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Very Liberal Democrats


Forget Big Brother, the most compelling reality show on television is the Liberal Democrat leadership race. We’ve had alcoholism, rent boys, gay chatlines, secret sex and bare faced lies. Who will fess up next?
Will Sir Menzies Campbell admit he was on dope when he ran for Britain at the 1964 Olympics? Will Chris Huhne confess to wearing fur? Does Lord Steel dress up as a cat?
Talk about an elimination contest. The way things are going the Liberal Democrats may find themselves, not so much a party without a leader as a leader – Ming – without a party. Half are thinking of defecting to David Cameron’s Tories and the rest are consulting their lawyers.
Their last hope is Sir Menzies Campbell, who looks at least to be made of firmer moral fibre. It will do no harm for them to have a rather old-fashioned, small-’c’ conservative lawyer at the helm right now. So far as we know he has nothing in his closet but brooms.
My man of the week, though, has to be Peter Tatchell, the gay Labour candidate who lost the Bermondsey by-election to the Simon Hughes in 1983 after a disgracefully homophobic campaign. What extraordinary self-control Tatchell demonstrated. Imagine keeping quiet for all those years when he knew – as many others did – that Simon Hughes was also homosexual.
A lesser man would have outed the Liberal President as a hypocrite and a liar. That Tatchell, an impoverished gay rights campaigner who lives in a South London council house, refrained from revenge shows him to be an individual of the highest moral character. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Simon Hughes.
Now, of course, his private life is his own affair and no one should be barred from office by because of their sexuality. But what is so sad about the Hughes affair is that it almost certainly wouldn’t have barred him from office. Being gay is no longer a crime in British politics, certainly not in the Liberal Democrats where it’s difficult to find anyone who isn’t. But dissembling and leading a reckless double life is unacceptable. Hughes has been exposed as a liar, who had gay affairs, even as he campaigned as the “straight” candidate in Bermondsey.
Hughes’s belated emergence from the closet has almost certainly denied him the leadership of the Liberal Democrat Party, but handled differently it could have been his greatest asset. Had he come out at a time of his own choosing, and given a generous apology to Peter Tatchell, he could have made his sexuality a moral statement about modern liberal values. He could have made history as the first openly gay leader of a mainstream political party.
He had 23 years to unburden his conscience. In the end, Simon Hughes left it until very last moment, the eve of his nomination as a leadership candidate, after repeated public denials. He then ignominiously caved in to the Sun, who found evidence that he used gay chat lines, and styled him as the “Limp Dem”.
What a disaster, for himself and the party. His outing of course followed the resignation of the party’s home affairs spokesman, Mark Oaten, after revelations that he had been having a relationship with a male prostitute. Again, his sexuality is his own affair. However, as a high profile politician, married with a family, he should have taken greater care – especially when he made all his family values pronouncements. When he declared himself a “tough Liberal”, rough trade wasn’t what we thought he meant.
That the Liberal Democrats should be brought down by a succession of sex scandals is profoundly ironic. This is the party whose former leader, David Steel, campaigned for the legalisation of homosexuality in 1967. The Liberals are the most open-minded and, well, liberal party in the country. They have campaigned for civil partnerships and lowering the age of consent. They fought homophobic prejudice in the armed forces and politics. Now they are ruined through a combination of alcoholism and gay sex. The only people who will take comfort are religious fundamentalists who no doubt believe this is all God’s wrath being visited upon them as upon Sodom and Gommorrah.
But their downfall require no supernatural agency; it’s all their own work. You Gov last week put them down at 13%, down ten points in a month. Hardly surprising of course given the lurid publicity lurid publicity since the resignation of their former leader, Charles Kennedy, over his drinking problem. It is going to be very hard for the party to recover from this.
How they must all wish they had Charles back now. Whatever his party colleagues said behind his back, Kennedt functioned rather effectively as a leader even with his alleged alcoholism. I have yet to find anyone outside the Westminster village who thought that Charles Kennedy looked or sounded like a drunk.
Yet, senior LibDems connived with the tabloid press to expose Kennedy for a problem which, any way you look at it, was under control. They have made complete fools of themselves. They have exposed themselves as unreliable, incompetent, malicious amateurs. Worse, as hypocrites who have made a fetish of their own self-righteousness, and are now revealed as ugly infighters driven mad by their own vanity and ambition. They make George Galloway look like the the Prince of Wales.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats, who of course are in government in Holyrood, have so fare avoided being tainted by this ridiculous scandal. But Willie Rennie, their candidate in the Dunfermline and West Fife by-election where the LibDems came second last time, has cause to curse the antics of Hughes and co. Perhaps he should declare UDI.
It is going to be a very hard job for anyone to sweep away the dirt, let alone a 64 year old Scot only recently recovered from cancer. With the rejuvenated Tories trampling all over their centre ground policy agenda, and Labour set to exploit their difficulties at the English elections in May, the Liberal Democrats could be out of the running for a generation. This is bad news for British politics. The Liberal Democrats were an important element in our political ecology, standing for civil liberties, the environment, constitutional reform, social justice, racial integration. They opposed the war in Iraq and defended the rights of the individual against the strong state.
The Tories under David Cameron may pose as enlightened reformers, but they have form dating back to he days of Margaret Thatcher. Cameron supports the Iraq war and has ordered MEPs to sit with the far right in the European parliament, The traditional party of the Left – Labour – is disintegrating into fratricide over a Prime Minister who took us into an illegal war, wants compulsory ID cards and tried to suspend habeas corpus. This is no time for the Liberal Democrats to go awol, cruising on Clapham Common when they should have been engaging with the enemy in parliament.
I’m tempted to say that they are drinking in the last chance saloon, but apart from being in poor taste, that would have been incorrect. They have gone past the solitary drinking phase and are now lying in the gutter wrapped in newspaper, trying to forget what might have been. The Liberal Democrats present a sorry spectacle. This is one reality show where eviction means more than just having a chat with Davina McCall.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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