Nothing could be less central to the Brexit debate than the Lib Dems right now

Nothing could be less central to the Brexit debate than the Lib Dems right now

Lembit Öpik is author of the recent paper Desert Island Risks: Will Liberal Democrat policy on Brexit leave them high and dry? published by the Red Cell think tank

To quote the Eurovision Song Contest’s greatest success story, Abba: ‘breaking up is never easy, I know.’ But we have to go. Yet Liberal Democrats can’t seem to accept the reality of the European divorce proceedings, any more than some pop lovers in the UK can accept the impossibility of winning Eurovision anytime soon.

The Brexit break-up was inevitable from EU Referendum Day onwards. The Liberal Democrat leadership’s obstinacy in accepting the result of a democratic referendum has made the party unable to let go of the past. And this means Lib Dems can’t move on to the future. Like countless jilted lovers, they seem to crave a second chance – while predicting, even hoping in some perverse way, that breaking up will spell disaster. Rather oddly, the Lib Dems appear hell-bent on wishing that ill upon Britain itself; a rather self-harming aspiration. However, as with many break-ups, so far one side has held it together. The United Kingdom has demonstrated, in the words of an iconic song: ‘I will survive.’

The Lib Dem strategy on all this all went horribly wrong under Nick Clegg, who captained the party to the most disastrous election results in the movement’s history. Included in his portfolio of errors was Mr Clegg’s unflinching worship of the European Union.

Nick’s a nice man. But let’s be honest: he’s not a natural born leader is he? Coupled to this was his abandonment of fundamental tenets of liberalism. Specifically, giving up on ‘relativism’ was nuts. It was also a necessary precursor to his unalloyed belief in a grand European alliance dictating policy to nation states.

Consider this. On 5th February 2011, then British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke in response to the perceived rise of Islamic fundamentalism:

‘Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and a much more active, muscular liberalism. A passively tolerant society says to its citizens, as long as you obey the law we will just leave you alone. It stands neutral between different values. But I believe a genuinely liberal country does much more; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them.’

That Conservative Prime Minister’s coining of the phrase ‘Muscular Liberalism’ revealed him to be a very cunning fellow. In his vision, it would be perfectly acceptable for liberalism to actively enforce a value system, to the point of employing coercive means – such as denying a platform to non-violent extremists. Nick Clegg, far from rejecting this manifestly illiberal position, was entirely taken in by Cameron’s cunning plan. Nick swallowed his proposition hook, line and sinker. On Thursday 3 March 2011, Clegg made his own muscular response:

‘I thought the PM’s argument in favour of ‘muscular liberalism’ was absolutely right. … There is nothing relativist about liberalism.’

This was a way wrong answer. Gone was the caution surrounding global intervention. The historically sacred liberal tenet of relativism was nowhere to be seen. In its place was an absolutist willingness to meddle in state affairs to deliver the collective interest, such as protecting the environment, or preventing extremism. The European Union could intervene on domestic British policy to, for example, reduce presumed environmental harm.

Leaving aside the ‘zombie science’ of much of the environmental debate, electorally Nick Clegg had been warned that his obsession with a pro-European stance (coupled to his demonstrably unpopular and accident prone leadership), made his self-proclaimed target of doubling the number of Lib Dem MPs in the 2015 General Election to a minimum of 126 MPs somewhat ‘ambitious.’

History records he didn’t achieve 126 MPs. He got eight. That’s a trifle short – by 118 seats. Clegg resigned immediately from the leadership – two years too late to prevent the collapse of the Lib Dem Parliamentary presence.

Unfortunately, Clegg and his team had generated sufficient momentum for his authoritarian, insanely pro-European position to contaminate the party’s ongoing campaign strategy. Even after his abrupt exit, the Lib Dem high command remained focused on a virtually single issue pro-EU stance, including the claim that the public hadn’t grasped what it was voting for in the EU referendum – and demanding another one.

The Lib Dems omitted to explain one thing. If citizens had failed to understand the Remain arguments first time round, why did the Lib Dems think they could do any better at explaining the Remain arguments in a second referendum? This reveals a patronising assumption: the public were too stupid to get the Remain case in the first referendum, despite the best efforts of the Lib Dems to present it. The alternative view, and a more realistic one, is that either the Lib Dems were too stupid to put the Remain case credibly: or the Leave case was stronger.  

Either way it didn’t matter. There was very good news for the Lib Dems. A ‘second referendum’ turned up after all. It was called the ‘2017 General Election.’ This was the golden opportunity for the Lib Dems to clarify to the 52% who voted Leave why they should have voted Remain. But even if Liberal Democrats only secured the support of the 48% who voted Remain in the referendum, no problem. 48% would still sweep them into government.

The result proved a trifle short of that goal. They got a little over 7% – an actual decline in the polls versus 2015. In total, they gained eight seats from targeted local campaigning, but lost five of the nine seats they previously held. Amongst the losses was arch Europhile Clegg himself – poetic evidence that staying in Europe was not top of Sheffield’s ‘bucket list.’ Even factoring in Clegg’s political weakness as a campaigner, how big does the writing on the wall have to be for the Lib Dems to be able to read it?

In fairness, Vince Cable, now Lib Dem leader, expressed his doubts about a second referendum position, noting a second vote would be ‘seriously disrespectful and utterly counterproductive.’ He urged the party to focus on the specifics of Brexit negotiations. Unlike Clegg, he won his seat in 2017, suggesting that accepting Brexit was not a vote loser. But still the party steadfastly refused to entertain any post-Brexit scenarios, preferring instead to fixate on the possibility of a second referendum.

No investment has been made by Lib Dems to secure relevance post-Brexit. This is a one-way street. The better the country does, the less credible the Lib Dem position looks, while the worse the country does the more Britain needs a formula to cope with that, which doesn’t include voting for a party which says “I told you so.’ To quote a former Liberal Democrat MP, ‘the party has painted itself into a corner in a room which no-one even goes into any more.’

There was a time when Liberals saw the greatest good as co-existence with other countries on the basis of relativistic mutual respect, rather than conformity on a multinational scale. As long as the Liberal Democrat movement is determined to oppose the now-settled decision to leave the EU, they will remain outside the political mainstream, just as UKIP are perceived by many has having had their glorious day for precisely the opposite reason.

The Lib Dems and UKIP are united in the sense that in both cases the ship appears to have sailed, with UKIP winning and Lib Dems losing. They’re both stranded on the same island, and some distance from the political mainland. The only difference seems to be that the Lib Dems want to be there. Right now, nothing could be less central to the Brexit debate than the Lib Dems.