After Ashdown: No lament in Scottish HQ

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The Independent Online
THE PHOENIX flag of the Liberal Democrats may have hung at half mast outside the Scottish party's Edinburgh headquarters for a short while yesterday, but inside there were few tears over Paddy Ashdown's retirement.

Mr Ashdown's cosy relationship with Tony Blair has been seen as a handicap by Scottish Liberal Democrats trying to keep their distance from Labour and present a distinct identity for the home rule elections on 6 May.

"Labour is the enemy up here," said one party insider. Mr Ashdown is regarded with affection by party members north of the border. But in moving closer to Mr Blair, it was felt he had ignored Scottish concerns.

Jim Wallace, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, ruled himself out of the succession contest, saying that he had "quite enough on his plate" with the forthcoming election. Three other MPs with Scottish seats are expected to be in the race - Charles Kennedy, Menzies Campbell and Malcolm Bruce.

"Anyone who aspires to be leader will undoubtedly want to play an active role in the [Scottish] Parliament election campaign," Mr Wallace said. But he warned would-be leaders against putting personal ambition above the party. "Anyone who tries to take advantage of the election in a way that does damage to the party or side-tracks the campaign, there will be a premium to be paid for that," he said.

Officials are looking forward to the contest bringing the party more media attention. Mr Wallace was speaking at a press launch of the agenda for the Scottish party's conference in Aberdeen next month.

Because of Mr Ashdown's departure, the meeting was packed and a band of photographers recorded the phoenix flag being hoisted. "Raising the standard" will be Liberal Democrats' election slogan - pledging the party to raise standards in politics, schools and hospitals.