13 Apr 2006

From Liberal Democrat to Green anti-capitalist


Twenty-five years ago, I was a 15 year-old in a state of high
excitement. It was an adolescent love-affair - but not with any girl or
boy. I was falling in love with - rather, I was infatuated with - the
Gang of Four, and the idea that appeared in public for the first time 25
years ago today: the idea of a new social democratic party, and of the
'realignment' of British politics.

A fortnight later, along with 25,000 others, I rushed to sign up, in
response to the ad that the Limehouse Declarers placed in the Guardian.
I really thought we were going to break the mould of British politics.
'Neither left, nor right, but forward'. I still thought so when, a year
later, courtesy of my mother, I received a photo signed by Roy Jenkins,
a card to accompany my biggest and favourite 16th birthday present:
gift-membership of the Social Democratic Party. Two years later I went
up to Oxford, and duly worked to try to get Chris Huhne elected to
Parliament there. I spent time with him and other then-colleagues
(including Andrew Adonis (now Lord Adonis), another former social
Democrat, who we tried to get elected to Oxford City Council), and in
due course was elected President of the 300-strong 'Oxford University
Social Democratic Club', during my time at Balliol College (Jenkins's
old College), and was even briefly elected Treasurer of the national
Young Social Democrats. I enjoyed going to Party Conference, and like
most people there drank a lot of booze, very late into the night
(including on one occasion with Charles Kennedy.).

After the merger, my optimism waned somewhat, and I abandoned British
politics to do a Ph.D in America, despairing at the seeming
impregnability of Thatcher. What I only finally came to understand
during my seven years in America -- where I saw at firsthand the
environmental and social devastation wrought by the market unleashed --
was the extent to which 'social democracy' could never offer a solution
to the problems besetting a country and a world in the grip of
capitalism. In the States, I saw 'the future' -- and saw that it was
dire. I came back to Britain in 1995, radicalised, forewarned (by
firsthand experience of the 'New Democrats') about how dismal New Labour
would be. And determined to try to play (if I possibly could) a role in
turning history in a different and better direction. I tried to persuade
Paddy Ashdown et al to outflank Labour on the Left, urging that this was
a historic opportunity to do so. But the Liberal Democrats preferred to
pursue the same old strategy of opportunistically trying to be all
things to all voters, to garner the tactical votes of disgruntled
Labourites or Conservatives.

The last straw for me was the election of Kennedy as Leader in '99. I
had pinned my fast-dwindling hopes for the LibDems as a radical force in
British politics on the candidacy of Simon Hughes for the leadership.
Hughes had made clear that he was the 'left' candidate, in the coded way
these things are done in the LibDems (Hughes was the 'inner city'
candidate). Kennedy by contrast was classic social democrat. He embodied
the reasons for the creation of the SDP. The SDP's historic mission was
to domesticate BOTH the Labour Party and the Liberal Party:

The Labour Party would either become a small Left sect, or it would
essentially cave in to the agenda of the SDP. It is the latter that has
happened, clearly, with the rise of New Labour. In the process, much
that was great in the Old Labour Party has been suborned: its commitment
to socialism, and to nuclear disarmament, and its serious doubts about
the capitalist version of the European project, for instance. When I
think of all that, I deeply regret, and sometimes feel ashamed, that I
was part of that process. That the SDP broke the power of the ideas of
fine organic intellectuals such as Michael Foot and Tony Benn, in
Labour. It paved the way for the dominance of market ideology in
Britain. It helped ensure that, in Peter Mandelson's ugly view of the
world, "We are all Thatcherites, now".

So far as the elite in the Liberal Party were concerned, the creation
of the SDP was an opportunity to suborn once and for all radical
liberalism. This has precisely occurred: the left libertarians in the
Liberal Party, the elements of the Liberals who were deeply serious
about civil liberties, about living more ecologically, and about nuclear
disarmament, were gradually crushed by the weight of the newcomers from
the SDP.

Seven years ago, then, I resigned from the LibDems, the moment Kennedy
was elected, and for the first time in my adult life was a member of no
political Party. I did not expect that state of affairs to change. But,
once outside the LibDems, I saw even clearer than before the devastation
that neo-liberalism was wreaking on our society and our planet: and I
saw clearly that New Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives
alike shared an agenda of neo-liberal globalisation, of what Colin Leys
rightly calls 'market-driven 'democracy''. I felt, especially as the
gravity of the threat from global warming became clear to me (I was
helped by being a Lecturer in the University of East Anglia, home to the
world's leading climate scientists), that I could not sit by, and fiddle
as the world burns.

