“Liberals” too little too late

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Joanne Kate Swinson among her supporters. REUTERS/Rebecca Naden Historically pro-European, during the course of history, the Liberal Democrats have suffered various identity crises. Now they are insisting on a second referendum

She hit the scene at the Bournemouth International Centre in a pastel green dress and red high heels. In front of a yellow set, the Liberal Democrats colour of choice, and the applause of a rapturous audience on their feet. Jo Swinson, 39, was attending her twenty-first party conference, but her first as party leader.

A Scot, associated with the “LibDems” since the age of 17, elected to the Commons aged 25 and an undersecretary by the time she was 32, Joanne Kate Swinson was elected leader of the Liberal Democrats in July, the first woman to hold the post. She inherited a party which, partly thanks to Brexit, is developing a new identity after a series of mistakes and defeats.

“Our first task is clear. We must stop Brexit”, Jo Swinson told the conference. “Because there’s no Brexit that will be good for our country. Europe makes our United Kingdom stronger. But Brexit damages our family of nations”. And if they can’t stop leaving the EU (the House of Commons is voting as we go to print), the aim will be to return there as soon as possible.

Unlike the Conservatives and Labour, which have to juggle ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ European stances in their midst, the Liberal Democrat party has always backed the European project. In 1950, when the Liberal Party of the day voted in favour of the birth of the European Coal and Steel Community, the precursor of the European Economic Community (EEC). In 1973 it provided full support for the United Kingdom’s entry into the EEC and two years later, in the first referendum on a possible exit, it campaigned to stay in. The Liberal Democrats also supported the creation of the common market, promoted in the Eighties by Margaret Thatcher, and the approval of the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, the step which to this day in the United Kingdom is considered a step too far in European integration.

The pro-European stance has historical roots. First set up in 1859 to represent the new industrialist class, the Liberal Party from the very early days of parliamentary democracy, promoted free trade and civil rights. It was opposed by the Conservatives, representing landowners and defending the Crown (the Labour Party, representing the working classes, was born later).

The Liberals governed for most part of the second half of the 19th century. Its first charismatic figure was William Gladstone, the four times prime minister who passed the law on education, guaranteed the secret vote and abolished customs duties and taxes on goods by replacing them with income tax. The party came back into power in 1906 with Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who introduced the national security system.

The First World War and the Twenties and the crisis that followed the Great Depression were critical moments, and although the party was included in Winston Churchill’s “War Cabinet” during the Second World War, after the war its popularity declined drastically.

The party revival didn’t come about until the Seventies, when it backed entry into the European Union, the referendum campaign and a gradual shift towards moderate Labour party members (the Labour Party was in favour of leaving). At the start of the Eighties the so called “Alliance” with the Social Democratic Party began, a Labour splinter group with extreme left wing views. In the 1987 elections, the Alliance obtained 23% of seats, but it could do little against the conservative Margaret Thatcher, who was easily re-elected. This led to the decision to merge into a new party.

Created in 1988, the early days for the Liberal Democratic Party were by no means easy. Internal divisions, uncertainty about the name (initially Social & Liberal Democrats) and 18 months spent coming up with a logo weighed heavily on the result of the European elections of 1989, when they only garnered 6% of the vote.

It was thanks to its leader Paddy Ashdown that the party managed to pick itself up. His programme focused on popular issues such as education and the environment. He was one of the main forces behind the approval of the Treaty of Maastricht, over which the John Major conservative government had lost its majority. “I felt very proud when I got the party, not without a fair amount of arm wrestling, to back John Major over Maastricht”, he later admitted.

In the background, Ashdown also began negotiations to form a government with Tony Blair’s Labour Party. But at the 1997 elections the LibDems obtained 86 seats and Labour’s victory was so overwhelming that the plan was ditched.

The mood changed after the attacks on the Twin Towers in 2001. With the United States on the war path and Blair ready to support the American allies in Iraq, the Liberal Democrats, under the leadership of Charles Kennedy, where the only major party in Britain to oppose the conflict. Even thanks to this position, its popularity continued to grow (62 seats at the 2005 elections, the highest number since 1923).

In 2007 a new leader, Nick Clegg, was elected. He was an internationalist and a Euro-parliamentarian. His electoral campaign slogan in 2010 was “I agree with Nick”, a phrase launched by the outgoing prime minister, the Labour Gordon Brown, during a television debate which Clegg won. The electoral result however was below expectations. But no party obtained a majority in the House of Commons and the 57 LibDem seats could tip the balance.

The party decided to enter a coalition led by the Conservative David Cameron, with Nick Clegg as his deputy. For the first time in 65 years the LibDems were back in government, but they paid dearly for the privilege.

In spite of promoting renewable energies, increased pensions and a law granting same-sex marriage, all initiatives of their own making during the Cameron government, the Liberal Democrats were not forgiven for having agreed to the austerity policies and increases in University fees imposed by the Conservatives. The latter, in particular, were considered an ultimate betrayal by their voters.

As time passed, the party was increasingly ill at ease on a number of policies, especially over immigration. But all this was taking place while to the right of the Conservatives, the UKIP, the UK Independence Party, which aimed to leave the European Union, were on the rise.

It is said that, in 2013, when David Cameron promised a referendum on Brexit if he was re-elected, he was counting on the continuation of the coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who would probably have stopped him. In actual fact, the LibDem manifesto for the 2010 elections already mentioned a referendum, according to the fact-checking site Full Fact.

The 2015 elections were a disaster: the Liberal Democrats only obtained 8 seats and celebrated characters, including Jo Swinson, were ousted from parliament. Nick Clegg resigned the day after the vote and the Conservatives took full control of the government and announced the 2016 referendum on Brexit.

What happened next is common knowledge. Since the referendum however, the party has found a new identity. It gained 12 more seats in the snap elections in 2017 (Nick Clegg lost his), along with many successes at local level, while membership continues to increase thanks to the many Conservatives and Labour who no longer agree with their parties’ lines. After having backed the need for a second referendum, in an increasingly polarised political climate, at the annual conference in September in Bournemouth, the Liberal Democrats decided that Brexit had to be totally ruled out. A letter to the European Union revoking article 50 and the nightmare would be over, they said.

But the shift didn’t go down well with everyone. Caroline Lucas, a former leader of the Green Party and a charismatic figure within the movement who is fighting for the United Kingdom to stay in the EU, claimed that Swinson’s position was “arrogant” and “dangerous” because it was anti-democratic. Only another referendum can cancel the result of the first, according to her and many other opinion leaders. How will it all end up? Like everything that concerns the relations between the United Kingdom and the European Union, making forecasts has become totally impossible.


This article is also published in the November/December issue of eastwest.

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