Opinion: pots and kettles – names and games and a journey towards political maturity

Michael Collins, a lecturer in twentieth century British history at UCL, has predicted at Open Democracy–Tuition fees just the beginning of Lib Dem troubles that the “SDP contingent” in the Liberal Democrats faces an existential battle with “coalition Liberals” over the future of the party.

Collins’ fantasy Lib Dem politics isn’t very convincing but there are a growing number of matching accounts, which mirror his portrayal of Liberal Democrat division, include accusations of unprincipled behaviour and go on to predict the party’s demise. It seems reasonable to respond to Collins’ account of ‘Lib Dem troubles’ with a little history and some reflections on how the party will manage differences over policy on university fees.

In April 1997 Tony Blair told the London Evening Standard that his party had no plans to introduce tuition fees. As we all know he went on to do precisely that. Challenged about the contradiction the Labour leader explained that he had always made it clear that his party would abide by the recommendations of the Dearing committee, which – as he pointed out – had been set up by a Conservative government. Sound familiar?

All those who follow British politics closely know that a few years later Mr. Blair and his ministerial colleagues once again found themselves trapped between a rock and a hard place; much as Liberal Democrats serving in the coalition government have done. Despite this the Labour party’s 2001 general election manifesto made an unequivocal promise: “We will not introduce top-up fees and have legislated to prevent them”.

Mr. Johnson, now the Labour Shadow Chancellor, Higher Education minister in 2004, was asked to explain precisely why the Labour government, of which he was a part, had decided, despite its manifesto promise, to support the introduction of higher university fees. He explained that allowing universities to raise fees to £3,000 a year did not mean Labour had broken its election promise. Increasing the scope for universities to charge higher fees meant, he explained, Labour supported variable fees (not top-ups fees). Variable fees were quite different from top-up fees, because a cap existed on what universities could charge. Tony Blair had another argument: higher fees had not been and would not be introduced during the period covered by Labour’s 2001 manifesto. Come the next general election all bets were off; the implication was clear: electors should always read between the lines of Labour party manifestos.

When the last Labour government asked Lord Browne to prepare a report on university funding, in the autumn of 2009, it must have been apparent to cabinet ministers what kind of invitation was being issued and accepted. The content of Lord Browne’s report could hardly have come as a surprise to any of them; the delivery date –rather than Browne’s recommendations– was Labour’s principal concern.

The Browne report, commissioned by another Brown, is a fine example of a political mine; something set to be delivered – should that be ‘go off’? – when a new government has entered office. In this regard Liberal Democrat leaders, unlike their Labour and Conservative counterparts, do seem to have been poorly prepared for government. It has been plain to see how awkward and uncomfortable they have been when attempting to parse manifesto commitments and redirect attention to the mine layers who preceded them in office. Is that evidence of naiveté or integrity? I believe it is evidence of both.

While Michael Collins is undoubtedly correct to suggest that Liberal Democrat parliamentarians are deeply divided (and may become more so) – because of a stark conflict between their election promise and the coalition agreement on university fees policy – the difficulties Liberal Democrat MPs and ministers are facing are far from unprecedented. Where Michael Collins is most definitely wrong, and demonstrates he does not know or understand the Liberal Democrats, is in suggesting that the party’s conscience on the issue of university fees will be most stoutly defended by what he labels ‘the SDP contingent’ and easily betrayed by those whom he labels ‘coalition Liberals’.

Collins’ closing image, in his critique of a party he insists is “facing a crisis of trust”, is of a plane being flown to disaster. He invites somebody, anybody – from amongst the Liberal Democrats – to wrest the controls away from pilot Clegg and co-pilots Cable and Huhne. The airborne struggle he urges might make a good storyboard for a Hollywood movie. It would be a lousy strategy for members of any political party.

Liberal Democrats who want to challenge and change government policy know that their best prospect of doing so depends on having their feet firmly planted on the ground. No one who has followed the political careers of pilot Clegg and co-pilot Cable can doubt that both are committed, to continue with Michael Collins’ imagery, to keeping their airline flying. Nick Clegg and Vince Cable both understand that they must listen carefully to those who travel regularly with them. They know how important it is to convince regular flyers that they have made the correct choice for the journeys they want to make together.

If they or a majority of the parliamentary party fail to vote against a motion to implement Browne’s key recommendation, to uncap university fees, there can be little doubt that they will invite the charge of hypocrisy. However, if the whole of the parliamentary party votes to oppose Browne it will, inevitably, face other charges, not least charges of irresponsibility and duplicity. Finding yourself between a rock and a hard place, or, as some might prefer to put it, the devil and the deep blue sea, is – sad to say – part and parcel of political life in a liberal democracy and, most especially, life in government. However, acknowledging conflict and the dilemmas party leaders face in office shouldn’t prove fatal to the party if it does so honestly and without great rancour amongst its parliamentarians and members.

