Lara Brown

This is the second in a series of short write-ups of our speaker events for this term; you can read the first part here, or watch the recordings of the speakers’ talks on our Youtube channel!

Dominic Grieve QC

Perhaps it was surprising that Dominic Grieve was willing to speak to us, since, throughout his long career in politics, he has never been a Liberal. We were, he confessed, only the second liberal audience before which he had ever spoken; the first were the local Liberal Democrats of his own constituency, and he spoke to them as a way of thanking them for their support of his independent candidature at the last election. This fact probably explained his personal affection towards our party, even though he clearly continued to identify as a Conservative; although he lost his daring bid to win re-election in his constituency of Beaconsfield, and was prevented from doing so by the Beaconsfield Conservative party, which fielded a candidate against him due to his loss of the party whip over Brexit, he clearly saw the Conservative Party as his rightful political home.

Much of the discussion focussed not on his role as an opponent to Brexit, or as Attorney General in the coalition, but in fact on his role as Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee from 2015 to 2019. This proved particularly relevant given recent anxieties about Huawei and other aspects of alleged Chinese and Russian espionage in the UK, about which he expressed some deal of concern. Huawei, he confidently said, did not pose a threat to British security, but there are valid causes of concern, which could be exacerbated in a post-pandemic and post-Brexit world.

He also spoke at length about his experience in the Conservative Party. He was understandably disappointed to have had the Tory whip withdrawn after such a long career in service to the party, and he was pessimistic about its future; when asked whether he could envisage a future in the party, he expressed concern that it is now too different from the party he joined as a student, shaped in the mould of Boris Johnson – a man about whom he was particularly scathing. Johnson, according to Grieve, is untrustworthy and slippery; he will say anything to please a crowd. There was a hint of begrudging respect in his reproach of the Prime Minister – Grieve had no doubt that Johnson was expert at resonating with the electorate, and winning their support – but he was evidently upset by the fact that his party, as he perceived it, had been hijacked.

Grieve was an extremely popular MP in Beaconsfield. Why, then, did he fail to win re-election in 2019? Grieve’s answer was straightforward: the party matters more than the person. And although he was respected and admired throughout his constituency, and although many voters may well have preferred to see him as their MP, they simply could not bring themselves to vote against the Conservative candidate. All things considered, Grieve actually thought that he did better than expected; he seemed genuinely proud of his result, even though he was ultimately unsuccessful. The other problem, he noted, was Corbyn. He claimed to have met plenty of people in his constituency who would very happily have voted for them if they were not so fearful of Corbyn becoming Prime Minister; they thought that it would be safer to vote for the Conservative candidate as a way of ensuring that Johnson would remain in Number Ten. This is of course a problem that we in the Liberal Democrats faced in the December election; no matter how much our message resonated with the electorate, it was difficult to convince voters in Tory-leaning constituencies to risk a ‘coalition of chaos’ under Jeremy Corbyn. Grieve highlighted the absurdity of this scenario, particularly because he ran as an ‘independent conservative’; clearly, if he did enter parliament as an independent, he would caucus with the parliamentary Conservative Party on virtually all matters save Brexit. Nevertheless, the Beaconsfield constituents, unbendingly risk-averse, thought it would be far safer to vote for the Conservative candidate.

Almost everything he said was extremely agreeable to a Lib Dem audience. One aspect of his record, however, came under some degree of attack. Grieve was one of the only Conservatives in the coalition cabinet to abstain on same-sex marriage. His reasoning was rooted in the law; he characterised secular marriage as a nineteenth century invention to satisfy nonconformists, and thought that it was unwise to introduce same-sex marriage without a provision for civil partnerships for heterosexual relationships. This latter point has of course been vindicated by the courts, which ruled eventually that civil partnerships ought to be opened up to opposite sex partners. Nevertheless, Grieve was keen to emphasise that he entirely accepts gay marriage – he has even been to a few! – despite maintaining that the initial bill was legally sloppy and ill-conceived.

Finally, Grieve was asked about how he was passing the time under lockdown; he has spent the time reading, playing chess with his son, doing local voluntary work with his church, and spending time with his wife, who apparently jokes about his absence of 22 years. Certainly, he has had a busy and fruitful career, and although he was never been a member of our party – and will never be, as he resolutely informed us – there can be no doubt that we all should be saddened by the fact that he no longer sits in the Commons. That he has been ostracised by the Conservatives is a scathing indictment of that party, since he was one of their most prominent talents.

