The Lib Dems must draw up a road map to take us out of the abyss

As opportunity unfolds with the current political crisis, the Liberal Democrats could appoint a unit to examine three issues on which the Party can lead. Coupled with its grass roots organization, these initiatives, messaged skillfully, could help propel the Party into government. Their aim would be to ensure that:-

The United Kingdom’s political system never again produces the geographical and economic divide that has led to a critical mass of citizens feeling ignored and left-behind.

Europe’s modern institutional structures create both regional cohesion and sovereign flexibility so that the type of divisiveness experienced in Britain is addressed long before it risks tearing the European Project apart.

The Liberal Democrats take a global lead in drafting new mechanisms for the international rules-based order and its institutions.

Once formulated, each could be presented for discussion so that minds can begin to reach beyond the acrimonious technicalities of Brexit towards a wider and more positive future.

We do not know how many of the tens of thousands new members are using the Party as a temporary ideological life-raft and how many are here for the long term to forge through to government and restore British values to the United Kingdom.

But we do know of the crying need to address issues that have led to today’s restlessness both here and around the world. On this, the Liberal Democrats, and the counter-part networks within Liberal International, are ideally placed to take the lead.

It is tempting in the middle of this crisis to focus on each twist and turn. But this is exactly the moment to task a team to take eyes off every-day events and map out a bigger picture.

The last time this was done with any substance was in the rubble of the Second World War when to prevent nations from slaughtering nations, Franklin D Roosevelt said: ‘We have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community.”

From that came the United Nations, the European Union and a raft of international institutions that have served the world well.

Yet the dreadful Conservatives tried to reverse FDR’s thinking by accusing those who think themselves of being citizens of world as being ‘citizens of nowhere,’ which has opened the door for the appalling xenophobic nationalism witnessed in recent years.

This is the time, therefore, for the Liberal Democrats show their colours, lead us out of this pitiful abyss, capture imaginations and draw up a road map that voters are craving to hear about for a national, regional and global society that will take us through to the 22nd Century.

* Humphrey Hawksley is an author and journalist, specializing in international affairs, and on the executive of the Hammersmith and Fulham Party

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30 Comments

  • This is a perfectly timed and valuable piece, Humphrey. The UK is a constitutional and political disaster. We’ll be lucky to see it survive as a union if Brexit goes ahead – or even if not. The same goes for many of our international bodies.

    Sticking to home first: Liberal Democrats have totally failed to provide a firm vision for a future United Kingdom. This should have been addressed during the referendum for Scottish Independence so that we didn’t have to have Messrs Clegg, Cameron and Milliband making a last-minute, cobbled-together, desperate vow to give more powers to Scotland without considering the constitutional consequences. Brexit has highlight the chasm between the electorate and the government and the severe economic divides that have fostered rebellion against “the metropolitan elite” and others.

    Many of these problems could have been avoided by having in place a much better settlement between the Home Nations of the UK and between the regions of England. And having a constitution which stopped politicians getting away with lying or holding fraudelent referendums or proroguing Parliament for no good reason.

    Humphrey is right to question what many of the newer party members want. I would not be surprised if many of them are more interested in reforming and rebuilding the United Kingdom and moving away from our broken system of government than they are in the core values of liberalism, and let’s not forget that the party was not formed just from the Liberal Party but from Social Democrats too, and many others since.

  • Moving onto the international scence, whilst Liberal Democrats have been vociferous in support of EU membership we have really failed to voice any firm proposals for the revision of many of our failed international bodies. The United Nations, for example, is a sham. We are supposed to believe in democracy, fair representation, government by consensus, and a basic set of human rights for all. Those principles, for internationalist Liberals and Democrats, extend beyond our own borders. Yet we trundle along as membes of the UN whose constititon says “all members are equal but five are more equal than others”. How can we expect the UK and other powers (both old and new) to be respected in the Middle East and to provide resolution to some serious conflicts through such a constitution which shouldn’t sit at all well with our democratic credentials?

  • Spot on, Martin, but we can’t be a trusted player on the international stage now that our democracy and constitution have demonstrably proved themselves to be a laughing stock.

