David Boyle

Ten years on: dealing with the tragedy of 1997

Liberator, July 2007.

It wasn’t a disaster, of course.  At least it didn’t seem so at the time.  I remember watching the election results come in on a giant screen at the Pizza in the Park, taking photos of the cheering Lib Dem party-goers.

And it was worth cheering, especially those of us who had already spent nearly two decades with the number of parliamentary seats barely in double figures.  By the end of the night, we had 46.

I was editor of Liberal Democrat News back then, and I put the headline ‘BREAKTHROUGH’ in capital letters across the front page.  I had longed to see a headline like that since I joined the party.

The breakthrough applied to the new Liberal Democrat presence in the House of Commons, but there was also a tangible sense of excitement that the Major years, the miserable, sluggish embarrassment of them – hard to recapture now ten years later – were finally over.

It was particularly tangible in London.  The election result may not have been responsible for the new mood in the capital, but it certainly made it obvious as the millennium approached – symbolised by the wobbly Millennium Bridge and the Tate Modern that it led to.

There was serious controversy inside the party over the Cook-Maclennan talks, especially when this became a joint cabinet committee on constitutional reform.  But looking back, I believe the critics – myself included – were wrong.

Cook-Maclennan led to PR for the Euro-elections, devolution in Scotland and Wales, the enactment of the Bill of Rights, and a range of other reforms or the beginnings of reforms, which historians will one day claim as one of the few concrete achievements of the Blair years.  Without us, none of it would have happened.

Perhaps the wobbly bridge, which led to a red brick wall on the side of the Tate Modern – a residue of Britain’s industrial past transformed into an enjoyable empty space with over-hyped contents – serves as rather a good symbol of the Blair years.

There clearly have been achievements, and the investment in health and education was urgently needed.  But an important question for Liberals is why that investment made so little difference: the clues are in the centralisation and managerialism of the Blair government, its defining sin.

Behind all the mistakes and disappointments was an eminently predictable problem: the Blair government didn’t stand for anything.  All those slogans like ‘the third way’ were simply indicators that nobody was quite sure what it was. 

There is a great deal to be said in favour of pragmatism, and the dumping of ideology – and Liberals often say it.  Blair and his colleagues have been an object lesson in the opposite direction.

Without ideological roots, without historical understanding or any frame by which they could understand the events around them, the danger was that they would find themselves simply agreeing with whoever was most powerful in any given situation.

It is hard to imagine a leader with political convictions making the hideous an unforgivable mistake that Blair did in Iraq – in fact Harold Wilson, for all his other faults, managed not to make it about Vietnam.

The dangers of an ideological vacuum at the centre were predictable, and I even remember predicting it – though I have been unable to find the Liberal Democrat News editorial where I did so, so perhaps this is fantasy.  New Labour may be riding high with opinion-formers in opposition, I wrote in 1995, but “in the long run,” I wrote, “there’s no contest.”

I meant, no contest with the Liberal Democrats.  Our ideology was secure enough, I believed.  But here, unfortunately, I was seriously wrong.  Perhaps I should have realised that, when you struggle with somebody – as the French philosopher Jacques Ellul explained – you get like them.

The tragedy of 1997 was the betrayal of hope for the Blair government, but it had a parallel for our own party as well.  We had succeeded in breaking through into serious parliamentary politics.  It became important, or it seemed at the time, that we should sound like serious parliamentarians.

We needed to sound measured, balanced, mature and talk about proper issues in the accepted parliamentary way.  We needed to intervene in proper parliamentary discussions as the BBC defined them.

The tragedy was that we sounded increasingly like serious politicians just at the crescendo of people’s dislike of serious politicians – especially the very people who had put us there most enthusiastically.

We imagined that serious politics was concerned purely with public spending – how much and by whom – and we cut our critique of the way things were to fit a miserably narrow parliamentary debate.

But hadn’t our campaigning tactics worked?  They certainly had, but the tragedy of 1997 was that we forgot anything else was needed apart from tactics.  We fooled ourselves into believing the only message people could understand about us was how well we were doing.

We forgot we were still a third party, and needed therefore – above all – a coherent and distinctive critique of government failure.  We need our own explanation of why government isn’t working.

We forgot the horror of the 1940s and 1950s, when – without that coherent Liberal critique and purpose – the MPs began to divide into suspicious camps based on their supposed left-right leanings.

We forgot that campaigning without distinctive and relevant content – not just decentralisation for the sake of it, but to meet people’s real concerns about public services – is instantly forgettable, inspires nobody’s passion, coheres no factions together, links no campaigns.

