Opinion: Is this the end of conviction politics?

Are we witnessing the end of ‘conviction politics’ in the UK: that is the willingness of politicians to lead, rather than follow, public opinion, taking it in a direction that they believe to be right, rather than one that will get them re-elected. Of course, politicians want to be returned to power; even the very best can only achieve anything good in society provided they are in a position to influence events.

The danger is, however, that in the rush to get elected politicians sometimes allow the media to set the agenda, and then pander to the ‘lowest common denominator’ of public opinion.

Politicians cannot ignore what ordinary people are thinking, but they are frequently better informed than the rest of us (or should be). This means they must sift the evidence, and then to tell the electorate how it is, rather than simply regurgitating the opinions expressed in the media, based on opinion polls.

If asked if immigration good for the country, those interviewed for a vox populi TV news item are often expected to supply a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Yet given the opportunity to think about the implications of the question, many might reject monosyllabic replies and instead give a balanced response that allows for arguments on both sides, as indeed there are. One might personally believe that the UK has benefitted from centuries of immigration from many parts of the world, but would also have to accept that there may be limits to the speed at which the population can easily expand. Cultural diversity is something that has made this country what it is, but overcrowding can also bring threats. What is required is balance.

Without making a party political point; it is telling that amongst senior politicians, only Nick Clegg and the LibDems seem prepared to take a principled stand on another key issue facing the country today: the EU.

Few people would deny that the EU is rather different from the body we joined (as the Common Market) in 1973 and that there are aspect of its increasingly federal aspirations that many find worrying. Conversely, there are very good arguments for remaining within the union and seeking to reshape it in a form acceptable to us. (We are only one of 28 countries involved; the views of the other 27 are important too.)

Yet the tenor of current debate appears to be based on emotion and rhetoric, rather than logic and balanced discussion. The Conservatives are split on the issue, as they so often have been when denied a strong leader, and appear unable to resist the rise of UKIP – and others within the party itself – who want us out at any cost; and there would be considerable financial costs.

It is not that we should be prepared to ‘stay in’ at any cost, either. What really matters is that those with the most detailed information give the rest of us a lead so that an informed debate can take place on key issues.

Only those politicians who lead an honest discussion on the really important issues have any right to be elected as our leaders. Those who simply repeat a mantra of doctrine learned from a book, or from a demagogue, have a right to be listened to; that is the nature of our democracy. But they cannot be allowed to drive the debate.

When it comes to a general election, let us hope that conviction politics are not dead.

* Stephen Phillips spent his entire career in financial services, spending the last decade writing on insurance, investments, pensions and mortgages. Latterly, he also wrote a monthly economic review that was issued to the clients of a large number of independent financial advisers. He has been a member of the party since 2013.

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31 Comments

  • Stephen Phillips
    I read this article (the second from you in recent days) with some interest.
    But I was surprised by your assertion —
    “… amongst senior politicians, only Nick Clegg and the LibDems seem prepared to take a principled stand on another key issue facing the country today: the EU.”
    I can only assume you have a tin ear when other senior politicians have taken a principled stance on the EU. Only yesterday I saw Alan Johnson on the Andrew Marr programme making the case for the EU. A recent speech from Mr Miliband, the leader of the Labour Party to the CBI made the case for the EU. I have frequently listened to Mr Clarke make the case for the EU and he is the Conservative who has held more ministerial posts than most over forty years. Former Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair have in the last six weeks spoken in favour of the EU.
    Alex Salmond, (look away now Caron Lindsay) possibly the most prominent and most popular politician in Scotland recently stood down as leader of the SNP and First Minister having made the positive case for the EU throughout the Referendum at a time when Nick Clegg was standing shoulder to shoulder with UKIP and The Orange Lodges calling for a Unionist vote.

  • David Evans 15th Dec '14 - 9:26am

    Is this the same principled stand Nick is prepared to take on Judicial Review, Secret Courts etc. We have the worst of both worlds, a leader who has ditched most of our core principles (goodbye core vote) and doesn’t follow focus groups (goodbye new voters). All in all I think he simply looks down with disdain on anyone who doesn’t agree with him. The latest polls have us down to 3% in Scotland. He has to go and go now.

