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?
"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...