Sir Ed Davey MP

It is no secret that Sir Ed Davey harbours leadership ambitions, as was proven by his unsuccessful bid for the leadership last summer. But this was probably not how he expected to become party leader – on a formality. The leader of the Liberal Democrats must be a member of parliament, and so, when Jo Swinson lost her seat by an extremely narrow margin in the 2019 general election, she automatically relinquished her leadership of the party. Davey, as deputy leader, acceded to the ‘acting leadership’ – probably not quite what he had in mind – in a partnership first with president Sal Brinton and then, upon his inauguration at the beginning of 2020, Mark Pack.

No surprise, then, that one of the first questions that was asked of Sir Ed Davey, when he came to visit CULA, was whether he thought it reflected badly on the party that our leader did not have a proper mandate, bequeathed by the party membership. Davey seemed to be genuinely discomforted by this fact; one could easily get a sense that he wanted to lead the party with the express approval and consent of the membership. He was frustrated by the party’s decision – which has since been reversed – to delay the leadership election until 2021; he thought that this would risk compromising and undermining the role of the Liberal Democrats in the current crisis. He shares with many CULA members the view that now more than ever it is crucial that we have a clear and authoritative spokesperson.

Davey is a formidable politician. As one of the Lib Dems to have achieved cabinet status in the coalition, he ranks among our most successful politicians in recent years. He was eager to stress the positive aspects of the coalition, which of course has been heavily criticised by the electorate, which punished us for it ruthlessly in the 2015 general election, but also by some members of the party, still chastened by the notorious tuition fees ‘betrayal’. Davey was adamant that we ought to be proud of the coalition. He was of course directly involved in some of the more substantial achievements; he was particularly proud of the Paris climate agreement. Above all, he stressed the role played by the Lib Dems in mediating destructive Conservative impulses. Without us, he implied, things would have been an awful lot worse – an assertion which is probably proved by a straightforward comparison between the first half of the last decade and the second.

It was helpful that the talk took place only two days after the ten year anniversary of the coalition deal between Cameron and Clegg. Asked whether he would go back in time to prevent this from happening, if he could, Davey gave a resounding ‘no’. He did, however, shed some light on internal Lib Dem divisions surrounding the agreement, and confessed to being frustrated by some of Clegg’s actions as Deputy Prime Minister in the coalition government. Davey expressed a great deal of respect towards Clegg, but also noted that they come from opposite approaches within the party; Davey characterised Clegg as a ‘centrist’, perhaps more inclined towards compromise with the Tories, while Davey characterised himself as more aligned with the ‘radical’ liberal tradition. The implication was that Davey would have attempted to be more assertive and perhaps even more confrontational than Clegg was in the coalition.

Amusingly, Davey’s talk was punctuated by the sound of bells on two occasions emanating from his phone, signifying a division in ‘virtual parliament’. It was a stark reminder of how parliament has had to adjust over the past few months to the new reality of the pandemic. Davey had, in fact, contributed to PMQs via video earlier that day, in another sign of how dramatically parliamentary proceedings have changed, and he was asked at CULA whether he was satisfied by the Prime Minister’s answer. Of course, he said no; instead of answering the question, Boris Johnson took an opportunity to make a cruel jibe in Davey’s direction. But Davey evidently felt that the court of public opinion had decided in his favour, and he mentioned that the self-employed – the subject of his question – were approving of Davey’s decision to raise the matter in parliament. Davey noted that the self-employed would be a valuable demographic for the Liberal Democrats to court, as one which traditionally leans Conservative but has been disappointed by the government’s approach to the pandemic, in which they have often been overlooked.

The classic question which must be asked of all Lib Dem MPs is, in crude terms, “why was the 2019 general election such a catastrophe?”. Davey’s answers were interesting: he cited anxieties surrounding Jeremy Corbyn as a crucial factor, and also criticised Jo Swinson’s ‘revoke’ stance. When asked why he was not outwardly critical of the policy at the time, Davey said that he did not wish to undermine Swinson’s leadership, having lost to her in the election, although he did express regret at not being more opposed to the measure, which was clearly detrimental to the party itself. It was, he claimed, a severe strategic blunder. He did however state that the party ought not to lose its pro-EU stance. Although he did not wish to commit formally to a ‘rejoin’ position, he did think that it is something to which the party ought to be open in the future. Even amidst the pandemic, Brexit could still easily prove to be a terrible disaster. Moreover, many of our newer members were inspired to join by our proud and passionate defence of the EU, and Davey was eager to ensure that those members do not feel discarded by the broader party. Of course, such considerations are important if Davey wishes to win the support of those members in the forthcoming leadership election…

James A. Robinson

Why Nations Fail has become something of a meme in CULA circles. By some it is touted as the greatest book of all time, the holy text of liberal political economy, an astounding and unparalleled exposition of institutional inclusivity, a glimmer of light in a dark world. Others see it as overrated and repetitive, their contrarian streak no doubt enticed by the quasi-religious devotion it receives from those in the former camp. All can agree, however, that the work has been very influential in shaping contemporary liberal discourse.