In Steve Bell's magnificent 'If.' cartoons, Thatcher's Conservatives
at their height were the Dinosaur Party, voraciously eating schools and
hospitals, consuming and excreting the great history of public services
in this country. And the SDP were of course the 'Sub Dinosaur Party',
doing just the same, but with an allegedly human face. Nowadays, all
three 'mainstream' Parties are Sub Dinosaur Parties, funded by big
business, and privatising whatever they can get their hands off: and the
actual differences between their polices are mostly within their
accountants' margins of error...

And now, Sir Mingis Campbell is elected leader of the LibDems, in a
3-way contest in which Simon Hughes has, unfortunately, come a
humiliating third. Campbell is a classic establishment figure, and
famous, like John Prescott, for his flashy and expensive gas-guzzling
cars. A clearer indication that the LibDems have no real interest in the
(literally) burning issue of the day - combating climate change - could
scarcely be imagined.

Meanwhile, Peter Tatchell, Simon Hughes's vanquished (gay) opponent in
the bitterest of all the famous 1980s SDP/LibDem by-election campaigns,
has joined the Green Party. And so have I. In fact, when I saw what the
Greens were trying to do, in Norwich, where I now live and teach, I was
so impressed that, gradually, against my intentions, I became more and
more active in the Party. . A Party in favour of massive action to
reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 90% by 2050. A Party that says a
green-left 'No' to the European Constitution, and a green-left 'No' to
the centralising tendencies of the single currency (the 'Euro'), run by
the ultimate deflationary central Bank. A Party that instead looks to
localise economics and politics. A Party that would abolish the corrupt
honours system, and that would democratise our semi-feudal state. A
Party that repudiates neo-liberalism, that has many eco-socialists and
anti-capitalists in its number.a Party that represents the best in all
that the Left used to represent, without buying into the Left's bankrupt
'deprivation model' of contemporary society. Most of us are not deprived
any longer; we are rather awash in pointless consumer goods, our lives
devoid of meaning and social hope. It is this spiritual malaise, a
malaise tied as much to growthist ideology as to economic inequality,
that is one of the ultimate targets of Green politics. It is not just
about saving the planet, not just about saving the whales, not even just
about saving the humans. It honestly is about saving our souls, too.

Twenty-five years ago today, the Limehouse Declaration provided a
burst of media excitement. But what a false dawn it proved. What a
disaster, in its destruction of most of what was fine in Labour and in
the Liberals. And what a catastrophe, in its spiritual descendants: Tony
Blair, David Cameron, and Ming Campbell all share the mantra that 'there
is no alternative' to the 'free market', to 'globalisation' - to

Perhaps I should have been wary, when the fledgling SDP decided on its
Party colours. There were rumours, which delighted my enthusiastic
teenage self, that the new Party, claiming (shades of Cameron!) to be
eco-friendly, would adopt green as its Party colour. It should have been
a big warning sign, when the leadership scotched that suggestion, and
opted in asinine faux-patriotic fashion to take red white and blue as
the SDP Party colours, instead.

25 years on, I am pleased to be in a Party that might actually break
the mould. A Party whose colours are real; a Party that actually is,
rather than merely pretending to be, Green.

7 years after Kennedy beat the 'left' candidate to the leadership of
the LibDems, a right-wing establishment figure, Ming Campbell, has taken
over there. How revealing: That the first thing Campbell does, on being
elected leader of the Libdems, is to show his true 'Orange Book'
colours, by calling for the privatisation of the Royal Mail, a
Thatcherite policy already rejected by the rank and file in his Party.
Peter Mandelson once famously remarked that "We are all Thatcherites
now". How true this is not only of the Tories and of New Labour, but
also, evidently, of Campbell's LibDems.

It was for reasons such as this that I quit the LibDems, after Kennedy
defeated Hughes in the last leadership contest. This time around,
Campbell (and relative unknown Chris Huhne) trounced Hughes, still the
only candidate with an ounce of radicalism or progressivism in his
agenda. And so: Looking back on those heady SDP days, and on the time
when I finally quit the LibDems, being in the Greens now feels to me, by
contrast, like growing up. Or even, perhaps: like coming home.

By Rupert Read.

Rupert is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of East
Anglia, a Green Councillor on Norwich City Council, and a columnist with
the _Eastern Daily Press_.
Senior Lecturer in Philosophy
University of East Anglia

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