read Sue sutherland, probably the finest example of values this party site has within it, and proof, as with mr p holmes, that the SDP was a terrific organisation, I, in the Labour party as a youth, did not join, foolishly perhaps!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    This party should do one thing above all. Reach out. To m embers, voters, all. It does not do it enough. No party other than this is though, they win with inbuilt machine at the helm. Too much attention to leaflets at local level, too little to people at national.

    The world has moved on from a leaflet in a letterbox, and a shrill voice on the BBc.

    Younger voters know that. This party doesn’t yet.

  • Peter Martin 2nd Jun '20 - 3:38pm

    @ Adrian May,

    “From a bird’s eye view, of the major parties the Liberal Democrats are arguably the most universally in-tune with the current zeitgeist.”

    Are you sure it’s really “a bird’s eye view”? Isn’t just the your own view plus that of your friends and colleagues? It’s a common psychological mistake. Those in the “bubble” didn’t see Brexit coming because they genuinely didn’t know anyone who was in favour of leaving the EU. Jeremy Corbyn only got on to the ballot paper for Labour leader thanks to a number of MPs who thought he had no chance of winning because they didn’t know anyone personally who claimed to support him.

    When the pubs open again you could call in at my local. Most of the regulars wouldn’t use words like “zeitgeist”! But they are, arguably, much more likely to influence them than you might think. You should try talking to them sometime.

  • @ Peter Martin You say, “If (Lloyd George) had his way there would have been a negotiated “peace”, which would have been little more than a total surrender to Germany, in the early years of WW2”.

    I’m afraid you’re letting your prejudices get in the way of the historical facts, Mr. Martin.

    I’m no uncritical fan of LLG…., but the fact is Lloyd George spoke and voted against Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement in 1938 and was a constant critic of Chamberlain. When Churchill took over in 1940, he desperately wanted LLG in the War Cabinet but LLG declined because he felt at his age he was no longer up to it.

    I think you’ll find Stella Rudman’s ‘Lloyd George and the Appeasement of Germany, 1919-1945’, (www.cambridgescholars.com) a bit more reliable than Wikipedia.. or even the young Michael Foot. Stella’s work book is based on her researched Ph.D, and she finds plenty of other things to criticise LLG for, but not what you claim.

  • John Marriott 2nd Jun '20 - 10:07pm

    In his book chronicling the decline of the Liberal Party between 1914 and 1935, Trevor Wilson pays great attention to the ‘Coupon’ election of 1918. However, one might argue that any party that, by 1914, was relying on Irish Nationalist support and a quiescent embryonic Labour Party, would find life very difficult when that support dwindled. As is the case today the largest minority party, the Conservative Party, was there to benefit from a divided opposition.

    The split between the Asquithian and the Lloyd George Liberals in 1916, caused to a greater extent by the lacklustre performance of Prime Minister that led Great Britain into WW1, meant that, when the war came to what we now know to be an unsatisfactory conclusion, what was left of the Liberal Party was, by its philosophy and history, badly out of step with the mood of retribution against Germany and the former Kaiser that was prevalent amongst the victors and their populations as a whole and impressed itself on the post war period by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.

    Lloyd George had largely proved himself as a wartime leader and, unlike Churchill two decades later, was rewarded for his efforts by continued Conservative support in a coalition that not only survived the war but continued until the majority partner was ready to dispense with his services. He did seek a rapprochement with his former boss; but Asquith declined, just as Lloyd George did when offered a place in Churchill’s cabinet in 1940. In the case of the former, it was probably pride. In the case of the latter, as David Raw said, it was undoubtedly a realisation that his powers were diminishing, something which Churchill himself failed to recognise when he hung on to power in the 1950’s way past his sell by date and much to the exasperation of the first Lord Avon.

  • Peter Martin 3rd Jun '20 - 9:08am

    @ David Raw,

    If you think Wikipedia has it wrong, why don’t you and other Lib Dems get in there and do some editing?

    At present they are quoting DLL as saying that Hitler was “the greatest living German”, “the George Washington of Germany”, and also that ” that a war between Germany and the Soviet Union would not happen for at least ten years”.

    Hitler had been obliging enough to let everyone know what he had in mind when he wrote Mein Kampfe, but in the 30s we had a succession of high ranking British establishment figures popping over to Germany for a quick chat with Hitler and telling everyone back home “Don’t worry he really doesn’t mean all that”.

    Therefore when the war did finally happen, the country wasn’t well prepared and survived by the narrowest of margins.

    It does look like DLL had changed his tone when the Munich agreement was signed but changed it again when the war initially went badly.

