February 22, 2006


Is there a leader in the house?: On Monday, after a contest dogged by scandal, the Lib Dems will pick a successor to Charles Kennedy. John Harris joins the candidates on the road and finds a party in search of a direction as much as a new leader (John Harris, February 22, 2006, The Guardian)

In 1910, HG Wells portrayed British liberalism as "a system of hostilities and objections that somehow achieves at times an elusive common soul", and it is here that you find its modern manifestation - in an ongoing, anti-political howl against the supposed awfulness of centralised government and all the skulduggery and cant that goes with it. At its crudest, Lib Dems talking to themselves can sound like the idle chat you hear in any pub - all politicians are liars, the Westminster ritual is always self-serving, there's nothing to tell between Tories and Labour - reworded by people with that little bit more political nous. From time to time, however, it just about coheres into a political credo that might address some of Britain's most dysfunctional aspects: the concentration of power in Whitehall, the demise of local government, our creaking electoral system.

There are problems with this, of course. First, though the Lib Dems' rhetoric pulses with righteousness, you wonder whether such worries resonate as well on the doorstep (indeed, this goes some way to explaining their obsessions with lowlier issues such as zebra crossings and rubbish collection). Second, it occasionally teeters over into an unbecoming piety, a sense that the Lib Dems are a principled, well-adjusted breed apart; political saints fighting against countless sins disguised as Westminster realpolitik.

British Liberalism can never solve its fundamental contradiction: it's the party of people who want to preserve what they have but feel too guilty that others don't have it. It's politics is ultimately against its members own interests.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 22, 2006 9:47 AM
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