As a fan of trivia, I have stored away for any possible pub quiz this week that the man making the Liberal Democrat leader’s speech is a man called Tim Farron, and that he actually also made the address last year!
In 2015 he began with the promising line: ‘When I was growing up my school didn’t have a sixth form,’ and he went on to predict the replacement of David Cameron with Theresa May, Boris Johnson’s appointment as foreign secretary, and Leicester City’s Premier League victory. Probably. No one was listening at the time, and nobody will be bothered to check now.
After sitting down on Tuesday, Farron can begin the job of work towards drafting their 2020 manifesto, safe in the knowledge he will not have to implement it (something David Cameron assumed about his own last year, but never mind).
This of course was the fate of all Liberal manifestos between 1950 and the formation of the Alliance, a period when often they did not put up enough candidates to form a government even if every one had been returned. But that did give them a freedom to adopt a style which tracks their path from near-death to potentially the verge of government (a journey which took decades with the return trip achieved in five recent years).
In 1950 the Liberals were still recovering from the shock of 1945, when they were reduced to 12 seats, and opted to put up 475 candidates so as to ‘offer the electorate the opportunity of returning a Liberal Government to office’ (they ended up with nine MPs and lost 319 deposits, a record only beaten by the Lib Dems last year).
The first words in their manifesto were ‘“I wilt find a way or make one …” – Hannibal on crossing the Alps’, and effectively predicted their electoral downfall with fringe policies like ‘a programme for women drawn up by women Liberals. We are pledged to the principle of equal pay for equal work’; ‘we oppose peacetime conscription’; and ‘A Liberal Government would give the Scottish and Welsh people the right to manage their own affairs by setting up a Scottish and a Welsh Parliament’.
By 1951 the Liberals had put their elephants down and opted not to cross the Alps, only able to afford 109 candidates – six of whom were returned, just one with a Conservative opponent* – and gaining fewer than a million votes. The manifesto was cut from around 3,000 to 2,000 words and began ‘Great Britain is facing a new crisis – one of the biggest in her history.’
Even policies had been dropped (possibly auctioned off to raise scarce funds), replaced by generalities like ‘the existence of a Liberal Party, as recent experience has shown, constantly reminds the individual MP that the crack of the party whip is by no means the be-all and end-all of a live democracy’.
Still, the defining of the Liberals as a non-socialist alternative to the Conservatives was underlined by highlighting their ‘peculiar role to do this in modern society because they are radical without being socialist’. For the time being, Liberalism was to be a state of mind rather than a set of policies.
That their distain was directed more to the left was confirmed in their 1955 manifesto, ‘Crisis Unresolved’:
Just under four years ago the Liberal Manifesto opened with the statement that this country was ‘facing a new crisis and one of the biggest in our history’. It would be ungenerous not to admit that since the last General Election we have gone some way to arrest the decay which set in with the second post-war Labour Government; the crisis was confronted but has not been resolved. There are still great problems fraught with danger which cause much concern.
Furthermore in a time of international crisis, the first half of the manifesto is dedicated to foreign, security and Empire policy despite the fact that ‘the search for a foreign policy which shall be different from that of the Government of the day for the mere sake of opposition is futile and unpatriotic.’
In fact, as befits a party that was no longer trying to form a government, it is hard to find much in the way of specific proposals, other than for proportional representation and devolution, rather than to issue a series of complaints (much as, presumably Farron, will do).
On liberty, presumably quite important to Liberals …
The colour bar has been here and there in evidence in this country. Crichel Down is of recent and odious memory; the powers of Government Departments to invade a man’s privacy, and even to interfere with his livelihood, can today be abused without redress or appeal. The leaders of the two large Parties can decide on their own that discussion on the air of matters of great moment shall be forbidden for 14 days before our masters in the House of Commons have told us what we ought to think and do. Trade Unions, who came into existence to defend freedom of association, are using a giant’s strength to limit the freedom of workers to benefit from effort, to make life miserable for those they victimise – even to deprive them of their right to remain in their occupations.
We never find out what they propose to do about this, but it’s comforting that the Liberals on the whole didn’t agree with bad things.
