Picture credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Artillery Row

The stultification of the liberal mind

Ed Davey’s anti-political campaign is darker than it looks

Despite launching their manifesto at Thorpe Park, the Liberal Democrats’ election campaign has so far been less like a rollercoaster ride and more like a fairground carousel — initially eye-catching but ultimately repetitive.

Day after day, our social media timelines are graced with another whimsical Ed Davey photoshoot, each less dignified than the last — today he’s on a water slide, tomorrow he’s zorbing. In a campaign dominated by Sunak, Starmer, and Farage, stunts like these are a novel way to attract occasional notice for the Lib Dems, who might otherwise have been crowded out of the conversation altogether. 

pearl-clutching about ethics in public life is mixed with zealous nimbyism

Perhaps they’re also a way of distracting from the fact that the party has no interesting ideas. Under Davey’s capable leadership, the Lib Dems have transformed themselves into a mouthpiece for those who are too rich to back Labour but too urbane to vote for those ghastly right-wing Tories. One almost has to admire the pure pragmatism of it all — pearl-clutching about ethics in public life is mixed with zealous nimbyism to create a cocktail deliberately designed to intoxicate the insecure middle class voter.

Yet for a party that once prided itself on a willingness to advance bold, unpopular ideas, this is a rather sad decline. As any Lib Dem activist worth their stripes will tell you, theirs is the tradition that once produced William Beveridge, the father of the British welfare state. Go further back into history, and you’ll find the incisive foreign policy insights of Palmerston, the laissez-faire evangelism of Gladstone, and the tariff reform of Joseph Chamberlain. In the 20th century, the British Liberal lineage boasts Bertrand Russell, Roy Jenkins, and John Maynard Keynes.

Like or loathe these figures, their ideas were at least novel and their ambitions at least lofty. I happen to believe that Roy Jenkins stands as one of the most damaging figures in 20th century British politics, but I can still recognise that he was a remarkably ambitious man, who could articulate a coherent — if disagreeable — vision for the country. 

Unfortunately, there is no such vision in this year’s Lib Dem manifesto, which appears to have been written exclusively to appeal to curtain-twitching middle class mothers, mid-ranking Whitehall bureaucrats, and university humanist societies. Highlights include mental health hubs in every community, legal recognition of humanist marriage, and new “creative enterprise zones” designed to “regenerate the cultural output of areas across the UK”. More perniciously, the party also plans to offshore even more political powers to the regulators, quangos, and independent commissioners who now run Britain. 

This is government by hub, government by regulator, and government by inquiry

Why set out plans to overhaul our broken healthcare system when you can promise to create an independent Mental Health Commissioner? Who needs a developed offering on crime when you can simply pledge to establish a new Worker Protection Agency? It’s easy to poke fun at a manifesto that is so riddled with trite attempts to fix major societal problems through gimmicky quick-fixes. This is government by hub, government by regulator, and government by inquiry, all rolled into one tight little package. 

However, the Lib Dem manifesto does reveal a deeper, worrying truth about the state of our politics. Modern Britain’s political divide is not between left and right, nor is it between liberalism and conservatism. In fact, it is between political and anti-political. 

In the latter camp, we find most contemporary politicians, who enthusiastically advocate for more money for our bloated public services, more knee-jerk regulation, and more offshoring of decision-making power to unaccountable bureaucrats. Political actors, we are told, simply cannot be trusted — we must instead rely on The Experts, who will surely be able to fix our ailing economy and creaking state with enough technical tweaks. Given Davey’s spectacular failure to grapple with the Post Office Horizon scandal during his tenure as Postal Minister, it’s easy to see why he might wish that politicians had less responsibility for major decisions. Politicians, he might think, are just there to be jovial figureheads for other people’s plans.

Unfortunately for Davey et al, it is only with the former proposition that Britain can find salvation. That is, our national decline can only be arrested by an explicitly political programme which slashes immigration, reforms our broken planning system, and gives decision-making authority back to elected politicians. The answer is fewer bureaucrats, not more.

It should worry us that none of the major parties seem to have fully reckoned with this. If the stars align, a Tory wipeout could see Davey accidentally foisted into the limelight as Leader of the Opposition. An unlikely outcome perhaps, but certainly possible given Rishi Sunak’s remarkable propensity for electoral implosion. Even if the Lib Dems only manage to finish a respectable third, Sir Ed will play an outsized role in opposition to a future Starmer government. 

The fact that Davey and Starmer agree on almost everything of substance is an indictment of our political establishment, and a worrying omen for those of us concerned about the implications of a Labour government which feels that it has a blank cheque. The stultification of the liberal imagination has profound implications for us all — maybe we should appoint an independent Ambitious Ideas Commissioner to fix the whole sorry affair? 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover