Roy was right – and so was Nick

Nick Clegg’s excellent book, Politics: Between the Extremes, released in September, provides a useful perspective on the new parameters which seem to define British politics. As became clear in 2016, politics is not just a battle between right and left or statist versus anti-statist perspectives any more, but between open versus closed economies and Brexit versus Remain.

But I think Clegg’s analysis would have benefited from exploring more deeply how old and therefore un-random these changes are.  Specifically, Clegg’s Twelfth Chapter Was Roy Right? suggests Roy Jenkins– who died in 2003 and in the 1980s was the leading political and intellectual force behind the SDP and Lib Dems– would not have agreed with his view of cross-party cooperation, or that the only division in politics is between left and right.

There is, in fact, plenty of evidence to suggest that Jenkins would have shared Clegg’s analysis. Indeed, I think Jenkins would have likely been his strongest supporter in the Coalition years and would have spoken against the criticisms made of Clegg, implicitly in his name, principally by Lord Oakeshott, Jenkins’ former Special Adviser, who see the Liberal Democrats as effectively a subsidiary of the wider left.

Whilst Clegg is right to acknowledge the logic that runs from Oakeshott’s bipolar view, he is not correct to believe Jenkins would have shared it: in fact, he moved away from it.

Jenkins gave up on Labour to create the SDP and he wished to cooperate with them in the 1990s in order to bring in voting reform and break it up.  Just before he did, his 1979 BBC Dimbleby lecture made plain his view that liberalism could no longer be defended in a two party model moulded by the “tyranny” of first past the post voting and a “tight skin…of old labels which have become increasingly irrelevant”. His text was written partly out of guilt for not doing more to help Labour moderates like Barbara Castle in the decade before, and partly as a warning to the Conservative left (its first draft was shared, notably, with his closest political friend and father of his God-Child, Tory MP Ian Gilmour).

Gilmour was a crucial ally of Jenkins in the 1967 Bill which decriminalised homosexuality and the 1975 “Remain” campaign. Gilmour warned Thatcher presciently in 1977 in Inside Right of the dangers for the liberal-right of blind tribalism, and like Jenkins, he sensed that though left-right politics was the most important signpost in politics, it should no longer be its Chinese Wall. Jenkins, then President of the European Commission challenged British exceptionalism compared to the rest of Europe. As became gradually clearer between 1979 and 2016, the UK can now be reached by aeroplane and is no longer an island and never can be again –and as Jenkins pointed out, Britain had evolved to become less “deferential” and more European, whilst its politics had “drawn too tight for effective national performance”.

For Jenkins, the fault of the two-party left-right structure was that the liberal values within their memberships had no focus, and was instead displaced with excessive partisan rage about hobgoblins of the past.

When the Chinese Wall of two-party politics did collapse in 1975, just as it briefly did in 2016, moderates in the big two parties found they had a lot in common and needed to cooperate more for their mutual benefit. As Jenkins reflected in 1991: With the party system “loosening…things were never quite the same for Labour after June 1975”. The 1975 referendum campaign which he chaired, showed that it was as much about what Jenkins learned about the Tory party as the Labour party, which shaped his decision to try to reorganise the centre-left, but the whole “radical centre”.

Jenkins’ words could serve, today, as guidance for Cameroonians and Blairites, whose projects foundered on the idea that Britain had not changed and only left-right distinctions had any democratic relevance, and saw openness as a valuable but less important side-project. For years, both appeased populists like Len McCluskey and Daniel Hannan, rather than looking to other parties as Clegg had. If more of them had fought as hard and smart as Clegg and Jenkins, British politics (and its economy) would be stronger today.

The ideas and actions of some Blairites and Cameroonians, like Jenkins in the first part of his career, are a reminder of the potential of the moderate wings of the Tory party and Labour parties. But Jenkins’ displacement theory explains why these liberal-minded people weigh less in their two parties than their parts: the structure traps them fighting irrelevant wars against the “hobgoblins” of trade unionism and class, and isolated in two minorities with “incompatible people, and still more important, incompatible philosophies.”

But Jenkins’ words from 1979 leave an awkward message to Liberal Democrats, too. Whilst politics is not just about left and right, it remains a crucial divider: as he said even before the SDP a

… break out might succeed…but does not invalidate the argument that the present system which militates too much against a shift in the pattern, which makes the moderates too much the prisoners of the extremists.

