The amber kickstart

The slough of despond which we find ourselves in comprises not just being severed from 49 parliamentary seats two years ago, but the backdrop to this: one where social democratic and liberal endeavours are losing their credibility throughout Western Europe. A well-timed response to the cultural aspect of this was posted last February calling for a `counter-narrative` of our own `myths and stories`. Here are some of my pointers at not letting the devil have all the best tunes.

To get some visceral appeal some have proposed that we embrace some kind of English patriotism, others that the call for `Freedom` should be our watchword. Richard Dawkins has opined that we rebrand ourselves as the` European party`. All of these ideas – as interesting as they are – strike me as a search for shortcuts. Yet, as Roland Barthes said  `The key to the treasure is the treasure`.

We only need to enhance what we are – a newish party with a left but non-authoritarian ethos  –and to do so with style.

Being non-conformist and rationalist type people, Liberal Democrats tend to spurn style as being pomp and circumstance. Thus along have come the trendy neo-righties – the Bo Jos and the Farages – who have been able to portray themselves as human and anti-pomposity. The liberal love of thinking aloud, of diversity and informality is just not coming across. Somehow we have to prove that being popular need not involve being populist.

Image-wise, when I think of Corbyn’s Labour I behold a `Citizen Smith` archetype: which all too many of them seem happy to live up to. The Tories meanwhile, live-in-the-real world, mate – their `real world` – and are welcome to stay there. As for the Lib Dems I get a nebulous picture of a well meaning gent….in sandals with socks.

More lately though  -thank you Express/Mail! –we have been cast as Remaniacs chucking cold water over the Brextrick daydream. This lends us an edge beyond being the `Nice Party` – which we should welcome.

We have some sound bites, but we could do with a credo. A while back the Communist Party of Britain was selling mugs with the slogan `Doubt Everything` on them. Marx said that once, but I wish we had. One that sticks in my mind, from a while back, is `Freedom for All, not a Free for All` – but suggestions on a postcard.

A few cultural icons would not go amiss either. The Tories and UKIP have claimed the body of Churchill, and despite the ironies of this, they are welcome to him. There is, however, a personage who is an intrinsic part of British culture, and a Liberal Party man: Charles Dickens. And while we are talking about great British writers: did not Martin Amis once endorse us? Can we not get him back?

The statist left have been masters of conveying their historical lineage. Who does not associate the Labour Party with 1945 (and thereby the National Health Service)? We Lib Dems do sometimes mutter about 1906 – that Liberal landslide that ushered in the first old age pensions – but this is not embroidered into our conversation. Lloyd George may be still conjured up in parts of Wales, but has been forgotten about elsewhere.

Last but not least: consider our party colour. (Should anyone doubt the significance of colour to political ideas then they need to remember just what a masterstroke the Ecologists’ adoption of the colour Green was). Our own colour, amber, is a cheering and vivid one: the hue of embers, of mornings, and…getting geared up to Go.

`Style`, said Rachael Zoe, `is a way to say who you are without having to speak`.

Are you ready for the amber kick-start?

* Edward Crabtree is a Lib Dem member who lives and works in Russia.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Lorenzo Cherin 9th Mar '17 - 2:03pm


    Very interesting stuff, well put indeed.

    I am not sure you are correct on the way you doubt that style goes with being Liberal, that would be true if you perceive it thus. I think you mean fashion. Style is one’s personal choice or taste, fashion imposed by convention.Quentin Crisp had style , but was not fashionable , until very old , and with a little help from the now alas , late , great, John Hurt , as well as Sting.

    You are so right if not quite , right on, with our colour. It is also up for debate, your description a good one, it is yellow to those more leftward, orange to those more rightward, that is why I like your description of it as amber, as I am neither or both and in between !

    And let’s have more on Russia where you are !

  • Graham Evans 9th Mar '17 - 2:43pm

    Not sure about Charles Dickens as a liberal icon as he’s often regarded as something of a mysogonist, and by some as even an abuser of women.

  • nigel hunter 9th Mar '17 - 4:44pm

    The colour is great,keep it that way. Yes we should shout loud and clear of our past heroes, Bannerman , Lloyd George and many others. Churchill, he cut his political teeth in the Liberals, he is just as much ours as others who have been allowed to use him.

  • paul barker 9th Mar '17 - 7:05pm

    I dont feel as though we are in a slough of despond. We suffered a lot of damage but our recovery has been underway for 10 Months now & our long-term goal of replacing Labour looks a lot closer now than it has in 3 Decades.

  • Richard Underhill 9th Mar '17 - 7:20pm

    Channel 4 News of 9/3/2017 is following up the tory expenses scandal of 2015.

  • James Ridgwell 9th Mar '17 - 7:24pm

    our ‘unique selling point’ and core business is our liberalism, which seems to me can me boiled down to wanting to bring power down to the individual and community level – whether formal political power (electoral reform, meaningful devolution) or economic freedom from the negatives of the unmitigated market or an overbearing and unresponsive socialist state – in short, if you as a voter want more power, vote Lib Dem!

