When politics really does take a back seat

Professor David Runciman, writing in the Guardian this week, may be right about a layer of politics being stripped away in this current crisis and, as he describes it, there being “a trade off between personal liberty and collective choice”. Speaking to his nation on the Edison phonograph at the start of World War One, Kaiser Wilhelm II ended his address with the words; “I recognise no parties any more, only Germans”.

Whether we like it or not, what we are now in the middle of is a war; but, as Mr Spock might have said to Captain James Kirk; “not as we know it”. Wilhelm was the head, despite the trappings of democracy, of a basically autocratic regime, which sought to shore up its power by enlisting patriotism, and it worked for a while as it did also in Tsarist Russia, Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey.

I know that there are many people, who suspect the motives of many of those advocating obedience rather than debate; but these are extraordinary times for mankind. As Dr Liam Fox, not someone whose views I generally share, wrote last weekend, we, who have only been around as a species some 200,000 years, are facing an ‘enemy’ that has survived for millions.

I am so pleased that the Lib Dem leadership vote has been postponed. In some ways it’s a pity that ‘the other one’ didn’t go the same way. On the other hand, do we really want Corbyn as Deputy PM, following in the footsteps of Clement Attlee between 1940 and 1945, in a possible Government of National Unity if the present crisis escalates? I just hope it might be Keir Starmer instead, who seems to be made of sterner stuff. And yes, Ed Davey is doing a good job so he would deserve a key rôle as well.

However, you can’t fight an enemy you can’t see with guns and bombs and you can’t negotiate with a virus. It really is a case of survival of the fittest. My wife and I proudly stood at our front door on Thursday evening clapping and banging a saucepan, as did many people on our estate road. At times like this, and I admit that it’s early days, it makes me realise what IS important in life. I just hope that, to return to WW1, we do not end up as “lions led by donkeys”. Also, when we get over this – and we will – will we really learn our lesson and will our daily and political lives change for the better? We can but hope.

* John Marriott is a former Liberal Democrat councillor from Lincolnshire.

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  • John, interesting to hear of David Runciman’s point of view, and I very much agree with your sentiments.

    David Runciman, is, of course, the Great Grandson of Walter Runciman (1870-1949), Liberal M.P. for Dewsbury, and later St Ives. He held office under Campbell-Bannerman and was President of the Board of Trade in the Asquith Cabinet. In the context of relations with Germany before WW1 he supported the Haldane mission in 1912 and opposed the arms race which contributed to the tensions leading up to the race to war in 1914.

    All history of course, though I note Walter Runciman also encouraged political dialogue with the Labour Party. As to the thrust of your post, I completely agree.

    I would encourage Ed Davey to step up for what was called ‘the duration’ and to seek dialogue with Mr Starmer. If Mr Starmer does become leader a whole lot of back bench talent may return to the front bench and all sorts of new possibilities for future British politics will arise.

  • Peter Chambers 28th Mar '20 - 3:49pm

    John, we may “have only been around as a species some 200,000 years, are facing an ‘enemy’ that has survived for millions”, but we co-evolve with the other living things on our planet. We have neglected the sustainable defences we require if we are to live with a high population, with many in dense cities.
    Those defences are so-called public goods, that will never be delivered by a market, as they are only used occasionally and their provision cannot be estimated by a feedback mechanism. On this occasion I disagree with Dr Fox. The run-down of these defences was part of the so-called Austerity of which he was a part.

  • I am not sure that it is a choice between “obedience and debate”. I am “obedient” (mostly!) to the state now or before the virus. And it may not have escaped people’s notice that a vast amount of legislation with Draconian powers over me and you has been enacted over the years.

    But to govern is to choose. To enrich some, to impovrish others. Through benefits, taxation etc. To statistically “kill” some and to save others through healthcare and public health choices.

    We hand over the keys to this power in democracies (or more accurately an elected oligarchies) on a temporary basis.

    And there is of course an obvious danger that debate gets stifled in panics. To talk about the choices involved because you are talking about statistically killing different sections of society – may be older people if you don’t priotise coronavirus, younger people if you don’t priotise the economy. (And to be clear I want everyone to live long lives).

    And it’s interesting how coronavirus has become all consuming when we haven’t paid such attention to other menaces of equal threat. Seasonal flu. Winter (50k excess deaths when scandinavian countries have none). Smoking. Road deaths and injuries.

    Obey the law – certainly – but debate it even in difficult times.

