When the Liberals arrive on the scene for their assembly (as I continue to think of the new party and its conference) the average age must be significantly lowered. You might even go so far as to say that things liven up a bit. At a previous gathering in Eastbourne some years ago the late Peter Jenkins and I were pottering round the Liberal Bookshop and came upon a pamphlet entitled The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm. What, Jenkins wondered, would Gladstone have made of that? I hazarded that the old man would have been very interested and might well have sat down to compose a 5,000-word commentary on the topic by way of a morning's light work.
On the next occasion the Liberals came here, in 1986, the representatives turned on their leaders and embraced unilateralism. What precisely Mr Paddy Ashdown's position on the subject was at this point I have now forgotten. He certainly moved rapidly from being a ban-the-bomber to what was then, may still be, regarded as a respectable member of political society. I do remember that Lord Steel was miserable and cross. There was nothing of that sort this time. In politics "issues" come and go, for no apparent or logical reason.
An attempt has been made in some papers to present Thursday's vote in favour of an inquiry into euthanasia as an embarrassment to Mr Ashdown, evidence of the Liberal Democrats' continuing tradition of old Liberal looniness. And yet what, after all, is at all loony about euthanasia? It is a thoroughly sane cause which will, I predict, gain many more adherents in the years ahead and eventually triumph.
In fact old Liberal looniness was conspicuously absent. I missed it. Thinking of the occasion as the Liberal Assembly is no more really than an exercise in sentimentality. The Liberal Democrats of today are the product of a merger between the Liberals and the Social Democrats. Though the old Liberal emphasis on local government persists, the prevailing ethos of the party is that of the defunct SDP: conventionally (though not fashionably) dressed, affluent and reasonable.
The party has another characteristic. It is generously represented in the House of Lords. Not only are former party leaders or cabinet ministers there, as they have every right to be under the curious conventions which we follow in these matters: Lords Jenkins, Rodgers and Steel (there is no Lord Thorpe), together with Lady Williams. There are also persons of the utmost insignificance who turn out to be Liberal Democrat life peers. In the immediate post-war years there used to be an advertising slogan: If you want to get ahead, get a hat. Today Mr Ashdown might urge more plausibly: If you want to get a peerage, join us.
Thus the party has possessed more political influence than is generally allowed. A seat in the Lords may not be worth much, but it is still worth something. Mr Ashdown and Lord Steel have certainly been able to operate the honours system to their party's advantage, though the most persuasive voice has, I suspect, been that of Lord Jenkins, who lent distinction to last week's events (as he does to any) by dropping in and then swiftly dropping out again.
This infiltration of the Lords is something I have never heard questioned or, indeed, discussed in any way at a Liberal Democrat conference or at any other party gathering. It is something of a guilty little secret, possessing elements of condonation, complicity and connivance.
Not so with membership of a cabinet committee on constitutional reform. Last week the representatives could talk of little else, coupled with the name of Peter Mandelson, uttered in tones reserved in former times for Tony Benn, Arthur Scargill, Ken Livingstone and Bernie Grant at the Conservatives' seaside gatherings in the autumn.
Mr Mandelson had written an article in the Times saying that, if the Liberal Democrats wished to reap any benefits from the new Labour government in the way of electoral reform or other desirable measures, they had jolly well better behave themselves and not go on in this tiresome fashion about the lack of government spending on health and education. For, in the first place, such expenditure had actually risen. And, in the second, Labour had won the election comprehensively precisely because it had omitted to make the prodigal promises which the party had previously made and whose implementation the Liberal Democrats were now demanding. That is more or less what Mr Mandelson wrote, even if at greater length and (if I may say so without giving undue offence to modesty) in duller language.
Now it does not require a degree in philosophy to see that there is an apparent contradiction in the Mandelson thesis. For, on the one hand, expenditure on health and education has risen; while, on the other, it has not. The only way to resolve this contradiction is to concede that such spending has indeed increased but that Labour would not have won the election so handsomely if the party had not promised it would do nothing of the kind. In other words, Labour fibbed to the voters.
The Liberal Democrats were in no mood for such exegesis. It was enough that the Prince of Darkness appeared to be threatening them. The more sophisticated elements in the Grand Hotel expounded the theory that it was all a dastardly (or, according to one's point of view, ingenious) plot contrived by Mr Ashdown, Mr Mandelson and Mr Tony Blair to strengthen Mr Ashdown's position with his troops.
They are quite right to feel a certain apprehension. After a normal election, 46 MPs would have guaranteed either the balance of power or, at least, a substantial influence over the governing party's activities: as 59 Liberals gave them the balance in 1929-31, or only 13 (rising to 14) did in 1976- 79. With 418 members and an absolute majority of 177, Mr Blair could tell Mr Ashdown that his activities were of no interest to him. There would be no need for Mr Mandelson to write any articles at all.
But Mr Blair has not done this. Mr Ashdown's good opinion is clearly important to him; as, evidently, Mr Blair's is to Mr Ashdown. What Mr Blair is after is not co-operation but, in the end, amalgamation. That realignment of the Left of which Jo Grimond and, later, Roy Jenkins used to speak so affectingly will not involve three parties but two. Recently Lord Jenkins has spoken even more movingly of the distortion of 20th-century politics brought about by the collapse of the old Liberal Party brought about by the First World War and the rise of Labour caused by the now obsolete trade unions. The logical conclusion is that new Labour should replace the old Liberal Party. Mr Blair will be leading one party, Mr William Hague (or his successor) the other. Mr Ashdown will be Jonah to Mr Blair's whale. No one likes being swallowed whole. That is why there was apprehension in the Eastbourne air.Reuse content