Frank Little

Councillor for East Central ward on Coedffranc Town Council Learn more

Williams and Ashdown on lessons from Liberal history

by franklittle on 25 January, 2012

There’s an excellent report, plus video, of a recent meeting of the Liberal History Society by Mark Pack here. There were major contributions from Paddy Ashdown and Shirley Williams. Several passages stood out for me. Shirley Williams drew lessons from her knowledge of the United States* “in particular the way the limited teaching of history in the US helps shapes its leaders’ worldview – if you only teach American history, you end up with people who do not think much beyond the boundaries of America. This had ‘devastating consequences’, Shirley Williams argued, when the lessons of the Vietnam War and the state the country was left in were not applied to Iraq.” Amen to that.

I’m gratified to find that Baroness Williams and I shared a gradual change of view on the direction of the party after the 2010 general election: “The USA is also responsible for her views on coalition. Williams revealed that initially she would have preferred a minority Conservative government, with a confidence and supply arrangement rather than a formal coalition. However, she has since changed her mind, drawing on what she has seen in the USA and the dangers it shows of ‘total political polarisation’ stopping the government from taking necessary action in an economic crisis. As a result, she now thinks forming a coalition ‘was necessary and it was right … One had to make the political system work, even if it was painful and difficult to do so.’”

Paddy had “[enlightened and entertained] the audience with a sequence of many other quotes from past Liberals, including from Lord Acton: ‘A state which is incompetent to satisfy different races, condemns itself. A state which labours to neutralise, to absorb, to expel them destroys its own vitality. A state which does not include them is destitute of the chief basis of self-government.’ Acton got several mentions, with Ashdown also picking out what he described as one of his favourite quotes: ‘It is easier to find people fit to govern themselves than it is to find people fit to govern’. The quote should be emblazoned across the party’s political manuals, he said, making the implicit point that many of the lessons past liberal drew from their contemporary experience are still highly relevant today.”

It seems to me that the central practical difference in today’s politics is that Labour believes in strong central government, Conservatives in minimal government, Liberals in government at the appropriate level. There is a – sometimes uneasy – compromise on the last two views in the coalition, as shown by the Local Government Finance Bill and the Localism Act, both of which devolve powers to local government and  to local citizens.

*She and her brother were evacuated to the States during World War II. (She refers to this period in a recent Radio 4 broadcast.) She later returned to teach at Harvard.

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