Did we inhale? Didn't we just. It was 'Paddy Hashdown' and 'Dopes] Paddy goes potty'. In the serious papers, it was many column inches of head-shaking and mumbling about 'severe embarrassment' and 'blow to leadership' and similar. The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, quickly pitched in about how it showed that the Liberal Democrats were, if you please, unfit for office. And the Conservative Party chairman, Jeremy Hanley, said something equally unmemorable. (About the first time he has.)
Mr Ashdown went stone-faced from the stage, a stalk he probably regrets. Behind the scenes, the expressions of the respectable Social Democratic tendency in the party, the thoroughly sound men with whole wardrobes of expensive double-breasted suitings, were a sight to behold. Were we, they were wondering, back to the days of sandal-wearing nutcases?
And there was more of the same to come. Yesterday evening there was the 'embarrassment' of a conference discussion on the abolition of the monarchy. Before that, the delegates had voted overwhelmingly in favour of a minimum wage. And, had anyone been quick enough on the uptake, they would have found that notorious New Ager and acid freak Ludovic Kennedy speaking on voluntary euthanasia. Mayhem all round] Irresponsibility on every side]
But let us just stand back and record the timid, grey, prissy, introverted, anally retentive, miserabilist, coldfooted and generally joyless nature of our political culture, a world of self-censoring politicians and tooth-sucking hacks. Let us also record the hypocrisy of those of us who gargle hard liquor and smoke cigarettes, sentencing ourselves to an early and painful death, but who get a fit of the vapours when a group of self-confessedly liberal-minded people take a liberal attitude to soft drugs. Cognac is not a health drink; neither Silk Cut nor cigars are therapeutic. But these are our choices and we depend on a liberal culture to allow us the liberty to make them. It sometimes seems the biggest problem with cannabis is that it is unfashionable among elderly drunks.
A majority of younger voters will have tried soft drugs at some point. In the real world there has been a national conversation going on for many years about whether to legalise them. It is a difficult issue, but this debate has been pretty even-tempered and sensible. When politicians try to join the street-level conversation, however, they are instantly derided as irresponsible. 'Responsible' means debating economic issues over which, as everyone knows, politicians have less and less real say. Who's really out of touch?
This absurd prissiness and self- delusion infests the monarchy question, too. Last night's debate was quite good - my favourite line came from the speaker who reckoned: 'You can tell a lot about a country that talks about the Royal Mint and the National Debt.' It is apparently unacceptable to have a serious conversation about whether or not the Windsors should retain their residual powers and constitutional position. Say anything different and you will find, as various left-wing politicians have, that the grown- ups will send you out of the room.
By 'grown-ups' I mean the political establishment, including most newspaper editors. But these same editors find it acceptable to report, in toe-curling detail, the unhappy sex-lives and other odd habits of these same royals. It is fine to print pictures of naked princesses and ramble on about colonic irrigation. It is not fine to question the Royal Prerogative. Talk about the pictures of the Prince of Wales's willy by all means; just keep your dirty mind off his dangling constitutional inheritance. It is unpatriotic to discuss the role of the Queen. But it is patriotic, apparently, to drown her family in filth.
What a funny country. These are all rather small examples. But there is a more general problem here, which goes wider than Liberal Democrat conferences. The political classes are becoming gutless, far too afraid for their own good to discuss the difficult issues. In private many of them are interesting, thoughtful, as they always were. But in public they stick with safe, old stories. And not surprisingly voters, particularly young voters, are turning off. They are better informed and more sophisticated listeners these days, and automatically sift out the static of political blather.
The excuse the politicians give (those honest enough to admit it) is that the media would destroy them if they tried to be bold. During the monarchy debate one cautious Lib Dem told his party: 'We know what the motion says, but we also know what the newspapers will say about it tomorrow.' And the politicians have a point. We have somehow developed a journalistic culture that thrives on phoney hysteria and synthetic outrage. None of the people writing about the shock of the Lib Dems' drugs vote was really shocked by it. Mildly amused, perhaps.
But they pretended. Careful observation and reporting has been largely replaced by the search for those weary old beasts, splits and boobs. We have become, too often, mere gaffe-hunters. Poor old Hanley opens his mouth. 'Bang]' A Lib Dem says something different. 'Bang, bang]' No wonder self-censorship seems sensible.
It isn't, though. Politicians of all parties need to reconnect themselves to the language and concerns of cynical and knowledgeable voters. This cannot be done by avoiding issues that provoke a titter from the tabloids. There is a phoney prissiness about, which is doing politics no good. We are meant to pretend there is no disagreement among serious politicians of the same party, that the frankness of a Hanley or gauche directness of Liberal Democrats is shocking. This is the Political Correctness of the Right. It is becoming a bore.Reuse content