Britain’s Liberal Democrats last week made the “safe” choice by electing Menzies Campbell,
former deputy leader and one-time Olympic athlete, as their new leader.
Campbell, 64, was the most experienced of the three candidates, and
defeated Chris Huhne after preferences by a comfortable margin.
Ideologically, Campbell appears to be pretty much in the centre of his
party. He is sympathetic to the free marketeers, supporting
part-privatisation of the post office, but also argues for higher environmental taxes and greater equality in the tax system.
These are exciting times for the Lib Dems. Their philosophical
heritage, the liberalism of Fox and Gladstone, seemed moribund 30 years
ago, but now it’s professed by all three of the major parties. As Campbell says, “Everyone claims to be a liberal these days.”
But that also represents a major challenge; with their rivals competing
for the same ground, the Lib Dems risk being squeezed out. A feature in today’s Australian on David Cameron, the new Conservative leader, makes the point clearly:
“The result is that after more than a decade of making a
lonely and unpopular stand on the Right of the political spectrum, the
Tories have rushed to the Centre ground, which is now more crowded than
it has been for a half-century. … Britain’s three mainstream parties
now make up one of the most narrow political scenes in the world.”
If liberalism really is what the electorate wants, it would make sense
to look for it in the Lib Dems, its natural home, rather than trust that
Labour and the Tories will always be able to keep their respective left
and right wings in check. But first Campbell will have to put the
recent run of scandals behind them and get his party taken seriously.
Of course, there’s another party with a claim to the Gladstonian heritage – the Liberal Party of Australia, whose website
even now tells us that “The name Liberal was chosen deliberately for
its associations with progressive nineteenth century free enterprise
and social equality.” But it’s spent the last decade trying hard to
erase such traces of liberalism that still remain.