LEADING ARTICLE: Mr Ashdown's three-card trick

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The Independent Online
If there is one thing on which all politicians today agree, it is the need to be distinctive at a time when the centrifugal forces of Butskellism are again in surge. Senior Tories want the Chancellor to cut taxes, slash spending and put clear, blue water between themselves and their rivals. Bryan Gould (who has already put 12,000 miles of clear blue water between himself and everybody else) and others are warning Mr Blair of the need for new Labour to be "different". And the new Liberal Democrat strategy - uncovered this morning - is clearly designed to highlight those policies that mark the party out from its two big rivals.

In outline, the strategy is well judged. Its three main areas - education, constitutional reform and an environmentally sustainable economic policy - together make up a coherent and worthwhile political platform for Mr Ashdown's party. Of course it is easier for the Liberal Democrats to pull this trick. Since they are unlikely to be senior partners in a government, they do not have to waste a lot of time boring everybody silly about the dull necessity of fiscal probity and low inflation. But that does not detract from the significance of the policies themselves. A strong Liberal Democrat showing at the next election could bring important influences to bear upon a new Labour administration. Radicalism from the Lib Dems may also bolster the courage of Tory radicals by less direct means.

The harder question for Mr Ashdown is whether his party's policies are any good. In the case of the education proposals, the answer is not really. The call for a hypothecated tax increase earmarked for education and weighted towards nursery provision has a nice superficial appeal ("it's costed, it's serious, it's honest") but relies upon an old-fashioned belief in the efficacy of simply applying dosh to difficulty. The Lib Dems' negatively knee-jerk response to the idea of nursery vouchers suggests that their new thinking stopped with hypothecation.

There are no such reservations when it comes to the party's continuing commitment to reforming the way that Britain is governed. For those who wish to see our constitution dragged into the late 20th century, the Liberal Democrats still remain vital agents of change. All such reform will mean the sharing of power by the elective dictatorship in Parliament with others outside. But a new Labour administration will enjoy power with all the physical greed of first love, and it will take some persuading to make it give up the object of its lust.

But perhaps the most interesting of the three key areas is the argument for the adoption of economic policies that tax pollution. The Liberal Democrats clearly (and rightly) sense that concern over environmental degradation is going to be a dominant issue of the future. So they emphasise the need to enter environmental criteria into economic equations - an approach that the Tories toyed with briefly in the late Eighties.

This is brave stuff - if they mean it. Proponents of a carbon tax on energy use will hardly have been encouraged by the massive political coalition that forced the Government to back down over VAT on heating and lighting, although in that case the Government's motives were anything but convincingly ecological. Yet any carbon tax will raise serious and widespread opposition. Will Paddy's radicals stick to their guns when the flak starts to fly?

We hope so. The forces of stasis - of doing nothing - have always been strong in Britain. They need to be combated.