    Again this section either needs to be corrected or accepted by Lib Dems:

    “Lloyd George also thought that Britain’s chances in the war were dim, and he remarked to his secretary: ‘I shall wait until Winston is bust.’ He wrote to the Duke of Bedford in September 1940, during the Battle of Britain, advocating a negotiated peace with Germany.”

    There were people in the Labour Party, like Lansbury, who got it all wrong too. So, its not a party political matter. But, we don’t have a statue of him in Parliament square!

  • Peter Martin 3rd Jun '20 - 9:20am

    DLL ?? I mean DLG of course.

  • You could have said that with a bit more grace, Peter. Surely you don’t want to become regarded as the Labour equivalent of the Blustering Boris ? It’s a pity, because Brexit apart, I often agree with you…….. and in general I too hold a critical view of LLG who was no saint in so many things.

    It’s not my job to correct Wikipedia. I don’t know of any University History Department that would treat it as a reliable source…. maybe that’s because people like you encourage all and sundry to “edit” it.

  • John Marriott 3rd Jun '20 - 9:57am

    @Peter Martin
    And, while you’re at it, there’s no ‘e’ on ‘Kampf’ either, unless you mean the plural, in which case it also requires an umlaut.

    Many people were fooled by Hitler at the beginning, and not just people like Lord Rothermere and his associates. I always remember back in the 1950s intercepting an old copy of ‘Deutsches Leben’, a popular school German text book at most Grammar Schools back then while on its way to the bin. This particular edition came from the 1930s and featured a chapter on the Hitler Youth. I can still remember some of the exercises, one of which read something like: ‘Translate into German – Although some people are worried about Herr Hitler, there is no doubt that he has done great things for Germany”.

    Back in 1989, on the centenary of Hitler’s birth, Channel 4 ran a programme about his impact on Germany. One of the interviewees was a former HItler Youth member. Standing in front of the grandstand at the infamous Nuremberg rally site, he offered in excellent English the opinion; “ If Hitler had died in 1938 (when the first documented attempt on his life took place) he would probably have been remembered as the greatest German, who had ever lived”.

    Some may have said that about Margaret Thatcher if she had departed after victory in the FalkLands War, or even sorting out Scargill and Co. Perhaps she did hang on too long, as many politicians of both the left and the right tend to do. Ramsey MacDonald was another, possibly also David Lloyd George and you could even make a case for Churchill as well. What did Enoch Powell say about “political careers”?

  • Peter Martin 3rd Jun '20 - 10:26am

    @ David Raw,

    I’m sorry about the lack of any perceived grace but I just call it as I see it. It’s nothing personal. I wouldn’t make a good politician, I know.

    I have made a few contributions to Wiki myself. If the article is fairly uncontroversial, such as the history of a local football team it all seems to be accepted without too much question. I’ve done a bit of that. However, a few years ago I, as a fully paid -up member of the “all and sundry” club. 🙂 , made some changes on their MMT page but they were quickly reversed. I was messaged with a complaint from someone who supposedly had some authority in the organisation to which I responded with a justification of what I’d done. But I didn’t hear anything else and I just left it at that.

    So it’s not perfect, but I can see what Wiki are trying to achieve and I know they must have a huge battle on their hands trying to keep their Climate change and other disputed pages on a sensible scientific footing. Nevertheless if Wiki has made an error on DLG there must be a legitimate way of correcting their entry. Having said that, I doubt they have got it wrong.

    @ John Marriott,

    Sorry about the extra ‘e’ but the only German I know is what I’ve picked up on visits to the country. I don’t remember Mein Kampf being mentioned much though!

  • @ Joe Bourke There’s a lot of evidence about LLG’s declining health in the years after the ‘Flu epidemic, Joe.

    He was seriously ill in 1927 (the Churchills sent flowers), a serious prostate operation in July 1931 when the National Government was being formed.

    He didn’t drink but enjoyed cigars and had radiology (from Lord Dawson) for neuralgia and suspected cancer in 1937. Not long after Churchill formed the war time Coalition LLG was diagnosed with the cancer from which he died in March, 1945. See Professor Richard Toye (2008).

    Be interesting to have Asquith’s medical history. Bonar Law, Austen Chamberlain, Ramsay Mac and Neville Chamberlain all had serious issues, as did Churchill, Eden and Macmillan. What will posterity conclude about Johnson’s covid ?