  • Paul Barker 28th Mar '20 - 6:18pm

    I cant help feeling that the “Official” response is still downplaying things. I dont see how the final UK Death toll could conceivably be kept below 20,000, I would have thought 100,000 would be more reasonable, if the “Lockdown” works & The NHS holds together that is.

  • John Marriott 28th Mar '20 - 6:19pm

    @David Raw
    Yes, David, I know about Prof Runciman’s relationship with the first Viscount Runciman, whose report on the Sudetenland question to Chamberlain, it has been argued, was instrumental in our virtual abandoning of Czechoslovakia in 1938. I gather that he was a bit of a fan of Adolf and co, despite having been a liberal.

    No it’s and no bits. At this present time, being a liberal could get you into trouble! We can argue how much power the state should have over our lives after this current crisis is over. In the meantime stay mostly inside, unless you still have a job to go to, keep washing your hands and stay healthy!

  • John Marriott 28th Mar '20 - 6:21pm

    Sorry, the first sentence was meant to be ‘No if’s and no BUTS”.

  • Tony Greaves 28th Mar '20 - 7:41pm

    Do not be naïve. To say that people should work together to tackle the present crisis is not the same as saying that political debate and activity should stop. There will be powerful people in this country and elsewhere looking and planning to use this crisis to strengthen their power and wealth. Go back and read Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine”. And if Liberalism has nothing distinctive to offer in a major crisis what use is it at any other time?

  • Stephen Booth 29th Mar '20 - 8:21am

    Totally agree with Tony Greaves. Don’t be led by the Brexit cry of “everything will be alright if we all pull together”.
    Meanwhile, Dr Fox is way off beam as usual. We may have been around as a species for 200,000 years but our battle with Coronavirus began around 10-15,000 years ago when we began domesticating wild animals for food. We’ve battled with it ever since.

  • Alex Macfie 29th Mar '20 - 8:59am

    No participation in a National Government if it’s just going to be a continuation of the Johnson administration with the addition of some people of other parties. It would have to be a visibly different administration, which would mean Johnson being replaced as PM by a current backbencher or junior minister. And sack Cummings.

  • Government of National Unity? Have you seen the latest polling – why would the Tories give up one iota of power?

    The country needs a Party that will stand up for democracy and accountability, even at a time of crisis, just like it needs a Party to protect privacy and civil liberties even when it’s not the easy thing to do. If that Party isn’t the Lib Dems then what’s the point of us?

  • Nigel Hardy 29th Mar '20 - 2:15pm

    @Nick Baird

    The reason I suspect for the Tories continued popularity, while they get away with blue murder, could the absence of an opposition for now. Labour under Corbyn has been the perfect opposition for them; stupid. To make it even better for them, Labour heavily defeated embarked on a tedious three month leadership contest.

    If Kier Starmer is elected next weekend I would expect some some immediate changes. Talent that’s been wasted on the back benches will be promoted to the front bench replacing the clueless ones. Starmer will strengthen the Labour Party bringing it back to left of centre and will start scaring the living daylights out of Johnson & co pretty quickly. That’s when the government could begin to crumble. I would also like to Ed Davey open a dialogue with the new leader early on.

    A GNU could only be viable if all of the government front bench is cast aside (with one notable exception of the Chancellor) and replaced with Tory, Labour and smaller parties reprsented.

    The LibDem’s do well when Labour is at its best, and if we can establish an appealing message on our core values and civil liberties for the country after COVID-19 we could do well.

  • Alex Macfie 29th Mar ’20 – 8:59am
    “No participation in a National Government if it’s just going to be a continuation of the Johnson administration with the addition of some people of other parties. It would have to be a visibly different administration, which would mean Johnson being replaced as PM by a current backbencher or junior minister. And sack Cummings.”

    If parties are to collaborate they will need a chairman — a “PM” if you insist — who enjoys the trust and respect of over half the country, and whose authority and independence could not be seen as partisan. Someone like Caroline Lucas, say . . .

  • Joe Bourke “A government of national unity is no protector of civil liberties….. The shell crisis of 1915 saw a new coalition government formed and Lloyd George appointed as Minister for Munitions”.

    True, though it’s formation also had roots in the chaos of the Dardanelles campaign for which Churchill was largely responsible…. Even so, Asquith did manage to retain all the main posts for Liberal Ministers – skilful political manipulation being one of his strengths..

    In terms of the Liberal Party being illiberal when in sole power you could have added the Defence of the Realm Act withall its draconian powers….. and later under the Asquith Coalition conscription and the fierce treatment of conscientious objectors.

