Charles Kennedy: Ministers should stop shooting their messengers

We are a tolerant, liberal and polite people, yet our political discourse is conducted in a pugilistic way

The latest government spin is that "spin" is "so yesterday". David Blunkett was at it in The Times - assuring readers that as the press is so jaundiced, what can you expect? Peter Hain was point man in The Independent on Sunday - again blaming the way the Government's actions are reported. In Hain's case, it's ironic indeed, given that he has been both the beneficiary and more recently the victim of the spin syndrome itself. Both are correct in identifying the problem. Spin is destructive, undermining our national political debate. But it's not enough for ministers simply to blame the messenger. This is a two-way process and goes much deeper. It's time to recast the whole way we conduct our national political dialogue.

The enormous controversy surrounding the justification for the war with Iraq highlighted the spin problem. Mired in conflicting interpretations of the evidence and in a private war between a prime ministerial aide and the BBC, this murky episode has claimed a life. Not since Stephen Ward's suicide during the Profumo affair way back in 1963 has there been such a grim subtext to politics.

The human tragedy of David Kelly has obliged the Prime Minister to concede at least a limited public inquiry into these matters. He should have done so long before Dr Kelly died. For a moment, it even looked as if the shock generated by Dr Kelly's suicide might bring the light of truth and openness back to the political arena as Tony Blair appeared to acknowledge Lord Hutton's freedom of manoeuvre in his investigations. But old habits die hard, and it took only 24 hours before it was decreed that the judge should stick to his limited terms of reference.

Iraq is obviously eroding trust in the Prime Minister. Tony Blair's administration bears a heavy responsibility for rearranging the way our government communicates with the people who elect it. He has overseen an increasingly presidential style of politics, the rise of the unelected political adviser at the expense of the elected cabinet, the consequent emasculation of the civil servant and the overemphasis on spin. Mr Blair's failure to return immediately to the House of Commons and admit that he had made a mistake when he unwittingly misled MPs over the intelligence content of the second, so-called "dodgy", dossier in February is, to my mind, the most glaring example of this tendency. He apparently thought his personal attendance was not needed in Parliament; his spinners could handle it in the media.

Parliament must also take its share of the blame in contributing to public cynicism. At Prime Minister's Questions and in the chamber generally, MPs queue up to indulge in the politics of personal denigration. The Conservative leader regularly points his finger at the Prime Minister and yells: "You can't believe a word he says." The convention may be to adopt a traditional form of address - "Honourable" and "Right Honourable" - but what is being suggested is that MPs are entirely dishonourable. Most MPs are not dishonourable. They take their role as public servants very seriously.

I have always found this "ya-boo" style distasteful. It's also unrepresentative of our national characteristics. We are essentially a tolerant, liberal and polite people. We don't like to complain and are embarrassed by arguments and displays of emotion. Yet our political discourse, in the Commons and on radio and television, is conducted in this pugilistic way. In Parliament, this modus operandi was seen when Dr Kelly was humiliated and insulted by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, with such devastating consequences.

Yet outside the public arena, the political parties are perfectly capable of conducting their business in a normal, everyday tone. I don't bawl at Tony Blair when we need to talk. Indeed, I refuse to bawl at him in the Commons chamber. What is wrong with asking the pertinent questions in a sensible way? That's how most people go about their business.

It's true, we've been here before. Following the untimely death of the then Labour leader John Smith, there was much talk and comment about politics in general, and Parliament in particular, re-examining its ways. And, indeed, for a brief interlude a markedly improved tone of constructive civility did emerge. But inevitably most politicians and journalists soon fell back into their old ways.

This time, instead of a period of reflection and slipping back, what about moving on? Can't we agree that no single party has a monopoly on wisdom? Where there are obvious disagreements, why not respect, rather than automatically rubbish, the other point of view? How about instituting a mature dialogue that might actually find some solutions to the many unsolved problems that require urgent attention - the state of public transport, schools and hospitals?

Last week in Washington DC, the Prime Minister was right to reflect in his speech on the ultimate judgement of history. At this juncture, what is called for is the searchlight of truth being brought back into our national life. The Hutton inquiry may prove to be a very harsh light indeed. But if the desperate events of recent days manage to kick-start a process of fundamental change, some good may yet come out of all this.

The writer is the leader of the Liberal Democrats