Leading Article: Lib Dems make the difference

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NOT in Inverness they don't. The 10 representatives who managed to drag themselves into the 800-seat Eden Court Theatre yesterday morning for their Scottish conference were not enough to make the difference between empty and full. This poor turnout is a pity, not just because it affords second-rate gagsters the chance to re-run the one about holding their conference in a phone box. (Actually, they adjourned to an adjacent boardroom.)

It is also a shame because of the temptation it presents to dismiss the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Paddy's party north of the border has always been able to punch above its bantam weight. The choice of a proportional system for elections to the Scottish Parliament next year will, almost inevitably, grant the party's Scottish leader, Jim Wallace, the role of kingmaker between Labour and the Scottish National Party. The party might well be a partner in a coalition government.

Should he choose Labour, the way in which that works will be of crucial importance to the possibility of future closer co-operation between the parties at Westminster. Will the Lib Dems realise Tony Blair's fear of proportional systems and exercise "disproportionate influence"? Or will they be the test pilots for the new progressive-radical movement for the 21st century that Mr Blair promised in his conference speech last year?

Those 10 activists have their work cut out.