Frequent flyers are far too sensible to try and break into the cockpit and risk bringing down the plane they are travelling on. However, keeping an airline in business depends on its ability to retain its best customers, its most frequent flyers. Liberal Democrats know there is a high premium on communicating clearly with one another and with the public, especially during periods of exceptional turbulence. Pilots, cabin and ground crews, regular and prospective flyers on LD airlines are well aware that the worst thing they could do is to leave the skies clear for rivals who have performed worst and done spectacularly badly in managing the finances of the higher education system.

Ed Randall, a Liberal Democrat councillor in the London Borough of Greenwich from 1982 to 1998, edited the Dictionary of Liberal Thought jointly with Duncan Brack. Ed lectures on Politics and Risk at Goldsmiths University of London and is the author of Food, Risk and Politics, published by Manchester University Press in 2009.

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  • “Frequent flyers are far too sensible to try and break into the cockpit and risk bringing down the plane they are travelling on.”

    There may be a case if they believe the plane is being hi-jacked.

    “However, keeping an airline in business depends on its ability to retain its best customers, its most frequent flyers.”

    You may wish to appease the 60,000 membership, but it was 6,800,000 people who voted for Lib Dem policies and pledges at the last election.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 17th Oct '10 - 1:46pm

    So what does all that boil down to – you think you’ll get away with it?

  • Michael Collins doesn’t seem to be much of a ‘historian’. He should know that, if anything, the Liberals were tot the left of the SDP when they merged. In fact I think it is mainly the ex-SDP brigade who have become orange bookites.

  • The airline analogy isn’t the only trite thing about this thread. However, to continue it: don’t you think that when you are flying into a hurricane it’s advisable to change course?

  • Alex Sabine 17th Oct '10 - 3:10pm

    A very sensible article. But I would emphasise that if the destination of the flight is “political maturity”, we must get there – and persuade the frequent fliers that we need to get there and then remain there, not merely buy their acquiescence through concessions elsewhere.

    It’s no good going part of the way under the exigencies of coalition government and then reverting to our old familiar habits, which Ed charitably describes as naivete but which others will call opportunism. Apart from anything else, the oppositional posture won’t wash with the public next time.

    Instead we should use our experience in government to give our policy-making and internal debates a sharper focus on credibility, the need to weigh up competing priorities, and to distinguish between ends and means.

    That was what Vince’s rehetoric of “tough choices” always implied, but we didn’t go far enough in this direction in the 2005-10 Parliament and left too many ticking time-bombs that are detonating now that we are in the unexpected position of being in government.

    (Of course, as I’ve argued before, all three main parties were guilty of conducting a sham debate about the deficit during the election campaign following Labour’s decision to duck the spending review last autumn. We went slightly further than the other two parties in identifying specific cuts, although there was still a massive gap that needed to be filled.

    So, for example, while our plans to scrap tuition fees were, on paper, properly costed at £1.8bn per year by the end of the Parliament, they took no account of the fact that the university budget was never going to be insulated from cuts – the Business Department was already factoring in big cuts in HE funding, which meant higher fees or a much larger public subsidy would be required if university income was to be broadly maintained.)

  • A quick response to those who have posted comments:

    First up there is Richard M.

    Richard my aim isn’t to appease anyone. Many of the party members I know are mad as hell at the suggestion that the coalition government will simply accept Browne without amendment. And I can understand why. In fact I believe, based on my knowledge of Liberal Democrat party members, that they are quite representative of Lib Dem voters. Unless the party’s parliamentarians can persuade the party’s members about the approach of their colleagues in government to university funding and fees they have little prospect of persuading anyone else. It makes great sense for the leaders of a political party to invest a considerable amount of time and effort in talking to and listening to the party’s membership; the more successfully they are able to do that the better their prospects are of communicating successfully with the electorate as a whole.

    Anthony Aloysius St.

    Anthony asks if it all boils down to the belief that it is possible to get away with breaking a promise. While my piece suggests that the Lib Dem’s predecessors in office may have calculated quite specifically on being able to do that I don’t think any rational Liberal Democrat could reasonably come to the conclusion that promises don’t count for the party. One of the party’s strengths has been the public’s willingness to believe that its leaders, most notably Vince Cable, were more likely to mean what they said (and stick by it in the unlikely event of getting into office). The loss of that reputation is a very serious matter for a party that cannot rely on a tribal loyalties/allegiances. The party’s leaders aren’t political Houdinis so they have to address those who call them hypocritical as directly and honestly (yes – honestly) as they can.

