AS A TEENAGER in Scotland in the 1960s I joined the Liberal Party under the spell of Jo Grimond. I subsequently became Chairman of Glasgow University Liberal Club, President of the Association of Scottish Liberal Students, Treasurer of the Scottish League of Young Liberals and contested Paisley for them in the first general election of 1970. There I heard senior citizens denounce both Asquith and Lloyd George, whom I regarded as great historical figures. Later I would learn to distrust everything I heard from Liberals or should I say Liberal Democrats.
The great Liberal slogan in my day was ‘a federal Britain in a federal Europe’. I dare say the Lib Dems still believe in it despite the miserable economic record of the EU and the incompetence of its bureaucracy. As head of European Studies at LSE for a decade my Liberal innocence about it was so undermined by hard facts that I became a leader of the movement against it. However, the popular vote in the 2016 referendum in favour of Leave is still something Liberal Democrats are in denial over.
With regard to a federal Britain, this other policy plank of theirs is also irrational. Given the size of England, the lack of popular English demand for it and the abysmal record of Scottish devolution, there is no case in its favour. Still, there are nervous, so-called Conservatives, mainly in the House of Lords, who would tear up our historic constitution to bring in some or other version of it – ostensibly to win back the very Scots who are not in the least interested.
The SNP, it cannot be said often enough, is not interested in belonging to any form of Britain, centralised, federal, confederal or whatever. Their raison d’etre is to destroy Great Britain. I do hope Boris Johnson understands this.
Why write this article? My thoughts turned to the Liberal Democrats after listening to the Lib Dem Layla Moran MP on an election results programme. These results showed the Lib Dems won only one MS in the Welsh Parliament; only four MSPs (down from five) in the Scottish Parliament; gained a paltry 7 council seats overall, but not as many as the Greens – who more than doubled their number, gaining 88; while of course they still only have 11 MPs. To which the mad Moran could only respond that nonetheless they were “the main opposition to the Conservatives”. I know Labour had a bad night, but really, what could she have been smoking?
Moran is mainly famous for her love life. She broke with her boyfriend having been questioned by the police for assaulting him at the 2013 Lib Dem Conference, before announcing a lesbian affair with a former party press officer. After that she proclaimed she was a ‘pansexual’. Presumably only Lib Dems know the exact difference between a bisexual and a pansexual, while those of us with a proper classical education prefer not to think about the matter.
Moran would not be of any importance but for the fact that having failed to become party leader after the unlamented political demise of Jo Swinson at the last election, the latest Lib Dem leader, Sir Ed Davey, made her the party’s foreign affairs spokesperson.
So when the French threatened to cut off Jersey’s electricity supplies and French fishermen blockaded its port, what did Moran have to say about it? Well, let me quote: “The (British) gunboat diplomacy is an admission of failure by this Government. The real question is how did they even let it get to this stage. France is a partner and a friend.” Sure, just one who threatens to cut off electricity supplies in the way Putin threatens to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine. And Russia is a neighbour of Ukraine just as France of course is ours.
The factor which Moran never mentioned was Brexit. Are the Lib Dems contrite, ashamed even, over their behaviour regarding Brexit? Do they still support Brussels against London? Moran certainly leaves the latter impression. Perhaps we should recall their record over Brexit.
The Lib Dems were the first mainstream party to call for an in-out EU referendum. In 2007, acting party leader, Vince Cable wrote that the party would table a motion calling for one. In 2008 the party published a leaflet saying it wanted an in-out referendum not just one on the Lisbon Treaty. In the Guardian in 2008, Nick Clegg wrote ‘we’ve been signed up to Europe by default’. Nobody under the age of 51 and half of all MPs had never had a say.
In the same year, Ed Davey MP, then foreign affairs spokesman, was barred from the Chamber of the House of Commons, after challenging the Speaker’s decision not to allow MPs to vote on an EU referendum. Finally Jo Swinson also demanded an EU referendum that year.
Did they mean it?
Well the party’s manifestos in both 2010 and 2015 committed them to such a referendum. And Cameron’s call for one was enshrined in the 2015 EU Referendum Bill, passed by 544 to 53 MPs on Second Reading with seven out of the then eight Lib Dem MPs voting in favour.
It was taken for granted of course that Remain would win but when it lost, all the Lib Dem leading lights lined up to say that of course they would respect the result. That principled liberal and democratic stance only lasted a year.
Once May lost her parliamentary majority in 2017 and the demented Swinson returned to Parliament and was elected party leader, the party changed its mind. It first called for a second referendum – but then wanted to revoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty without one and at a stroke return us to full EU membership. By now liberalism and democracy had been clearly cast aside.
