Do the Liberal Democrats need to "grow up"?

An idealist (obviously wearing sandals) votes against
the government position. Isn't it by time he grew up?
Debate is currently raging about whether the Liberal Democrats are "ready" to be a "grown-up" political party. Our leader demands it and we're just not prepared for it, apparently. The Spectator has reported this so it must be true.

"Grown up" is a term Nick Clegg likes. He uses it a lot - in fact, he used it a lot even before we were in government (the epitome of grown-upness in Clegg's book).  Now, when I think of "grown up parties" I've clearly got different things in mind to Nick Clegg and unfortunately it's not quite as good as it sounds.

When Nick talks about "grown up politics" and "being a serious party of government" he means pretty much the same thing. This is his raison d'etre: to turn the Liberal Democrats from a party of nice inoffensive ladies called Geraldine and beard-sporting, sandal wearing eccentrics who were comfortable with the familiar politics of opposition into a formidable, credible and natural party of government in the public imagination.

How's that plan going, Nick?

Of course, I understand where Nick and "his colleagues at the top of the party" are coming from. They're frustrated that our internal democracy gives members a bit too much influence. Agreed, it can be chaotic at times. All these confusing arrangements, unnecessary conference motions that are passed and ultimately ignored, insufficient control from the top and unappreciative party members. Of course all this is a massive improvement on where we were only a few years ago before we were rescued from ourselves by Nick Clegg. I mean, we were so juvenile, so non-grown-up, so lacking in ambition or influence, so helplessly idealistic that we were an embarrassment. No wonder we made all those electoral losses between 1992 and 2005.

There appears to be a concern that divisions within the party are opening up - not between left and right (take that, SLF splitters!) but between "pragmatists and idealists". For pragmatists read those who continue to wear "I agree with Nick" t-shirts; for "idealists" read those who disagree with the leadership and raise awkward questions at conference about the NHS, secret courts, etc. (Not those who support Scottish independence, of course - they're "extremists"). It's these "idealists" who are the real problem and they need to "grow up" damned quickly!!!

Equating idealism with a lack of maturity may seem an unusual step for a party leader - after all, previous leaders have had their difficulties with party members without resorting to such rhetoric. A spokesperson for the Deputy Prime Minister advised me that "look here you Northern oik, surely you understand that we don't want a party that even Lembit Opik can be a member of?" I sympathised for a moment, before being told: "now don't go writing any more infantile gibberish on A Scottish Liberal!"

No doubt the "grown-up" approach to politics is actually yielding dividends. There should be no place for cynicism. Just imagine what the consequences might have been if we hadn't acted in such a mature, "grown-up" fashion when dealing with sensitive situations like the tuition fees matter...or the NHS...or secret courts...or the bedroom tax. We'd have looked like a bunch of complete amateurs, as if we didn't have a clue what we were doing. We might have lost a lot of public support without that "grown-up" touch. People might have thought we were led by a five year-old!

I've come to the conclusion that whatever truth may be in them, the "grown-up" remarks are unhelpful. Not only are they divisive, it doesn't actually mean anything. The real divisions within the party aren't between left and right, or even pragmatists and idealists (it is possible to adhere to pragmatic approaches while maintaining principles and ideals, or doesn't Nick understand that?) but between the party establishment and those who dare to challenge it.  No doubt there'll be a lot of people at conference this autumn with a little bit of "growing-up" to do but, like most rebellious adolescents, they might need the Head Teacher to convince them of it.

In the meantime, I think I might go to a real "grown up party".  Being one of those idealistic Liberal Democrats who enjoys the bad old days of electoral thrashings, I'm quite used to being whipped and dominated...


Thomas Widmann said…
It would be quite surprising if the Liberal Democrats remain in power after the next UK election (and it would also be a big surprise if they formed part of the next Scottish government), and then there won't be any point in having grown up, so I think the idealists will gain the upper hand again soon. :-)
Anonymous said…
I speak as a Nick Clegg fan of only 3 years ago, when I say that I think he has lost the plot.

I think he needs to remember that the name of the party is Liberal Democrat, and start trying to aim for at least one of the words in his actions.
GHmltn said…
Hi Andrew,
I think Nick Clegg was right and courageous to take the party into government and to start to build a party of government than of protest. The problem is he has positioned the part as centre-right when its centre of gravity is centre left.

He is also something of a pragmatist and, I think, we have had problems because the party is not anchored enough to a clear idealology and a mission that everyone understands.

Having said this I think the parliament needs to play itself out for us to assess the holistic narrative of what we have done in government which for me means being clear about what we were trying to achieve, what we have done in government, what we have prevented and what we have tried to deliver but were perhaps thwarted due to a lack of numbers or by Labservative opposition.
Andrew said…
Gavin - I'm not remotely suggesting that we shouldn't be in government, that Clegg shouldn't have led us into government or that he wasn't courageous to do so. Take a look at my blogposts for May 2010.

It's too simplictic to consider Clegg a pragmatist. He's a Churchillian figure who believed it was his destiny to create history - lead us into government, deliver on Lords reform and PR, transform a 3rd party into a responsible party of government. He's been single minded in pursuit of this. So single minded in fact that he hasn't dedicated enough time to creatuing a cogent strategy to make it happen. lof those 4 objectives, the only thing he's done is take us into government, and that was essentially a fortunate by-product of the electoral arithmetic. On PR and Lords reform, he's helped to put back any chance of progress for at least a generation. He's not a very effective pragmatist to my mind.

My real objection is in Clegg, or more accurately some of his colleagues and aides, dismissing critical voices as immature. That in itself lacks maturity and is a recipe for further division.

oddly, the party that loved opposition so much found itself thrust into government, while the party led by the man so anxious to ensure we become a responsible party of government may well find that his efforts ensure decades in opposition. Oh, the irony!