I’m not a great commentator on UK party politics on this site. That’s not to say that I don’t have strong political beliefs. Far from it – I have clear and well-established views on a lot of issues, I care about what happens in my country and on occasion I stand up and make my voice heard on this site and elsewhere. However, I’ve found on a few occasions in the past – mostly around issues concerned with the war in Iraq and the fall-out from September 11th – that the weblogging culture can be rabid and aggressive and indulge in random ad hominem attacks on people with different views. It can be enormously unpleasant to have several hundred people ridicule you and – ignoring any complexities of position or argument – lurch into stereotyping or go for easy point-scoring simply to win. I should add that I don’t think that this behaviour is a particular feature of the weblogging community, I think it’s a feature of all public spaces – only this time expressed through software. But I’m digressing…
What I wanted to talk about today was about Charles Kennedy’s resignation as leader of the Liberal Democrats. I’ve not been following this enormously closely, but obviously Charles Kennedy has had a reputation as a drinker for a while now (Westminster’s worst kept secret?). And when the vultures start to circle as vigorously as they have been circling, then you have to accept that the end is probably near. But it is a shame in so many ways – I’ve not voted Liberal for almost fifteen years, but I understand them in a way that I don’t understand any other party. They’ve never had the excitement of the early Blairite Labour party, or the apparent backbone of the right, but they’ve grown in influence substantially over the last couple of decades and have – on some issues – really helped define the path that gradually all the other parties have found themselves walking. You have to celebrate Charles Kennedy’s part in that process, whatever failings he may otherwise have.
I think the one thing that really stuck in my head as I watched the video of his resignation speech (which would I would really recommend a glance at) was his statements about principles. For years I’ve watched representatives of the Conservative party on television talking about how they had to change their messages and their policies to keep up with the electorate and find a new identity and purpose, and I’ve always found that approach weak, duplicitous and calculating. If you believe in something, if you stand for something, then sure, your policies might change, but their end goal should be much more secure. And yes, of course you can be wrong in your principles and you can seek to change them, but that’s a process that comes from testing them and seeing where you were wrong. You can’t change your principles in response to public disengagement. People can tell when you stand for nothing, and observe with disgust people running brazenly to change their views to fit in with what’s politically in vogue. If the principles that underlie a party cease to be attractive to the people it wants to serve, then the party should die and be replaced.
Charles Kennedy was clear about what he thought the Liberals should do – he stated that they shouldn’t run after the expedient policies, that they shouldn’t scrabble to distinguish the party from Conservatives and Labour as the latter move more and more into the central ground. No, it should live or die by its principles, stand up for what it believed to be right – internationalisation, international law, support for the have-nots etc. I thought there was a lot to be said for his speech – an aspiration towards a better set of personal and political standards that perhaps only the Liberals can evidence (because they’re the third party) but is still pretty wonderful to hear. So let’s hope that all the progress they’ve made isn’t put at risk by this transition. Let’s hope that the new leader – whether we vote for him or not – stands up similarly for a personal integrity of government, and for a belief in sticking by your principles and letting the people decide if they’re ones they identify with too. If so, then Charles Kennedy’s time in politics, and the time of Paddy Ashdown before him, will not have been in vain.