  • Richard Underhill 6th Sep '19 - 11:25am

    Labour has got itself into a position in which the Leader is inconsistent with the Deputy Leader and their biggest donor (Unite) is inconsistent with their Brexit spokesman.
    In that policy mix we should carefully consider our long-established policy on the voting age. The SNP will point to the agreement between a Conservative Prime Minister (David Cameron) and the then SNP leader for the 2014 referendum in Scotland.
    Labour may have a an interest in attracting younger voters in the interests of more democracy,

  • When I was a child in the 1980s, my siblings and I named a very large toy hedgehog after Humphrey Hawksley – he already had celebrity status in our house. He’s been covering global affairs for over 35 years. We should listen to him.

  • Peter Martin 6th Sep '19 - 12:07pm

    “EUROPE’s modern institutional structures create both regional cohesion and sovereign flexibility so that the type of divisiveness experienced in Britain is addressed long before it risks tearing the European Project apart.”

    This is one of those sentences that sounds very nice, but causes anyone who is prepared to give it just a moment’s thought to ask just what it means.

    What is the “European Project” other than an attempt to create a single large country from 28, or whatever the final number turns out to be, smaller countries? How is this getting away form ” the appalling xenophobic nationalism witnessed in recent years”.

    Would the world be a better place if, say, the South American or the African countries set to do the same as we see in Europe? Also the countries of Southern Asia could band together to form a bloc to rival China. We’d end up with a world of 8 or 9 superstates all in competition with each other. Exactly the situation George Orwell described in his book ‘1984’. Would it then be a safer place?

    And how does this fit in with the Lib Dem concept that power should be devolved to the people in smaller units? What if the people don’t want to be ultimately governed by a superstate?

  • Geoffrey Dron 6th Sep '19 - 1:23pm

    @Peter Martin – I voted remain in 2016 because (inter alia) I could just about live with the EU/nation states balance as is. However, further advances in the federal project as contemplated by Ursula von der Leyen & co., would not be acceptable to me and, I suspect, a lot of others who voted similarly.

    Brussels has shown wanton disregard for the principle of subsidiarity in the past and will almost certainly do so in the future.

  • Malcolm Todd 6th Sep '19 - 1:31pm

    Peter Martin 6th Sep ’19 – 12:07pm
    “Exactly the situation George Orwell described in his book ‘1984’.”

    Admit it, Peter: you’ve never actually read 1984, have you?

  • @PeterMartin raises an important point. The EU as currently constituted does, inevitably, concentrate power, whereas our instincts are to devolve power to the lower level feasible. Once upon a time we spoke of “subsidiarity”, a concept that seems to have been lost from the whole Brexit debate. How do we reconcile our internationalist and our democratic instincts ?

  • First fix your own house before lecturing others on fixing theirs. There is a delusion in the UK that we are special, mother of parliaments etc etc. The truth is we have become a Ruritanian country, shouting at the world “stop, we don’t like that” the development of a little humility and an educated population would be the best thing we could do for ourselves and the world. The problem of cause is we are “special”, but only because we have more people who think they are “special” than the average country. They are neither “special” or informed but they don’t realise that and how they will wail when that delusion is rudely stripped away from them.

  • Where is climate emergency in this thinking? If stopping Brexit is the short term goal, getting to carbon neutral has to be the next big priority. We can own the green agenda; and if we don’t, we are toast in more ways than one.

  • William Fowler 6th Sep '19 - 4:02pm

    All a bit vague, hope LibDems are not going to end up Labour Lite at the GE. Despite reading this column every day I am not clear what the big message will be in a GE, let alone the secondary messages. Is it, if LibDems get a clear majority then have the democratic mandate to revoke article 50 or is it a People’s Vote? I hope the former as it will be much stronger than Labour’s negotiate new deal, have a referendum on it but probably support remain unless there are too many EU restraints on nationalizing the country (add long rambling statement on the glories of a democratic mandate and turning the UK into a socialist paradise including mandatory allotments for all).