Why Nations Fail was written by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, and we were delighted to welcome the latter to speak at CULA. Amusingly, Robinson confessed that, despite their academic collaboration, there were numerous matters on which he and Acemoglu did not agree; clearly their ideas often arose from debates between the pair. He commenced with a discussion of their latest book, The Narrow Corridor, which he saw as a sort of ‘sequel’ to Why Nations Fail. He touched heavily on the importance of history and tradition in the development of national systems: China, being historically Confucian, is dominated more by the state than by society, but in places like Yemen it is in fact society which holds the Weberian ‘monopoly on violence’ rather than the state. The ‘narrow corridor’ is where society and the state balance each other out, and this is the key to prosperity in western Europe and North America.

Given that much of Robinson’s work has focussed on comparing different states and systems with one another, the current pandemic was of much interest: it is the same test applied to different countries, against which their success can be measured. Robinson admitted that the COVID test probably favoured more authoritarian models, but he did not think that this would be sustainable in the long term.

He also spoke about how Britain’s prosperity owes much to the development of its political structures. The key to prosperity in western Europe, he argued, is that they evolved from the fusing together of Germanic and Roman systems of government. Modern British parliament can be traced back to Magna Carta, and even Magna Carta can be traced back to the Anglo-Saxon witan.

Robinson was eager to stress the importance of history and culture in shaping state structures and influencing prosperity. ‘But not geography’. Geography, he argued, was entirely meaningless as a way of understanding disparity between nations. Here he attacked Jared Diamond’s famous thesis, although he expressed a good deal of respect for Diamond himself. The suggestion was that the coincidence of geography was not really a factor in the actual development of nations; indeed, if Norway was actually very poor, it would not be difficult at all to concoct a set of geographic reasons for that fact.

Robinson’s area of expertise concerns development in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, and he touched heavily on his experience studying those areas. He noted with regret the astonishing capabilities of people in those countries – their entrepreneurship, their intellect, and so on – and felt strongly that the best way for those countries to escape poverty would be to unleash the skills of their populace through the establishment of more inclusive institutions. This, he emphasised, ought to be the ultimate aim of liberalism throughout the world.

Konstantin Kuhle

Although many Liberal Democrats harbour a fondness for Angela Merkel, our sister party in Germany is not her CDU but, in fact, the FDP. Konstantin Kuhle is one of the rising stars of the FDP; he was the president of their youth wing for four years, and in his late twenties entered the Bundestag as a representative of the state of Niedersachsen. Passionately liberal and pro-European, Kuhle spoke to us about the importance of fostering liberalism across the continent. That his name is a homophone of our society was a happy coincidence.

It was particularly interesting to hear him draw out some parallels between the FDP and our own party. Like the Lib Dems, the FDP was punished at the polls earlier this decade for its collaboration with the CDU government. Unlike us, however, they achieved a remarkable comeback, and now have 80 seats in the Bundestag. Traumatised by earlier memories of electoral oblivion, their leader, Christian Lindner, made the surprising decision not to form a ‘Jamaica coalition’ with the CDU and the Greens, as many pundits had expected, forcing Merkel once again to seek a grand coalition with the SPD. Kuhle was confident that this was the correct decision, making the FDP’s future in the mainstream of German politics more viable.

Kuhle also addressed a recent controversy surrounding his party in German politics. The FDP was recently involved in a controversy when their candidate for minister-president in Thuringia was elected with the votes of the far right and Eurosceptic AfD, causing him to resign. Kuhle argued that this approach risked fuelling the sense widely held in the AfD that the other parties are conspiring to keep them out of power: ‘they’re all the same’. Interestingly, however, Kuhle held the far-left in the same contempt; he could never, he told us, justify voting for die Linke, out of respect for those who suffered in the communist east. He argued that it was crucial for parties which are not on the fringes to work with one another in order to ensure that Germany remains safe from both the far left and the far right.

