When will Paddy's party realise it does agree with Tony Blair?

Many voters want to see precisely the kind of organisation that embraces both Blair and Ashdown
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The Independent Culture
LATER TONIGHT the Liberal Democrat MPs in the House of Commons will file in to the lobbies - alongside the Hagues, the Redwoods and the mad Pinochistas of the New Forest - to vote against the Government's Queen's Speech. This act of opposition was described by one anonymous senior Lib Dem source as an assertion of separate identity.

This is all rather depressing. It is barely two weeks since Tony and Paddy signed a little billet-doux speaking of their regard for each other, and their plans to expand the role of the Joint Consultative Committee (you know, the one which is discussing constitutional change) to cover other issues. "This will be an important step in challenging the destructive tribalism that can afflict British politics," they trilled. Their aim was "to ensure the ascendancy of progressive politics in Britain".

Amen. For nearly 20 years what a Lib Dem or a centrist Labourite might have thought they saw in Britain was the trampling over liberal and progressive values by a Conservative Party maintained in power by an enriched and desperately self-interested third of the electorate. Even in its attenuated, Majorite form, the Tory party held out against the modernisation of the British political system, its devolution, and against openness. This was made possible, in part, by the division in the ranks of those opposed to the Conservatives, and in part by the agonisingly slow process of change within Labour.

Since May 1997, a substantial part of what constituted the Liberal Democrat core programme has been enacted, or is being proposed, by the Blair government for this parliamentary session. This is not conjecture; this is fact. It is fair to assume that by the time of the next election even more of it will have been realised. I may be wrong, but I believe that a Freedom of Information Act will be on the statute books by the time we are next asked to choose a government.

The centrepiece of last week's Queen's Speech was the abolition of the rights of hereditary peers to vote in the House of Lords. It is a reform as radical as that of creating a Scottish Parliament, and as psychologically significant. It is also something that every previous progressive government (obviously) has failed to do. I hope to see the Lords replaced by an elected second chamber, wielding substantial powers of scrutiny, on the basis of open list proportional representation.

On these grounds alone you might have expected enthusiastic, if qualified, support tonight from the Lib Dems. Even if, as Paddy Ashdown said in last week's debate, "there is much that the Government have done, and intend to do, which we support and on which we have worked with them, but there is also much in this programme for the next year that falls short - in some cases, far short - of what we would wish".

But no. There is the urge to "assert a separate identity". The clever jibes about Paddy's unrequited love for Tony contained in William Hague's technically brilliant, but intellectually vacuous, speech last Tuesday, seem to have acted as a goad to the Lib Dems. "The trouble is," as someone said to me yesterday, "the voters don't really understand the notion of constructive opposition."

So pretexts are being sought for voting "No" tonight. At first, these were slightly desultory. The Lewes Lib Dem MP, Norman Baker, told the House that: "We do not disagree with much in the Queen's Speech, but we have made the point that a huge amount is missing from it - whether on the environment or whatever - and that is terribly important. We have great doubts about the value of the Queen's Speech for that reason." Or whatever!

It is unusual to oppose something because of what is not in it. The key question is this: would the world, in Liberal Democrat terms, be a better place if none of the provisions of the Queen's Speech were enacted? If the answer is "No", then the decision to vote against may be seen as, at best, a capricious one. And the answer most certainly is "No".

Poor, simple voters may have difficulty with the concept of constructive opposition, but they sure as hell understand destructive opposition; opposition for opposition's sake.

One Lib Dem message that all have absorbed over the years has been the need to replace "yah-boo" politics with something more dignified and more practical. Short shrift would be offered to a party that once espoused such principles, unless it could show that its differences were great and meaningful; that there was a fundamental fissure twixt New Labour and Newish Liberal Democrats.

Such is the contention of magnificent, uncompromising liberals like Earl Russell, and of philosopher Michael Ignatieff. In a pamphlet, Identity and Politics, issued last month under the aegis of the Lib Dem-associated Centre for Reform, Ignatieff denied that Tony Blair is a liberal. Au contraire, Blair, "doesn't like what liberals actually stand for, which is liberating the citizen from an oppressive state.

"The liberty I'm talking about", he goes on, "has a strong conception that a community is composed of rational individuals called citizens, and that they act together in deliberation, and produce a community and a society."

Labour, however, proceeds from "a sense that somehow society is prior, that rights and responsibilities derive from society". Worse, the Blairite wolf in sheep's clothing seeks now to neutralise liberalism with the Third Way, an attempt to suppress Britain's "ancient tradition of vigorous, antagonistic, but peaceful political argument. Liberals Awake, shouts Ignatieff, "this man [Blair] wants to put you all to sleep".

Insofar as I understand what Ignatieff is saying, I think he is wrong. It is the collectivist part of the centre left (as some suspicious Labour MPs have correctly divined) that has most to fear from a Lib-Lab rapprochement. I see little or nothing in the Blairite prospectus (leaving aside internal party battles) that would give any problem to a modern liberal. Let us recall that one of the main Lib Dem criticisms of New Labour is for its timidity in taking away tax money from the individual, in order for the state to redistribute as it sees fit.

This leaves us with the notion that the Liberal Democrats must resist too much co-operation with Labour in the name of electoral choice. Well, I am all for more parties, and for electoral reform. But it does occur to me that many voters want to see precisely the kind of political organisation that might embrace both Mr Blair and Mr Ashdown, and that is big enough to permit the use of talents as diverse as Chris Patten and Roy Jenkins.

Now what would that be called? Oh yes; the realignment of British politics. And it's a bit hard to tell us now that it was all an elaborate hoax, designed to absorb the Social Democratic Party and to win a few extra votes for old-fashioned liberals.