It is striking that the eclipse of the Liberal Democrats should coincide with Ming’s accession to the leadership. He is, in a way, the purest living embodiment in British politics of the Peter Principle — the law which dictates that people will rise just one level above their natural slot in life, to a position in which their weaknesses are then cruelly exposed.
As deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, Ming had found his metier. He was the Sergeant Wilson to Charles Kennedy’s Captain Mainwaring — the suave, classier, better-educated number two whose dry style left everyone wondering how on earth he put up serving with under his chaotic superior. If Ming had never challenged for the leadership, everyone would have agreed that it was a tragedy he’d never enjoyed the top job. But now that he actually has the leadership, a very different sort of tragedy is playing itself out.
The pity is that the Liberal Democrats, having once enjoyed a reputation for innovation and creativity, should have embarked, under Ming, on the policy equivalent of a long mid-afternoon snooze. The Lib Dems were once the party you went to for environmental dynamism, but just as the nation has woken up to the scale of the crisis, it’s the Conservatives who are displaying the boldest and most creative thinking in this area. And it’s not just on green issues that the third party is feeling its age. Whether it’s social justice, where the Tunbridge Wells MP Greg Clark has done more to focus attention on inequality than any other opposition MP, or civil liberties, where Dominic Grieve and David Davis are the opponents Labour fear, traditional areas of Liberal Democrat strength have been taken over by the Tories. Take a gander at the Lib Dem party website and you’ll find that all its spokesmen’s statements are reactions to what the other parties are doing — with scarcely a fresh idea from one month to the next.
Tragically, and this is Ming’s fourth misfortune, the Lib Dems have retreated to their comfort zone, attempting to recreate the warm glow they felt when they were marching arm-in-arm with the SWP against the Iraq war, by making their strongest pitch on foreign policy. In the recent debate on Iraq Ming spoke with a forceful eloquence which will have reminded fans of his golden era, but the content of what he said soon fell apart under scrutiny. His demand that British troops withdraw to meet an arbitrary timetable was widely recognised as militarily naive. But, worse than that, for the party of Gladstone, Ming’s insistence on rapid withdrawal would leave Iraq’s liberals and democrats to the wolves. How ethical is a foreign policy which, when it sees trade unionists and feminists fighting clerical fascists, decides that the best thing to do is to give the clerical fascists a freer hand?
But then Ming’s whole approach to foreign policy is neither liberal nor particularly democratic. Discussing the wider Middle East, his only comment on Syria was a demand that the Golan Heights be returned to Syrian control, in order to satisfy the amour-propre of the ruling Assad dynasty. The part Syria has played in de-stabilising Lebanon’s nascent democracy, and its role in the murder of Rafiq Hariri, were ignored. On the Middle East peace process itself, Ming argued that the main obstacle to peace was the fact that ‘on both sides of the aisle in the US Congress, there is almost uncritical support for Israel’.
There may well be a place in British politics for a party which argues for greater concessions to Baathist tyranny and believes there is a malign Zionist lobby controlling American foreign policy, but one had rather hoped George Galloway had cornered the market. That the leader of the Liberal Democrats should enjoy what most acknowledge to be his finest hour as leader, making these sort of arguments just shows how far gone things are.
UPDATE: I have just received my daily email from the LibDems. In his article Michael Gove says: "Take a gander at the Lib Dem party website and you’ll find that all its spokesmen’s statements are reactions to what the other parties are doing — with scarcely a fresh idea from one month to the next." As if to prove Michael Gove's point the LibDem email contains eleven stories, each one of which "criticises", "condemns" in one form or another. Not a single one of the stories says anything original at all.