Leading Article: Paddy must be honest about the voters, too

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The Independent Online
Leaders' speeches at party conferences are usually testimony to the craftsmanship of aides rather than revivals of the lost art of political rhetoric. A brief Cicero impression is bound together with a few lines fit for an excerpt on the evening news bulletins, a few jokes (Paddy Ashdown made a good one yesterday about dentists and the Labour Party) and a Theme. Ostensibly the Liberal Democrat leader's Theme was patriotism. All the nice voters love a soldier-in-a-boat, and he is surely right in calculating that the Liberal Democrats' brand of inclusive, international-minded patriotism is made a lot easier to swallow when audiences are gently reminded of his military record.

Mr Ashdown does a masterly job, moreover, of stripping the Tories of their pretensions to be the patriotic party. He did not even have to invoke Dr Johnson: all you need do nowadays is refer to one of those nefarious anti-European speeches by the Secretary of State for Defence. Let the Tories in their xenophobic, Poujadist stripes be the (English) nationalist party. "A true patriot would not pander to the Tory press by pretending that love of country depends on hating others."

Good anti-Government knockabout of which, doubtless, a lot more is to be heard next week from Labour in Blackpool. Ashdown patriotism consists, by contrast, in faith in a set of national virtues ranging from fairness and concern for underdogs to bloody-minded resolution to see hard tasks through. There were indeed times yesterday when Paddy Ashdown, when he wasn't Harold Wilson invoking the Dunkirk spirit, sounded suspiciously like a refined version of Morris Cerullo, able to see the good things "hidden away in the hearts of a million individuals".

The "moral majority" means, for Tories and American right-wingers, a glowering invisible nation, resenting policies foisted on them by liberals. For Mr Ashdown the moral majority is something very different: it is the good, liberal-minded (though not often Liberal-voting) people whose progressive instincts are crushed because of lack of leadership from Westminster. They wish for more and better education; they want their politicians to speak truth even about marginal rates of income tax; and so on. It is a beguiling picture of a middle England which recycles its waste before cycling to work. Perhaps things are so in Yeovil. But for the country at large it is a wishful picture. From it springs a dubious conception of the kind of representative politics that is available in turn-of-the- century Britain.

None of this should detract from Mr Ashdown's substantive points, especially his appeal for constitutional reform and his plea for greater fiscal honesty. The public finances are in a mess. Decisions about government revenues (taxes) need to be taken now if the balance between likely spending and income is not to move even further out of kilter as the century ends.

The Liberal Democrats are right, too, that no amount of fiddling with income support and family credit can substantially increase the work incentive for those facing a choice between a half life on benefit and low-paid jobs that can leave them worse off. A dramatic financial gesture is needed, such as lifting the amount that can be earned free of tax. That, of course, benefits all taxpayers, and social justice demands that it be compensated by increased taxes on higher earners. The Liberal Democrats say that a rate of 50 per cent on those earning more than pounds 100,000 a year would be enough to pay for their fiscal reforms. The numbers are arguable, but they deserve credit for being up-front about the necessity.

But it is at that point that Mr Ashdown's central argument about the essential goodness and fairness of the bulk of British people comes unstuck. If they were the paragons he implies, why have so many voted Tory for so long? The response, that political outcomes are untrustworthy because non-proportional voting prevents the popular will getting translated into Westminster representation, is not entirely convincing. The fact is, as Tony Blair recognises, the political culture has shifted in recent years. Up to a strictly limited point, we have all accepted a large part of the Thatcherite agenda. It is going to take a lot more persuasion than Mr Ashdown offered yesterday to convince the comfortable majority that they should pay more tax.

Mr Ashdown toys with a possibly dangerous Manichean notion of political life. Westminster, he infers, is a sink, a den of dishonesty and fudge. The People, by contrast, see things clearly. They have no truck with compromise and dissembling. Yet the very basis of the Liberal Democrats' current political identity is that they are the party of coalition and consequent compromise.

Mr Ashdown was careful yesterday to couch his claims in terms of what the Liberal Democrats would do to temper the other parties, to keep them on the straight and narrow. That is indeed potentially their most valuable role. But what it requires is political gamesmanship, deal making, dalliance with the arts of the possible. Here is the Liberal Democrat paradox. The party helps make itself distinct by claiming to be holier than the others. But to translate any or all of its policies into reality means engaging with those other tainted parties. The Liberal Democrats have a lot to offer, but their honesty must include a recognition that The Voters are not quite as wonderfully liberal-spirited and reform-minded as Mr Ashdown would have us believe: they are good and decent, in large measure, but they are also warty and inconsistent, and sometimes reactionary and mean. That is part of the reason why the two established parties make such good Aunt Sallies for Liberal Democrat leaders enjoying all the fun of the seaside fair.