Liberal optimism: the enlightenment always wins

20 September 2007

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): I was down at the Lib Dems in Brighton yesterday, speaking at an ippr fringe meeting and got the following impressions. It was small, the bar at the Grand was hardly throbbing afterwards in the way it does when the Labour and Conservative parties are in town. But it was happy. I was expecting the gloomy shadows of the zimmer frame to cast a pall over the event. Not at all. All party conferences function as group hugs. But here there were also two forces at work that explained the positive vides. There are a lot of new Lib-Dem councillors and there is a new generation of young Lib-Dem MPs. Both created a sense that the party was renewing itself. In addition the diversion caused by Nick Clegg's admitting that if there is a vacancy he's be a candidate, though hugely blown up by the media, had a refreshing impact. With two able candidates in contention in shape of Clegg and Chris Huhne, it looked as if Ming's job was worth having. What is it that these two ambitious and evidently electable men know that we don't... ? Let's remember that the Tories had Major, Hague, Duncan Smith and Michael Howard before they found someone remotely electable in the 'modern' sense. It can be hard to find a potential leader who is media-acceptable, and the Lib-Dems have two (neither in the top job, but you can't have everything). And to remind the party of its glorious past, Paddy was speaking well as an elder statesman. At the fringe before mine he, the most European of British politicians joked, "When I was in the Balkans, I was at the front line of European policy and I had to ask myself which is more disfunctional, Bosnia or the Balkans". Talking about the 'War on Terror' and related  matters he also uttered the heart of the liberal creed and turned its optimism into a principle: "The enlightment always wins... it is historically inevitable that the enlightenment will come to Islam".

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