Monday, January 09, 2006

Giant Pygmies

On the subject of Charlie Kennedy's resignation, Torcuil Crichton writes in the Sunday Herald:
"The irony, with Kennedy departing the stage, is that nobody in the ranks of the Liberal Democrats can match his political stature. The pygmies have toppled a giant from his plinth and left nothing but ample space on which to dance."
I don't know anything about Mr Crichton but surely only a) partisan loyalty, or b) an excessive use of controlled substances would allow someone to occupy a world in which Charles Kennedy was a 'political giant'.

His drink problem was enough to render him incapable of doing his job, by all accounts, but that isn't the most important reason why Charles Kennedy had to go. He was the incarnation of the Liberal Democrats' chronic identity crisis. The hoary old cliche about the left-right divide in politics being redundant doesn't hold water at the best of times; the rise of the Conservatives under Cameron simply makes the question of where the Liberals stand more urgent. This would be the case with or without Kennedy.

The paradox of the Liberals under Kennedy is that they failed, even when they succeeded. The best results since the 1920s can't hide the reality that this last election represented probably the best chance for a generation to finally break the mould of British party politics; an impressive showing of MPs can't disguise the fact that the opportunity presented by the governement's unpopularity and an opposition in disarray has been missed.

This wasn't all Kennedy's fault; the Liberals in general have no serious political future in this country unless they can decide whether they're economic liberals or social democrats. This is the decision they have avoided hitherto and Kennedy was the very embodiment of this avoidance. It's meant that they haven't even been able to agree amongst themselves which party was their key enemy, and which they hoped eventually to replace.

One can't really blame the Liberals for avoiding the decision that most of them surely know now must be made, because inherent in the logic is the destruction of the party itself - should too many of them conclude that they no longer have any convincing answer to the question: what are the Liberal Democrats for?

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