    The charge of opportunism is extremely difficult to rebut. In an interesting piece in today’s Observer Andrew Rawnsley reviews each of the arguments that Lib Dem cabinet members may care to/have actually advanced and finds contradictions in Lib Dem policy making that have been around for some time. I don’t dispute that Rawnsley has a point.

    Rob – you observe that Michael Collins “doesn’t seem to be much of a historian”. When it comes to the Liberal Democrats I have to agree: he hasn’t much of a grasp of the party’s history or the current state of party opinion. Perhaps we should both encourage him to read Lib Dem Voice regularly. Unfortunately his ill-informed ‘analysis’ – I refer to it as “fantasy Lib Dem politics” in my piece – isn’t the slightest bit unusual. I’ve taken the time to respond to him directly at Open Democracy, because I believe that it is vital for Liberal Democrat members to do what they can to raise the general level of discussion about party dynamics and party policy in the UK.

    Michael’s ‘contemporary historian’s narrative’ is focused on personalities and the possibility/likelihood of party fracture. What is much more interesting to me is the extent to which a party’s membership can dissent from its leadership, try to improve party/government policy, and, at the same time, avoid diminishing the scope for intelligent political debate and more genuinely open and productive party competition in the UK. That is why I finished off my piece in the way I did.

    MacK describes the airline analogy as trite. It is trite. But it is the analogy used by a young contemporary historian at one of Britain’s top universities and Michael Collins’ style is representative of the way in which our politics is covered by the UK media.

    I cannot help observing that MacK continues with the trite analogy in any case, just as I did. However, I think I should point out that the party isn’t headed into a hurricane. The party set its course for the hurricane as soon as it signed up to the coalition agreement, knowing – as it did – that the Browne report on university finance was due in the autumn. The Liberal Democrats have flown right into the storm, and the flight started quite some time ago. However, there is some scope for a course correction but the party – if it is represented by a plane – is currently over open ocean and, as I suspect, Lady Macbeth isn’t too far away.

    Alex, I agree. I think I was being more than a little charitable in posing my question (about naiveté and integrity) in the way I did. You have added ‘opportunism’ and others could, with some justification, have added stupidity. Parliamentarians who signed a pledge, which many of them (Anthony’s point?) did not expect they would ever have to redeem, are struggling to reconcile what must appear, to our political opponents (and many many of our members and voters), to be irreconcilable.

    I do not see how the parliamentary party can avoid a highly embarrassing division in the voting lobbies on university fees but I do, nevertheless, believe that it is possible for the Coalition to improve on Browne and to show that Liberal Democrats, in government and in power, can make a difference to the way in which, as you put it, “university budget[s which were never going ] to be insulated from cuts” can be managed at a time when there are stark choices between “higher fees [and] much larger public subsid[ies]” if university income and levels of student participation are to be maintained.


  • david lawson 17th Oct '10 - 5:59pm

    “However, if the whole of the parliamentary party votes to oppose Browne it will, inevitably, face other charges, not least charges of irresponsibility and duplicity”

    It can’t be irresponsible. The leadership made a point at last year’s conference of explaining how terrible the budget cuts would have to be and after that – some months after – explained very carefully how their values meant that they could fund higher education because of the high importance we attach to education.

    How can it duplicitous to do what you publicly said that you would. Voters – rightly – won’t buy that topsy turvy logic. The only duplicity here is on those who do not oppose higher fees. At the very least all, including ministers, must stick to the implied deal in the coalition agreement – which the party approved – to abstain.

    It is also just appalling politics. The Tories have protected the NHS and foreign aid from cuts. Would Cameron walk away from those commitments because of the state of finances? No.

    The unknown extent of the deficit – allegedly justifying the change in policy – is exactly equivalent to the value of Lib Dem political credibility. Remarkable coincidence.

  • David, as you point out the coalition agreement committed the party to limit its opposition to abstaining in parliament in the event of disagreement over university funding/tuition fees policy. Abstention, as you go on to say is – in your own view – “the very least [that] all [Liberal Democrat parliamentarians] must stick to…”.

    So voting against coalition government policy is not what all those parliamentarians who gave their support to coalition agreement committed themselves to doing if the tuition fees policy of the coalition government goes – as most expect it to – against the Liberal Democrats party policy. They/we may have been very foolish, naive (and there are other words, such as stupid that you could use to describe it) but it would, in the event of a disagreement between the parties in the coalition, be widely viewed as irresponsible and duplicitous for Liberal Democrats in parliament to vote against the coalition government’s policy, even if it entailed an increase in tuition fees.

    That is precisely why parliamentarians find themselves between a rock and a hard place. You may not like charges of duplicity and irresponsibility (and I can understand why) but it is entirely sensible and reasonable – as I do in the piece I have written for LD Voice – to anticipate precisely those charges if Liberal Democrat ministers, not just Liberal Democrat back bench MPs, go further than abstention and vote against coalition government policy.