  • John Marriott 6th Sep '19 - 5:11pm

    It was Harry Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, who in the 1960s talked about the UK, having lost an Empire, failing to find a new rôle. The Suez debacle of 1956 should have taught us that we were no longer big enough to throw our weight around like the emerging Superpowers of the USA and the Soviet Union.

    So where do we fit in the jigsaw of competing geopolitical entities in which China appears to have taken the place of the Soviet Union and where resource rich continents like Africa and South America are attracting the kind of attention that the Middle East did in the middle decades of the 20th century? The fact is that we are a very small but nit insignificant component.

    Former Tory minister and now Provost of Elton College, Lord William Waldegrave, was on Newsnight the other evening, talking about what kind of a country a post Brexit Britain would be. The noble Lord, author of “Three Circles into One”, which deals with our change in circumstances, said we must be “realist” about the sort of country we now are. He asked why we couldn’t be “a middle ranking proud country”, living perfectly well in or out of Europe.

    Now I’m sure that this wouldn’t go down well with the likes of Mark Francois or many of the modern equivalents of the League of Empire Loyalists that make up the ERG and large swathes of the Brexit Party. However, a dose of reality might do a lot of us some good.

  • @ John Marriott Yes, I remember the Acheson “the UK, having lost an Empire, failing to find a new rôle”. The Yorkshire Post nearly went apoplectic. My observation now is given Johnson’s disregard and lack of respect for Scotland, the UK may shortly lose Scotland. What Lord North did with America, B.J. might do with Scotland.

    Yesterday ‘The Times, Scotland’ reported a new YouGov/Times Scotland poll showing a majority in favour of holding a second independence referendum within five years
    Polling suggests the SNP could win 51 Westminster seats now in a snap General Election, with the Scottish Tories reduced to three. The Lib Dems would have four M.P.’s but of course Scottish Independence would remove Ms Swinson from Westminster.

    Holyrood voting intentions indicate the Scottish Greens could win 10 seats, securing another pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament.

    A majority of Scottish voters now back a second independence referendum in the near future. Support for the SNP continues to rise as the Scottish Conservatives face a near wipe out in the event of a snap General Election (has Johnson not noticed ?). The YouGov poll, reveals that a total of 45 per cent of respondents support another vote on independence within the next five years, with 44 per cent opposed and 11 per cent unsure.

    It may be Scotland is fed up with semi-permanent Tory Westminster rule.Lib Dems need to get their heads round this . The contradictory ‘Yes’ to an EU ref and ‘No’ to a Scottish ref’ needs serious re-examination.

  • Peter Martin 7th Sep '19 - 8:08am

    @ Malcolm Todd,

    If you really want to know, I went through a stage, more years ago than I care to admit now, when I read everything I could find by George Orwell. The first book was Animal Farm which we studied at school. Our teacher was of a fairly right wing inclination and I wasn’t too keen on the message being pushed, which was that the book shows that Socialism can never work. I had to find out for myself that George Orwell/Eric Blair had fought for the P.O.U.M. in the Spanish Civil War. IMO, Animal Farm, and probably 1984 can only be fully understood from a left wing perspective.

    Orwell had a disdain for intellectuals too, writing: “There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.” Also: “England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality”. Not much has changed since. The gulf between the left liberal intelligentsia and ordinary working people is as great as ever.

  • It is the first paragraph of the posting that I find most interesting. The suggestion is that the party should set up a unit to the work up ideas, and then to manage skilfully. This means people.
    What stood out to me in the recent Conservative leadership election was the large amounts of contributions that the candidates, particularly the winner, received. The fact is that with money one can afford to employ people, to set up think tanks, to find people to manage processes.
    There are various ways of analysing the present situation with regard to our relationship to the rest of Europe. The influence of well funded planning can be seen. The question is always about the resources that can be put into a campaign.
    Accepting the way we run our society at the moment, the question is how do we move in a direction which to us seems obvious, when the resources are with those with a different view.

  • Peter Martin
    Thing about the EU is that it is essentially a stalled project based on an idea of unification that can’t get passed the obstacles nation states puts in its way. Ever closer union is not really going to happen, the single currency doesn’t really work and the newer member states rather than embracing the values of Europe are taking the bits they like and rejecting the bits they don’t. I would compare its structural unsoundness to that of the USSR, except it took that about 70 years to show signs of collapse and it’s taken the EU under 26 years. I suspect the reality is that national peoples mostly want the trading thingumabobs but not the centralised political whatchamacallits.