    The decisions of the two wartime Liberal Prime Ministers led to many defections to the Labour Party on human rights grounds and were just a few of the additional steps along the road to the not so strange death of Liberal England (and Scotland). To be fair to Squiff, he had more human rights scruples than his successor.

    I also reflect that forced feeding of suffragettes and the Cat and Mouse Act by the pre-war Liberal Government couldn’t exactly be described as a paradigm example of protecting civil liberties and human rights.

  • Sue Sutherland 29th Mar '20 - 2:41pm

    There is always a trade off between personal freedom and the well being of the community it’s just that under the present circumstances that trade off has become clear. This is a time when it is much much easier to explain the philosophy of Liberalism to people who haven’t thought about it before.
    It may be that the Tory Government will seek to maintain the draconian measures, including the use of the army in a civilian role, after this crisis is over. In that case we really shall be staring dictatorship in the eye and democracy may be suspended.
    So, we should be taking steps now to prevent this happening. I think it’s perfectly justified for the government to enforce isolation on the public when one person’s freedom may result in another’s death. However, I also think it’s our duty to point out when things are going wrong. For example, we are expecting some people to care for others without the protection necessary for them to resist this virus. This lack of provision is entirely down to cost cutting measures in the immediate past, it seems to me, so this is something we should be criticising loudly and it’s our duty as an opposition party to do this. It’s not just NHS workers who should be protected, but everyone who has continued contact with the public.
    We must also resist any curtailing of parliamentary debate because this is the way in which we will be able to ensure a return to our usual way of life. So scoring cheap political points is out but responsible criticism should be practised even more than usual.

  • As some, arguably, say this is the biggest existential threat to us since 1945 (how does the Cuban missile crisis compare to this?), perhaps a look back at what happened between 1939 and 1945 could give some idea as to how public political debate evolved.
    Initially, like now, there was a period of realisation of just how the serious the position is, then (with a degree of grudging acceptance) a mood of get on with it what ever.
    But after a period of time, people wanted to know how we were going to rebuild afterwards, what will be different to avoid this awful mess. The Beveridge Report was part of that process, there were others on education, planning, etc. All this built a vision of the future, ok it didn’t all happen or turn out as conceived.
    Politically there was an agreement to not contest by-elections between the three main parties, but that did not stop the Commonwealth Party taking seats off the Tories during the war, where I live (Eddisbury in 1943) was one, although that was from the quasi tory National Liberals.
    The point is that during a major threat to our population a widespread political debate took place about the future, and I’m guessing that will happen in the ensuing weeks and months.
    Penny on income tax to fund the NHS? Now where did we hear that last?

  • John Marriott 29th Mar '20 - 3:11pm

    It’s funny how threads develop on LDV. There was little old me thinking that this particular pebble that I dropped into the water was all about how a REAL existential crisis can still bring out the best in us as a nation – as opposed to the lately manufactured crisis of recent years. Instead it appears that it has now rippled into a debate on the merits of coalition government.

    As some of you seem more concerned about political correctness and even settling a few old scores, which has been more likely to be found on Capitol Hill than in the Houses of Parliament, let me reluctantly join your debate. What is it about coalitions of any kind, but particularly of governments, which, after all, would probably be the inevitable result of a change to a proportional system of electing our MPs and, at a lower level, our Councillors, that gets some people so energised? And here I was thinking how well we had been doing so far to keep our political egos at the door and how proud I was of the volunteering and the selfless sacrifices of ‘key workers’ and ordinary members of the public that have been a feature of this crisis so far.

    Being in a coalition is like being in a marriage or any relationship for that matter. It requires compromise, understanding and the ability to agree to disagree on occasions but to proceed for the common good. It also, in the case of governments or councils, needs an acknowledgement which of the partners has the most clout, in this case, which has the most electoral support. We had an election at the end of the year and there can be no doubt which party and leader for that matter came out on top in terms of being the largest minority. Surely, Mr Macfie, this is where you and I would disagree. If you prefer to take your bat home that’s up to you.

    The opposition parties largely blew the last General Election, whose leitmotif was not a life threatening issue. Would they, when the nation, let alone mankind, could potentially be facing something more fundamental to its survival, really want to do this again if a comprehensive offer of partnership, albeit still unlikely at the moment, were to come from No10?

  • Andy Hyde
    This is nothing like WWII. This actually as more in common with Soviet Russia, clamp downs, paranoia, suspicion. It will have profound psychological and physical effect on health, as well as politics. Basically were imprisoning people in their homes unless their jobs are deemed crucial to the state effort. Cities and towns completely shut down, people deprived of basic liberty and powers being granted to arms of the state they will be reluctant to give up even after the crisis is over.