  • John Tilley – I agree with much of what you say but not with your mention of Tony Blair. He was a big disappointment on many issues and on Europe one of the reasons we are in danger of Brexit is his failure to lead public opinion on Europe during his time as PM – in my view.

  • Eddie Sammon 15th Dec '14 - 9:55am

    Conviction politics is not dead, but if we are witnessing the end of ignorance based politics then that would be a good thing.

    When it comes to the EU, you are right that we should not stay in at any cost, but the Party of IN strategy deserves no credit whatsoever. It undermined the work of the previous years in trying to appeal to the “moderate majority”.

  • John Kelly — you are quite right. Blair’s record on so many things is as you say “a disappointment”.

    That Chilcot Report has still not been published has it?

  • By coincidence I came across this excellent article by Will Self in this week’s New Statesman —
    http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2014/12/will-self-i-was-early-adopter-blair-hating-now-something-has-changed

    It says something about “conviction” politicians that Stephen Philips might agree with and John Kelly might like it as well.

  • This is so much less complicated than it is being made.

    A significant majority of the public in poll after poll want the politicians to control immigration. The political class have failed to do this over the past few years and do not have the power or the competence to do this going forward.

    This failure has, in considerable part, exacerbated an already latent distrust and disgust towards said political class. If they can’t even monitor and control access to the borders of the nation state they are supposed to be in charge of, what exactly can they do?

    Well they can run the country into one and a half trillion pounds worth of debt, and a deficit of nearly one hundred billion pounds this year. It isn’t all their fault obviously, but then that is’t the point. Great statesmen are great because they deal with what they didn’t necessarily cause. Sadly, but with justice, few trust ANY of this failed, discredited political class with the gargantuan task of dealing with this terrible economic situation. We are facing a national catastrophe, and our politicians are utterly incompetent and small time. Simply not up to the job.

    Most people can handle a lack of conviction. It is the sheer uselessness of them all that is the show stopper as regards their credibility. I am one of the least popular and despised posters on this site probably, but I doubt many here would disagree with this assertion, in their heart of hearts. Let alone the less parti pris amongst the electorate, the “swing voters” who will decide.

    By the way, you don’t mention this but you HAVE noticed that Nigel Farage has convictions and is not afraid to express them, right.?

    He doesn’t have the answer, even I admit that. But he has shown up the “smelly orthodoxies” (as Orwell called them) of this failed class, and gets credit for that amongst a lot of voters.

  • How did a piece in favour of conviction politics get transformed so rapidly in favour of a piece criticising the current leader of the Liberal Democrats and a recent leader of the Labour party?

    Conviction politics is not dead. On the one hand we have the success of politicians such as George Galloway and Alex Salmond who have managed to convince their supporters that they have convictions and on the other we have the rising memberships of parties such as UKIP and the Greens which are based on a few clear assertions.

    One of the many things the Liberal Democrats have to do is to rediscover what it is they are convinced of and campaign for it – membership of the EU being one such possibility.

  • I don’t think that we can realistically call time on conviction politics, here in the age of Alex Salmond and Nigel Farage.

    Richard is right, we need to remember what we believe and run with it. And politics as a whole needs to find someone who can reject the easy answers of the various nationalist figureheads and articulate a real solution. Or we’ll end up outside of Europe, exporting jobs rather than importing workers with reactionary figures winding the clock back on progress in the name of recapturing past glory days.

  • @John Tilley

    “Alex Salmond, (look away now Caron Lindsay) possibly the most prominent and most popular politician in Scotland recently stood down as leader of the SNP and First Minister having made the positive case for the EU throughout the Referendum at a time when Nick Clegg was standing shoulder to shoulder with UKIP and The Orange Lodges calling for a Unionist vote.”

    John, you have to stop this insulting line that a vote for the UK was shoulder to shoulder with UKIP and the Orange Lodges. I find it deeply insulting to have my belief in the universal value and equality of all people equated with such voices of division.

    Nick Griffin was against the Iraq war, does that mean we were shoulder to shoulder with him in opposing? Of course not.

  • David Evershed 15th Dec '14 - 12:17pm

    The article makes many valid points.

    I would develop the arguments to say that most electors don’t know what the Lib Dems stand for. In my view this is not because as a party we don’t know but because we have not had the confidence of our convictions to make them clear enough.

    Lets build build some fleseh on the ‘Fairer society and stronger economy ‘ with more words about individual freedom, free markets and what that means.

