Ashdown warns of political 'sickness': Public 'disillusioned about politicians'

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THE BRITISH are suffering from a growing 'dangerous disillusionment' with politics and politicians, according to Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats.

After months of fact-finding travels round the United Kingdom - which involved working down a privatised coal mine, and a spell on a Cornish trawler - Mr Ashdown claims to have found 'a deep sickness in the heart of our political system'.

In his address to the annual conference of the Scottish Liberal Democrats in Dunoon yesterday, he said had found 'cynicism, not just about incompetent government, but about politics as a whole'.

Although he shied clear of advocating coalition governments, Mr Ashdown said he was attracted to the system in many European democracies, where parties formed common-ground alliances after elections. 'I don't want to replace one political duopoly with another,' he said.

Mr Ashdown said the opposition benches should spend less time squabbling with each other and more time 'putting together the forces we will need to defeat this unrepresentative, minority Conservative government'.

But he defended the Liberal Democrats' decision to vote with the Government on aspects of the continuing passage of the Maastricht treaty through the Commons. 'We do not toe the Government line, nor do we follow Labour. We will do what we believe is right,' he said.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats yesterday became the first mainstream British party organisation to call for the de-criminalisation of cannabis. The conference voted by a majority of two to one on a motion stating that the prohibited use and sale of cannabis created a 'victimless crime', tied up police resources better used elsewhere and restricted individual liberty.