Leading Article: A courageous move, but a damaging one for democracy

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PADDY ASHDOWN is proud of the fact that, when he was in the Foreign Service, he became fluent in Mandarin, a tricky language to master.You do not, however, need that sort of linguistic proficiency to read between the lines of yesterday's agreement between the Government and the Liberal Democrats. The move is certainly a brave one, will be unpopular with many elements in both parties and may even jeopardise Mr Ashdown's leadership.

The tendency towards closer co-operation with Labour to build a sort of progressive alliance has long been clear. The anti-Conservative stance is explicit. Long term, it now becomes a possibility that the two parties may even enter into some more formal arrangement. This is indeed about entering a new political country, as Mr Ashdown puts it. How useful this new environment will be for the voters, though, is another matter.

Accounts differ as to the extent of what is going to be ruled in or ruled out of future policy discussions. But it is clear that it is a radical departure from the existing arrangements, which were, in effect, limited to the constitutional agenda. Education and welfare reform have been mentioned as possibilities. Mr Ashdown will, at last, begin to fulfil his ambition to stop being a spectator in politics and get on to the field - to get into the scrum, to use a favourite metaphor. But whatever the extent of co-operation may be, one thing is clear. The more that Mr Ashdown and Mr Blair seek to work together in their big tent, the more the voter will be kept out of that tent and denied the possibility of a radical, even libertarian, Liberal Democrat alternative to New Labour's control agenda. At a time when the Conservatives are far from being a credible and effective opposition, to see Mr Ashdown potentially abandoning so many of his distinctive values and pushing so much policy into the constructive part of his "constructive opposition" approach raises a few questions about where the arguments against New Labour are going to come from over the next few years. True, it conditions us to the coalition politics that will arrive with electoral reform. But it is not a price worth paying for a further impoverishment of choice for voters.

Nearly 20 years ago, in his famous Dimbleby lecture, in which he sought to create a party in the "radical centre" of British politics (a phrase that was picked up by Mr Blair) Lord Jenkins said that: "Sometimes coalitions are overt, sometimes they are covert. I do not think the distinction greatly matters. The test is whether those within the coalition are closer to each other, and to the mood of the nation they seek to govern, than they are to those outside their ranks."

On that test Mr Blair and Mr Ashdown, the political heirs of Jenkins, are now very much in a covert coalition.