  • ATF 15th Dec ’14 – 12:16pm

    I apologise. I can fully understand why you might feel insulted.

    The point about the Unionist side in the Referendum was that it was a completely alien position for Liberal Democrats. The Unionists are the old enemy for Liberals. We opposed them for over a hundred years over Ireland, Wales and Scotland. This is may be why you find the reminder of the official party line in the Referendum so uncomfortable.

    How does all this appear to the voter in Scotland? Month after month leading up to the Referendum top Liberal Democrats stood on the same platform as The Unionists, said the same things as The Unionists.
    Is it any wonder we are now at 3% in the opinion polls in Scotland?

    We were lucky to get 11 seats in Scotland at the last general election with just 19% of the popular vote.
    How lucky will we have to be with only 3% of the popular vote to hold more than one seat?

    2010 General Election in Scotland —

    Labour…..42% of votes. 41 seats
    SNP……….20% of votes. 6 seats
    Lib Dems…19% of votes. 11 seats
    Con………….17% of votes. 1 seat.

  • The definition of a courageous conviction politician is one who loudly champions something I personally agree with.

    The definition of a cravenly populist politician is one who loudly champions something I don’t personally agree with.

  • @John Tilley

    Thanks for recognising that, John – was sure you would. Unionists may be an old political enemy, but the idea of the union itself. As ever, my best to you.

  • matt (Bristol) 15th Dec '14 - 1:31pm

    Ah, Dav, I am inclined to agree with your ‘definition’, but one of the problems underlying this article and comlicating its terminology is that many Liberals are reasonably and seninsibly convicted of the idea that reasonable debate and compromise is a virtue in itself.

    However, it is not wrong under the current circs to hold to this but simulatneously still wish we had more conviction in the merits of our own agenda as the core values of the party.

  • Very few politicians have the experience which earns respect.. We have also become childish in that we expect simple, easy , painless and quick solutions to difficult , complex, deep rooted problems. We refuse to accept solutions may require years of painful , arduous and dangerous hardwork. A senior RAF officer who flown in WW1, when the life expectancy was down to 2 weeks had the right to send pilots into the Battle of Britain: not a civilian who never fought for their country. The only politician who has ever told the British people that blood ,sweat and tears was needed to solve our problems , is Churchill.

    There is a boxing saying ” Train hard , fight easy”. Germany has a superb manufacturing capability and football teams because they have a mentality which includes self-discipline which accepts years of arduous training are required to achieve excellence. Germany and Japan rebuilt themselves after WW2 because they were willing of undertaking decades of arduous, rigorous work to very high standards. The Japanese concept of “Khazan” requires the self awareness of our failings and the fact that others who are better than ourselves in certain situations, which large parts of the British populace are not prepared to accept. Organisations which succeed contain people who accept responsibility for their performance and are always looking at how to improve it- Nelson’s Band of Brothers ( his ships’ captains”.

    Hardly any politician can lecture the British people that success can only occur after years of arduous training because they have not been through the process themselves.

    A people gets the politicians and government it deserves. If a country accepts that one ” have their cake and eat it”, “put a quart into a pint pot” and there are simple , quick, easy and painless route to excellence then we will get the politicians who lack conviction because they have no hard won experience which acts as a rock upon which their intellectual edifice is built. Conviction means that one has the certainty that a result is achievable : this can only occur through experience .Breadth of experience affords one a broad base which offers increased stability , depth of experience gives a depth of solid rock which enables a heavier intellectual edifice to be built. The modern day politician builds a candy floss structure on the skin of a custard. The slightest shock or cold wave of reality and everything collapses.

    What we need are politicians who build light houses on solid rock which can withstand the strongest Atlantic hurricanes and storm waves but are we prepared to be told by those who have conquered their weaknesses and fears through years of arduous and painful training, our inadequacies?

  • paul barker 15th Dec '14 - 5:32pm

    I would have said that we are are where we are as a Party precisely because we have shown Conviction, rather than giving in to pressure from The Media, Polls etc. Nick Clegg is constantly haranged & insulted for having Convictions. Up to now The Voters have punished us for having Convictions & acting on them. We will soon know if they take a different view at a General Election.

