The premature obituary of liberal Britain

Tim Farron distorted - Right Dishonourable

Tim Farron was one of the odder casualties at the last general election, resigning more than a week after the dust settled amid allegations of backroom plotting and ongoing controversy about his Christian faith. This despite the Lib Dem leader actually gaining his party a few seats.

His defenestration marked a few things, perhaps most importantly the trouble many have with distinguishing between somebody’s personal beliefs and what they wish to enforce in law. Farron, if you recall, clearly had some problem with homosexuality, but had a decent record on voting for LGBT rights and clearly had no intention of going backwards on the matter.

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These eurosceptic Liberals want to scrap Trident, abolish the national curriculum and nationalise railways

Gladstone debate on Irish Home Rule April1886

Since May’s general election many have wondered what the future of liberalism is in a country where the leading liberal party has only eight MPs.

At the time some commentators speculated that the Liberal Democrats would fade away, unable to claim the insurgent credibility that won it protest votes for decades. Others wondered if in one of the world’s leading liberal democracies the need for a party committed to liberalism is there at all.

On that latter count Glen Maney, a national executive of the rival Liberal party, begs to differ. Speaking to the Right Dishonourable, he even wondered if the UK really is a liberal democracy:

“More CCTV cameras than anywhere else in the world. The growing acceptance of trial without jury. The cutting back on legal aid and the stripping of workers’ rights to go along with that.”

Maney’s party is an obscure one. Now with 12 councillors to its name, the modern Liberal party formed in 1989 shortly after the rump of the historic Liberal party merged with the Social Democrats, the two allied groups having nearly outdone Labour in the previous 1983 general election with a vote share of 25 percent.

Though political activists tend to enjoy working for groups with a heritage, the history comes with some branding difficulties for the smaller Liberal party. As Maney explained, his party ends up getting “a lot of flak” for policies that are actually the Liberal Democrats’. Tim Farron, now the leader of the Lib Dems, has added to the confusion by frequently describing himself as a “Liberal”.

Even so the Liberals do define themselves against the Lib Dems. In general terms it claims to be a party of “small government”. It wishes, for instance, to scrap the Trident nuclear programme. It also wants to abolish the national curriculum in schools, nationalise rail and water infrastructure, and is open to severing ties with the EU.

Indeed such is the zeal against the Union that three prospective councillors in Cornwall stood down at the general election so that their Ukip counterparts stood a better chance. According to Maney, they were later disciplined by the Liberal party for their actions.

“This was not reflective of the party who oppose 90 percent of what Ukip stand for,” he said. “In fact I have recruited several ex-Ukip voters who only agreed with Ukip on Europe, and were disgusted when I pointed out other policies like their stance on the NHS and their support for hunting and Trident.”

Maney even claimed that the Liberals’ stance on the EU had encouraged support even from former Lib Dems, whose view on the Union changed as they saw how the confederation treated Greece during its ongoing debt crisis. “We also have a ground swell of support from ex-Lib Dems who indeed think that their party has compromised their ideology to an unacceptable level,” he said.

On that point of ideology, Maney believes that the market for ideologically purer parties is about to boom. Like many on the Left – Maney puts his party just to the right of the Greens on a “21st century terminology barometer” – he foresees a backlash against the Tories as “debt created largely by the banking crisis is paid for by those who were least responsible”, stimulating the cost of living crisis already affecting much of London.

Labour under [former prime minister Tony] Blair became the slave to big business and deserted its roots in order to be electable, and the Tory ideology appears to now be the ethnic cleansing of the poor.

 

“I think that individuals and parties with values who aren’t prepared to sell out their values will come to the fore over the next fifty years, and I can see from the early shoots of growth in our party that we are seeing now that we will earn the respect of a lot of voters over the next few years by not compromising our ideological standpoints.”

The next few years will prove whether his party, which wants to contest as many seats as possible in the next general election in 2020, manages to capture that enthusiasm.

Image Credit – Liberal leader William Gladstone debates on Irish Home Rule in April 1886, Illustrated London News

The next five years will give the Left much to rally around – but will they stop bickering?

Human Rights Act Protest, May 30 2015

For no party has the General Election been sadder than for the Liberal Democrats. Their crumbling from 56 to 8 seats (which may be reduced to 7 if Scottish MP Alistair Carmichael calls a byelection) was perhaps the defining factor in lifting the Tories over the majority threshold in the Commons.

For their pains as the junior half of the coalition the Liberals have been traduced by both sides. Likely knowing their protest vote would vanish and others would abandon them to the fringe Left, the Tories flooded Liberal marginals with cash. The result was the worst drubbing since the Social Democratic Party teamed up with Gladstone’s descendent in the 80s.

In the wake of the collapse the Tories are lining up illiberal bills they could never have got through with the Liberals in tow. One bans legal highs (the Psychoactive Substances Bill). Another launches a censorship scheme (the Extremism Bill). Yet another will authorise more government snooping (the Investigatory Powers Bill).

But perhaps most troubling, and most baffling, is the furore over the Human Rights Act, a 1998 bill that the Tories promised to scrap in what prime minister David Cameron’s press officer claims is a move to make Britain’s Supreme Court “the ultimate arbiter of human rights”. As The Right Dishonourable has argued before, the plan is a mess.

