Monday, 11 June 2018

A Very English Conundrum

Apart from nostalgia for a time when the Liberal Party was relevant, which is probably a hankering for the blissful dawn of 2010 rather than 1974, A Very English Scandal, the dramatisation of the downfall of Jeremy Thorpe, has prompted little in the way of political reflection. As a story of tragi-comic entitlement (Norman Scott's lament over his National Insurance card was as emblematic as Thorpe's expectation of the connivance of others), the politics of the era was always going to be marginalised, and that's before you take into account a rich cast of characters that included an inept assassin, a biased judge and a dissolute barrister. With a routinely thuggish police officer and a bustling lady publican called Edna Friendship thrown into the mix, this felt like a Joe Orton farce. As a dramatic form, farce deals with universal moral failings in ridiculous settings, rather than historical specifics, which is why good farces don't lose their relevance. Accidental Death of an Anarchist isn't about Milan in 1969 but a tale of police corruption, which is timeless. Likewise, A Very English Scandal dealt with establishment immorality and complacency, which is for the ages. However, there is some value in thinking about the political context of the Thorpe affair, both to understand the role it played in the lead-up to the pivotal election of 1979 and to assess the current state of the "centre ground" in British politics.

Though he became a Liberal, Jeremy Thorpe was of Tory stock and is best thought of as a maverick who was sincerely postcolonial at a time when the Conservative Party wasn't. He was also heavily influenced by Lloyd George - a family friend - in his political opportunism and reliance on rhetoric. Any similarities in terms of sexual promiscuity are presumably coincidental. In modern terms, Thorpe was a Notting Hill Tory avant la lettre. This highlights one important dynamic: that despite its distinct history and persistent nonconformist culture, the postwar Liberal Party has often featured socially liberal, patrician Tories as leaders, from Jo Grimond to Nick Clegg. I don't apply that term mockingly: rather I note that the Liberals lost their social role with the growth of the Labour Party but were still able to operate as a ginger group that took issue with Conservative Party orthodoxy while agreeing on the fundamentals of property and capitalism. Thus Jo Grimond was able to advocate Scottish independence and nuclear disarmament in the 1950s and 60s without being branded a traitor, while the role of the Orange Book in preparing the coalition of 2010-15 was to encourage the Tories to be even more market-friendly.

Jeremy Thorpe was cautious in his social liberalism. As A Very English Scandal makes clear, he was not interested in advocating the decriminalisation of homosexuality, though I think this reflected a political calculation rather than fear of personal exposure. Being against the death penalty, as he was, wasn't necessarily popular, but it was seen as principled: it didn't alienate those that it didn't attract, which wasn't the case with gay rights in the 60s. His strong suit was his internationalism, notably his stands against Rhodesian UDI and South African apartheid, but this masked a lack of interest in economic policy beyond a distaste for socialism typical of his class and background, which meant an antipathy towards trade unions and an ambivalence towards the welfare state. His opposition to the activism of the Young Liberals in the late-60s was driven more by their demands for a policy of industrial democracy than their disruption of rugby matches involving the Springboks. Ironically, their diversion of this democratic activism into the community politics of the early-70s did much to secure the by-election victories that would propel Thorpe to the peak of political influence in 1974.

While the Liberals were always going to be identified with the political centre by default, Thorpe pursued a strategy of accentuating the party's centrist positioning in order to maximise the votes of disillusioned Labour and Conservative supporters. Rather than a distinct Liberal identity, such as that advocated by the Young Liberals or, in a different register, by the Orange Bookers of the early-00s, the party made "none of the above" the centrepiece of its platform, which meant that it wasn't always clear what it really stood for. Even in the arena of foreign policy, which was inconsequential for the vast majority of voters, Thorpe's leadership was marked by radical rhetoric and cautious policy (for example, while he excoriated British colonialism, he stymied the Young Liberals' opposition to NATO and support for Palestine). His chief legislative contribution was his support in the Commons for Ted Heath in the passage of the European Communities Act in 1972, though it's worth remembering that this was overwhelmingly backed by the establishment (and most of the media at the time) and the inexorable logic of what would become "ever closer union" was understood by relatively few. He wasn't taking a great political risk.

Thorpe's strategy highlights another important dynamic: that centrism is fundamentally opportunistic rather than principled. Again, this is not a slur but an observation of political practice. Centrism needs two clearly defined poles of opposition in order to define itself as a viable alternative. Historically, the electoral success of the Liberal Party under Thorpe (at least in votes if not in seats) owed everything to the secular economic crises of the early and mid-1970s and their political ramifications, in particular the shift of Labour towards greater industrial intervention and the shift of the Conservatives to a more liberal economic policy. Both of these tendencies were partial and multivalent. Labour was divided between traditional advocates of state control and bureaucracy on the one hand and post-68 advocates of workers' control and direct democracy on the other. The Tories were increasingly divided between statist modernisers who placed their faith in Europe and economic liberals who in turn made common cause with small capital reactionaries in their suspicion of the state. The drift of each away from a pragmatic approach towards a more ideological position opened up a space for the Liberal Party, however this depended on the electorate remaining ambivalent about both the main parties, which in turn depended on those parties remaining in flux.