Paradoxically, however, Liberalism had already shot itself in the foot and due to two moves would actually help deliver Brexit.
First, rich Liberal Gina Miller, ostensibly in defence of parliamentary sovereignty, applied to the Supreme Court, under the presidency of arch-federalist Lady Hale, to ensure that the Commons would have to agree any Brexit deal. The Supreme Court was only too happy to oblige. The aim was to ensure a very Brussels-friendly Brexit deal but when May actually supplied one, which would have kept us inside the Single Market and Customs Union, the Commons voted it down three times.
By then the Lib Dem slogan was simply ‘Stop Brexit’. But how? Boris replaced May in 2019 but the only way of ousting him was to have a coalition Government under Corbyn. But Swinson would not agree. Having seen rogue opinion polls she deluded herself that she could become prime minister and along with the SNP pressured Corbyn into agreeing to an election. She proved a disaster and lost her seat and Boris swept the country. All the Tory Brexit rebels lost their seats and he secured a majority of eighty, which saw Brexit ‘done’ and a trade treaty signed with the EU. The Lib Dems had been reduced to eleven MPs. But thanks to Gina Miller, the Supreme Court and Swinson, Boris got his way.
We may laugh at the unintended consequences of Lib Dem behaviour but the fact remains this party betrayed not only its own principles in what it did but challenged the clearly expressed will of the British people in order to support a foreign state.
Yet betraying its own promises, principles and ordinary people has become standard practice for this party. In coalition with Cameron it blithely tripled university students’ fees after solemnly promising not to. Why students today should still back it, one cannot guess. Then, still in coalition, it backed the ‘bedroom tax’ which cut the income of many poor and disabled families all over the country. In Scotland it has backed the notorious Hate Crimes Bill which allows conversations inside the home to be reported to the police for criminal prosecution.
Most recently, however, it has been reported that the three most recent party leaders have been responsible for a huge miscarriage of justice that has seen hundreds of innocent people lose their homes and livelihoods, be given criminal records and jail sentences – and caused at least one man to commit suicide. I refer of course to the scandal of the sub postmasters which recently led to criminal convictions of 39 of them being overturned with consequences still to be determined.
Between 2000 and 2014 the Post Office prosecuted more than 700 sub postmasters, on average one a week, after a bug in the computer system ‘Horizon’ led to financial shortfalls in branch accounts. Common sense should have suggested to the Post Office and to the ministers concerned that a crime wave on this scale among people who had given honest service often for decades was highly unlikely and naturally suspicion was pointed to Horizon. One Tory MP, now Lord Arbuthnot of Edron, who raised concerns in 2009 says it is ‘nonsense’ that ministers were not made aware of what was going on but that they chose to do nothing.
The ministers concerned between 2010 and 2015 were Cable, Davey and Swinson. Sir Vince Cable was Business Secretary and Davey and Swinson were in charge of postal affairs in the department. They were all regularly contacted by the organisation Justice for SubPostmasters Alliance (JFSA) but all simply expressed their confidence in Horizon. Cable says he was not aware of the fears expressed although he wrote in 2015 that ‘the Post Office’s Horizon system has been under considerable scrutiny’ before concluding that there was no evidence of systemic problems. One systemic problem was clearly the presence of complacent, unimaginative, bureaucratic and incompetent ministers all of whom have displayed the same qualities in leading the Liberal Democrats.
Before the Court of Appeal ruling on 23 April, the Post Office had agreed an almost £58 million settlement with 550 sub postmasters. Most of that, however, went on legal fees. After the recent ruling even larger sums may have to be paid out. Boris has also ordered a complete enquiry which could well reveal Cable, Davey and Swinson to be among the guilty parties. In the meantime lives have been ruined, homes and livelihoods lost and Malcolm Griffiths, who had been sub postmaster at Ellesmere Port for eighteen years before being falsely charged with stealing £100,000 and driven to financial and emotional ruin, took his life in 2013.
I have nothing but contempt for the Liberal Democrats. They betray their principles at the drop of a hat, betray their country and its democratic choices, ruin the lives of many without concern but still view themselves as morally superior. Hypocritical and incompetent, they deserve no place in British public life.
Photo of Layla Moran by Bournemouth Events from United Kingdom – Extinction Rebellion Liberal Democrats Conference Protest, Bournemouth, September 2019, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82885322
Photo of Layla Moran and Vince Cable taken at the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference 2010 in Birmingham, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84873931