I don’t want to be churlish about yesterday’s endorsement of the Liberal Democrats by The Economist. It was a welcome boost to morale. But it was hardly a vote of confidence was it? “We know that this year the Lib Dems are going nowhere.” Well thanks a bunch for your support!
It seems the main reason The Economist wants you to vote for the Lib Dems is to ensure there’s some vestige of a centrist party in parliament around which other centrist voices can coalesce once the general election is over.
This will not be the Corbyn-led coalition of chaos that Theresa May’s hapless Conservatives constantly decry as the only alternative to their authoritarian reign. Instead there will be a new, commonsense coalition of centrists. Rising from the ashes of #GE2017, what The Economist really wants is a new party of the liberal centre, as becomes clear in its final paragraph:
The whirlwind unleashed by Brexit is unpredictable. Labour has been on the brink of breaking up since Mr Corbyn took over. If Mrs May polls badly or messes up Brexit, the Tories may split, too. Many moderate Conservative and Labour MPs could join a new liberal centre party — just as parts of the left and right have recently in France. So consider a vote for the Lib Dems as a downpayment for the future. Our hope is that they become one element of a party of the radical centre, essential for a thriving, prosperous Britain.
Well I suppose we should be grateful that at least The Economist is positioning this somewhat backhanded vote of confidence as an endorsement. It’s a whole lot better than being slammed by George Osborne in Tuesday’s Evening Standard editorial as “not a party to be taken very seriously.” Or Hugo Rifkind in The Times last week dismissing the party as “bedblockers of the centre.”
Let’s be clear what’s going on here. The vultures are circling, waiting for the moment to swoop in and finish the job they very nearly pulled off during the coalition years. Instead of allowing the Liberal Democrats to thrive as a party that brings citizens together in the pragmatic pursuit of a fair, free and open society, they want to impose their own technocratic nirvana on the British people. Rifkind summed it up to perfection, without any inkling of self-parody:
There is a centre struggling to form in British politics. It would draw would draw George Osborne from one side, and Sadiq Khan from the other, with room for Nick Clegg, Yvette Cooper and others in between. It would cherish metropolitan Britain, and concern itself with spreading metropolitan prosperity elsewhere.
No doubt Tony Blair is waiting in the wings of this putative centre coalition too. But hang on a minute. If there’s one thing the Brexit vote should have rammed home, it’s that vast swathes of the country aren’t interested in “metropolitan prosperity.” If that’s what you intend to impose you’re already on a hiding to nothing.
It would be a serious mistake to try and scrub out the Liberal Democrats and their two hundred years of experience of treading a centrist, liberal path. Extinguish their contribution and this putative new centrist party will have no soul.
And that is why George Osborne at the Evening Standard and Hugo Rifkind in The Times cannot endorse the Liberal Democrats, while the leader writers at The Economist know that they must.
Once this general election has played out, there may indeed be a realignment of the centre and a new centrist force in British politics. Frankly I would welcome that, for our current politics is deeply mired in arcane class struggles that have no relevance to the modern world.
But this realignment must give back control to the people, not transfer it back to a new elite that believes it knows best — not even the editorial board of The Economist. A vote for the Liberal Democrats next week is a vote for that future, grounded in the reality of communities all across the country.