Some years ago the then leader of the Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy, spoke at the largest anti-war demonstration in this country's history. It was controversial in some quarters as the Lib Dems were hardly a consistent anti-war voice and could act as a break to a rising movement - as it happens I think that decision was the right one, it was an exercise in showing just how politically broad and numerically vast the opposition to the invasion of Iraq was.
Ever since (not just because of Charlie speaking on that platform, obviously) there has been an element of Lib Dem support that has essentially been to the left of Labour who hoped that the yellow party could be a nicer, less bloodthirsty and kind of social democrat-ish place. But there has been a growing feeling that the Lib Dems are less interested in that constituency these days than they are in positioning themselves to repel Tory advances.
Nick Clegg, the current leader of the Lib Dems, is a different kettle of fish to CK, his last meaningful predecessor. He likes to lean to the right and has a harder, more market orientated approach to life. But that's not all, his instincts on foreign policy are rather more robust than many of those who gave the Lib Dems their vote last time round might like.
Back in June Clegg longed for military action against Zimbabwe (among other punitive measures) and in October he decried the reticence to intervene whilst accepting that "The best we can hope for is keeping the insurgents ‘manageable’" in those areas where British troops are currently stationed.
Nick Clegg on PM tonight went further and, using the word force rather more often than might have been strictly necessary, came out clearly in favour of military intervention in Zimbabwe, further distancing himself from those whose faith in liberal intervention is not so well developed.
Clegg said he felt a "mixture of rage and impotence" at the situation and that we should "take up the call of Desmond Tutu" who recently said that Mugabe ought to be deposed by force. Clegg argued that the West had a "responsibility to protect [which] in effect gives a moral or legal right to the outside world to intervene in a country where its rulers are neglecting or brutalising their own people." (please note: we don't have any such legal right to invade countries on the basis that they mistreat their populations and we don't like them).
Clegg called on China and South Africa in particular to "step up to the plate", rightly claiming that South Africa's approach so far had been "feeble and pathetic", he then stated that "I think force is now completely justified [however] Western intervention is impossible without the cooperation of its neighbours" which could be taken in one of two ways. Either that we should secure the cooperation of those neighbours for a Western invasion to take back our colonial possessions, or that we will be unable to invade so South Africa will have to do it for us (fat chance). I assume he wasn't calling on China to invade - but who knows!
The situation in Zimbabwe does indeed seem dire. With a Cholera outbreak, a food crisis and the army rioting it's only right that we ask ourselves what kind of solidarity can we offer? Particularly because the authorities are using this moment to target trade unionists and activists, including the arrest of the leader of the teachers union and a leading human rights activist. Voices that call for grassroots action by Zimbabweans are getting beaten down because they are rising up, and we need to hold out our hand to them.
But whilst those like Condoleezza Rice see this as an opportunity to pursue US/UK interests in the region, to call on African nations to commit to a failed strategy because we're too tied up in our own failed wars to start a new one isn't wise. We're exactly the wrong people to advocate this strategy because of our colonial history and our recent adventures in the Middle East. We don't have a good track record here which means we're just not credible.
Whilst we're happy to fund and arm countries like Nigeria who oppress their populations and keep the oil flowing Zimbabwe has consistently failed to play ball, and behaves like a "rogue state". Our governments find that difficult to tolerate. I think there's another way, but one that does not meet the modern needs for immediacy and blood letting.
Nations like Botswana are donating aid to help the Zimbabwean people rather than bombs whilst simultaneously pursuing a critical, diplomatic offensive to the undemocratic and barbarous Mugabe regime. I suspect that shows a better way than wishing for wars that will never, and should never, come - but either way Britian has to butt out.
Well, Nick Clegg will be attending the climate change demonstration tomorrow in much the same spirit that the Lib Dems attended the anti-war demo all those years ago. Whilst there's votes in it they'll be there, but let's not imagine that if the wind changes Clegg and co wont just drift away.