The conversation ended on a very philosophical note, as Kuhle was asked of the differences between German and British liberalism. He joked that, having studied in France, he could at least see a coherent British and German liberalism; in France, he said, there simply was no such thing. This was perhaps surprising, since the foremost liberal in European politics today would appear to be the president of France, Emmanuel Macron. And no doubt he is a liberal, said Kuhle; but the entire way in which French politics is arranged is not one that is necessarily conducive to liberalism. Kuhle earlier compared Germany’s federative structure with the autocratic capabilities of the French president. He said that the German population was struck by the ease with which Macron implemented lockdown; this contrasted heavily with Merkel’s approach, since Merkel, before really doing anything, had to discuss at length her plans with the premiers of all sixteen Bundesländer. British and German liberalism, he suggested, had a great deal in common, enabling the sister liberal parties to work well together. Asked whether he had any recommendations for how the Lib Dems could achieve a comeback akin to the FDP’s at the last German elections, Kuhle replied straightforwardly that the priority must be to reform Britain’s electoral system. Perhaps, with a system like Germany’s, we would be in a much better position than we currently are under FPTP.

Helen Zille

Helen Zille is one of the most dominant politicians in post-apartheid South Africa. As the chair of the Democratic Alliance, she oversees the official opposition to the ANC government. Zille clearly held this government in contempt: the extent of its corruption was exposed some years ago when its leader, Jacob Zuma, was alleged to have attempted state capture, to the financial benefit of his close allies, the wealthy Gupta family. Throughout that turmoil, Zille – who has previously served as Mayor of Cape Town and premier of Western Cape – was a consistent voice of reason and liberalism.

The DA is currently battling the government in court over the ANC’s lockdown policy, which, according to Zille, is grossly unconstitutional. She argued that lockdown, while sensible in western countries, was unnecessary in South Africa, where the young population – the average age is 19 – caused the pandemic to be a much lesser concern. She feared that more people would die as a result of lockdown – not being able to earn a living and so forth – than of the coronavirus. She advocated instead a ‘smart lockdown’, in which the wearing of masks would be extremely encouraged, and public gatherings would be limited; she felt that the government’s response was overzealous and unwarranted.

She expressed frustration that the government received so much support from ordinary South Africans, who were suspicious of the DA’s attempts to undermine it during a time of crisis. Nevertheless, she was optimistic that the ANC – which has reigned supreme in South Africa since the time of Mandela – would not be able to sustain dominance for very long. She felt strongly that the tide was turning against it, and hoped that the DA would be in a position to at least govern through a coalition by the time of the next elections. The ANC, she said, has been tainted by a series of corruption scandals. This corruption, she argued, is rooted in the problem of patronage; part of the problem is that the ANC has remained in power for so long, as it has encouraged the expansion of patronage. The same problem, she argued, applied to pan-African institutions like the African Union, an ‘old boys club’, which is in fact currently chaired by her political opponent, ANC’s Cyril Ramaphosa. Although she was hopeful about the potential of liberalism to enrich the African continent, she did not think that the African Union could be a vehicle for this change.

Particularly inspiring were her comments on her role in exposing the cover-up surrounding the murder of Steve Biko. As a very young and inexperienced journalist, Zille was instrumental in ultimately proving that Biko was beaten to death, rather than dying from a hunger strike (which was the official government line). She achieved this through a series of interviews with the doctors who supervised Biko; she told of how indebted she was to certain whistle-blowers, and also about how her own safety was put at risk in the investigation. It was a fascinating story, and one which emphasised her commitment to confronting injustice in all walks of life.

She was also frustrated by the course of liberalism in the UK. Although she was clearly sympathetic towards the Liberal Democrats, she worried that it risked becoming too ‘woke’; she felt that this applied particularly towards the leadership of Jo Swinson. Nevertheless, she was happy that these prevailing attitudes could be challenged openly through British satire: Jonathan Pie was a personal favourite of hers.

Liberalism in South Africa is of course very different from liberalism in the UK. Part of that rests in the fact that South Africa has not had the same history, the same institutions, as the UK; she noted that it was extremely difficult to kickstart liberal democracy in a part of the world that has never really enjoyed that tradition, ‘skipping the 800 years’ that England has experienced since the signing of Magna Carta. Another problem, of course, was the issue of race and culture. She regretted that many aspects of South African tribal culture were not conducive to the promotion of liberalism; she is frustrated to have attracted controversy by stating that knowingly spreading HIV/AIDS ought to be illegal, which she saw as an entirely uncontroversial policy, though one which apparently is perceived to be in breach of traditional local culture. It was extremely interesting to hear her insights, as someone who is attempting to promote the liberal project in a part of the world which is very different from our own. Her commitment to tackling all forms of injustice – the racist murder of Steve Biko, ANC corruption and so on – is remarkable, and should serve as an inspiration for all liberals.

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