Paddy Ashdown: Lost tribes must be given a liberal voice in age of extremism

Former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown.
Former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown.
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THERE has never been a successfully sustained government, a prosperous age or an age of peace that was not founded on liberal values. If we part company with those values, what inevitably follows is conflict, division and tyranny.

I am particularly struck by the comparison between our age and the 1930s. Then, following a recession and a failure in politics, there was a massive collapse in confidence in the political system and the establishment. Then too, people wondered whether democracy was failing and hungered for the government of strong men.

Then too, multilateralism gave way to unilateralism and, indeed, to a surge in nationalism. Then too, as we remember, free trade withered away and protectionism was on the rise. It was also an age when vulgarity always succeeded over decency and when the ugly voices were heard, listened to and followed far more than the quiet voice of reason. It was an age when many of us found it convenient to blame the ills that we were suffering from on the stranger in our midst or the foreigner over the border.

Then as well, politicians could not resist the temptation of the extravagant lie, which it was so much more easy to win support with than the carefully nuanced truth.

You will recall that the motto of age was “If you’re going to lie, lie big and lie often” – stick it on the side of a bus, perhaps, and send it round the country.

One other feature of our age that compares to that one is that the people of the moderate, decent centre were fractured, broken and scattered. They never got their act together, and that gave dominance and the capacity to win to those who depended on that dangerous populism. What about those people in the middle?

Hilaire Belloc had it wonderfully when he said:

“The people in between

Looked underdone and harassed,

And out of place and mean,

And horribly embarrassed.”

That is true today.

Spare a thought for a moment for the lost tribes of Labour and the Tory party. What do you do these days if you are part of that great Tory tradition of internationalism and now find yourself in a party that has completely abandoned it? What do you do if you are one of those Labour MPs who believes in the free market – not as our master but as our servant – and finds your party has explicitly rejected it?

It is extraordinary in the last year how much politics has spun away to the extremes. The Conservative Party, albeit with a politer face, now adopts a position which is indistinguishable from that of Ukip.

Labour has abandoned, for the first time in its history, any attempt to occupy the moderate centre ground, in favour of what I would regard as unreconstructed 1950s-style hard socialism – the official party, if not all its members.

What are you to do if you belong with those who are left out? What are you to do if you are among those hundreds of thousands in our country who are as frightened and concerned as we are but do not wish to make that concern felt through a political party?

The Brexit campaign, and Trump’s campaign too, gave voice to the voiceless, the disposed and the left-out. But they are now well represented. Currently voiceless, left-out and unrepresented is that moderate centre – those moderate, decent people who believe in those broadly liberal values. They are the voiceless ones of our present age.

I have been struck in particular that what has changed our politics these last two frightening years has not been political parties but those operating outside the political circle. It is people’s movements that have changed the destinies of countries, colonised political parties or invented new ones, and elected presidents.

But why do all the people’s movements have to be about the nasty, ugly things? What about a people’s movement that will at last give voice to the moderate, decent, liberal centre in our country – which is not confined to the Liberal Democrats? We are growing and strong, and happy about that, but what about those who are beyond us? Although 2016 frightened us all with the dreadful things that happened and the rise of destructive populism, could 2017 be the year when we might at last give that moderate, centrist voice, which is so voiceless, a place to be able to change the direction of our country and a role in doing so?

In so far as we in the political parties share that view, and in so far as we too are frightened about what is happening, then this is a time for us to get out of our tribes and start working together to ensure that we can help build that centrist, moderate, liberal consensus, in which the only chance lies for altering the very dangerous trajectory of our country.

Paddy Ashdown is a former Lib Dem leader who spoke in a Hosue of Lords debate on Populism and Nationalism. This is an edited version.