Book review: The Liberal Democrats, edited by Don Maciver

This review of The Liberal Democrats, edited by Don Maciver was published in 1996. The book is still a significant and interesting source of information for people wanting to know more about the history of the party.

This book is the first major book-length study of the Liberal Democrats, comprising eleven chapters written by “a group of professional political scientists” at “British universities” (though one contributor – Duncan Brack – is actually neither).

Some of the chapters have a familiar ring to them – the local elections expert duo of Thrasher and Rallings on Lib Dem election results, Michael Steed (former Liberal Party president) on the Liberal tradition and John Curtice, with others, on what Liberal Democrat members are like. However, even those readers who are already familiar with the writing of these people, will find some interesting new pieces of information, and will doubtless find the bringing together in one volume of so many contributions convenient.

The first four chapters, on the development of the party, are largely a fairly standard, but well-written, recount of how the “third force” mutated from Liberals to Alliance and finally Lib Dems. Much of the novel information in this section is in Duncan Brack’s chapter on the development of policy. This makes an elegant and clearly argued case for seeing Lib Dems as having a clear ideological focus, and consistent, relevant policies. That he was the party’s policy director for much of the period may encourage a cynic to think, “He would say that, wouldn’t he?” but he does highlight weakness too, including quoting from his former deputy Ben Rich’s disparaging of the policy process in a Liberator article (Liberator 227).

The middle third of the book examines the party’s structure in some detail. Some of the comments seem to suffer from authors having a better acquaintance with newspaper cuttings than with the personalities involved. For example, when the power of the President is described, no mention is made of Charles Kennedy’s own personality. Describing all the meetings a President is entitled to attend gives a rather bloated picture of the post’s power when an incumbent like Kennedy often had such a dismal record at turning up. Also, it is not clear whether the party organisation chart that shows no link of accountability between Conference Committee and Conference Office is a mistake or an astute comment!

As a member of Conference Committee I found the descriptions of Conference particularly interesting. There were only one or two occasions when I felt like screaming, “No, it wasn’t like that.” Despite the apparent reliance on newspaper reports of conference, many of the judgements are much fairer than one would otherwise expect and, unlike other books and articles, this volume does draw attention to, for example, the poor judgement and myopia of much of the Parliamentary Party during the 1994 Brighton Conference.

The analysis of party members will confirm many people’s prejudices, with Liberal Democrat activists being found to be more likely to deliver leaflets and less likely to attend meetings that Labour activists. Also, substantial proportions of the membership dissent from party policy on European and (English) devolution.

The last four chapters consider the electoral success, or otherwise, of the Liberal Democrats. It includes an intriguing suggestion from John Curtice that, after considering who votes for which party, “the Liberal Democrats emerge as a liberal party, not a centre party “ and as Labour moves towards the centre he suggests there is fruitful scope for the Liberal Democrats as a liberal and left-of-centre party to outflank Labour on such issues as support for the welfare state and government-spending.

Some of the discussion about party strategy is a little superficial, without any real consideration of what “replacing Labour” actually means. In practice this has often meant replacing Labour as the principal opponent in much of the South and Southwest of England. However, what this may produce in the future is a Parliament full of Labour of MPs, with a much reduced number of Tories and a substantial number of Lib Dem MPs. This would be a somewhat odd outcome for a “replacing Labour” strategy.

In all, much fruitful reading with plenty of thought-provoking comments. The only real flaw is some poor proof-reading. There are many minor typographical errors, but also at least one more serious one (not only is one constituency wrongly identified, but the footnote giving the source itself has an error in the page number referred to).

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