Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A double axe swings

It has been my experience in the course of a somewhat extended parliamentary career that it is easy to become attached to a principle that seems significant within the Palace of Westminster but has little resonance to the people beyond. It took me a little time but I learnt in the course of my time that a leader in parliament must always consider the people of the country at large.

Now leadership is a hard thing, as Mr Clegg is discovering; it is concerning if he does not have access to those with experience of leadership from whom to seek counsel. If they are not to be found in Westminster, he might consider those who have led administrations in the Celtic nations or in the municipalities.

I fear he has found himself today stuck in a stick cleft at least three ways. His first principle is that his "shadow" cabinet must speak as one. His second is that Parliament is the supreme expression of the voice of the people; it is not to be traduced or bullied. His third is that Europe must be united and kept at peace.

The axe that has swung appears to be the fate that befalls third parties that are attached to neither major party. It is possible for the large parties to put forward propositions which require the lesser party to choose between one or other of the parties, even though either choice is not that which our party may desire.

In these circumstances Mr Clegg needed very great wisdom, especially as he has neither age nor experience on his side. Indeed he has no God to whom he can pray; although I would advise him that even a godless man might find great wisdom in the writings of King Solomon.

Now his predecessor, Mr Campbell, a man of considerable, if not excessive, wisdom, had anticipated this problem and had installed a policy that the party would support a popular vote on Europe; but not on a treaty. As I have intimated before, I can only agree it would be abhorrent to delay the signing of a treaty for the sake of a popular vote, especially when the treaty may deliver the inestimable benefits of peace, trade and reform. Mr Campbell's proposition was a cunning one but insufficient to sustain the party when its opponents both descended, wielding their wood-cutters' axes.

For being right is not necessarily being wise. The parties had pledged themselves to a popular vote in 2005; if we desire the people to trust us, then we must sometimes trust them, even in the face of constitutional principles.

A wise leader will sometimes bend with the wind and will choose with care the moment when he confronts the dissidents within his ranks. With experience this will come as a matter of instinct; for in the heat of political events it is sometimes hard to pause a second to seek wisdom. I fear this moment has not been chosen well tonight and that our new leader has weakened himself by seeking to appear strong.

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