    This conception of liberalism inherently requires us to also be the social democrats we are – this puts us on the centre left on that traditional left-right spectrum – and this position is important, but the differentiator from other groupings containing social democrats such as Labour is our liberalism (so things seem to me anyway)

  • I mused on this topic on the private forum.

    My belief is that we need a “muscular” approach. By that, I mean we need to be energetic, passionate and willing to shout about our identity.

    We cannot simply exist as the nice party who champions minority causes like opposition to the Iraq War or Remain. It’s a polar opposite approach to our local teams who become community champions.

    There needs to be a new generation of thought and direction in the party. If there was a GE tomorrow and we won a landslide, what would we do? How would that be of obvious huge value to the voter?

    I believe the solution will be found in new ideas of the centre-left, like UBI and reforming the economy.

    But we must find a new generation of Lib Dems who are willing to elbow their way to the forefront of politics.

  • The Tories and UKIP have claimed the body of Churchill, and despite the ironies of this, they are welcome to him.

    I don’t think it is a good idea to abandon Churchill, of all people, to another political party if you have any chance of claiming him.

  • @ ad “I don’t think it is a good idea to abandon Churchill, of all people, to another political party if you have any chance of claiming him”.

    Why ?

  • Great comments, people!- particularly Lorenzo!

    It is Wikipwedia, and not I who defines our party colour as `amber`. It seems to me that we really can’t be having TWO different colours! Sometimes the party colour is daffodil yellow (which I have always taken as the colour of the Alliance) and sometimes pumpkin orange (which I associate with the secventies Liberal Party). Amber is a good fudge between these two.

    I’m behind on the gossip as regards Dickens. It seems to me that if you scrutinse anyone’s private world with enough avidity you can always dredge something up.I mean, I’ve heard people make disparaging remarks about Oskar Schindler – of `Schindler’s List` fame – on the grounds that he was a bit of a louse to his wife! So what exactly did Dickens,this early Liberal supporter, do that nullifies the fact that he dramatised – in a lasting and moving way – the divisions in Brtians class divided society and in so doing encouraged some much needed reforms?

    As for Russia: yes, I will write more on this…but the fact is that such articles elicit very little response, which I suppose is understandable.

  • Graham Evans 9th Mar '17 - 10:26pm

    @ Edward C There’s a lot more to doubts about Dickens than mere gossip. His treatment of his wife is well documented. However, if we have to go as far back as the 19th century to find a Liberal hero, it doesn’t say much about the development of liberal thought since then. If you do feel the need to personify Liberalism Beveridge is more relevant to Britain in the 21st century than Dickens. Labour may have enacted into law the welfare state, but the concept was Beveridge’s. As for Churchill, he was a great wartime Prime Minister in terms of inspiring the nation, but it was Attlee and Butler who actually did the work on the ground. Invoking the name of Churchill is undoubtedly a useful rallying call for Tories among the older generation, but I wonder whether 60 years after his death he is actually little more than a historical figure for most young people.

  • Graham Evans 9th Mar '17 - 10:53pm

    Surely, the big change in western democracies is that the concept of a left right spectrum is becoming increasingly irrelevant, and therefore to project the Party’s image on this basis is a mistake. For instance, many of the Green Party’s economic policies are crypto socialist, but that is not how most electors perceive them. Canadian Liberals, the most electorally success liberal party in the western world, is only left wing compared to the Canadian Conservatives, and I can imagine many British Tories would happily serve in a Canadian Liberal government. Similarly I imagine that most British LDs are supporting Macron as the next French president, just as they supported Obama in the US, even though many of their policies are not ones which many LDs would wish to put in our election manifesto. For the moment our anti-Brexit stance has given us a distinct identity. What we need to do now is bring some emotional commitment to that policy, in a way the Remain campaign failed to do. And hammer away at every opportunity, both locally and nationally, the benefits of membership, and how continued membership can help build a more liberal society both nationally and internationally.

  • Graham: you may be right about Dickens, but mostly because he belongs somewhat to the past. I can’t, however, see that a politician like Beveridge, no matter how decent he was, will ever set anyone’s pulse racing. As I said in the piece, I regret the fact that Martin Amis – so it seems – isno longer a fan of the party. We could do – quite frankly – with something like a `celebrity endorsement` from someone who has wider cultural resonance.

    The Greens *are* percieved as `lefties` trust me – try reading the online `Express`!And if we `support` Macron it is ony on a lesser evils basis – as one sometimes has to do.

    With respect, I’m growing very tired of this `left-right-spectrum-is-now-irrelevant`schtick. It seems to me that this paradigm is mainly being promoted by former leftists who have reneged to right but who wish to cover up just how right they have become.

    It’s very simple: (1) Most political issues in Western Europe can be placed on the Left/Right spectrum (2) Accordingly, most voters in Western Europe identify themselves as being on the Left/Right spectrum, (3) It is better – morally – to be left than right (4) However, one shouldn’t want to be Hard Left, as that would involve a flight from reality. (5) Therefore one should be Centre-Left. (6) The Liberal Democrats, under Farron’s leadership, is a Centre-Left party again (tapdance!) and (6) there may be people who are more `centrist` in the party and some who are more `leftist`, but that’s okay because, taken together the overall drift is still Centre Left.

