The rather sad story of the Lib Dems


I found myself in agreement with Norman Lamb last week that his party (and mine) was in danger of becoming an equally irresponsible version of the European Research Group on the Remainder side.

What I did find unexpected was how much agreement and symathy there was for his position in the comments below the line on Lib Dem Voice.

I also have huge sympathy with him because I feel what he must feel, this terrible sense of guilt and alienated disappointment that I find myself so out of kilter with the party I have been a member of for four decades.

I also feel a sense of huge frustration for another reason, looking back more than a century since the last time the ruling Conservatives fractured over trade policy. In the early years of the century, Joseph Chamberlain’s ideas about ‘imperial preference’ – whether we should have as close a trading relationship with Europe as we did with the empire or not – split the Tories from top to bottom.

It was this dispute where one cabinet minister famously confided that he had nailed is colours “firmly to the fence”.

What was different from today is that there was an effective Liberal opposition under Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who was able to engineer the Liberal landslide of 1906 as a result – which gave us old age pensions and the People’s Budget and much else besides.

This is what I find frustrating. That Campbell-Bannerman’s successors could have developed the kind of rheortic that could speak for the nation as a whole, beyond the old labels of Remainer and Leaver and could provide people with just a glimmer of hope.

I fear it may now be too late.

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  1. Ray Kay says

    I strongly believe in Europe and our European culture as opposed to the USA approach to life. Yesterday I drove in some parts of grim south London where nobody would choose to live. I am coming to think that for the good of ourselves and Europe we should leave. Have a reality check. Sort ourselves out and probably rejoin when we have a sense of reality. It could go the other way of course and we end up with no NHS no public services, armed guards at our schools and a junta of Boris, Trump and Farage in charge.

  2. Stephen Gwynne says

    I think what people and Remainers in particular need to realise that we are leaving the EU, not the European System which comprises of the EEA, the EU, EFTA and independents who have various associative status with the EU.

    The current shenanigans in Parliament, most of which is driven by Party politics trying to create huge cleavages over the minor but significant differences between the various types of Brexit.

    Essentially, what is happening is that we as a country are in the process of determining a different and new type of legal framework within the European System by which to relate to the EU, EFTA and the other independent European nations.

    The current fallback, as per the EU Withdrawal Act, is EEA membership, since the Withdrawal Act does not repeal the European Economic Area Act 1993. However complications do arise. and amendments would be required to be made to the EEA Treaty.

    In essence, EEA membership provides the basis of the transition period which would, as per the Withdrawal Agreement, be accompanied by a temporary customs arrangement that is backed up by the Irish bilateral backstop (the basis of which is already within the EU Withdrawal Act), citizens/corporate rights and budget bill.

    In large parts, this temporary customs arrangement seems to be a replication of the EFTA customs arrangements with the EU. However I’m still trying to find out what these EFTA – EU customs arrangements actually are, since there is no FTA between EFTA and the EU.

    Beyond the transition, the current trajectory is a new type of legal framework within the European System which essentially allows for more democratic controls over the 4 economic freedoms (the Swiss model) or derogations from the EEA Treaty (the EFTA plus model) as well as a customs agreement in the form of a FTA.

    This means we as a country are now in the process of negotiating a new legal framework by which to relate to the EU, EFTA and independent European countries within the European System as a whole. I think a large part of the prevailing confusion is that people do not make a distinction between the EU and the European System as a whole which makes it extremely difficult to to contextualise exactly what is going on as a layperson.

    The main reason why people voted leave is to regain democratic control over our economy, our ecology and our relationship with the EU. The level of independence is still being negotiated in Parliament in the form of different types of withdrawal agreements with soft Brexit deals either mirroring or joining EFTA, May’s Deal beginning the process of formulating a new legal framework by which to operate within the European System and a No Deal (which currently falls back on EEA membership but with no customs arrangements so will fallback on WTO terms).

    The question then is what type of European System will create a sustainable and sufficient future for Europe considering that the current EU economic framework is fundamentally unsustainable and unable to deliver long term economic, social and ecological prosperity and wellbeing without continuing to appropriate foreign resources and continuing to appropriate future quotas of renewable resources.

    As of yet, Remainers, with their desire to remain in the EU or to move towards EFTA, do not have a plan by which the European Economic System will become sustainable and sufficient without continuing to appropriate foreign and future resources with recent arguments with Remainers revealing the middle class fury that they demand the full range of EU economic rights which causes the unsustainability in the first place. This position is obviously not tenable in the long term unless the proposed EU Army is to be mobilised in order to capture or protect foreign resources in opposition to the US and Chinese blocs. In other words, the current Remainer position will inevitably lead Europe to WW3.

