Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The case for a Liberal Renaissance

ren•ais•sance (r n -säns , -zäns , r n -säns , -zäns , r -n s ns)
1. A rebirth or revival.
2. A revival of intellectual achievement and vigour

I have been reading the views of a number of Scottish Liberal Democrat bloggers and activists over the last few days. It’s been interesting to see how each of us is dealing with the reality of defeat in our own way. Some of us talk about the pain and the heartbreak, while others speak in vague terms of a fightback. Some, like the outstanding Alex Cole-Hamilton, revert to humour to diffuse the sense of disappointment. We’re all trying to be positive which in itself is quite an achievement.

Unfortunately, while some of us have been keen to play up the important role the Liberal Democrats will continue to play in the future of Scottish politics, there have been few serious attempts to get to grips with the reasons for the catastrophe and there has been a complete failure so far to articulate any proposals for rebuilding. Any “fightback” requires structural as well as strategic change – and certainly a great deal more than mere positive thinking. It requires more than Nick Clegg’s remedy of “dusting ourselves down” and saying the same things, only louder.

We have to begin with a diagnosis of the problem – which, as I’ve explained previously, is wider and deeper than public dissatisfaction with the coalition government. We have to turn the spotlight on ourselves, rather than simply blame Nick Clegg – however much his personal standing has negatively contributed to our current difficulties. Instead of daubing the wall with whitewash, as Nick Clegg’s e-mail seemed to suggest, we have to seriously face up to not only the unpleasantness of current reality but the nature of it and its causes.

I have come to the conclusion that we don’t need a “fightback”. Not in the accepted sense of the word at least. I don’t doubt we will continue to fight, but a fight doesn’t necessarily guarantee positive outcomes. We can fight our way to another defeat – and what will have been achieved? What we need is a liberal renaissance – a rebirth not only of our party but of the liberal philosophy that underpins it. It is only via a renaissance, rather than a fightback, that we can regain our cultural and political relevance. A renaissance will see us reconnect with our communities, reinvigorate our liberal message and revitalise our party on local as well as national levels.

I fear our leadership may prefer to remain unrepentant, adopting a “Churchillian” attitude of brave defiance. Recent noises within the party of the need to be seen as “a stronger voice in government” on one level are hugely concerning. It suggests we’ve not listened – that all we have to do to win the public over is shout louder. It would be foolish and negligent, and demonstrates an unwillingness to listen to the electorate – it also suggests an ignorance of the need for more drastic, further-reaching action.

The televised debates that led to “Cleggmania” could have kick-started a liberal renaissance. Unfortunately, in the circumstances raised expectations only led to increased disappointment. But the need for a revival has been there for some time, and I don’t accept the arguments of those who feel that all we have to do is withdraw from the coalition or replace our leader and our problems will be automatically remedied. As a party we’ve been struggling to convince the public of our relevance for some time, as evidenced by the way we were seen as first and foremost an anti-Tory party rather than one of radical, dynamic liberalism.

A liberal renaissance must begin with healthy self-criticism and an admission of having made mistakes – which is far more attractive than the relentless self-justification with which the public associate our leadership. It also must begin not with fighting talk, but an acceptance of reality: if we cut ourselves off from reality we will wake up in a foreign country – one we don’t know and will never understand.

There is an old Kikuyu proverb: no matter how long the night, the day is sure to come. We can be positive of this, but only if appropriate actions, rooted in honesty, are taken now. And such actions include an innovative plan to rebuild and regenerate, intellectually as well as organisationally. How can anyone believe that any liberal renaissance, or electoral fightback, will not require intellectual renewal and confrontation?

I have noticed that many observers have written the Liberal Democrats off as “dead”. If the party is indeed dead, then it is surely one of the most extraordinary corpses around. The indications are that the post-mortem is not yet required, but emergency surgery might be. We have been weakened but are not beyond recovery.

What is needed is a short period of considered reflection – not a pointless navel gazing, self-justifying orgy of self-pity but a time for constructive analysis and forward planning. We have to move beyond the natural temptations to define ourselves by the coalition and our role in government, and must plan for the future not in terms of rethinking electoral strategy but in revitalising our party from bottom to top.

A liberal renaissance will involve invigorating and rebuilding. It will require healing internal divisions. It will depend on new grassroots development, especially in our rural communities, and must be rooted in a commitment to a radical liberal philosophy. The path ahead is not an easy one: hard and painful challenges lie ahead. We will require commitment, patience, imagination and new ways of thinking. But facilitating a renaissance is the only way forward, and infinitely preferable to the misguided inclination to simply dig in our heels, take it on the chin and keep on fighting.


gjackson said...

Absolutely brilliant piece.I agree with it all.

Wonder what you made of Clegg's statement today.

Anonymous said...

I fully agree but where is it going to come from? The Liberal philosophy has come from people centuries ago, not recent people unlike the Tories & Labour.
If you want to look at Conservative ideas you can look to Churchill & Thatcher. Labour you have Blair, Brown & of course the founder Keir Hardie is far more recent than most of the Liberal philosophers.

Andrew said...

Well, that's the challenge. Where will it come from? I don't know. But it has to come from somewhere, otherwise the Liberal Democrats will never be able to move into the future.

We have had some liberal philosophers far more recently than Hardie, such as Keynes, Beveridge and even Ramsay Muir (of the Summer School Movement). But they were thinkers for their time and liberalism is a developing creed, continually evolving. We need an intellectual renewal rather than merely a change in electoral fortunes - I would suspect this will come from people like yourself who will be able to articulate a new liberalism for the modern era!

You do touch on something very real - of a tendency to look backwards for inspiration. That in itself is frought with dangers and while I am personally proud of our liberal heritage I don't want our party to live in the past.

Liberalism needs a renewed philosophy and a new generation of philosophers to step up to the mark. These don't necessarily have to be within the party, but it would certainly help. We have to be more than a machine that fights elections, although admittedly we were quite good at that until recently.

I worry that our leadership hasn't grasped the need for invigoration - Clegg's "bloody nose" speech suggested that not only does he not appreciate the scale of the problem, he's relatively short of ideas. We've seen in Scotland how the SNP have successfully reinvented themselves while becoming a more effective electoral machine. We must do likewise, but with perhaps a greater emphasis on intellectual rigour and developing a cogent, practical political theory that will resonate with the public.