  • John Marriott 3rd Jun '20 - 1:09pm

    @Joseph Bourke
    There’s also a fairly long clip of him around 1937 paying tribute to his long differing wife, I think, at his (Golden?) Wedding. By the way, do we know who was the father of Frances Stevenson’s daughter? He wasn’t christened the ‘welsh goat’ for nothing.

    That said, Lloyd George’s example of how to get to the top from fairly humble beginnings, like Ramsay MacDonald’s, and how to become corrupted by hobnobbing with High Society should be an object lesson.

  • John Marriott 3rd Jun '20 - 1:11pm

    ‘Differing’? Bloody predictive text! It should, of course, have been ‘suffering’.

  • Sue Sutherland 3rd Jun '20 - 2:19pm

    Well Adrian I think the last few comments have proved you right, we do love to have discussions about Lib Dem history and leaders. It’s comforting to do that because, when you argue points about what happened in the past, it’s quite safe to do so. The past doesn’t change. However, the future is more problematic because you might be proved wrong.
    Of course we need to learn from history and the Allied leaders did learn from the results of the punitive treaty which ended WW1. Much effort was put into rebuilding Germany after WW II and the Germans themselves have recognised the destruction which dictatorship and hatred can bring.
    What is important for us to do as a party is to learn from our recent history and then
    Reform our party to make it even more democratic
    Using examples of best practice, turn ourselves into a successful campaigning machine
    Create a vision of a post Covid UK and the policies to achieve it.
    Lloyd George can’t help us to do this but our new intake of members might manage it with a bit of support from the experienced old fogies in the party.

  • I think the broad thrust of this argument is correct. I’m proud to be part of a great, historic party, but if there is a useful lesson to be learnt from history it’s that the party consistently failed to reinvent itself in response to change in the wider world.

    What worried me was the pride in being “woke”. Ensuring that everyone is treated with fairness and decency is absolutely right and is something that the party is right to fight for, but it can’t be the only motive, or even the primary motive. Most of the population is by definition not in a minority, and whilst I am sure they are supportive of minority issues they would expect something for them too.

    I’m interested in being in a party that aims to bring the largest improvement in the most people’s lives with the minimum amount of interference. That has to include fighting for the rights of those who lack them, but that needs to be a side issue, not the main thing.

  • John Marriott 3rd Jun '20 - 5:00pm

    @Dan Martin
    “The party consistently failed to reinvent itself in response to change in the wider world”. Never were truer words spoken. Yes, by all means be proud of your history; but don’t rest on your laurels. As Keynes replied when accused of changing his mind, “When I find new information I change my mind”. I get the feeling that many people, who profess to be ‘Liberal’, positively enjoy wearing sackcloth and ashes. It’s a bit like solving them Irish question. If they ever did find the answer, they would just change the question.

    Jo Bourke has used the Robert Kennedy quote that I have used several times in the past on LDV. That’s a good place to start as a definition of liberalism. The problem is that most people cannot get their heads round this stance. Many fear change because they crave security. Thinking outside the box is a gift (or curse, depending on your opinion), which few appear to share. It’s much better to play safe and not rock the boat. As the famous Tory election poster trumpeted in 1959; “Life is better under the Conservatives. Don’t let Labour ruin it!”

  • I would like to thank all those who commented on the article.
    The fact that much of the comments involved detailed discussion of events and persons that passed before any of us were born, sort-of illustrates my point.
    Yes, my understanding of ‘zeitgeist’ may be grossly different from the flavours of nationalism that’ve been rising both North & South of the border, and further afield in the US. Brexit, Trump and Boris are indeed reality, whether I reject or embrace them.
    In my first draft, I wrote “we are ‘woke’ regardless of age or demographic”. I removed the latter part, as it seemed needless and perhaps prejudiced, but it’s true that in my experience so far, I don’t see an age-divide in our party in this regard.
    I find myself at a sort-of transition age; I am neither young nor elderly (don’t say middle-aged!!!) and so my obseravtions are not from one particular camp.
    I’m not sure I agree with greater powers for further law-enforced distribution of wealth – Corbynism proved that it has a strong appeal, but not sufficiently widespread among the electorate. Besides, what’s Liberal about that? Equality of opportunity, and social safety-nets, yes. Corporate responsibility – yes (see my other article!)
    Yes there have been failures in recent times, but I don’t see that as a reason not to change, or to cling-to fundamentals from decades gone-by.
    Imagine being a retailer. “We didn’t manage to shift our stock last season, we thought it was good and bought it in, but it just didn’t sell, it wasn’t popular enough. I know, let’s try selling the same stuff this year.” Crazy.
    And I’ll be sure to revise my knowledge of Cicero! (honestly!)

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