  • An excellent article asking important questions.

    As Michael Kilpatrick says, we need a new vision for the UK; the Thatcherism/neoliberalism of the last 40 years has failed catastrophically. It’s not just that “a critical mass of citizens [feel] ignored and left-behind” – they HAVE BEEN ignored and left-behind.

    At the heart of that vision must be a new ‘political economy’ which should replace in our thinking the modern term ‘economics’ that subtly suggests that politics can somehow be ignored in favour of a narrowly technocratic approach. There are no prizes for guessing which groups are favoured by the technocrats, often working in billionaire-funded think tanks.

    The economic evidence is in and shows that Conservative views about how a modern economy works are very, very wrong. Forty years of Tory intellectual hegemony have seen a steady decline in UK-headquartered manufacturing at the expense of ever-greater financialisation. Contrast that with the record of, say, South Korea which since WW2 has risen from one of the poorest countries on Earth to one of the richest.

    So, we (the royal ‘we’) know how to build a successful economy – but don’t. The reason, I suggest, is that financialisation benefits a few powerful and well-connected people while it, plus the decline in manufacturing, hurts many but poorly-connected folk.

    By rights this should be the number one target for Lib Dems but it isn’t – except perhaps in woolly and unfocussed rhetoric. And I think the reason for that is that too many see everything through a prism of identity politics. It’s understandable that those scarred by prejudice should see things that way, but identity politics simply isn’t on the route to a workable political economy.

    I see it as like a Christmas tree. The tree itself provides the structure representing political economy on which everything hangs; it dictates the shape of everything. The lights and decorations represent the sort of issues summarised as ‘identity politics’ – undoubtedly more eye-catching than the tree and of great emotional importance to many. But, without the tree they cannot be properly displayed and will spend their time in a box under the stairs.

  • Innocent Bystander 7th Sep '19 - 12:55pm

    @Gordon
    “We know how to build a successful economy”.
    There are scores of struggling countries who would like your insight.
    The political thinkers in the UK have only come up with ” Invest in skills and infrastructure” as if some courses at a God forsaken college of bricklaying and hairdressing could come anywhere near the scale of the problem. As for infrastructure look at HS2.
    Labour has the National De Lorean Lame Duck Investment Fund. “Our motto ,- to give your tax to every scammer and bunco merchant who asks – just like last time!”

  • Geoffrey Dron 7th Sep '19 - 3:15pm

    The Tories are making a colossal mistake in reconstituting themselves as the Brexit Sect. It’ll cost them votes and MPs in the medium term and LibDems ought to be the beneficiaries.

    https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/sep/07/sir-nicholas-soames-says-tories-started-resembling-brexit-sect-boris-johnson-jacob-rees-mogg

    As Napoleon advised, don’t interrupt them.

    Labour are shedding votes to the LibDems. They shouldn’t be allowed to recover by postponing the GE to November or December. Voters will punish a postponement and the Tories will react by forming a coalition with BTP.

  • Geoffrey Dron 7th Sep '19 - 3:23pm

    Sorry – with TBP

  • Paul Holmes 7th Sep '19 - 4:28pm

    But an opinion poll yesterday showed the Cons doing much better in a pre 31st Oct GE than post -where they would lose 9% to The Brexit Party because they had failed to deliver No Deal on the promised schedule.

  • Peter Hirst 7th Sep '19 - 4:52pm

    Events continue to make us a credible alternative. Our messaging will be key in translating that into votes and seats. It must be relevant, topical and memorable. We might then achieve what has seemed improbable.

  • Geoffrey Dron 7th Sep '19 - 7:38pm

    @ Paul Holmes – agreed, but that explains why pushing the GE back to November + is going to produce a BoJo-Farage pact, which, on one regressive analysis I’ve seen (can’t lay hands on it at present) will produce a 250+ majority for the allies. Yes, I accept this might be combatted by a Remain alliance, but that alliance might be more effective in October.