Jenkins’ conception of a new political mould logically aligns with a four party model which Clegg would recognise well from his shared experience of northern Europe and the European Commission: a Dutch-style split between the liberal right of (VVD) and the liberal left (D66). In the meantime, ironically, Lib Dems have an identity problem because we have too much political choice, not too little as is often said.

Realignment, of course, is not just logistically tricky but emotionally problematic for people in all parties – including, sometimes, ourselves – who are too easily haunted by “hobgoblins of the past”. We, of course, did a lot between 2010-15, but the cost of inaction will be clearer to most like-minded people in other parties after 2016 too, and sooner or later “liberals” or “remainers” will hopefully now realise they need to organise under some new structure, even if it is not some single entity. However radical, the concept is not new and it was this kind of pluralism that protected Britain from the Tory Brexit crowd during the successful Coalition years, and it remains the Liberal Democrats’ founding and enduring idea: Roy was right, and so was Nick.

* Douglas Oliver is secretary of the Liberal Democrat History Group and is based in London.

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  • “Oakeshott’s bipolar view” : Sorry you felt able to use that term. Not funny for a party claiming the moral high ground on mental health.

    That said, dropping from 50 plus seats to 8 is enough empirical evidence of the general public’s view on the matter – and it’s enough to induce a certain amount of distress amongst those like myself who have supported the party since the 1960’s.

  • Bill le Breton 14th Jan '17 - 11:34am

    It is helpful to analyse the performance of politicians in terms of their effectiveness as plumbers and poets.

    Clegg easily fails the Safety Test as a plumber. He failed to change the political system when he had access to power (and probably set reform back many years). He never properly understood the electoral appeal of the Liberal Democrats and so smashed them as a electoral force.

    The Party whose leadership he captured was full of extremely proficient plumbers who had a steady record of electoral progress over forty years and who had changed the way local government operated in 150 or more local authorities and had helped create one new Parliament and one national assembly. Very few of these plumbers were used when the Party had the chance to reform the Westminster political system in 2010.

    And his poetry was doggerel, really. The mush of the centre. To compare his poetical sense to that of Roy Jenkins’ is sentimental rubbish.

    Here is a quote from the Limehouse declaration: “We do not believe the fight for the ideals we share and for the recovery of our country should be limited only to politicians. It will need the support of men and women in all parts of our society.
    The council (of Social Democracy) will represent a coming together of several streams: politicians who recognise that the drift towards extremism in the Labour Party is not compatible with the democratic traditions of the party they joined and those from outside politics who believe that the country cannot be saved without changing the sterile and rigid framework into which the British political system has increasingly fallen in the last two decades.
    We do not believe in the politics of an inert centre merely representing the lowest common denominator between two extremes.”

    Matthew Oakshott, who was there at the time and who rushed off to the Savoy to photo copy the declaration (!!!) knew that Clegg’s ham-fisted plumbery was going to lead to electoral disaster. So would have Jenkins: the poetry comes from the practice of plumbing. The poetry makes the attention to plumbing more urgent.

  • That’s a very educational piece Mr Oliver, and thanks for it!

    I’m afraid I am one of those who do indeed view the Lib Dems as `a subsidiary of the broader left` (although I wouldn’t have quite put it in quite that way) and regard Clegg’s neo-Blairite brand of centrism (which he seems to be underscoring with the book that you ate reviewing) as a negative legacy which is hampering what should, in effect, be the relaunch of the party.

    That last but one paragraph about the Dutch four party system is very interesting indeed. The shape of things to come?

    (By the way: I have no objection to the use of the term `bipolar` in this context. We all know what you meant, and I understand that, anyway, the same term is used in physics and not just psychiatry. This type of politically correct squeamishness about language – the use of `mind shower` instead of `brainstorm`being another such example (although one that, thankfully, never took off) -does more harm than good, I believe).

  • David Evershed 14th Jan '17 - 12:14pm

    Agreed that Liberals should not be seen as a subsidiary party of Labour or the left wing.

    Liberals belief in the economic benefit of open markets and trade are not popular with all left (or right) wing parties. For example, neither right or left wing parties in France seem to favour open markets and are protectionist by nature.

    So Liberals should be careful not to become Labour Lite and abandon their liberal economic inclinations. If Lib Dems are only social liberals and not also economic liberals then we become Labour Lite or even a full subsidiary of the Labour party.