By 1959, the Liberals had a more serious leader in Jo Grimond and they doubled their vote without gaining seats. The manifesto, ‘People Count’, started to give the party a definition in Grimond’s image, the leader writing: ‘England [sic, considering Grimond was MP for Orkney and Shetland] is a democracy and that means there is a Government and an Opposition, and one takes the place of the other from time to time. After all, even Tories do not presumably envisage a Tory Government for ever, there must be an alternative and it should be Liberal, not Socialist.’ He even refers to a ‘New Liberal Party’, a rebranding which might just catch on elsewhere.
the return of a Socialist Government inevitably means that management is put on the defensive, for it does not know what is going to hit it next. The return of a Conservative Government means that the Trade Unions feel justified in going on to the offensive. The whole nation is the loser from this crazy line-up of power politics, and those who lose most in the struggle are those who live on fixed incomes, such as old-age pensioners and a host of others who are solicited at Election time but are forgotten after the result is declared.
Policies are actually added to the slogans (most paragraphs begin with the words ‘People Count’). Under ‘Help the Sick’ they write: ‘Make the Health Service more human and less ‘Whitehall’. Provide effective out-patient and after-care facilities and special accommodation for the old. Invest more money on hospital building, pay and research.’
Under ‘Aid the Pensioner’: ‘The new Liberals share the concern of their forebears for the old, the sick, the needy, the disabled. The poverty of the pensioner shames our wealth. Raise the pension to £3 for a single person and £4 16s for a married couple. Tie it to a special cost-of-living index. Make private pension schemes transferable.’
This was ultimately how their comeback was to be achieved: not just stating that liberalism was a good thing in itself, but actually explaining what that stands for, whether getting rid of the hydrogen bomb or abolishing stamp duty, and, in what are improbably the very final words: ‘help and encourage the Fine Arts’.
In the 1960s, the idea of Liberals as ‘new blood’ and prepared to fight the ‘Establishment’ was developed to some success – even if the Eton-educated lawyers Jo Grimond and Jeremy Thorpe (leader from 1967) were not exactly living in squats.
In 1964, the Liberals hugely increased their vote and abandoned local electoral pacts with the Conservatives. They were now able to define themselves by three themes:
Modern technology provides the means of achieving a new age of abundance which could provide everyone with a richer life and great new opportunities. Since the war this country has lagged behind and failed to seize these opportunities. The vested interests in the Conservative and Labour parties have blocked the way. The Liberal Party seeks a decisive position in the next Parliament to make sure that change and growth are stimulated.
Our second aim is to ensure that individual people benefit from the new industrial revolution. The age of automation could be an age when the individual is trampled on and power is dangerously concentrated in the hands of big business and the state. Change must be humanised so that the new wealth within our reach is used to give the individual a richer life and protect the weak. Class consciousness in the factory, on the housing estate, or in politics, must give way to a new spirit of partnership.
The third Liberal objective is to apply the idea of partnership in international affairs. In the nuclear age mankind cannot afford narrow nationalism. The economic benefits of modern science can only be achieved if there is a lavish flow of ideas, people and goods, amongst the nations. The giant risks of the nuclear age and the explosive problem of world poverty cannot be mastered until the nations act together. A strong force of Liberal MPs will ensure that Britain plays a new and greater part as a pioneer of the new international order that mankind so badly needs.’
Two years later they even claimed that their 10 MPs had made a difference in preventing steel and land nationalisation, forcing the government to deal with pensions, rates and regional development, and setting up a Highland Development Board.
By 1970, with Thorpe in charge, the Liberals were adding demotic language to their pitch as the party of the ordinary individual rather than the pawn of big business or Trades Unions.
‘What a Life!’, they begin, ‘There must surely be a better way to run a country than the one we have used for the last 25 years. No wonder people are fed up with 13 years of Tory rule and 12 years under Labour.’
Furthermore ‘Parliament has become a slanging shop. The precious right of free speech is in peril from hooligan anarchists.’ So, ‘the whole “System” conspires against the individual, the unrepresented and the weak, in favour of the well-organised big battalions, and no one seems to care. But unless someone does care and does something about it, the “System” will go on and on. It can only be broken by supporting something different and that something is the Liberal Party.’
That continued in the 1974 manifestos, when the Liberals were becoming a serious force. Their message was that they stood aside from the out-of-touch all-in-wrestling of Ted-and-Harold, not participating in the tussle between a complacent Tory party and an ideologically extreme Labour (ring any bells, Mr Farron?).
In the February, part of the manifesto was presented as a fact check on what the two main parties say
‘We see no reason why unemployment should rise at all, apart from seasonal increases.’ – Harold Wilson (Labour Party Press Conference March 29, 1966)
REALITY: In six years of Labour Government Britain experienced the most prolonged period of high unemployment since 1940. For three-quarters of this period the number of unemployed was over half a million!