  • David Allen 7th Sep '19 - 8:19pm

    I’m sorry, but the deep philosophical thinking which underlies this thread has never been less relevant. What is crucial is what voters think, and their thoughts are simple, simple, simple.

    After all the calamities, Boris still leads in the polls. His simple message is that Brexit needs to be done and dusted. It is rubbish of course – a No Deal Brexit just means the start of years of negotiations from a newly weakened position – But it is what (probably) a majority of voters think makes sense. Where is our simple message in response?

    As is mentioned above, the first single simple thing we can do, which will shift the polls, is to prevent Brexit by 31st October. In principle that achieves very little, since Johnson could blithely plan for NDB 3 months later. But in reality it is a real achievement because it does something very simple – It makes Boris look like a loser, someone who makes a bold promise and then can’t deliver it. That will sway the public.

    Despite everything, Cummings is still the author and director of the bizarre political theatre we are living through. Proroguing stands revealed as a purely theatrical artifice – it did not, after all, stop Parliament legislating. But it created the febrile Wild West atmosphere in which Cummings expects to thrive.

    What next? Perhaps, a massive showdown with the EU, provoked by Johnson, after which Johnson will argue that an extension would no longer make any sense, as the EU had walked away from the table in disgust, leaving No Deal as the only option? That could work for Johnson, if Cummings gets the choreography rigjht.

    Don’t let’s kid ourselves we are winning. As yet, we’re not.

  • @ Innocent Bystander,

    Most “struggling countries” don’t do much (or anything) about building a successful economy because their ruling elite aren’t motivated to do so. Think Mugabe’s record in Zimbabwe or any number of other countries ruled by strongmen or juntas that look out for only for themselves and a small elite. In short, vested interests get in the way.

    Britain is an interesting case. In theory MPs look out for the majority’s interests, in practice the Westminster Village of parliamentarians, media and sundry hangers-on is half-way to being a closed shop of Eton and Oxford PPE or similar. Those who might challenge don’t do so effectively; some are only interested in keeping their snouts firmly in the trough, some are too hung-up on policies popular in Victorian times but inappropriate now and yet others just do special pleading for some interest-group.

    The result is a festering discontent but all we get is, as you say, half-baked training schemes, dubious infrastructure projects and the rest. I’m convinced these are done more for their optics than anything else and I’ve been warning for years that, as in a thunder cloud, charge is building and is just looking for a lightning conductor to run down. It looks like it found it in Brexit.

    Of course, even where the will exists it’s not easy turning around an underperforming country like the UK. There are plenty of good ideas out there, but they have to be plucked from a blizzard of hostile propaganda, bad ideas and ideas that simply don’t fit in this context. However, it can be done. I once worked for a large multinational that was in a huge hole – its accounts a sea of red ink – that turned around with astonishing speed under a new MD who appointed – and then backed – a couple of people who proved able to sort the good ideas from the bad – the wheat from the chaff.

    Rapid development that empowers the people (not just exploiting them as cheap labour) can be done where the will exists as I saw for myself in Botswana where I did a lot of work in the 1980s. A very senior member of the establishment explained to me how it worked and was obviously genuine. The development strategy was brilliantly simple – and it worked astonishingly well.

  • Gordon,
    I agree with pretty much every word you say. Highly successful turnarounds are possible but won’t happen here because we are in an episode of incompetence, corruption and cronyism not seen since the reign of Emporer Commodus. That layer you describe well is diseased and malignant but also immune from consequences. The reason I despair so much is that you are right and all could be achieved but no initiative will work until the whole layer of serial failures and thieves are ruthlessly expunged.

  • Humphrey Hawksley 14th Sep '19 - 9:38am

    Thank you all for the debate which, from both supporters and naysayers, gives a glimpse of opinion. I would only say, that at the first stages this would not need money. There are dozens of expert members who would do it for free. It would need Party support. The key element is that, as well as the Stop Brexit policy (which is preventing something bad) it is important to have an accessible future vision that captures imaginations and can be discussed in the pubs. Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Boris Johnson achieved this. Now, we need to.

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