Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon: You Ask The Questions

The Former leader of the Liberal Democrats answers your questions, such as 'Should we abolish appointed Lords?' and 'When are you planning to retire?'
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The Independent Online

Do you think you would have done better than you did as leader if you had the advantages of the Iraq war, as Kennedy had, or TV debates, as Clegg has? ROHAN GUNAWARDENA, London

I would have killed (and apparently I was the only MP trained to do so) for the opportunity Nick Clegg has for national debates. But what I am convinced of is that the more people see Nick in these debates and have a chance to compare him to Gordon Brown and Labour, who have so failed Britain, and David Cameron, who stands for nothing I can detect, the more they will like what they see.

I think the British public have concluded that Mr Brown's Labour deserve to lose this election, but Mr Cameron's Tories don't deserve to win it. That gives Nick and the Lib Dems a chance as never before, and the TV debates will highlight this.

Why should anybody have a place in our legislature who wasn't elected by the people? Isn't it time to abolish appointed Lords? Suzanne Morris, Huddersfield

They shouldn't and it is. The House of Lords is an archaic institution. You either get there through the patronage of the Prime Minister or if your great grandmother slept with the King. You should not exercise power in a democracy except through the ballot box. I only agreed to go to the Lords so that I could use my vote to abolish it.

We should replace it with a Senate elected by proportional representation, representing the regions of Britain. But the changes we need in our political system go far beyond simply electing the upper chamber. We need to change the way we vote to end the scandal of MPs with jobs for life in safe seats, we need the right to sack MPs who have had their fingers in the till, and to take big money out of politics so that wealthy politicians cannot buy their influence.

While we're at it, it's probably worth making sure everyone who makes laws in this country pays full tax in this country too. We need a written constitution and fixed-term parliaments.

And we need to make sure Westminster does less – only those things which are genuinely national – and that much of its power should be handed down for the communities and nations of our country to decide. And if Westminster did less it would probably do it better, and with about half the number of MPs. If we made more decisions closer to the people then decision-making would be better there, too. What we need in short is a new Great Reform Act for Britain.

Given the Bosnian people didn't elect you, wasn't your time as their Supreme Leader akin to an Emperor's reign FRANCIS WILDER, BASINGSTOKE

I believe the actual title was High Representative, although Supreme Leader does have a certain ring to it. Seriously, the comparison to an emperor simply doesn't stand up.

I was appointed to Bosnia as the international representative which was required under the terms of the peace in Bosnia agreed by all parties. And when I was there, every law I proposed had to be agreed by the Bosnian parliaments and every legislative decision was subject to the agreement of the Bosnian courts. I was not just responsible for my actions to the Security Council of the UN and the international community, but also ultimately to the Bosnian people themselves. Doesn't sound much like being a Supreme Leader to me!

If Afghanistan isn't going to be a democracy in the next decade, and if the people don't want us there, shouldn't we leave? SHAUN MURPHY, ANDOVER

I don't agree that the people don't want us there. The evidence from Afghanistan is that they overwhelmingly do. In the recent presidential elections, both the leading candidates stood on the basis of support for the international community and got more than 85 per cent of the vote. And poll after poll consistently shows that 65 per cent plus of Afghans support the international presence and only 5 per cent want the return of the Taliban. Of course it's not going to turn into a European-style democracy overnight, but we have to leave some kind of stability there. The form of governance has to be rooted in some part on popular legitimacy.

Having said that, it's true that the central government is failing and we need to work with the grain of local communities and the tribal structures that have existed there for centuries, particularly in the south. But you are quite right. The moment the Afghan people do not want us there, we should leave and would have to.

Can you now confirm that the argument that our mission in Afghanistan has anything to do with the safety of British citizens is wholly spurious? LAURA JARDINE, OXFORD

I don't buy this at all. The situation in Afghanistan is directly related to our security. In a world of global security threats, just because a place is far away doesn't mean it won't impact on our security. That was the revelation of 9/11 and 7/7 and the Madrid bombs and the Bali bombs, etc, etc.

