Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Why are there no Lib Dem media pundits or public intellectuals?

In her excellent New Statesman blog, Olly Grender asked last week why there are no Lib Dem columnists in the mainstream media. She wrote

Right now, I can think of five journalists, all working in print media, all of whom at some point have been part of the Liberal Democrat party, but who would run a million miles before declaring themselves long-term supporters.

For me, the problem goes wider than this and applies equally to the lack of public intellectuals - academics who write for a general audience, serious journalists and commentators - who identify with the party. I suspect that this is partly because the academic world, just like the media, tends to operate on a left-right axis and it's hard for a distinctively Lib Dem worldview to fight its way into public discourse. It is also the case that the Lib Dems themselves have not always made the best fist of articulating our philosophy and how that guides our policies. (I think this is what people mean when they talk of our 'narrative').

So when Vince Cable was being lionised in the media as the person who foresaw the economic crisis, there was no real sense of this reflecting well on the party, that his insight reflected a distinctively Liberal economic approach. Although he was Lib Dem shadow chancellor, he was presented in the media more as a Frank Field-style maverick than a representative of the Lib Dems. Although it's not hard to find people with strong academic credentials within the party, we have no equivalent of Philip Blond or Anthony Giddens publishing work for a general readership from a Liberal Democrat viewpoint.

The other side of the coin is that even on an issue that we ought to own, such as localism, the two public intellectuals most commonly associated with this cause, writer and pundit Simon Jenkins, and historian and Labour MP Tristram Hunt, are both avowed enemies of the Lib Dems. (See here and here).

I suspect also that pundits, public intellectuals and so forth, however much they would claim to be guided by intellectual rigour alone, like to be where the action is and there's no mileage in supporting a minor party in seemingly perpetual opposition. For most of the last fifty years backing the Lib Dems (or predecessor parties) would have been a cop out from the key question of whether Labour or Conservative values should prevail.

Sadly, Lib Dems themselves can't entirely overcome this left versus right discourse. For all its faults in content and timing, the Orange Book seemed to me a genuine attempt to interpret Liberal ideas and apply them to current policy questions. Yet it was interpreted by the media as an attempt to move the party to the right, and was then condemned as such by many Lib Dems who hadn't taken the trouble to read it. And perhaps part of our problem is that there is in some parts of the party a kind of intellectual cringe towards Labour that means that conforming to conventional ideas of being on the left is more important than being Liberal.

Paradoxically, being in coalition may change this and give the party more intellectual ballast. By definition we have to articulate where we disagree with Labour and to maintain our independence we have to highlight our disagreements with the Conservatives. We have a chance to show that there is a distinctive Lib Dem approach to government and gain more ideological support on the back of this.

Of course, there is an argument that none of this matters. The future of the Lib Dems as a parliamentary force dependents on winning at constituency level and for that the publications that matter are Focus leaflets and the like, not heavyweight tomes on Liberal philosophy or op. ed. pieces in serious newspapers and periodicals. But, even so, the wider philosophical and cultural environment can make a difference too, and it would not be a bad thing for the Lib Dems to have some heavyweight intellecutal support in academe and the media.

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