What My Grandfather Taught Me About British Liberals

British politics get ugly

My grandfather, a roaring Red, could judge a man’s politics from his wardrobe: “The Conservative has a fur coat; the Liberal a cloth coat; and the Labor man wears a donkey jacket,” he’d declaim. The fur-clad Tory may have been granddad’s unique flourish, but he certainly wasn’t the only Brit to conflate social status and political affiliation. He instinctively hated the Tories, but the Liberals he pitied: They were condescending toffs too confused to figure out their role in the class war, and they had no core beliefs beyond vague notions about civil liberties and personal freedoms.

In the aspirational, post-ideological 21st century, something very peculiar has happened to the Liberal Democrats, as Liberals are now known after decades of mergers and acquisitions. It’s a cloth coat world. On issues like education funding, asylum/immigration, and health care, the Lib Dems now find themselves positioned to the left of the Labor Party, and, as they remind voters again and again, they opposed the Iraq war.

Earlier this week, many of the newspapers that have grown disaffected with Tony Blair led with the news that Brian Sedgemore had “defected” to the Lib Dems after 27 years as a Labor MP. Aesthetically, Sedgemore wasn’t much of a catch—with his non-ironic comb-over and his ‘70s fashion stylings, he’s the incarnation of old Labor—but his Dear Tony letter, published in the Independent, was devastating. Sedgemore accused Blair of telling “stomach-churning lies on Iraq” and declared that he was “renouncing Tony Blair, the Devil, New Labor and all their works.” He closed by urging “everyone from the centre and left in British politics to give Blair a bloody nose at the election and to vote Liberal Democrat to ensure the tawdry New Labor project is dead.” (Blair’s nose is taking a beating this election. The Respect Party’s campaign literature shows the prime minister with an elongated missile-proboscis under the tag line, “Bliar, Bliar Credibility’s on Fire.”)

National campaigns often take potshots at other parties’ leaders—a 2001 Labor billboard placed Margaret Thatcher’s hair atop then-Tory-leader William Hague’s head—but the targeting of Tony Blair is particularly harsh. On Wednesday, the Conservatives broke a long-standing taboo when they used the “L word” in a new ad: Next to an image of a shifty-looking Blair, the text said, “IF HE’S PREPARED TO LIE TO TAKE US TO WAR, HE’S PREPARED TO LIE TO WIN AN ELECTION.” (Compared with the United States, everything about British politics is aggressively negative.)

Blair’s “truthfulness,” particularly about the march to war, is now the key issue in the national media’s election coverage. Late Wednesday night, two TV networks received a leaked document that shows that in advice presented to Blair on March 7, 2003, Britain’s attorney general expressed doubts about the legality of invading Iraq without a second U.N. resolution—misgivings that were not mentioned in a second, more widely circulated report 10 days later. On Thursday morning, the prime minister’s office finally published the full text of the first memo, but while few commentators have found anything truly shocking there, the fact that it was kept secret for so long confers a whiff of conspiracy. The details of the revelations are amazingly hard to follow—but that doesn’t stop the Tories from trying to turn the election into a referendum on the prime minister’s integrity.

Despite his gift for oratory, Blair has been shockingly ineffective at convincing his compatriots of the need for, much less the urgency of, the war on terror. In appearances this week, when confronted by voters who accused him of misleading the nation when he took it into the Iraq war, the prime minister responded more personally than politically. On Wednesday’s ITV News, he told questioners, “I took that decision [to go to war] bona fide, in good faith, doing what I thought was right. I still think it was, although I totally understand why people disagree with me.”

Lib Dem boss Charles Kennedy, displaying his party’s traditional lack of ruthlessness, isn’t exploiting Blair’s weakness. Instead, he is giving Blair a pass and striking out at the Conservatives: “[The Tories] are falling back now on the most negative form of personalized campaigning,” he told the BBC.

It seems unlikely that the Lib Dems will take advantage of Labor disaffection and Tory negativity. In his recent book So Now Who Do We Vote For?, John Harris performed a valuable service for the legions of alienated and anti-war Labor supporters who, like him, are now debating whether to hold their noses and vote for Blair’s New Labor or shift their allegiance to another party. In the course of his research, hoping to be seduced into their ranks, Harris spoke with several prominent Lib Dems, only to be frustrated by the party’s “hazy” doctrinal underpinnings.

But at least the Lib Dems welcome converts. Perhaps some of the defectors, high-profile and otherwise, can put some starch into those cloth coats.