It was this piece of legislation that motivated fragments of the Left to gather near Parliament Square last Saturday. Whilst mostly these were Liberals there was a smattering of the Socialist Worker’s Party (which appears to have set up a permanent gazebo across from Downing Street) and a few odds and sods.

Such rallies these days show in microcosm why the Left was so roundly beaten. Many of its supporters remain bitter that the Liberals ever went into coalition with the hated Conservatives. One bystander even heckled the “Yellow Tories” as a pack of placard-carrying Liberals walked away from the protest, which congregated opposite Downing Street.

That another protest levelled against austerity was taking place at around the same time on Westminster Bridge, not three minutes walk from Downing Street, says much of the split ambitions of the Left these days too. Liberalism and socialism may not be incompatible, but they need not be allies either.

As the views of journalist Owen Jones readily attest, whoever wins the contest for leadership of the Labour party is unlikely to satisfy those who turn out to anti-austerity marches. Much as there is a portion of the Tories who will not accept globalisation, there are those within the Left that rebel against its uglier effects: pollution, deprivation and exploitation. Such people will not savour a return to Blairism.

At least on this front the Liberals do not seem so divided. Tim Farron, the MP and grassroots’ favourite, has been much in view at the post-election meetings, shaking hands and making speeches as he prepares for a leadership bid. Whether he or his fellow MP Norman Lamb wins the ensuing contest, there are not enough Liberals for a major rupture to be anything other than suicide.

That difference aside, both Liberal and Labour will have a challenge to reëstablish what it means to be in opposition, and more broadly what it means to be on the Left. Both have what the corporate world terms a “branding issue”. For Labour this means harnessing some of the breadth that Tony Blair mustered in his hat-trick of victories – a task that may prove impossible for now.

For the Liberals, however, it means adapting to the fractured multi-party state they helped build. It means fewer protest votes. And as Saturday showed, it means greater competition from other leftwing political voices, most obviously in Scotland from the Scottish National Party.

The Left has five years until the next general election. Whether this is enough time remains to be seen.

Header Image – Human Rights Act Protest, May 30th 2015 by The Right Dishonourable

Is it time to boycott political intolerance?

Honolulu Pride Parade, 2012, Daniel Ramirez

The long debate over what exactly freedom is reached a head last week as various American states wrestled with rehashes of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The bill – signed into federal law by US president Bill Clinton in 1993 – seeks to stop government forcing the religious to disobey their own principles, and has lately been mooted in state form in Indiana and Arkansas.

Such legislation seeks to mediate between individual conscience and “compelling government interest”, most notably over the issue of religiously-inspired discrimination. Handily for the media, a prime example of this emerged in the form of Memories Pizza, whose owner Crystal O’Connor said she would not serve a gay couple’s wedding due to her Christian beliefs when asked about the bill.

The backlash against O’Connor and her husband was swift, with the listing for the pizza joint on reviews site Yelp pelted with negative reviews and lewd images. The website of Memories Pizza was also seemingly defaced, and a charming (and presumably, in US parlance, liberal) high school sports coach took to Twitter to threaten the couple with arson.

This is some turnaround for a country that only struck down its prohibitions against sodomy in 2003. As the orthodoxy of homophobia has eroded in the West campaigners have gradually replaced it with a new one, criminalising the expression of old prejudices. Hate speech laws have spread over much of Europe, with countries such as France, Germany and Austria even outlawing the denial of the Holocaust.

The current furore also follows shortly after the defenestration of Brendan Eich, whose brief role as chief executive of the Firefox creator Mozilla was brought to an end last April after acolytes of the nonprofit discovered he had donated money in support of Proposition 8, a law blocking gay marriage in California.

Eich’s politics were no doubt unsuitable for his role at the open source firm, which prides itself on inclusivity. Yet the threats to boycott Mozilla in the wake of his appointment point to a far uglier trend in progressive politics: that of threatening a person’s livelihood when you find their beliefs repugnant.

In the case of Memories Pizza it was not enough for people merely to protest or boycott a malign policy: the business had to be shut down or forced to comply through the law. Such a case has been mirrored in the UK, with the No More Page 3 campaign against the Sun newspaper’s snaps of naked ladies seeing supermarkets obscure the tabloids in their displays.

When taken together such events show the desire for ideological conformity remains alive despite decades of rebellion from the greyness of the post-war years. So long as people exist there will always be puritans on the Left and Right who cannot tolerate any dissent from their viewpoint, and will punish those who openly express such things.

Unsurprisingly such progressive illiberalism has grown as such measures become unnecessary. Even in famously prudish America firms as big as Apple, General Electric and US retailer Walmart rushed to slate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, realising that the progressive markets are increasingly more lucrative than conservative ones.

That is not to say, as UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage recently recommended, that we rub out the anti-discrimination laws. But it is worth asking what sort of democracy we are creating if any dissent from orthodoxy is punished through boycotts and threats. It is also worth asking if such shrieking changes the minds of people, or merely pushes their complaints underground, where they fester and grow more noxious.

Image – Daniel Ramirez