Bruce Anderson, a man who was referred to me recently as the epitome of a retired shires Colonel, has written a particularly aggressive piece for the right-wing site Capx about how the Liberal Democrats –post-election and now led by the prodigal Timothy Farron– are frankly a lost cause. Now, Anderson does manage to stumble onto a semi-valid point in the sense that this might well be in severe danger of happening. Although the notion that somehow Farron’s leadership will automatically result in a takeover of the party by hempen-clad, unelectable beardies from Dorset is I think a touch hyperbolic.
Anderson writes that: “the average Liberal activist was an anoraked obsessive, whose political views were a blend of anger and simple-mindedness. They were Liberals in the American sense of the word: a rag-bag of leftism combined with dislike of one’s own country. So the leadership was a mere meniscus, on the surface of a deep well of pond life and absurdity…Not only that. When Tim Farron became the new Liberal leader, the anoraks took over the asylum. There is no meniscus about him; he is a fully paid-up anorak.”
As a member of the aforementioned anorak asylum, and a supporter of Farron’s opponent Norman Lamb in the leadership contest, I have grown accustomed to reading such pieces. Anderson is one of these opinion writers (which includes most of them come to think of it) who views people who have the audacity to not be a member or supporter of one of the two main parties as an exceedingly irritating and awkward complication to an otherwise jolly team sport. They do this –it seems to me– because they are incapable of seeing politics as anything other than a narrow left-right dichotomy, as if the world is divided up into people who like family values and lower taxes on one side, and high state spending and the right to marry a parrot on the other.
The first response to this, of course, is whether Bruce Anderson has ever met the activist base of his own blessed Conservative Party. Perhaps he simply believes that 19th-hole bores, tweed stuffed old codgers and people who non ironically agree with Mary Whitehouse are a better sort. Don’t get me started on the youth party either, who seem to produce an alarming number of prematurely balding young men who own far too many striped ties.
However, this is not to say that the stereotype of the Liberal Democrat anorak is an entirely unfounded myth. Liberal Democrat loyalists sport an impressive array of beards, cargo shorts, socks with sandals and enough knitwear to make party conference a truly impressive fire hazard. Being an anorak isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but there has always been a rather nasty element of anti-professionalism within the party: that it’s not worth succeeding if you have to compromise who you are. It isn’t worth sacrificing your ‘values’ (that wonderfully vague term), even in the seemingly full knowledge that those values rather tacitly endorse lacking the professionalism or willingness to compromise, which will lead the party to success and, crucially, the opportunity to enact any of its core principals into law; it is a rather self-defeating situation.
Tim Farron in less anorak-laden days
By anorak then, let’s say there are people in the Liberal Democrats who on some level, even if it is subconscious, actually want to lose as long as they can feel good about themselves and the party whilst they do it. Sadly and unfortunately, it really does merit saying, who did many of these people vote for? Tim Farron.
Tim Farron is not, for what it’s worth, an idiot. Farron wants to win, and he knows in his heart of hearts that the old adage about what side of the tent you should piss from holds truer than ever. Tactically, we made some mistakes in the last five years, which Farron acknowledges; the challenge will be learning from those mistakes without throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Yet, Farron IS beset by an anorak image. His most fervent supporters didn’t help with their rate divisive obsession with ‘taking the party back’ and some semi-mythical notion of the party needing to be ‘centre-left’ without much of an idea of what that necessarily means in terms of policy. Their vision for the party is rose tinted, backwards looking and at its heart seeks to position the party as a comfortably middle class opponent of the Tories in the West Country and a handful of other places, where the lack of prominent trade union activity means that Labour never truly supplanted the party of the old left. It is a surefire strategy to another century of political irrelevance.
The good news here is that these people seem to be a dwindling breed of an old guard who remember the last time we could fit the parliamentary party into a Toyota Previda. This demographic change is evidenced by a significant number of party members who got a taste for power over the last five years and liked it. This, combined with a largely pro coalition new membership intake since the election, will likely ensure the Liberal Democrats remain a broadly professional, modern political force.
Ultimately at this stage it matters not what Farron wears, how he looks, or what internal party label he most readily identifies with. What matters for the Liberal Democrats in these crucial coming years is that the party continues to talk up liberalism, and puts forward to the public what the word liberal means. The Liberal Democrats must not move with the tide and allow other parties to dictate their role in British politics. They must be liberals –not merely anoraks— and their vision must be clear and unique. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail”.
Beyond that, I could care less if Tim Farron grows a pony tail, take up Morris Dancing and starts homebrewing in his shed. At this stage, all that matters is people remember that the party exists, and that it has something different to talk about.