Liberal Conservative Party is way ahead

19 Sep 2007

This article by Brian Monteith, the Policy Institute’s Research Director, appeared in The Scotsman on 19th September

I HAPPENED to be thumbing through some old Spectator magazines recently and came across an interesting article by the Liberal Party leader Jo Grimond written in February, 1979. It was before the devolution referendum of that year and Jim Callaghan’s Labour government had still to be swept away by Margaret Thatcher’s new broom.

These were times when trade unions seemed and indeed were all-powerful, where any large business whose name started with the word “British” was likely to be state-owned and losing taxpayers’ money hand over fist. Government was not so much big as obese and the prevailing consensus was that governments could control the economy by simply declaring laws on earnings, prices and the movement of capital. All of these things worried Grimond.

It is generally held that this orthodoxy was challenged and defeated by Thatcher; after all, she was the one that took power and fought not only the union bosses and the socialists but the many doubters in her own party. And yet reading Grimond’s piece, my memory of how he articulated many of what would now glibly and lazily be branded right-wing views was reawakened.

Consider this: “How can we reduce the scope of government and the size of the public sector until they become manageable? For it is the vast, clogging, labyrinthine jungle of bureaucracies, quangos, public monopolies, boards and subordinate governments of all sorts which makes the economy unmanageable. There can be no means of running it efficiently, stimulating economic growth or deciding rates of profit, pay or salary in this entangling forest which blankets our guiding stars and exhausts and infuriates its denizens.”

What marvellous stuff - and oh how refreshing it would be to hear Menzies Campbell or David Cameron echo these words today. Sadly, I think it is a forlorn hope.

I don’t believe I’m alone when I admit I long for a realignment in either British or at least Scottish politics that will at last deliver a party that stands for a smaller state at less cost with more responsibility returned to individuals, families and communities.

If you believe, as I do, that both directly and indirectly, the government takes too much of your earnings and savings, then there really is little to choose from the main parties in British politics.

The Conservatives gave up being a genuine tax-cutting party some time ago and now talk of raising green taxes to reduce family taxes, displaying a cowardice in the face of clearly identifiable government largesse. Where’s the moral case for cutting taxes, recognising there is no such thing as government money, just money governments take from people and the fruits of their labour?

Meanwhile, Gordon Brown has shown that even if he has had to rob Peter to pay Paul he can still wear Margaret Thatcher’s dress and cut the standard rate of income tax - not once but twice.

Neither are the Liberal Democrats slouches in offering their own tax cuts, balanced by corresponding rises elsewhere. Sadly, they still seem to believe that taxing the highest earners more is the way to make up any shortfall, when there’s so much evidence that reducing the top rates delivers greater economic activity and thus greater revenue.

In Scotland, it should not be ignored that it was Nicol Stephen as Liberal Democrat leader within the then Scottish Executive that bounced Jack McConnell into demolishing the higher business rate regime he had created as finance minister in 2000. The plaudits such leadership in tax-cutting earned should be a vital lesson for Liberal Democrats trying to define themselves more sharply.

If the Liberal Democrats were to become genuinely a party of small government, looking to lower taxes, rediscover its original belief in individual responsibility, then it could, and probably would, begin to attract not just the significant number of people that vote Conservative - but also the many that abandoned the Conservatives for Labour, or just don’t vote at all.

The Liberals were always the Home Rule party, but that never stopped it being Unionist - as indeed it remains today. Indeed, on many occasions I have found the most virulent and bitter comments towards Nationalists have come from Liberal Democrats. Given that the Scottish Conservatives are now at least talking of greater powers for Holyrood, the differences between the two are more about tone than substance. It also used to be thought that Liberals were soft on crime, but one can only deduce that too many of them have been victims of muggings, burglary and vandalism, as their justice policies have, like all parties, become tougher. The Liberal Democrats worked with Labour to deliver extra police, close various legal loopholes that benefited criminals and put the ASBO system in place.

Accusing Liberals of being soft on crime is the same childish name-calling that says Tories would bring back the birch and hanging.

All things considered, a Liberal Conservative Party, in Scotland at least, would have more that binds it than what divides it. Scotland’s professional and business classes would surely approve of such a phoenix evolving from two burnt-out dinosaurs.

The main obstacles to attracting about as much as 30 per cent of electoral support are the current party establishments, keen to maintain their power bases, and the dwindling number of activists that populate what used to be called conferences - but now resemble seminars.

How might such a revolution come about? To administer such a topsy-turvy change requires courageous leadership, strategic thinking and a little sprinkling of opportunism. I see little sign of these attributes in the Scottish Conservatives, who appear far too complacent and comfortable. Similarly, the jury remains out on the younger Liberal Democrat team of Nicol Stephen and Tavish Scott.

Oh, how we could do with a modern-day Jo Grimond in the Scottish Parliament..