The Liberal Democrats have a heritage that comes from the nineteenth century Liberal Party, with its great legacy of reform and from the Labour Party, via the Social Democrat party. They probably don’t get a lot of credit from current voters for the 1831 Great Reform Act, but its is not a bad thing to have a link to historical achievements of such a great magnitude.
But one thing the Liberal Democrats can’t be accused of is living in the past or resting on their laurels. They have carved out a distinctive place in the political spectrum which combines a respect for the working of the free market with support for the rights of the individual. Despite the cliché of being in the centre, they can adopt surprisingly radical policies on occasion. They were the first mainstream party to consider legalising some of the less harmful drugs for example. And they often use the limited platform the political format allows them to push for things that wouldn’t otherwise get on the agenda. Their recent championing of mental health as a priority is a good example.
Their most distinctive policy is the one that also most strongly illustrates what is likeable about the Lib Dems. They are the most pro-European. No doubt a committed Lib Dem could justify this stance with a range of arguments, but I think the real reason for it is quite simple. Lib Dems are co-operative and want to get along with people. They are natural joiners in and club members. And Europe is the club of clubs. Of course they want to be in there doing their best to make it a better place.
Although the party isn’t without its characters and eccentrics, the typical Lib Dem politician is a decent enough human being who you would probably be happy enough to trust to run things without drama. Given the poor electoral prospects of being a Lib Dem for most of the lifetime of the party you can probably safely assume that they are not motivated too much by personal aggrandisement. But the arithmetic of the 2010 parliament has given a lot more Lib Dems experience of government than they can have ever expected. This must have been a huge learning curve and it is hard to see how it can possibly have not made the party a more effective one.
The Liberal Democrats’ style doesn’t really lend itself to a strong vision of the future, but what a Liberal Democrat Britain would look like is not to difficult to piece together from the general tenor of their policies and pronouncements. It would look a lot like Britain as it is, but would be a bit fairer and bit better run than it currently is.
So if you want a decent, competent and – there is no other adjective – liberal party with a history, a track record and some competent operators the Liberal Democrats are as good a choice as you are likely to get.