    Lib Dems have to remain distinctly liberal to be meaningful.

  • @David Raw
    The word “bipolar” has a meaning that has nothing to do with mental illness and it is clear that the OP was using that meaning here. See definition 1 :-

  • “the criticisms made of Clegg, implicitly in his name, principally by Lord Oakeshott, Jenkins’ former Special Adviser, who see the Liberal Democrats as effectively a subsidiary of the wider left.”

    This is rather pejorative and unnecessary. While discussion of politics in ‘left-right’ terms is hardly useful these days (since it means such significantly different things to different people) Matthew Oakshott never thought of Lib Dems as any kind of ‘subsidiary’. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that anyone of the contrary view was doing too much thinking at all.

  • re: “Oakeshott’s bipolar view”

    David Raw makes an interesting and important point. But what perhaps is also worth reviewing is given our greater understanding of bipolar disorders, whether “bipolar view” actually convey’s anything meaningful in this context; certainly I’m not sure what interpretation I should be placing on Douglas’s statement.

  • @ Edward c. If you ever have to cope with a relative suffering from bipolar disorder you might just be a bit more careful before you use the phrase…..

    “This type of politically correct squeamishness about language”

    I hope that you never have to.

  • Tony Dawson 14th Jan '17 - 1:26pm

    “Jenkins’ conception of a new political mould logically aligns with a four party model which Clegg would recognise well from his shared experience of northern Europe and the European Commission:”

    Such four party systems are totally impossible to function sensibly in a situation where you have First Past the Post voting (as UKIP have found to their cost) – and even a three party system falls down in FPTP (as seen in the 2015 UK GE) when the person meant to be leading the third party either thinks there is no USP or knows there is one but undermines it.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 14th Jan '17 - 2:34pm

    On style , or wording, bi-polar is better replaced by the modern usage , of binary.

    I do not think David Raw’s point was one of political correctness, that’s not his way particularly. I have many disagreements with him , style and substance , but political principle is more his bag , than political correctness.

    And I have known three people with the medical bi-polar , including the late great actor and an absolute national and individual treasure, Jeremy Brett, to know that sensitivity is a good thing on these things.

    On the substance of the article content , Douglas talks sense , but European comparisons lack much because of our lack in the UK wide general election , of PR.

    I was and am a huge admirer of Lord Jenkins. I took part in the wonderful celebration and examination of his life and work, organised by the ever diligent Duncan Brack and the Liberal Democrat History Group, at the House of Lords in the Summer, attended by Lord Steel.

    Jenkins was as is in the article , and I agree with it . He was much more well rounded than many say. As Home Secretary he was as tough as he was tender.There was definitely no mush about him. He was pragmatic and romantic, politically and personally.

    But he was not of or on the left. He , like me , was essentially in the radical centre and moderate centre left. Nick Clegg says he is , but I think he is more or less in the moderate centre and that’s that. Nothing wrong with it though . But it makes for the disagreements with him and disappointments in him.

    I do not think talk of four parties gets us anywhere, but I understand it and relate to it. We can all find much or more in common across party alliances on several issues, more than in our own at times.

    What is needed is the gravitas and humour , the bon vivant qualities of Jenkins , that were all about style in only a small degree , but substance far more !

  • Sue Sutherland 14th Jan '17 - 2:43pm

    I have just been reading Geoff Crocker’s excellent piece on Disability Benefits which has made me realise again what I find difficult about this kind of article. I DO NOT WANT TO BE MODERATE. I am outraged about what is happening to the weakest and poorest in our society because it deeply offends my Liberal integrity. I want to defeat this dreadful Tory government, Labour Blairites and Corbyn’s revolutionaries because they have all let down the people who needed their support and turned them to UKIP.
    We need a strong Liberal revival for these dangerous times, not a call to the centre. The Brexit vote should have told us that everything needs to change to keep our society united, open and tolerant because the poor and vulnerable have had enough.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 14th Jan '17 - 2:56pm


    I often agree with you openly on here. In this , as then. But your phraseology is in my view wrong though your desire right.

    I too want to defeat those forces and you should see my many comments on the disability issue even on that thread.

    The policies you correctly and frequently criticise are not of the centre.They are not of the centre- right . They are of the right.

