I joined the Liberal Party in 1979. I have been a Liberal Democrat since the foundation of the party. I have been a passionate and avowed Liberal Democrat and a liberal of a fairly libertarian stripe all my adult life.
My family have been committed to the party not just in recent wilderness years but all through the real darkness of the 1950s and indeed over four generations back to the beginning of the twentieth century. I have stood for innumerable, unwinable, elections and donated, over the years, many thousands of pounds to a cause that I deeply believe in. I have seen seven leaders come and go, some of them I have known quite well and respected, some perhaps less so.
Such devotion to a political party is not unique to the Liberal Democrats, but being a supporter of our party has not usually been a matter of the calculation of political advantage- it has been a stand of principle and not of patronage. Our party devoted attention to ideas. Our policies on such issues as devolution or the environment have been well crafted and fully thought out- and usually well ahead of the sloppy me too-ism that sometimes strikes either the Conservatives or Labour. It was not an accident that the average level of education of Liberal Democrats was above the other two parties- we had an open policy process where all intelligent contributions have been welcome. I have often been proud of the quality of thinking that I have found in our party.
Now, the Liberal Democrats are inching up in the opinion polls- the idea of a hung Parliament is now being discussed, not as a nebulous threat, but as a very real and positive possibility. There is every chance that the Liberal Democrats will gain a higher vote- possibly significantly higher- than the 22.1% we gained in 2005, or even our post-war high of 25.4% in 1983. We could end up with a slew of gains across the country and in a position to press for the constitutional change and political reform that we believe is now critical for the future of the United Kingdom.
Yet, I am now beginning to feel more than a prickle of unease at the prospect. As Mike Smithson suggested on his politicalbetting.com blog yesterday, a hung Parliament could be a catastrophe for the Liberal Democrats and split the party. As it happens I don't share his view, but I am increasingly concerned with what I see as a gimmicky and vapid approach to politics in some quarters of our party. The obsession with candidates who are "local" is not unique to the Liberal Democrats- even if it does occasionally sound like an episode from the League of Gentlemen- but I expect more intelligence from my party. Too many candidates look at politics "through the wrong end of a municipal drain pipe"- and in the meantime, as I say repeatedly on this blog, our country faces an existential crisis. We need intelligence and vision, not tokenism and quota filling in our selection of general election candidates.
Concerning the thing that once made my proud- our policies- I now too often find myself thinking "yes, but". We are the inheritors of a proud Liberal tradition and yet we seem to be declining into a mushy mess of contradictory, vaguely left wing ideas. As Charlotte Gore wrote on her blog the other day, she simply can not defend mushy, sloppy and incoherent thinking. Neither can I, and neither should our party. The Leadership- as all leaderships do- has retreated into a bunker- and blasts of empty rhetoric based on pseudo-populist, muddled thinking waft across the political ether. It is just not good enough- if our party does not stand up for tough principles based on intelligent thinking, then the future of this country- let alone this party- is pretty bleak.
I don't want political thinking to simply emote - it has to offer rigorous intellectual coherence. If we are going to be in office after the next election we will be crucified unless we are resolutely focused on our key ideas: constitutional reform, environmental protection and individual freedom- including freedom from state interference and control: core Liberal Democrat values.
Some have tried to convince me that the key is that the populist tone that now emerges from Cowley Street is popular. "First" several of my friends argue "we have to win enough power, and without it all the right policies in the world will not really be relevant". Superficially it is a persuasive argument. Yet to my mind the rage we see in the electorate is the result of too many years of half truths and whole lies being told to them by politicians. I believe that a bracing dose of reality is precisely what the electorate is asking for and which they would vote for- if it were on offer. Vince Cable is our most popular politician- and he has been pretty terse in his description of the problems of the economy.
If we do become part of a coalition in June 2010, we must be braced for a hurricane of awful economic news. Britain is on course for the rocks, and some absolutely agonising political choices are going to have to be made by the next Parliament. Cuts that would have been previously unthinkable will have to be made. The impact of these decisions will have a significance that could last for decades- and either lead to our recovery or our ruin. In the meantime, party members are encouraged to twitter- how apt that word seems- about education, health and even some environmental policies that -at best- need substantial work or even a total rethink. Unlike Charlotte, I expect to have to support some policy positions I do not agree with but I do not expect to be asked to leave my critical faculties at home. The Leadership - you might think- would be consulting policy experts, as they may not have time to do after the election, and developing strategies to face the future possibilities. If this is happening, I see no evidence of it. I see the Leader's Office in full campaign mode- without being sure precisely what they are campaigning for.
I am not a "my party: right or wrong" man, no Liberal is. I can not simply watch Liberal principles being drowned in a mire of muddle headed, faintly do-gooding drivel, which apes the sanctimoniousness of the worst of the politically correct brigade. We could have the opportunity of a generation in six months time. We could achieve power and then in a fit of absent minded waffle, we could blow it. All that long march -over decades- to regain a Liberal voice in government, all the effort, all the hope; all of it could be wasted because at the last we chose to act, behave and -worst of all- even think like the other parties. Defeats, we have had plenty of them over the last 80 years, but to squander a victory- that would be an act of blackest betrayal.