Defining politics

The party sought both to run well to the left of Labour on policy questions in many university towns and to oust a series of Shadow Cabinet members by tacking towards the Centre. This strategic ambiguity had served Mr Kennedy well before, and most of those around him believed that it was possible to snatch 70 or 80 constituencies this time. In that context, the final outcome of 62 seats has to be viewed as a disappointment.

Mr Kennedy told The Times that he wanted to respond to events by “getting the Liberal Democrats in the driving seat”. The real issue, though, is the direction in which the Lib Dem vehicle is travelling. The inconsistencies in the party programme and the propensity for populist lurches would have Mr Kennedy banned if his political party had a driving licence.###

More consistency and coherence are not impossible. Mr Kennedy contends that his central political principle is “the freedom of the individual”. This is admirable. In certain areas, such as the promotion of civil liberties, he and his party have a strong claim to virtue. In other spheres, nevertheless, their credentials are unimpressive. The economic freedom of the individual is not recognised with sufficient rigour. The right of free individuals to a meaningful choice in public services such as health and education has not been regarded with much respect. The freedom of individuals in dictatorships such as Iraq is, apparently, subject to the agreement of the United Nations.

The Lib Dems’ task over the next few years, starting with their conference in Blackpool this week, involves an essentially philosophical challenge. What is Liberalism and how is to be applied to the modern world? The party has, in fairness, sought to address these matters before but has also sought to avoid internal conflict while doing so. As a result, Liberalism is anything that men such as John Stuart Mill, William Gladstone, John Maynard Keynes, Sir William Beveridge or even Paddy Ashdown may have said at one time. Liberalism now has to be considerably less liberal as to its own interpretation. If not, it will mean nothing at all. Mr Kennedy concluded his conversation with this newspaper last week with the thought: “The easy life is not an option.” He is correct. He has to start with the hardest question of all — what does he truly stand for?