  • Sue Sutherland 10th Mar '17 - 1:28pm

    I enjoyed your post Edward, but I think that Dicken’s value to a modern politician lies in his descriptions of life in a society in which new technologies have destroyed its social fabric and in which greed has overcome compassion. I think we are slipping and sliding towards that kind of life again.
    However, Martin Amis? Has he really become a household name? I think we need someone who resonates much more with us ordinary people not someone who appeals to the intellectual elite. Surely we have enough intelligence in the party already? Because the politicians we dislike and whose policies we abhor are using a glass of beer and simple messages doesn’t mean we shouldn’t emulate their methods. Liberalism is difficult enough to get across to people because it relies on weighing up relative power so don’t let’s complicate it even more! We need a woman of the people to help us please.

  • Graham Evans 10th Mar '17 - 1:45pm

    Edward C Your claim that most political issues can be placed on a left right spectrum suggests to me that you only perceive politics from a traditional British party perspective and ignore the fact that other countries have different historical traditions. While it is true that European socialist parties have many close similarities in terms of policies and attitudes, outside this political block perspectives are far more diverse. For instance in Germany the CDU/CSU, which until the recent growth of the British Labour Party, had the highest party membership in Europe, has both a workers wing and an employers wing. Britons only characterise it as a right wing party through analogy because there is an identifiable socialist party, the SPD. If the CDU/CSU were truly a right wing party on the lines of the Brtish Tories they could never have formed a Grand Coalition with the SPD, or in regional parliaments with the Greens. Similarly many nationalist parties have some policies which are traditionally associated with the left and others with the right. Moreover we saw in our own EU referendum that voting cut entirely across the political spectrum, and was more closely associated with sociological background than with left-right political beliefs. Few voters can identify Tim Farron as leader of the Party, much less his repositioning of the Party as centre left. However the most important thing that he has done is firmly position the Party as anti-Brexit.

  • Graham Evans 10th Mar '17 - 1:58pm

    @ Edward C With respect I’m getting rather tired of Lefties who think and proclaim that only they occupy the moral high ground. For instance while the Tories may have broken a manifesto commitment regarding not raising NICs, the decision to start to bring self employed people into line with employees is eminently sensible, as the Resolution Foundation and IFS have confirmed. Yet, Tim Farron and Labour spokespersons have opportunistically opposed the change so as to embarrass the Government, just as Labour did when the Coalition tried to reform the House of Lords.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 10th Mar '17 - 5:14pm

    Many things to add!

    Dickens is the writer I have read, adapted , performed, and thought much about .After Simon Callow, I’m your man for Dickens ! While I understand the points Graham made, Sue starts us in the correct direction.Dickens was a Liberal, and was not a misogynist !His treatment of women throughout his life was exemplary until his marriage breakdown, which was part of an emotional breakdown. Separation is always difficult, more so when both partners suffer from different types of depression, true in my view of both parties, Dickens , Charles, dark moods, emotional ups and downs. Dickens , Catherine, lethargy, bleak , down, very different . His were the highs hers the lows, both incompatible !

    His writing and relationships reflect a romantic idealist , often disappointed.But at a time when few men had friendships with women that were not at least partly romantic, despite his own nature in that way inclined, he did. His charity work for fallen women, prostitutes, etc., brought him to work with Angela Burdett-Coutts, a remarkable philanthropist, they had a tremendous respect for each other. His efforts in helping the women, was very Liberal, non-judgemental, moralising not his thing in private.

    His treatment of women in his characters and plots , is always sympathetic and varied, despite others saying otherwise. He does not put women in to two categories, virginal and crone, some have dismissed him thus. His character , Nancy, Betsy Trotwood, Rosa Dartle, are feminist more than misogynist in treatment!

    In keeping with most Victorians, and more than many who were his friends, such as Wilkie Collins, who was polyamarous his whole life, Dickens craved respectability, and thus he suffered the repression in his own nature that did not sit well with him.

    He was a personal Liberal , struggling to emerge from the political Liberal that came more naturally.

    His falling in love with a younger woman in middle age , was almost too much for him and his nearest and dearest to handle !

  • Simon Banks 14th Mar '17 - 9:58pm

    No slough of despond here. There is a desperately important fight to be had and I and other Liberals I know are up for it.

    Dawkins’ suggestion is fortunately unlikely to get far. However we rightly push the Europe issue, it cannot define us. A European Union COULD be illiberal. There are many issues on which we have a strong and fairly united position, which Europe doesn’t define at all.

    The Party of Dickens doesn’t appeal much either (prolix and twee), and is Martin Amis a good political figurehead as opposed to a fairly good writer? If we have to adopt a literary figurehead, how about Byron (“I still keep my buff and blue”, which were the Whig colours of his time)? Or Burns? But no, Burns the Scottish icon overpowers Burns the Radical. He would laugh and sigh and write something scathing about it.

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