The problem for the Liberals was that this space largely depended on the "don't knows" and in particular Tory voters suspicious of emergent neoliberalism. In other words, this was an electoral bloc that was essentially conservative, rather than socially liberal, and one that found Thorpe's patrician manner and policy caution reassuring. As the political climate became more partisan, and as these conservative voters became more antipathetic towards Labour after the IMF "crisis" and the "winter of discontent", the Liberal Party was increasingly occluded by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party as it exited the state of flux quicker than Labour. While A Very English Scandal suggests that the party's decline in the latter part of the decade, culminating in Thorpe's loss of his seat in 1979, was partly due to the fallout of his acquittal, it was in fact due to a decisive shift in the electorate's attitude towards economic management. Labour actually won slightly more votes in 1979 than it did in October 1974, but the Tories romped to victory by adding 3 million at the ballot box: roughly 1 million from the Liberals and 2 million from increased turnout. While some of that Liberal-to-Tory swing might have been influenced by the Thorpe affair, it is hard to believe that previous non-voters, whether abstainers or the young, were that bothered by it.

This highlights a third dynamic: when the electorate switches in large net numbers between the big two, centrist parties (or regional parties, for that matter) tend to suffer, as would be seen again in 1997. They can also suffer if the centre ground itself becomes contested. Though the Liberal Democrats lost two-thirds of their vote in 2015, after their uninspiring period in coalition, this wasn't because of a major shift between the two main parties but because they lost their pre-eminent role as the "none of the above" vote repository to UKIP. Thinking of UKIP as a centrist party might seem perverse, but that is essentially how many ex-Labour voters who switched to the Kippers rationalised their decision. Even ex-Tory voters who gravitated to UKIP saw themselves as essentially centrist (which for them is synonymous with conservative) in contrast to the socially liberal bloc represented by David Cameron and George Osborne. It's an unpalatable thought for centrists, but the political legatee of Jeremy Thorpe, with his trilby, covert coat and generally raffish air, is (or was) Nigel Farage. But the wipe-out of UKIP in 2017 did not herald a revival in Lib Dem fortunes as the home of the protest vote. Instead we saw a reversion to an electoral duopoly.

Considering the three dynamics outlined above - the tendency of the centre to attract progressive Tory politicians, its tactical opportunism, and the need for a balance of power between the two main parties - the times might appear to be auspicious for a centrist revival. The likes of Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve attract more media coverage than Vince Cable, Brexit provides the mother of all opportunities for a distinctive position, and the 2017 result and subsequent opinion polls suggests that neither Labour nor the Conservatives are about to secure a decisive majority of the electorate. But, there is a big problem here, and we can see it if we remember that the Liberals' fortunes steadily declined after their electoral highpoint in February 1974 as the effects of the mid-70s recession bit. A centrist party that seeks to supplant one of the big two can do reasonably well in terms of votes, certainly sufficient to effect the outcome of a general election, as was the case in 1983 when the Tories lost vote share but increased their seats due to the impact of the SDP-Liberal Alliance on the Labour vote, but a party that seeks to come through the middle and take votes equally from both Labour and the Conservatives requires a relatively benign economic environment and for political debate to accommodate matters aspirational or international.

You might then wonder how the Liberal Democrats managed to do so well in 2010, when they captured 23% of the vote in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. The answer is that their success owed much to the Brown administration's stabilisation of the economy in 2009, which led many voters to think that the impact on their personal circumstances might be slight, and their commitment to aspirational policies such as tax cuts, green jobs and (ironically) educational investment, which contrasted well with the Tories' prioritisation of austerity. There was also the banked goodwill arising from their opposition to the Iraq War, which was still a live issue with the setting-up of the Chilcot Inquiry in 2009. If austerity did for the Lib Dems in both 2015 and 2017, it is likely that the weak state of the economy will do likewise come the next general election. Were there to be an earlier election, the most likely trigger would be the government's defeat over its Brexit policy, however the election itself is unlikely to be fought on that topic and is far more likely to centre on economic and social policy, specifically on Labour's plans for investment and repair. In that scenario, a clear difference between Labour and the Conservatives is likely to empty the centre, just as it did in 2017.

1 comment:

  1. Ben Philliskirk14 June 2018 at 08:17

    Many of the travails of the 'liberal centre' are the results of their post-Cold War ideological triumphalism coming back to haunt them.

    If the 'end of history' merely amounts to a constant adjustment to impersonal and often irrational economic forces, then what room is there for politics or even for the rhetoric of 'progress' that liberals had traded on for years?

    What you're left with are the ridiculously concocted ideological struggles that have seen centrists engaging with anyone who questions both the political status quo and uncontrolled socio-economic change. This is why liberals have become more electorally impotent, but why they are also more dangerous in the sense that they are desperate for ideological crusades that could turn out to be very messy indeed.