  • Phil Beesley 29th Mar '20 - 3:28pm

    Lib Dems like to have a go at the Guardian/Observer for failing to support liberal values, and that is fine.

    This weekend there were several small L liberal opinion pieces — I enjoyed Gaby Hinsliff and Nick Cohen.

  • Alex Macfie 29th Mar '20 - 3:57pm

    John Marriott: Labour joined the Wartime Coalition in 1940 on condition that Chamberlain be replaced by Winston Churchill as Prime Minister, and a shift in policy against appeasement (still a popular policy at the time). (However, Chamberlain remained Tory leader for the time being; Prime Minister and leader of the largest party in government are separate posts, and this was not about who led the Tories but who led the country.) At the previous General Election the Conservatives and their allies won 429 seats, a majority of 118.
    The Tories under Johnson won a majority at the last election, and under our Parliamentary system this entitles them to govern alone. They do not have to compromise with anyone, except maybe unruly backbenchers. If they wish to share power with others, and benefit from the lack of significant opposition, then they are the ones who wouold have to compromise. There is no point in an opposition party joining a government that already has a majority without significant compromise from the majority party. And as the minority group would be able to walk out of the government any time without jeopardising the stability of government, the only reason for them to be there is if they get some very significant concessions from the majority party as a result.
    The opposition acknowledges who has the most clout by staying out of government, letting the Johnson administration own its policies and scrutinising them. If the Tories want the luxury of no effective Parliamentary opposition, then they would have to compromise and make the government genuinely cross-party. Of course, in practice they have no effective opposition at the moment (because of Corbyn) but that’s another matter, and it will change in about a week’s time.

  • Phil Beesley 29th Mar '20 - 4:02pm

    Glenn: Men in blazers, the men who run international sport, have just worked out that there will be no sport on telly this summer in the northern hemisphere.

    Let’s give it to you again. No balls, no running around, no fun, no brilliance,

    Events will happen later, and men in blazers are entitled to their opinions, and hopefully some idiots will be gone.

    “This is nothing like WWII.”

    You are right. Football was played in the UK. Owing to broadcasting rules about saying anything about local weather conditions, there is the apocryphal match where the commentators couldn’t see the pitch.

    “This actually has more in common with Soviet Russia, clamp downs, paranoia, suspicion. It will have profound psychological and physical effect on health, as well as politics.”

    It is nothing like Soviet Russia; we are allowed to use photocopiers as often as we wish, as long as we don’t breath on anybody.

    Our situation is awful and we have to find ways to cope with awful.

  • “a shift in policy against appeasement (still a popular policy at the time). ”

    Errrrrr, no. Not on 10 May, 1940 eight months into the war. Appeasement had rather gone out of fashion on 15 March, 1939 when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia.

  • Alex Macfie 29th Mar '20 - 4:39pm

    David Raw: No, it was the invasion of Poland that precipitated the war. But at the time Chamberlain was talking about it being over in a few months, and would probably have cut a deal with Hitler if he had remained PM.

  • @David Raw “Appeasement had rather gone out of fashion on 15 March, 1939 when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia.”

    Even in May 1940 the choice between Churchill and Lord Halifax was not clear cut, and if the latter had been appointed PM it is likely he would have sued for peace.

  • John Marriott 29th Mar '20 - 5:34pm

    @Alex Macfie
    There is a great deal of difference between the position of Boris Johnson, both within the Tory party and the House of Commons in general today and that of Neville Chamberlain in 1940. As my friend David Raw has said, appeasement was very much out of fashion back then, despite of the efforts of politicians like Lord Halifax to keep it alive. Chamberlain, in more ways than one, was literally a dead man walking, whose policies, while sincerely held, and particularly after the disastrous Norway campaign, lay in tatters. No wonder that his Tory colleague, Leo Amery, speaking for a clear majority in his party and probably by then the country as a whole, and memorably using the words of Cromwell to the Long Parliament, told him it was time to go.

    Johnson, whether you or I like it or not, still enjoys the support of his party and the government’s current strategy, according to the latest opinion poll, enjoys an impressive majority in the country. Clearly, only in extremis would a government of national unity come into question. Fortunately, we haven’t reached that stage yet. Unfortunately my glass is half empty.

