Could the sun rise on a Lib Dem day?

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The Independent Online
THE LIBERAL Democrats are a serious threat to the old order of British politics. Don't take my word for it: that is clearly what the two big parties think. In the Commons, John Major and other ministers have been aiming their most poisoned darts at Paddy Ashdown for months, while Conservative Central Office is building up its armoury of specifically anti-Lib Dem propaganda. Labour, meanwhile, has altered its tactic from lofty neglect of the rival party to vituperative hostility - a change that can be traced back from the Tower Hamlets race row last September, and which has now entered the mainstream.

So what do the big-boy politicians know about the squirts? It is true that both big parties face regional Lib Dem challenges in the year ahead. The Tories are likely to lose European seats, undermining their political base in the South- west of England, while Labour may lose local councils, and seem rebuffed as the main opposition party of the south. These events could have serious consequences, for John Smith's strategy and for Mr Major's person.

Throughout this spring, the Conservative and Labour strategists have a special interest in bashing the Liberal Democrats. A lot of that bashing will take place in Eastleigh, where, as our poll showed yesterday, the Lib Dems, 11 points clear of the Tories, are already looking like the probable winners of the parliamentary by-election.

It ought to be an unusual and topsy-turvy contest, which will reflect the confusing political battle going on nationally. Labour will be desperately trying to convince people that only it, despite strong evidence to the contrary, can defeat the Tories. They, meanwhile, will be desperately trying to convince people that Labour and the Lib Dems, despite the daily evidence of their mutual mudslinging, are essentially the same party. And the voters? They will perhaps note that both sets of big-boy politicians are attempting to persuade them to ignore the evidence of their eyes and ears. And - well, we shall have to wait and see what they will do.

And we shall have to wait and see if it matters. If there is one seemingly immutable law of contemporary British politics, it is that, for the Lib Dems, the sun never quite rises: that this is a party condemned to live perpetually freeze-framed, eyes sparkling and fixed on a political horizon which gives it nothing but glimmer. Even if Eastleigh produces the expected and unsensational 'Lib Dem sensation' headline, we have been here before. So even if the campaign mimics the confusion and fear of the old parties towards the Liberal Democrats, scepticism about the longer-term meaning remains the sensible response, to Eastleigh and also to any council and European successes that 1994 holds for the Liberal Democrats.

And yet, and yet . . . something is different. History never repeats itself. The worry that is apparent in the Tory and Labour camps this time isn't quite the usual mild mid- term jitter. It isn't just about regional gains and creeping, easily reversed percentages. It isn't only that the Lib Dems have, in Mr Ashdown, a good second-rate public speaker and, therefore, a better communicator than either Mr Major or Mr Smith. What is it, then?

Let's start with Mr Ashdown's new book, published next week, and called Beyond Westminster. It is the diary of 21 brief visits round Britain, plus one to British troops in Bosnia, which Mr Ashdown undertook during 1992/93 followed by a short section of political reflections thereon. Some of the chapters are shocking, including accounts of the heavily armed drug children of Moss Side, and the squalor and fear of immigrant families in London's East End, struggling to get decent education for their children. There is plenty here to shame Whitehall.

Other passages are uplifting, as Mr Ashdown meets communities rebuilding themselves, successful and adaptable businesses, public-spirited companies, brave and resourceful individuals. (Which is par for this particular course: politicians discovering 'the true Britain' never seem to bump into nasty-minded sluggards, drunken pessimists or racist councillors, do they?)

Since the book's central conclusion is that British politicians in general, and Parliament in particular, are badly out of touch with the country, it is guaranteed to be mocked and disliked around the Palace. The Palace of Westminster, anyway: as one follows Mr Ashdown from recycling depot to community policeman, from practical architect to witty Rastafarian, one is reminded inescapably of Prince Charles.

But the overall impression is of a country that is hardworking, community-minded and resourceful, yet depressed by the lack of national leadership and often hampered by the sectarian squabbles of local politics. One could call this an idealised portrait of Liberal Democrat Britain. This is, of course, propaganda disguised as description. Propaganda happens whenever politicians look at the world. But this book is shrewdly gentle propaganda - an oblique essay on thwarted national potential, and a manifesto only by implication.

Could it, though, have any bearing on the cruder world of electoral politics, of percentages and campaign coverage? In principle, of course it could. If Liberal Democrat voters are to be more than bloody-minded individualists and dissenters from fringe Britain, then they need a self-image. And Mr Ashdown is exploiting a mood that is real enough, the hostility to the political elite that is found in most Western democracies, plus the feeling that we need a new way of doing our business as a country, that the neo-liberal reforms and the centralism of the Thatcherite Eighties proved too thin and mean a programme for a healthy modern country.

Paddy Ashdown has no copyright on those perceptions, and his party has a long way to go in getting the right balance between radicalism and the reassurance necessary for gaining and holding large numbers of southern, middle-class seats. But what can be said is that the Liberal Democrats are starting to identify and describe what their national political constituency might look like. This is a party of activists that became a party of councillors and then a party of the regions, and which now faces the most difficult transition. Small wonder the others are turning up the heat. Mr Ashdown's book is no deathless masterpiece. But it is, in these circumstances, both more important than the Eastleigh by-election, and rather easier to read.

'Beyond Westminster' by Paddy Ashdown, Simon & Schuster, pounds 9.99.