The Sketch: Modern Lib Dems: more powerful – yet more parochial too

Who else but Action Man could have remembered fighting in Borneo's jungles?

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In the mid 1950s when the Liberal Party's popularity was at a nadir which makes even its current poll ratings look good, one of its great figures was addressing the dwindled faithful in some drafty seaside hall.

"I will choose my words with the greatest care", he announced with delusional grandeur.

"I do not wish to make any comment that will exacerbate the crisis in Quemoy and Matsu." Back then, when every self-respecting Liberal minded about what happened abroad, abroad did not reciprocate.

Now that the party is in power, of a sort, and could actually have some influence beyond the Channel, it does not seem to be interested any more. Its Defence and Foreign Office ministers have moved on; and there is not one debate this week on foreign affairs.

Which was the advertised point of Paddy Ashdown's fringe lecture yesterday.

One which came as a relief after a morning whose low point was a speech of heroic dreariness by Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, in which even the jokes fell flat, including an excruciatingly contrived one whose punchline, if that's the word, was something about "four U-turns and a wedding".

Ashdown's was a dizzying rhetorical journey through the world's flashpoints, one encompassing both poetry (A E Housman, John Donne), and history –including Gladstone's still topical warning that "the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan … is no less inviolate …. than your own".

At least we were hearing from someone who had not lived his whole life as a political operator.

Who else among modern politicians but Action Man could have effortlessly recalled his experience half a century ago as "a young British soldier fighting in one of the last of our post-colonial wars in the jungles of Borneo"? The world was now vastly more interconnected, its national destinies often shared with enemies as well as with allies. It was Israel's failure to see that which was blocking peace with the Palestinians. It was why mutual disarmament had begun with the Soviet Union in the 1970s and peace was brought to Northern Ireland.

Sadly he was too polite to say it was also why the Liberal Democrats should be less parochial. But he did recall, a little nostalgically, the ex-Second World War POW standing for Yeovil council who had headlined his eve of poll leaflet "What should be done about Poland?"

And won the seat.

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