  • David Evans 15th Dec '14 - 5:58pm

    paul – Nick may well be harangued for having convictions, but the main one he has is that his convictions are more important than those of the Lib Dems – Tuition Fees, Secret Courts, Judicial Review, NHS Reform to name but four.

  • There is an important distinction to be made, in my view, between conviction politicians and principled politicians. I am very happy to see the back of the former – Thatcher, Powell, Paisley, Galloway, Benn, Gerry Adams, for example. But politicians with considered principles who do not simply bend to the wind of public opinion but who are prepared to argue their case calmly and courteously – then yes, we certainly need more of them. Nick Clegg is a conundrum in this respect: he has shown immense courage and integrity in the face of unjustified levels of hostility from the public, but so often he has failed to fight for the liberal principles that the party activists have a right to expect that he would take a lead in supporting.

  • Tonyhill

    I’m no Tory, but putting Thatcher alongside Gerry Adams, Galloway, Paisley etc as a politician without principles is just plain wrong. Praising Nick Clegg as having ” immense courage and integrity” is even worse. Thatcher was loved by large parts of the population – and hated by some – for sticking to her principles and doing what she truely believed in. Outside the LibDems nobody has a clue what Nick Clegg believes in, but very few think of him has having principles.

  • Malc – perhaps the distinction I was trying to make didn’t come across clearly enough: conviction politicians, to me, are people who are certain that they are right in what they believe and have no truck with alternative views (I thought Benn would be the controversial one in that list!). We’ll have to disagree about Clegg – I’m no fan as anyone who has read my comments over the years will know – but I do admire his grace under fire. As an apostle for Liberal principles – by and large, no.

  • I wonder how easy it would be for a Lib Dem politician to try to mould the party (let alone the electorate) to their way of thinking – not only because of the diversity of views but also because the party sets policy to a greater exent than the other parties.

  • I do not want our laws to be made by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. I want the decisions to be made by elected politicians who are accountable to voters in this country. I want us to have control of our borders. I do not want to remain in a club whose raison d’etre is to create the Country of Europe with total political and economic integration.

    Those who wish to remain in the EU are presumed to be federalists and should own up to that ambition.

  • tonyhill,
    Your list of conviction politicians may get all sorts of reactions.   
    I thought you had gathered together a list of very different people.
    For example, Gerry Adams has been remarkably pragmatic over the last 45 years.  Not really a conviction politician at all.   The transformation of Sinn Fein over the last 22 years to become the most popular political party in the Republic  of Ireland is remarkable.   
    Through the prism of mainstream UK media distortion it was never easy  to get a clear picture of any politician from Northern Ireland.  
    By way on contrast the recent BBC TV documentary by Peter Taylor – screened in September – entitled “Who won the war?” was fascinating and informative.
    See — 
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04jy8hf

  • Adam Robertson 15th Dec '14 - 10:23pm

    I have to agree with Stephen’s comment when he says the following, ‘Without making a party political point; it is telling that amongst senior politicians, only Nick Clegg and the LibDems seem prepared to take a principled stand on another key issue facing the country today: the EU.’ He is right to say this because we are sticking to what we believe in regarding the European Union.

    Despite losing all our European Parliamentary Seats, except Catherine Bearder’s, I still think Nick Clegg, was right to debate Nigel Farage, on the issue of the EU. I firmly believe that we are better IN, the European Union, than OUT of it. As the Tonight Programme, showed migrants from the EU, contribute more than they take out of our economy. We should be proud that our party, stands up for allowing the free movement of people.

    I read John Tilley’s first comment with interest and I think he is simply naive in some of his analysis, he has provided for us. I agree with him, that Ken Clarke has been pro-EU and has indeed principled on the issue. However, his party has not always been principled – didn’t David Cameron, win the Conservative Leadership Contest, by saying that he would withdraw, the Conservatives, from the EPP-ED group to the ECR group. This has actually seen Britain in a far less powerful player within the European Scene, as Cameron has no longer has much influence with Angela Merkel.

    John Tilley, then mentions the Labour Party, and some of their politicans. I suggest that John, reads Roger Liddle’s book of Britain and the Drama of EU Integration. I say this because he accepts that New Labour failed to translate the optimism, it had from the 1997 General Election landslide to transferring it to making Britain’s relationship with the EU, a more positive one. Basically, the Labour Party, in essence, used the fact that it was pro-European to say it was ready to be a social democratic government, which accepted the market economy. New Labour used it for domestic effects, rather than to remold the relationship between the UK and the EU. Even Roger Liddle admits that New Labour failed on this.