If Afghanistan fails it will have a devastating knock-on effect in Pakistan, it will release al-Qa'ida back into the ungoverned spaces of Afghanistan that it held before, and it will deal a serious blow to the credibility and stability of Nato, which remains one of the pillars of our security. There's a huge amount at stake.

Did Tony Blair suggest to you in 1997 that if you worked closely with him, you would get proportional representation? You could have killed the Tories once and for all. LOUISA ARMSTRONG, BARNSTAPLE

Yes to both. There were discussions. It was a time when we could have realigned the forces of British politics for good and brought in fair votes which would have given the voters more power and would in the future prevent the kind of scandals we are seeing in our politics now.

Is David Cameron the most impressive Tory leader since Churchill? CATHY SAUNDERS, BATH

David Cameron isn't even the most impressive Tory in the current Conservative Party. I find the idea of comparing him with Churchill so absurd as to be laughable. In David Cameron we have a man who went straight from Oxford to the back rooms of Tory Central Office, the highlight of which was his role in the catastrophe of Black Wednesday, and then straight into PR. And not just any kind of PR, PR for the media industry.

His real-world experience is seven years as the spin doctor's spin doctor. He's then parachuted into a safe seat, from which he writes for Michael Howard the most right-wing manifesto his party has had for generations. His greatest success for the Tories has been giving it a cosmetic makeover. Most impressive since Churchill? Come on.

How many marginal seats, roughly, in the South-west and elsewhere do you think [Lord] Ashcroft's strategy will cost the Lib Dems?



None. Never underestimate the resilience of Lib Dem MPs. The Conservatives are spending vast amounts of money on glossy leaflets and such, but they are taking on popular local MPs with reputations for being dedicated and hard-working and really fighting for their local area. That's what you get with Lib Dems.

My colleague and next-door neighbour David Heath is a great example. He was elected in Somerset and Frome in 1997 with a wafer-thin majority and at every election since the Tories have pulled out all the stops to take his seat. Yet every time the voters are asked if they want David to remain as their MP, they say yes.

And don't underestimate the intelligence of voters in the South-west; it'll take more than a few gargantuan airbrushed posters of David Cameron's face to persuade them to vote Tory. I dare say they won't take too kindly to the suggestion they are being swayed by a man who has spent a decade making laws while not paying his full taxes in the UK either.

Has the liberal cause advanced or receded under Labour? RUTH EDDER, BRISTOL

The country is less equal than it was in 1997. There is a vast gap between the life expectancy of those born in poorer areas and wealthier ones. The opportunities you will receive in life are still in many ways dependent on how rich your parents are. The Government has become increasingly more centralised and presidential, with the state dictating so much of what we can and can't do, not least through the more than 4,000 new laws the Labour Party has created.

Billions upon billions of pounds of your money and my money has been handed over to banks after years of unregulated risk-taking and profligacy. We have an unfair tax system and a discredited political system. I could go on. Labour has done some very good things – the minimum wage, Surestart, civil partnerships – but under their stewardship there can be no doubt that our great nation has not become a more liberal place.

The sad truth is that, measured against the great promises of Tony Blair, Labour has let us down.

Are you still fluent in Mandarin? And do you wish you'd gone to university? ERIC HOLBERTON, MANCHESTER

Yes, although I'm probably a little rusty for lack of practice. It's the most beautiful, melodic language and now, after English, the most important in the world. If you can speak English and Chinese you can speak to half of all humanity. As for university, I think I've done pretty well without it.

When are you going to retire? NASHIM CHOUDHURY, EXETER

You know, the thought has never crossed my mind. I'm not much good at pipe and slippers. And anyway I am enjoying myself too much helping Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems and writing my seventh book – it's a thriller so hold on to your hats!