That’s a ‘REAL alternative’?

The Lib Dems are little more than a dustbin for everyone's frustrations with mainstream politics.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

How did Charles Kennedy end up as the knight of British politics?

Honourable, principled, genuine…the Lib Dem leader has been described as all these things. The Guardian’s Jackie Ashley says, ‘Britain needs the Liberal Democrats’ libertarian bravery; their tolerance; their underlying decency’ (1). Now Labour MP Brian Sedgemore’s last-minute defection to the Lib Dems has, according to some, made the party into serious contenders for government.

‘The REAL alternative’, goes the Lib Dem slogan – and astoundingly, some seem to believe it. Leftie Tariq Ali says he will vote Lib Dem ‘to return an anti-war majority to the House of Commons’ (2), while others commend the Lib Dems for their commitment to civil liberties.

But these virtues are largely in the eyes of the beholders. The Lib Dems’ blandness and disorganisation, which in other circumstances would be liabilities, now seem to be their greatest assets. The fact that they have no clear agenda of their own makes them a blank sheet on to which individuals can scribble their own manifestos.

Take the idea that the Lib Dems are pro-liberty. In fact, the party has a track record of proposing petty interventionism. Its conferences have long been the butt of jokes for hare-brained proposals to ban things previously thought harmless. The Lib Dems recently poked their noses into family life, voting to ban children from buying pets and to ban parents from smacking their children. Kennedy might oppose compulsory ID cards, but he says we should spend the cash on 10,000 more police instead (presumably to keep tabs on hamster-purchasing youngsters).

As for being anti-war: I heard Kennedy’s speech at London’s big anti-war demo in February 2003, and it was less a ‘no to war’ than a ‘let’s wait and see’. He attended the demo in a ‘personal capacity’ (concerned resident of Inverness speaks) rather than as party leader. The Lib Dem website asked such daring questions of the war as: ‘What is the nature of the commitment, if any, that [Tony Blair] made to President Bush? Why is it in our national interest to be so closely allied with the Bush administration on this issue?’

During this election campaign, Kennedy only mentioned the war after revelations about Blair’s legal advice were published in the Mail on Sunday. ‘Britain’s international reputation has been damaged by the way Tony Blair took us to war’, he says. So it is Blair’s style of warmongering that is problematic. And what is Kennedy’s bold anti-war proposal? Another inquiry. Let the judges decide whether Blair did or didn’t conceal some of the attorney general’s deliberations about the war, says the man of passion and principle.

Kennedy is fast becoming a kind of anti-Blair, a dustbin for everybody’s frustrations with mainstream politics. Whatever your bone with Blair, the Lib Dems are the party for you. ‘The Conservatives self-evidently cannot win this general election’, says Kennedy: ‘People who want to vote against Tony Blair for a variety of reasons can and should vote Liberal Democrat in that knowledge.’ (3) Brian Sedgemore put it less diplomatically, calling on voters to give Blair a ‘bloody nose’ by voting Lib Dem.

The Lib Dems can only pretend to look good by counterposing themselves to the ugly maidens of British politics. A new website, Lib Dem This Time, says that ‘with the Tories weak, and Blair widely distrusted, the chance is within reach’. But it sees a Lib Dem vote as a gesture of disapproval rather than a move towards real change: ‘A good result for the Liberal Democrats won’t change the world overnight…. But it will be an important sign – that people are disillusioned with the conduct of government, and are ready to support a politics of vision and principle rather than fear and focus groups.’ (4) Kennedy’s claim to principle and decency rests on his opposition to the duplicitous Bliar.

But take away the ugly maidens, and Kennedy is revealed for the dowdy chap he is. Lib Dem supporters seem to want a quiet life. ‘I would rather be in a country run by a calm, humble individual than an ambitious lunatic’, said one contributor to MSN’s Lib Dem section (5). Fair enough, if that’s what you want. Just don’t pretend that you are voting Charlie for change.

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Topics Politics


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