  • The issue for me with is conviction politics dead is that people are more able to look at the Internet now and decide if your conviction is their conviction. Prior to the Internet many would believe blue was red if you told us so now if your conviction does not stand up to scrutiny then voters may well let you slip out of office.

  • Adam, On the other hand, I think any party that is so desperate as to bet everything on a forlorn debate with a populist like Nigel Farage is either arrogant or stupid beyond belief. It may make us feel good that we are right on Europe and tell everyone, but losing Lib Dems across whole swathes of the country shows a total lack of understanding or sympathy for all those people who now have no Lib Dem representation at any level in their town, city or village. We have certainly not made the free movement of people across Europe stronger, but by totally overestimating our influence have actually driven millions of voters into UKIP’s arms and made it weaker. That surely takes incompetence to a new level.

  • Eddie Sammon 16th Dec '14 - 7:00am

    Adam Robertson, I might very well move to the continent, so there’s not going to be a lot of voters more sympathetic to the EU than me, but ultimately I want what is right and I don’t see why a bunch of legal documents called the EU deserves supreme loyalty.

    The campaign was full of spin and said to the public “if you want someone to scrutinise the EU you’ll have to vote for someone else”, which they did.

    Best wishes

  • Adam Robertson 15th Dec ’14 – 10:23pm

    I agree with your comments on the failures of the Blair/Brown years vis a vis Europe. I was merely providing a list of people who had spoken out on Europe to answer the point in the original article that Clegg was the only person to do so. My list was not intended as a list of people I approve of, or endorse.
    Not sure if I was being naive, but you are better able to form an opinion on that I guess.

    I have met Roger Liddle and possibly because of that I have not bought any of his books. He certainly could not be described as a “conviction politician”. Is he now on his third political party or his fourth ?

    The failures of New Labour on Europe mainly at the hands of Gordon Brown may well be judged by future historians to have been a tragic turning point for the UK. As you say the constant playing to the domestic audience (aping Thatcher) was foolish in the extreme. Unfortunately I have seen that sort of approach from ministers of all governments and all parties over the last thirty years. I saw Clegg doing precisely that at Prime Minister’s Questions only last week, where he was obviously so pleased with the cheers he was getting from Conservative MPs that he could not resist reminding them of the slightly Euro-sceptic pamphlet which he wrote a few years ago.

  • SIMON BANKS 17th Dec '14 - 6:20pm

    My namesake believes Nigel Falange has convictions! I’d mistook them for things he said to win votes. Actually, as he’s an intelligent and not totally uncaring man I’m sure he does have convictions and reportedly in conversation he’s admitted to some at variance with what he peddles.

    But of course it’s possible for hateful views to be conviction politics. Hitler, despite various half-truths and lies, was indeed a conviction politician and so was the much more personally decent Jefferson Davies, the Confederate States of America’s one President. I believe Douglas Carswell is a conviction politician – I just profoundly disagree with him (though less than with Hitler or even Davies). Where my namesake has a point is that the trimming by all three main established party political leaders, though not all politicians in their parties, has opened an opportunity for a movement of disgust and so-called plain speaking, for UKIP in England and the SNP in Scotland, oddly.

    A Liberal conviction politician may get involved in the detail of rational and fair immigration policy, but cannot become anti-immigration. “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

  • Simon Banks
    What happens if immigration reduces the income of the un and semi-skilled people who earn average and below average wages? What happens if immigrants are offered social housing over Britons?What happens if immigrants children increase class sizes and make teaching more difficult, particularly in poorer parts of the country?

    Surely any political action should ask the question “Cui Bono ” and if the answer is that those on average and below average incomes and those living in social housing are disadvantaged , how is this Liberal ? The road to hell is paved with good intentions. An example where the poor are disadvantaged the the most is crime- they are likely to live in high crime areas, pay high levels of insurance and with large excesses, live in homes with poor security and items which are stolen represent a much percentage of their wealth, than for those with above average salaries. As 1 in 7 criminals are foreign , the people of Briton who are likely to suffer the most are the poor, not those living in suburban areas, with locks on their double glazed windows and doors plus burglar alarms.

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