    The logic isn’t topsy turvy, the pledges given by individual MPs, the commitment given in the party election manifesto and the undertaking contained in the coalition agreement, to abstain in the event of disagreement, are contradictory.

  • @Ed Randall

    Thanks for your reply.

    Compared to the other two main parties Lib Dems are low in membership, and yet at the 2010 election were high in votes. I would suggest the overwhelmining majority that voted Lib Dem did not read the Lib Dem manifesto: their vote was based on what they saw on television – particularly the debates. (Incidentally, there’s a big difference between Lib Dem voters and those that voted Lib Dem.) If you concentrate purely on your “frequent flyers” or “best customers,” you’ll lose whatever voter support you’ve got left. The time to hold on to that support is NOW. If you miss the opportunity, you’ll go back to core support – and it will be a very steep uphill task to re-build. This is not a time to be ‘explaining-and-persuading’ – this is a time for listening! Lib Dem leadership should be straining their ears to pick-up what those who voted LibDem last May are expressing.

    At the last election, Lib Dems were able to take advantage of Gordon Brown’s poor leadership and the Tories poor concealment of Osborne’s knife. Lib Dems asked for a chance – and were given a chance. LibDem now has a brief window of opportunity. Those who gave Lib Dems the chance in May are watching.

  • David Allen 17th Oct '10 - 7:34pm
  • “…if the whole of the parliamentary party votes to oppose Browne it will, inevitably, face other charges, not least charges of irresponsibility and duplicity…” I can hardly believe this stuff. How can it possibly be duplicitous to act in an entirely honest and principled fashion. And “….Finding yourself between a rock and a hard place…” These top LibDem people did not suddenly ‘find’ themselves in this situation. It was 100% self-inflicted. They chose to prop up the Tory party. They chose to make promises – promises they freely chose not to honour. They, like the rest of the country knew broadly the deficit numbers, and they chose to promise they would reduce it (the deficit) gradually. They chose to renege on that policy. “….Nick Clegg and Vince Cable both understand that they must listen carefully to those who travel regularly with them.” Utterly wrong. Nick and Vince need to learn that they must listen carefully to those who do not travel regularly with them, if they are to gain power. You LibDems seem not to have the slightest notion of the trouble you are in. Now, I will make a promise of my own that there is no chance of me reneging upon, it is this. I promise (as a non-regulary ‘passenger’) that I will never be voting Liberal Democrat again. I am not a Labour troll.

  • Peter Chivall 17th Oct '10 - 8:22pm

    Sadly, I think LibDem candidates who signed the NUS fees pledge in April were foolish to do so, and the LibDem manifesto was too bald in its language. I don’t think any of our main ‘university’ seats were at risk if we had qualified our intentions, at least in the short term. Whoever formed the Government after the General Election, Browne was bound to propose a large increase – the Deficit has just made that harder to avoid. Both Labour and the Tories would have had to agree to substantial increases in fees. Given that a ‘hung’ Parliament was odds-on, our leaders and candidates should have seen this ‘elephant trap’ a long way off.
    It was noticeable that Labour backbenchers focussed all their bile on LibDem MPs after Vince Cable’s statement – presumably to deflect attention from the fact that they would have approved at least 80% of Browne, just as Labour were planning 80% of the likely cuts we will hear of on Wednesday (and had already slashed £1billion plus from University research in 2009/10).

  • david lawson 17th Oct '10 - 9:09pm

    Ed, I see your point although it would have force for me only if government policy reflected party policy just a little.

    Can I ask if we could look at this from the other perspective – not whether to oppose but whether to support.

    You see the most bizarre thing is to watch Nick Clegg suggesting that MPs could vote for this (let alone should). Why possibly would he go beyond what the coalition agreement says – he negotiated it. Your pitch is that MPs are stuck with the coalition agreement as one half of the rock and a hard place. But that is not the leaderships position. They want to go beyond that agreement and actively support what yesteday they condemned.

    It won’t wash. It won’t wash as a single issue. Too many people are losing too much. It won’t wash for the party which is losing what little identity voters understood it to have.

  • So, Peter Chivall, a political party needs to calibrate its principles according to predictions of what will happen, not according to trying to “make the weather”. That’s like going down the bookies, not behaving as a democratic politician!

  • “My eight-year-old ought to be able to work this out – you shouldn’t start slamming on the brakes when the economy is barely growing. If you do that you create more joblessness, you create heavier costs on the state, the deficit goes up even further and the pain with dealing with it is even greater. So it is completely irrational.”
    (Nick Clegg, 1 May 2010)

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