Seizing the balance of power, and other Liberal myths

Political Commentary
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The Independent Online
Many years ago, when the Liberal Democrat Conference was still the Liberal Assembly, I was wandering round the Liberal Bookshop with the late Peter Jenkins when I spotted a pamphlet entitled The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm. What, I asked Jenkins, did he think W E Gladstone would have made of that? He contemplated for a moment and said he imagined Gladstone would have been very interested and would have purchased several copies for his friends.

This year at Brighton I made no comparable literary discovery but stayed at a hotel, the Royal Albion, which claimed on a plaque that Gladstone had "often" stayed there, when it was called the Lion Mansions Hotel. Well, you learn something every day. At home I consulted Roy Jenkins's excellent Gladstone and discovered two references to trips to Brighton, though none to the Lion Mansions. This does not mean that the present establishment's claim is wrong but that Lord Jenkins had a lot to cover in an already detailed work.

They have fought only one election as a single party. But there is something about the Liberal Democrats that makes one want to recall the past. In 1992 they won 20 seats, the best performance since the Liberals in 1935, though in 1983 and 1987 the Alliance (Liberals and Social Democrats as separate but allied parties) won 23 and 22 respectively. The old streams, Liberal and Social Democrat, mingle but do not mix. The Social Democrats are big, the Liberals small: not in stature but in their attitudes to government. The former look towards Whitehall, the latter towards the town hall. The old Social Democrats can boast people who used to be able to say go, and he goeth or, quite often, faileth to go. But they were certainly members of real cabinets.

There was Lord Jenkins, who did not manage to reach Brighton from the United States because of a mix-up in his diary. There was Lady Williams, who just about succeeded in reaching Brighton from the same country to make her much-heralded speech (though how she can both teach at Harvard and simultaneously be a supposedly major figure in her party has yet to be explained satisfactorily). And there was Lord Rodgers, who got to Brighton on the dot but annoyed everybody by urging Liberal Democrats to vote Labour if that was the way to get the Conservative out.

Thus Bill Rodgers was to this conference what, over the years, and in reverse chronological order, Bernie Grant, Ken Livingstone, Arthur Scargill, Tony Benn and Aneurin Bevan have been to the Conservative variety. Who, I wonder, will the Tories manage to dredge up as their villain of the week at Bournemouth? It will prove difficult to produce anybody, but we shall see.

If Lord Rodgers was the villain of the week, the heroine was Miss Emma Nicholson. She has come to her new party not from Labour via the Social Democrats but fresh from the Conservatives. I used to have the highest regard for her father, Sir Godfrey Nicholson, Conservative member for Farnham and distiller of Nicholson's Gin. He once gave a friend of mine the invaluable advice that all kinds of gin were more or less the same. His views inside the Conservative Party carried equal authority. Unhappily I do not regard his daughter with so much admiration. She has all kinds of good qualities but is something of a bossyboots. Five years ago I was writing a book on the fall of Lady Thatcher. I wrote to numerous MPs, including Miss Nicholson, who I thought might be able to assist me in my inquiries. She telephoned asking what line precisely I proposed to take. I replied that I should cleave to the line of truth, as had always been my practice. She then asked whether the Observer (where I was then writing a column, and which had nothing to do with the book) would be able to transport her from the Commons to the place I had proposed for lunch. I replied that neither the paper nor I was in the business of providing free transport for MPs. There the matter rested until Miss Nicholson relented and invited me to lunch instead. So everything was all right in the end.

There was another hero too, and another villain. The second villain was Mr Alex Carlile, who sits for Montgomery but sadly is to retire at the election. His sin was to speculate that the Liberal Democrats might eventually merge with Labour. Mr Carlile is an old Liberal. This is worth noting because there is a tendency for those who allow their imaginations to soar to originate in the SDP and accordingly in the Labour Party: not only Lord Rodgers, who recommends tactical voting, but also Lord Jenkins, who professes the highest regard for Mr Tony Blair. Lady Williams's speech on Thursday was intended to dispel this impression: that, when it came to forming alliances with or even to joining a Labour government, it was the old Social Democrats who were the unreliable element.

Mr Paddy Ashdown, the other hero, did not go so far as Lady Williams in his declarations of sturdy independence. As Harold Macmillan said of the Labour Party (in relation to what was then called the Common Market) 35 years ago, he didn't say yes and he didn't say no. Indeed, his final words to the conference were to count nothing in, and nothing out. Mr Ashdown's approach to Lib-Lab co-operation differs in no material respect from Mr John Major's approach to our joining a single currency. Mr Ashdown makes fun of Mr Major and asks him to "back" Mr Kenneth Clarke. One might with equal justice make fun of Mr Ashdown and ask him to back Lord Rodgers, Mr Carlile or any other character who comes up with some bright wheeze to ensure Liberal Democrat influence.

The possibilities are simple. Mr Blair either secures an absolute majority (330 seats or more in the new House) or does not. If he does, he is committed - anyway I think he is committed - to a referendum on electoral reform, though the precise shape the referendum is to take, the attitude the government will adopt to its so far unformulated questions and the actions, if any, it will prefer afterwards are all conveniently unclear.

If, however, Mr Blair does not secure an absolute majority, Mr Ashdown can try to lay down terms and conditions, which can only be about proportional representation or the alternative vote (that is, marking the ballot paper 1, 2, 3 and redistributing second preferences). The latter, in my view excellent, system we might have had in partial form in 1931 if it had not been for the collapse of the Labour government. It is not truly proportional and is accordingly despised by PR addicts.

But the recent Liberal record of getting anything at all out of minority Labour governments is poor. In March-October 1974 the party got nothing, though it is fair to remember that during this period it was, with 14 members, some way short of the balance of power. During the Lib-Lab pact later in the decade Sir David Steel failed to get PR for European elections. I do not see the slightest reason to expect Mr Ashdown to do any better.