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Saturday, January 01, 2005


The hazards of willy-waving

Like many other Liberal Democrat members, I have received party leader Charles Kennedy's New Year Message in my inbox. But are the ideological sentiments expressed in this message sincere, or are they just some old bollocks cobbled together to keep the activists happy?

Most party members were probably cheered to read this passage:

"A clear division is emerging in British politics: the politics of fear versus the politics of hope. Labour is counting on the politics of fear, ratcheting up talk of threats, crime and insecurity. While the Conservatives are re-working their populist scares about asylum and the European 'menace'.

"Look at how Labour, with the support of the Conservatives, has undermined trust in the political process by its spin and its reliance on external threats. Currently Labour is using this climate of fear to try to strip away the civil liberties that generations of Briton have defended and enjoyed.

"The politics of fear versus hope can be expressed in another way. It's also the politics of liberalism versus illiberalism. And, as happens increasingly often today, Labour and the Conservatives are on one side and we are on the other."

All good stuff. But readers of last Tuesday's Daily Telegraph might have gained a different impression. A report by Toby Helm said,

"But he [Kennedy] also cautions his own party against allowing itself... to be portrayed as soft on crime and terrorism."

Kennedy is quoted,

'We have to address that agenda because it is going to be a big one. The Government has put it up in lights. The Conservatives want to put it up in lights. What we must not be content to be is the (advocates of) soft-centred liberal opinion.'

Note Kennedy's automatic association of the words 'soft-centred' and 'liberal' - this tells us a great deal.

The article continues,

"In a message to party traditionalists, Mr Kennedy added: 'By all means stick to your principles on civil liberties and (arguments about there being) too much interference by the state. But that doesn't mean to say we haven't got anything relevant to contribute. We have now got many hard-headed Liberal Democrat politicians out there taking tough decisions.'

"He sees the party's new catchphrase 'tough liberalism' – championed by Mark Oaten, his home affairs spokesman – as the equivalent to the 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' mantra invented by Tony Blair in the mid-1990s to show New Labour was a credible alternative to the Conservatives on law and order."

Kennedy seems to be back-pedalling on the principles underlying his party's rigorous support for the recent Law Lords' ruling. Instead, he appears to accept New Labour's false premise that civil liberties and security exist in inverse proportion to one another. He thus concludes that, to be credible on the issues of crime and terrorism, one must enter a bidding race with Labour and the Tories to see who can sound the most 'tough'. This is a contest the Liberal Democrats cannot win. And it is a sordid auction the Lib Dems have no business entering.

Allegedly 'tough' measures, most of which involve a diminution of civil liberties, do nothing to prevent crime or terrorism. They are macho postures, intended to play to the gallery, create a superficial impression of decisive action and stave off attacks from the tabloids.

For example, providing the whole of the third world with clean water and sanitation would do considerably more to reduce terrorism than invading Iraq, and would also be a damn sight cheaper. But this sort of wisdom lacks the elemental satisfaction that political willy-wavers crave.

And talking of willy-wavers, the Telegraph article also demonstrates the thoroughly malign influence that right-wing MP Mark Oaten exerts on the Liberal Democrats. We know why Oaten believes in 'tough liberalism' but what is Charles Kennedy doing endorsing this ridiculous posture?

Oaten is a Bad Thing for four reasons. First, he is ideologically on the right-wing fringe of the Liberal Democrats and hasn't a Liberal instinct in his body. Second, he advocates an illogical and potentially disastrous electoral strategy of "sounding more Tory". Third, he operates through dubious front organisations, Liberal Future and the Peel Group. And fourth, he has acted as a magnet for some of the most odious people in the party, who are egging him on to even worse extremes.

If Charles Kennedy were sincere in his Liberal sentiments, he would cut off Oaten and his supporters at the knees, not promote Oaten to a major portfolio and endorse his right-wing slogans.

But if Oaten's fringe opinions, along with the laissez-faire economics proposed by the party's Treasury team, are to be at the heart of the Liberal Democrat election platform, why not be honest? Why not title the manifesto, 'I Can't Believe It's Not Liberalism' ?

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