Before enjoying the race, though, we should pause to pay tribute to Paddy Ashdown, the Lib Dems' very own Dick Dastardly, who is taking his time over his departure and who will still be leader until August. It is no trivial epitaph to be remembered as the man who was right about the Balkans from the first. It was Mr Ashdown who heaped shame on the Conservatives for their inaction and who prodded Labour into interventionism, making real its promise of an "ethical foreign policy" in the Kosovo war.
His energy and purpose have also secured the party's base, to the extent that the post of leader is worth fighting for. But it is not such a great prize that it justifies a field of seven candidates; it would make sense for Don Foster, Malcolm Bruce and Paul Tyler, effective spokesmen as they are, to drop out before they are embarrassed, leaving four with distinctive qualities to offer.
The weakness of Mr Ashdown's legacy is that he ultimately failed to give a good enough answer to the question: What are the Lib Dems for? Although the party is now a relatively efficient electoral machine for picking up anti-Labour votes in Labour heartlands and anti-Tory votes in Tory heartlands, especially in places where local government has been corroded by decades of one-party rule, Mr Ashdown's strategy of cosying up to Labour on the national stage has blunted its ideological cutting edge. There is only any point in having a strong Lib Dem party, whether in coalition with Labour or not, if it fights vigorously for liberal values.
This, then, is the benchmark against which we will measure the four main candidates.
First, the telegenic front-runner, Charles Kennedy. It is sometimes complained that he is too laid-back, too uninterested in politics to bother believing strongly in anything very much. One journalist cruelly commented this week that, while Mr Ashdown gets up at 5am, Mr Kennedy gives the impression of only going to bed at about that time.But in fact, by his character Mr Kennedy is fundamentally liberal in a way that Mr Ashdown never was. The yomping style of "strong leadership", in Mr Ashdown as much as in Tony Blair, tends to be inimical to a liberal outlook. Mr Kennedy is not by nature a control freak. His outlook on life is genuinely one of living and letting live, which is an idea to which more messianic politicians only pay lip service. When he speaks philosophically, it is with some conviction that he says politicians should not dictate to people how they should live their lives - a proposition most politicians secretly abhor.
But tolerance is not the same as indifference; it must be fought for, and what we shall be looking for in the next few weeks is some evidence that Mr Kennedy can deploy passion in pursuit of a serious political philosophy, defending the rights of immigrants, asylum-seekers and the disabled, and in favour of freedom of information.
Mr Kennedy's main challenger is likely to be Jackie Ballard, the virtually unknown MP for Taunton. If she were leader it would certainly mark out the Lib Dems as different. Above all, she is the "breath of fresh air" candidate. What matters, though, are her instincts, which are generally and genuinely liberal. She wants to devolve power and allow people to do things of which their fellow citizens may disapprove but which do no harm. The only cavil is that her liberalism is a little old-fashioned, tinged with a left-wing do-goodery that leads her, for example, to want to ban fox-hunting, which any true liberal would tolerate.
Then there is Simon Hughes, whose campaign made a miserable start as he played against type, presenting himself as the longest-serving candidate and past holder of senior non-jobs on the Lib Dem front bench. He will get anywhere only if he is true to his nature as a rebel and radical pavement- pounding activist. It is a shame he has pulled out of the contest to be London's mayor.
Finally, David Rendel is the personal embodiment of the strategy of replacing the Conservative party as Labour's main rival. He looks and sounds like a Tory and can present radical liberal policies in tones that will not frighten the shire horses. But he may be running for position rather than victory.
It is shaping up as a contest essentially between Mr Kennedy and Mrs Ballard, with Mr Hughes an outside bet. May the best liberal and democrat win.Reuse content