In a darker Britain, Tim Farron's social liberalism may not count for much

Tim Farron

In the rough justice world of general elections, the Liberal Democrats were treated more brutally by voters than they deserved on 7 May.

Drubbed and demoralised they have now treated themselves to tub-thumping Tim Farron as their next leader. He is their Jeremy Corbyn.

And why not? It’s not going to matter for some time what the Lib Dems think about most things. They no longer have the leverage they enjoyed in the runup to the coalition years and during the Nick Clegg deputy premiership of 2010-15.

By my calculation Clegg did the right thing by the country in 2010 in providing David Cameron with the means to achieve a stable de facto majority government at a time of grave economic disorder. Though he made mistakes – student tuition fees being the prime example we all remember – he did exercise a moderating influence on the Tories, as we are now starting to notice.

Should thoughtful voters have been slightly more grateful on 7 May? Of course. Were they? No. Politics isn’t often like that, it’s transactional. Otherwise Winston Churchill, architect of victory in a war of survival, might have won in 1945.

Clegg’s mistake was to sacrifice his party interest to the greater public good of stable government, a virtue which only people who take it for granted (the British) don’t seem to value. In 2010, I expected the coalition to endure (it did) but thought the Lib Dems might split under pressure, with Farron leading the rebels. It’s happened a bit late.

Farron seems to understand the poisonous legacy he’s inherited. We’re not the third party any more, may never be again, he said. We may not even survive, he added after his victory over Norman “Continuity” Lamb, Clegg lieutenant and conscientious ex-health minister, in this low-profile contest.

It’s different for Labour. As Polly Toynbee writes, it is still the official opposition, the No 2 party in the state. It cannot afford the luxury of saying what it thinks and thinking with its heart now enjoyed by Farron, ex-pop band frontman (that job hardens you to rejection, says a band member) and left-leaning Lib Dem with the gift of the gab.

“What fun,” as Polly put it. Fun for the Lib Dems who have little to lose, not such fun if Labour activists and foolish union leaders ( I mean you, Len McCluskey) indulge themselves by electing loveable beardie Corbyn as leader.

He’s a good man and has useful things to say. But his electoral appeal is too narrow. Leader Jeremy is unelectable anywhere unless he broadens that base by embracing a populist cause like nationalism, the SNP left’s strategy, illusory though it will prove to be.

Let’s stick to Tim, who actually has won a leadership contest and who is still a gleam in Cameron and the Daily Telegraph’s eye. They can’t quite believe their luck.

The Farron era begs the question, what might the Lib Dems stand for in the flux which is contemporary British politics? It is a marketplace long dominated by two big vote supermarkets – Labour and Tory as Sainsbury’s and Tesco – plus the old Liberals (later Lib Dems) as the niche brand, say Marks & Spencer.

Nowadays there are all sorts of upstart new players, dynamic regional brands like the SNP (Morrisons?), ethical labels like the Greens (Abel & Cole?) and aggressively downmarket operators in Ukip. Let’s call them politics’ Costcutters – or German-owned Aldi, just to be annoying?

In this context, where Farron and his allies, including the loyal Lamb, must try to rediscover their niche, it’s worth remembering how much successful parties morph, how much the Liberal party, which emerged from an earlier political car crash in the 1850s, changed before merging its identity with the Labour breakaway SDP in the 1980s.

Before the 1850s, the Liberals had been the Whigs, the party of the Glorious Revolution, which liberally minded aristocratic politicians had engineered against the reviving absolutism of the Stuart monarchy. They stood for relative tolerance, for trade protection (initially) and Protestantism, for constitutional monarchy and the supremacy of parliament over king.

Increasingly, they became aligned with emerging industrial forces and the political reform such forces prompted, including the abolition of the slave trade, finally achieved in 1807 (though William Wilberforce was a Tory). After decades of restored Tory hegemony under George III during the traumatic Napoleonic wars, their finest hour came with the 1832 Reform Act – which Clegg hoped to emulate in 2010 (PR voting, Lords reform etc), but failed.

After the repeal of the corn laws (the EU controversy of its day) in 1846, the prime mover, Robert Peel, broke with his party and fused with the now free-trade Whigs and assorted radicals. Lord Palmerston and later ex-Tory William Gladstone became the dominant figures in later 19th-century Liberal governments: they favoured free trade and smaller government. Gladstone tried to abolish income tax. A century or so later Margaret Thatcher embodied many Victorian Liberal virtues – closer to Gladstonian rectitude than to that crafty “one nation Tory” magician, Benjamin Disraeli (who inspired the phrase).

The old Whig grandees split the party over Gladstone’s plans for home rule in Ireland in the 1880s. But the New Liberalism of HH Asquith, David Lloyd George and young Churchill, men not afraid to deploy state power to improve social conditions (pensions, union rights, wages boards etc) won power again in 1906.

And so it goes on. Labour overtook the Liberals to become the alternative governing party in the 1920s when the Libs split between Asquith and Lloyd George factions. LG embraced John Maynard Keynes (also a Liberal), but by then few would embrace him. As with the social reforms proposed by William Beveridge (another Liberal), it mostly had to wait until Clement Attlee’s reformist government of 1945.

By 1950, the Liberals were reduced to six seats – two fewer than now – and five of them were courtesy of local pacts with the Tories for whom “National Liberals” had joined forces in the coalition that followed the economic crisis of 1931. The exception was a young rising star called Jo Grimond in Orkney and Shetland whose inspirational leadership would keep the party alive.

Grimond was a free trade, pro-Europe, liberty man. I can remember his gallant old age as an MP. By then Jeremy Thorpe, the rascal, and David Steel had led their troops towards a Labour-ish social democratic position which allowed them to sustain Labour (outside a coalition) in 1977-78.

You get my drift. The third party’s fulcrum shifts with the times as much as any other party’s does. Paddy Ashdown stood for “equidistance” between bigger rivals while playing footsie with Tony Blair, a Lib-Lab project smashed by the huge Blair landslide of 1997.

Charles Kennedy was a natural Highland social democrat from the SDP wing of the party, instinctively anti-Tory, but Clegg leaned much more towards an older strand of liberalism, free-market and liberty. Cameron was a natural partner, as Gordon Brown never could be.

None of this may mean anything to Britain’s future, which may prove darker and more nationalistic, as may the wider world’s. In that case Farron’s social liberalism and his left-leaning instincts on economics (he represents Cumbria, which is poor and isolated enough to need state help) may not count for much.

But let’s be cheerful. Powerful forces, not least education and trade, harnessed to the tech revolution now under way are also often the alternative prospect for a brighter future for most people.

In that world there should be a place for parties that speak out for individual liberty against the encroachments of state power or abusive corporations. But it’s going to be a long slog to regain voters’ trust, Tim. You will never become a minister. Then again, I suspect you don’t want to be one.

Powered by article was written by Michael White, for on Friday 17th July 2015 12.49 Europe/ © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010