LIB DEMS IN GLASGOW: Party faithful obey leader's stop signal

EDWARD PEARCE'S NOTEBOOK
Click to follow
The Independent Online
"Join us in this pledge: no one would buy the shares and we could stop this crazy privatisation dead in its tracks."

It is gratifying for any politician to press the button which brings applause - cheers, howls, tumultuous hand clapping, grown men in tears, delirium in the aisles - come splashing down the hall.

It is not the way they react to Mr Ashdown (who else could we be talking about?) in the Commons. There, sophisticate shrugs to sophisticate when he rises around tea time and they vote with their feet for toast and jam rather than rippling tremendousness.

Not for nothing did he curl a lip yesterday at "sterile parliamentary debate". But in fairness to the Lib Dems it was no shudder in Mr Ashdown's throat, no invocation to national greatness and none of his sobbing-tenor qualities which got conference up and yelling yesterday afternoon.

It was the idea of hitting railway privatisation sharply over the temporal lobes with an adjustable spanner. The button had been pushed. And the button was marked unmanned stations, no through booking, steady blokes sacked for profit and a general image of high-geared finance going through the temples of national nostalgia like Cromwell doing over a cathedral.

The Conservatives will learn painfully that to many citizens all stations to Euston are the Stations of the Cross!

Ecstasy apart, the notable thing about the Ashdown speech was its left- wingness (so unlike his hymn to free markets at Brighton). Beveridge and the evils he combated was quoted with approval. A facsimile newspaper for VJ Day recorded 27,000 houses to be built by Mr Attlee and "British Labour inspiring the French".

He said firm things about the necessity of tax. Actually the hussar-at- the-charge aspect of Mr Ashdown's urgent personality was turned to very good account. Political argument has been paralysed for a decade by the discreet charm of tax cuts. And with Labour reduced to intestine abrading contortions in respect of spending and not taxing, somebody had to do the crazy and sensible thing.

All in all, it was a good speech, a good right-wing speech a mile-and- a-half to the left of Mr Blair.

Indeed, back at Castle Anaemia on the Brighton front it will be heard by Labour ranks like the winding of a horn, their horn.

But nothing will stop Mr Ashdown from temperamental overkill. It is like listening to a sincere Heseltine. Regularly excited, he is vulnerable to peroratio praecox.

But life isn't all Paddy Ashdown. The morning was marked by the party engaged with the essence of its being. Lotteries: are they evil, stalking and destroying good or the pleasurable acts of free citizens menaced by the special-constabulary of Noncomformist Reality?

"You have chosen," said Charles Anglin (Lambeth), addressing the movers, "a policy which is arrogant, illiberal and uniquely unpopular."

Mr Anglin was perfectly superb - ferocious in his libertarianism, lucid, uncluttered and injuriously epigrammatic, "A heat-seeking boomerang" he called the motion. This young man has the dazzle factor.

But he was answered by countervailing intelligence. Noncomformist Morality pointed out the lottery was a tax, however voluntary, and one which made poor people poorer and that Mr Anglin's brilliance could as readily be deployed for tobacco, drink and drugs.

And there were deft, dry moments - Caroline Shorten doubting that Virginia Bottomley, despite recent form, would actually close the lottery.

It ended with a series of ultra close votes on prize-capping, scratch cards and the rest and with Methodist and libertarians hanging on to each other's gloves.

But we have actually had a debate! "Passionate", which in politics has all the impact of a semi-colon, spilled into the hall like phosphorus.

One hates to think what the Lib-Dems will do if the Tories try to finance railway privatisation through the lottery.

Comments