    In order to create a sustainable and sufficient future for the European System which need to start looking how we can restrict ecologically destructive international trade between Europe and the world and within Europe itself. This can be done in different ways but requires a wide ranging rethink about how the European System is organised which in part is being currently pioneered by the UK.

    In simple terms, we could have a European economic area and a European customs area in which independent European nations, efta and the EU can unilaterally set its own tariffs and non tariff barriers within these areas. This creates a distinction between the European system and the global system for the benefit of wto rules but allows European countries to democratically determine economic flows by applying tariffs and non tariff barriers which are linked to sustainability and sufficiency metrics in order to create a European system of national/regional sufficiency economies.

    Therefore, whilst in practice the 4 economic freedoms will apply, they can be restricted on the basis of carbon footprints and or ecological footprints in order to encourage greater economic relocalisation and greater national and regional economic sufficiency.

    This system preserves European identity and solidarity and allows for the resilience benefits of national sufficiency economies in order to reduce European unsustainability and in order to prepare Europe for a disruptive future.

    Lastly, the most direct way to a sustainable and sufficient European system is a no deal Brexit in which we retain EEA membership but have full democratic control over tariffs and non tariff barriers. Admittedly to exercise this control unilaterally would require an amendment to wto rules but on the basis of moral law and the duty to create a sustainable and sufficient future together, the unilateral control of tariffs and non tariff barriers could be evoked as an international human right by which to create a sustainable environment in which all other rights can be realised.

    However the disruptive nature of this option, especially regarding existing trade flows and the middle class “right” to continue destroying the European environment with their desire to enjoy the full extent of the 4 economic freedoms means this direct route is politically untenable.

    That said, we need to start going beyond the logic of Party politics which at present means a soft Brexit will see the downfall of the Tories at the next general election whilst a No Deal or May’s Deal will give the Tories a fighting chance.

    Personally I don’t see how EFTA or EU membership will resolve the underlying unsustainability issues that the EU system presently creates so in order to begin the process of transforming the European System, May’s Deal presently offers the best route.

  3. Peter Arnold says

    David, I understand your position. It is one I have thought about myself.
    The really sad truth is that the LibDems have abandoned their radical and reformist roots.
    The role of Liberals is to challenge the status quo. The LibDems have become part of it, and that is the problem. The Preamble to the Party’s Constitution contains enough radical ideas for the kind of society it espouses, but the reality is that it doesn’t campaign for them. Having tasted government during the Coalition, they are now frightened of upsetting any of the powers-that-be in case they never get a second chance to be in government. That is a fundamental blunder of gigantic proportions, and helps to explain its awful position in the polls.
    The UK (while it lasts, and that is a serious issue now) needs root and branch reform of its constitutional, political and governmental systems if it is to have any chance of surviving as a modern and liberal society. It also needs fundamental reform of its economic system which is now out of anyone’s control, and threatens us all. Being nice, thoughtful people is not enough to bring about these changes.
    The LibDems must stop being introverted and frightened of the future. That is the path of the Tories and Labour, conservative parties both, and hopefully they will fracture soon as a result of their incompetent performance over Brexit.
    Liberals have a great story to tell about empowering individuals, families and communities to take back a degree of control over their own lives and futures. Community politics, economics and development are the tools for the job, and the task now is to campaign for a new Britain that can take its place in the international community as a liberal, tolerant and successful nation that believes in the power of human beings to confront and solve the problems facing people in our every-increasingly interdependent world.
    The question is, are there any radical and liberal campaigners left in the LibDems who will proudly raise the golden flag of Liberalism? Liberals must take the message out to the people that there is hope for a better world, but it will only happen if people care enough to work for it. That was the Liberal Party I joined in 1967, a party of campaigners and believers in the Liberal cause, not the party of the status quo I left in 2017.

    • Huw Jones says

      I quite agree! In 50 years of canvassing, when people ask what the Liberals stand for, my answer is always “you and me”. We don’t represent business or workers, or any other type of employment, or section of society, we fight for whole people, wherever they find themselves on life’s journey. And yet we allowed the coalition break down into the question of a broken promise to students, and reigning in the nastier aspects of Tory policy. We should have stood up for the reforms we had always wanted and been prepared to throw the Government into chaos if we did not get them. Instead of hanging on to power for as long as the Ministerial cars kept collecting us, we should have risked that power for the people we represented. And now we should be more vocal about horrible and self destructive Brexit. We should repeatedly make it clear that we are the biggest of the whole UK remain parties, and force Corbyn off the fence. And we should not allow viewers of BBC Parliament to see that we re absent from the Chamber during the EU migration debate – surely an extremely important subject for all LDs, and one in which we have a distinctive policy – or perhaps even that has been watered down?

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