    You say this situation is “nothing like WWII”. You are right in the sense that most of industry and business then was not shut down nor were people confined to their homes, as has been happening here today. However, the potential for disruption to life as we have known it for many years is far worse. As a “prisoner” in my own home, as you put it, that’s fine by me, if it will help to stop the spread or at least flatten down the curve of the spread of this virus until an effective vaccine can be found. If you still don’t like being told to stay at home, perhaps you should go and live in Sweden, if you can get there. They appear to be going down the road towards herd immunity, with which initially we appeared to be toying, and not enforcing lockdowns. Mind you, wasn’t the discredited eugenics movement particularly strong over there between the wars? If not Sweden there’s also Belarus, where life goes on as normal and whose ‘President for Life’ is advocating a good slug of vodka as an antidote to Covid-19.

  • Alex Macfie 29th Mar '20 - 5:54pm

    John Marriott: Then considering the circumstances as you describe them, there is absolutely no point in either us or Labour joining a Government of National Unity. We carry on in Opposition. Johnson may be popular now, but who knows what his ratings will be in 6 months’ time? We would not want to be tainted by an unpopular government, so we try to draw as much attention to ourselves as we can as a party of the Opposition. This does not mean oppoising things for the sake of it, but it does mean scrutiny and constructive criticism. In any situation of a partisan government, politics must carry on as normal.

  • John Marriot
    “if you don’t like it go and live Sweden”! And you even included a historical jibe to invoke the idea that they’re still tainted by the sins of the father. How novel. No one ever used that kind of reasoning to close down dissent before.
    I don’t like sport. I have nothing against people who do. But it’s not really for me.

  • David Evans 29th Mar '20 - 8:32pm

    It is always interesting to look at John Marriott’s post because like all honest forthright Lib Dems he is willing to put his views and his concerns out there for us all to consider and debate. He always has a good line in analogy and doesn’t simply come up with wonderful liberal solutions with no idea how to get there. Instead he addresses the real question of how the heck do we get to the solution. However, on a few occasions he does revert to “hope” as being a key element in his argument and as people know that is where I often disagree, especially where there is no evidence that hope has worked in the past.

    His analogy of our period in coalition being like a marriage is a useful one, but clearly it was an abusive relationship, with the older dominant party letting the young and sadly rather naive party squander its entire legacy on supporting its older partner in a lifestyle beyond what it could support alone. Additionally, even when it was clear that its legacy was all gone, the naive, younger party’s head couldn’t accept the damage had been done. Instead its head kept telling itself that it was important to show it was mature and grown up in its politics and that taking the blame for unpleasant and incorrect decisions was in fact a badge of honour it should be proud to wear.

    Now to a few facts, the new Conservative government is even less trustworthy than the old one
    It has a leadership of highly questionable morality and a flexible approach to the use of facts.
    It has adopted a totally nationalistic and populist agenda, and
    It has made a total mess of the NHS to the extent that a highly critical report produced on preparedness for a virus pandemic (Execrcise Cygnus) produced in late 2016 was simply suppressed.


    and yet some of us think we should enter into a new relationship with them?

  • Glenn,
    I fully agree that this isn’t like WW2, the point of my comments was that, given the severity of the situation were are now in and how it is (and will) touch the lives of ordinary people, it is reasonable to believe that a least some changes, perhaps rather more, in what people will want from their politicians is on the cards.
    How far that change translates into real political change and electoral outcomes, depends on many variables.

  • John Marriott 30th Mar '20 - 11:12am

    @David Evans
    Thank you so much for your kind words. It’s nice to know that there is someone out there, besides David Raw, who appreciates my blathering! Seriously though, I know you have strong views about ‘working with others’, or not, as the case may be. I realise that the last attempt did not go well for the Lib Dem’s, either electorally or in terms of reputation. It’s amazing how all so many people still remember of the 2010-2015 coalition is tuition fees. Some things just resonate out of all importance and stick in people’s minds long after the event. There are still people who even today still ask me; “Weren’t you that SDP bloke.”

    Anecdote time.
    When they were clearing out my granny’s house in 1958 they found loads of neatly folded brown paper bags. Apparently people, my dad told me, were encouraged to save them during the war and she just carried on. And my point? Well, I just wonder whether some of the ‘good habits’ our present incarceration is forcing on us will survive when we ever, if ever, get back to something normal. And that includes politicians actually agreeing with each other more than occasionally!

  • Laurence Cox 30th Mar '20 - 2:44pm

    Slightly off-topic, but one thing that we can all do to help is to download the King’s College London covid symptoms app and record any symptoms we notice daily. This will help to track the progress of the infection:


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