‘If we could get back to Tory policies, the unemployment position would be a great deal better than it is today.’ – Robert Carr,** May 6, 1971
‘We accept absolutely the responsibility for the level of unemployment.’ – Robert Carr, November 23, 1971
REALITY: During 1971 and 1972 unemployed was running at record war levels. Unemployment averaged 758,000 (3.3 per cent of working population) in 1971, and 840,000 (3.7 per cent of working population) in 1972.’
In the October Thorpe’s foreword continued to make this explicit:
The fact that we are committed to two elections in one year highlights the uncertainties and divisions of British politics. Mr. Heath called the first election back in February because his industrial and economic strategy had totally collapsed and he had no alternative. He lost, and relations between the Conservative Party and the Trade Union Movement will take many years to restore.
Mr Wilson has called the second election because he is not prepared to accept the disciplines of a minority Government. So long as a minority Government governs on behalf of the whole nation it can command a majority in Parliament. At the last election, the electorate clearly refused to give him a mandate for those divisive parts of his programme such as further nationalisation and clearly in calling for an election he has shown he is not prepared to accept that verdict.
After that, in 1979 the Liberals had pretty much arrived at the pitch for constitutional reform to ensure a less extreme politics of swings from left to right.***
We have tried confrontation politics for long enough. In 1964, in 1970, in 1974, incoming governments promised that they held the key to Britain’s industrial and social problems, if only they could undo the achievements of their predecessors and push their own prescriptions through Parliament. The hopes they raised have all been cruelly disappointed. It is high time to try a different pattern of government, which is based upon the consent and support of the broad majority of the electorate. That alone can now provide the basis for the long term programme of reform which Britain so desperately needs.
They even devoted time to praising that odd episode, the Lib-Lab pact:
Industrial confidence began to return during the agreement. The divisive policies promoted by Labour’s lunatic left-wing were effectively held in check. On Liberal insistence the law was changed to encourage profit-sharing, to help bridge the gulf of mistrust between the two sides of industry – which has so far led 48 companies to adopt new profit-sharing schemes.
Though they probably didn’t know it, in 1979 the Liberal Party was about to be part of a boom in support for centrist parties, even if they were never to fight another election as an independent unit.
Now Farron leads a party with the same support (and number of MPs) as the 1950s Liberals who were grasping for a message and a definition that would give them a reason for continued existence. Today’s Liberal Democrats do have advantages over 60 years ago – the Conservative and Labour parties had a popularity then they cannot match now, especially with at least one leader seemingly more keen to fight, fight and fight again, to destroy a party other people love.
Of course, the Lib Dems had previously built up an image as a fresh alternative to two increasingly unpopular major parties, only to then go into coalition with one of them and become enablers of the things they claimed to stand against. And the UKIPs, the Greens and the Celtic nationalists have ensured that the Liberals can no longer promise to ‘strangle’ a fourth party at birth (especially as right now fourth is about as high as they can claim to rank).
Luckily for the Lib Dems, though, so much has happened since the end of the Coalition – both in the Tories and Labour – that there is little left to remind us of Nick Clegg chumming up to David Cameron; there was clearly no such liking for Theresa May among the Liberals, while Jeremy Corbyn does not seem a credible candidate for snatching any centrist votes. The quiet Lib Dem revival in local government shows the votes are out there for them.
But still, few are listening to Farron and he has yet to define what a post-Coalition Liberal Democrat party has to offer as an alternative national force. But the evolution of the Liberal message in their own wilderness years, as tracked in their manifestos, shows that to a certain extent, the work has already been done.
It means pinpointing, as Grimond did in 1959, what being a centrist alternative actually means beyond a few generalities about how they don’t like extremism. It means finding a language, as Thorpe did in the 1970s (and UKIP has done more recently), to give them impression that the Lib Dems are in touch and trustworthy in a way they were not seen in the 2015 election. Can Farron make the Liberals seem like an actual alternative again – and a more appealing one than UKIP on the right or Labour on the left? Especially those within the pro-EU 48%.
Perhaps Farron himself will not be able to emerge as a true national figure like Grimond and Thorpe, both of whom could conceivably have been senior forces in one of the two bigger parties in a way that the permanently-grinning Tim maybe could not. But if in his speech he can condemn ‘hooligan anarchists’, while concluding with a pitch to help the ‘fine arts’ then he might be able to achieve in four years the advances that took the post-War Liberals forty.
* Ex-Liberal Winston Churchill even offered Liberal leader Clement Davies a Cabinet post, which was declined.
** At that time the Conservatives’ Secretary of State for Employment.
*** It didn’t happen.