We forgot also that there is a rival political force whose purpose is absolutely clear and unambiguous to everyone.  The Greens still lack the resources and energy to challenge us, but look at the local results in Brighton for a warning about the future.

What are the Liberal Democrats for, asked Simon Jenkins last month?  The article itself betrayed considerable ignorance about the party, but we dismiss the question at our peril.

Because we need an answer, and our own tragedy of 1997 was that we became like the government we were opposing in our failure to answer it clearly.  A decade on the leather benches lulled us into believing that somehow we could get by with a collection of angles, a carefully balanced stance, a marketing gimmick or two, and a megaphone.

Why was 1997 a tragedy?  Because it contained within it the seeds of these delusions and it prevented us from undertaking the urgent intellectual work that needs doing.

Yet quietly and without the fanfare of the Orange Book or the frustration of the Beveridge Group, there is a New Liberalism emerging which is capable of providing an intellectual backbone to the party’s campaigning – attracting the opinion formers, the passionate enthusiasts, the commentators that we need to mount a national challenge (see below).

But it is also one that asks a fundamental question.  Why, sixty years after the Beveridge Report, are the Five Giants he named – Idleness, Disease, Squalor, Want and Ignorance – still alive and well?  Why are our public services so ineffective at making permanent change happen?

It recognises that the answer is not, and may never have been, simply a matter of money.  Underfunding in one decade or more may have blunted their effectiveness, but there are other forces at work here and we need to confront them.

It points the finger at sclerotic centralisation, giant inhuman institutions, patronising technocratic systems and the deliberate destruction – by public and private sectors alike – of the social fabric that holds everything else together.

Those are the monsters brought us by Thatcher and Major and turbo-charged under Blair and Brown.  They are crucially important to people’s lives, yet government and opposition alike seems bent on solving our obvious problems by giving us more of them.  It is the historic role of the Liberal Democrats to show a way out.

The New Liberalism provides us with a platform that does not force a choice between targeting our message at former conservatives or former socialists, but lets us build a new coalition who are inspired by our critique.

But we do have to inspire them.  The New Liberalism recognises that inspiration is the objective, and only a distinctive critique can do that, rather than the unpredictable grind of campaigning on empty.

There is certainly some wishful thinking in this.  I believe the big ideas behind the New Liberalism are emerging now, but I can’t be sure.

I believe it partly because I want to, and partly because that collection of ideas (see box) are places where neither Gordon Brown nor David Cameron can follow us, no matter how they transmute.  Because it is a way out of the tragedy of 1997.

This is also an intemperate article.  Because I’ve seen one vacuous Lib Dem leaflet too many, had one disconnected and soulless draft policy too many slide across my desk.

And now I’m beginning to see the results of this far too often: the Lib Dem councillors who think their role is just to manage better; the Lib Dem MPs who dream of 1970s social democracy before Callaghan.

The evidence of the tragedy is all too easily found – the 14 Green councillors (two Lib Dems) on Brighton Council.  The squabbling in the Welsh party over which coalition partner to choose, a clear sign of ideological vacuum.

The Lib Dem deputy leader in Bournemouth who was cynical enough to sign the contract for a casino the day of the local elections (never mind the evidence that casinos siphon money out of the local economy).

And heaven help us, a Lib Dem leaflet I ran across (I won’t say where from) which proclaimed one policy alone in this month’s elections – “to do what’s best for the town”.

Well, really, I ask you: who in their right mind would vote for something as vacuous as that?

Or has 1997 so deluded us that we think that’s a pretty neat, pithy, memorable and distinctive campaign slogan?


  • Triple devolution: to frontline staff, to public service clients and to democratic local institutions.
  • Human-scale institutions: where human relationships between professionals and clients – teachers and pupils, doctors and patients too – are possible, because they are the only engines of real change.
  • Tough, trust-busting competition policy: tackling Tescofication, reclaiming the concept of free trade from the giant corporates, to give a genuine level playing field for local enterprise and imagination.
  • Thrift: recognising the sheer waste of public services that don’t work because they are centralised, and the criminal waste of giant government infrastructure projects – ID cards, nuclear energy, Trident and Iraq.
  • New bottom lines: if well-being and not economic growth is the objective, that means reshaping our institutions to drive that.




title: books by David Boyle
Broke Voyages of Discovery Money Matters Blondel's Song Leaves World to Darkness The Little Money Book Funny Money The Tyranny of Numbers