Lord Malcolm Bruce writes… Liberalism revitalised

I want to respond to the challenges issued by Paddy and Vince during our conference.

Paddy said the party was “intellectually dead.” Vince said our position on another referendum was disrespectful to the electorate.

Let me take on Vince first. We and our predecessors supported UK membership of the European Community from its inception. The SDP was created largely because of Labour’s equivocation over British membership. We campaigned unstintingly for Remain and we remain convinced that the UK ‘s interests are best served by being a key member of the European Union.

Yes, by a narrow margin the country voted Leave but we have not changed our view and, given that there is no clear idea of what kind of relationship people want – in or out of the single market – let alone the hundreds of cooperative agreements built up over the last 43 years.

It seems more rational to me to support negotiations for the deal that secures the best of our relationship with the  EU and once we know what that is to ask people whether they accept it.

Now to Paddy. We would have no credibility if we reneged on our coalition record but the drifting, divided Tory party struggling for a post Brexit identity surely gives room for revitalised Liberalism.

Look at health. The slogan “no privatisation of the NHS” summons up the blood for campaigners but the fact is the private sector is crucial to the health service. GPs are self employed and the BMA has opposed the NHS from the outset. Where do the drugs and equipment come from except the private sector?

Of course selling off the public component of the NHS will never be on the Liberal Democrat agenda. We need to boost resources for the core of the NHS and committing ourselves to raise taxes for that makes us credible but we know more will be needed. Merging health and care into one service should certainly lead to a much more rational and efficient use of resources.

Theresa May’s rekindling of the grammar school debate was clearly designed to reassess the domestic agenda in the wake of Brexit but it has added further splits to the Tories and given it was not on the manifesto it will struggle to get through either house.

But that debate is meat and drink to Liberal Democrats, highlighting our commitment to early years, targeted support for the disadvantaged and a pledge to support the profession of teaching.

At least in England, there is a debate about education and the Liberal Democrats are in the thick of it. In Scotland a radical curriculum reform, imaginative in conception has foundered on inadequate resourcing leading to a crisis in teacher recruitment and the end of Scotland’s once proud broad education. Subject scope has been reduced (especially languages) and Scottish pupils are struggling to get into any universities against outside competition and denied college places thanks to savage SNP cuts.

We do need to develop our ideas, Paddy, not abandon them.

* Malcolm Bruce was the Liberal Democrat MP for Gordon until 2015 and was Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats from 2014-15. He led the Scottish Party from 1988-92 and is now a member of the House of Lords.