    By not putting up enough of a fight against some such policies, or by pandering to them Nick Clegg partly , Tony Blair definitely , let down the decent , moderate centre ground .

    I am far more radical , and my views are far more in keeping with where you are at. But it is an insult to the views of decent leaders , the two mentioned , included, but especially those going back through history , such as Jenkins , Gatiskell, even Mcmillan or Major , to think the sort of wretched policies on disability I condemn from real experience and knowledge louder than many , have anything to do with the centre ground !

  • I think that Disability Benefit and most other benefits should be replaced by a Universal Basic Income. It is a fallacy to think it is about paying people to stay at home. New mothers would benefit enabling them to care for new infants. It would allow students to continue with their studies – good for society as a whole.This has been tried in several counties, notably Canada, and states. It has been shown to be a stepping stone to sustainable employment. Finally it is a way of ensuring that everyone can live with dignity.
    ( I am a member of the Liberal Democrat Party)

  • Sue Sutherland 14th Jan '17 - 8:28pm

    Hi Lorenzo
    We do seem to agree but, for me, as someone now in my 8th decade, since the late 70s the centre has moved to the right, to the detriment of the poorest and weakest in our society. For example no government since then has made sufficient investment in social housing. So, in order to get back to the sort of society I thought, as a young woman, we would have in my future, the centre has to move to the left. However, I have no desire for the sort of left wing stuff that Corbyn seems to have at his core. I could agree with some of his policies but truly dislike the Momentum side of his politics, so, for me the only answer to our problems is for our party to fight for the weak and helpless based on our Liberal beliefs (I was a member of the SDP) and return to the radicalism of the early 20th century Liberals who introduced the first redistributive budget in this country. I have always backed business development and wealth creation because without that we can afford nothing and believe that we must reward those efforts but use inherited wealth to fund the reforms we need to have a cohesive society. So this is why I say I don’t want to be a moderate centrist because we need the energy of radicalism to overcome the mores of the last 40 years.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 14th Jan '17 - 8:47pm


    Marcus Aurelius , ” All things in moderation , including moderation itself !”Three cheers to that !!!

  • I’m all for sensitivity on mental health but I think it is going a bit too far to say that it is “best to avoid” using a word in the sense that the OED cites as the primary definition.

    I see no reason whatsoever for the writer to apologise.

  • Sue Sutherland and Janet Tait: you speak for me today, and thank god there are people like you in the Lib Dems! (Ditto Adam Cain, on the language issue).

    The whole problem with the Centre is that it *doesn’t really exist* – insofar as it is a position which is forever determined by what the two other parties on the supposed extremes are doing. If one side decides to move the goal posts – as the Tories and the Right in general did throughout the 80s and 90s – then the `centre` has to upsticks and reposition itself in order to remain `the centre`. Then the party becomes more right or left and gets split down the middle.

    Without wishing to oversimplify, I think that this is precisely what happened with Nick Clegg. He forever banged on about being a centrist but at the same time – in keeping with the `neo-liberal` (or whatever you want to call it) trend instigated by the Tories – advocated economic policies that would have been inconceivable to a centrist just a decade earlier. As a result the party became somehting more like a centre-right one and many on the left of the party- from what I hear (it being before my time) – defected to the Greens.

    I’m hoping that with Tim Farron’s leadership that we can draw a line under all of that., and that we re-establish ourselves a a principled centre-left organisation informed by the convergence of liberal and social democratic verities.
    I’m a newbie, and that is why I joined.

  • Nick was right ? About what ! How lucky criticism of Cloggy was limited to one former special advisor and never spread to the wider electorate.

    Clegg was the most incompetent political leader in British political history. Where as Roy Jenkins devoted much of his life to political realignment, Clegg has entrenched the two party politics and reduced the voice of Liberalism to it’s lost level ever.

    The fantasy of the Clegg political model has been exposed in the real world, no amount of waffle from Clegg or his acolytes is going to change that.

  • Nigel Jones 15th Jan '17 - 2:34pm

    Glad to see Edward’s point as a new member. However, for me the key point regarding Clegg is the way he wrongly defined us as centre ground as well as not making clear our disagreement with Tory policies that we seemed to have to accept when in Coalition. As Sue says, the centre has moved right compared with the past, but we do not agree with certain socialist ideas and therefore cannot be described as left lite either.

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