The Liberal dance between left and right

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AS A YOUNG man Mr Milton Shulman, the distinguished journalist, was invited to lunch by a publisher. He was already the author of Defeat in the West, which has since become a classic of military history, and was keen to see what new proposition his host had to put to him. The publisher said he was thinking of a biography that would make their fortunes: the Life of Clement Davies.

For the benefit of younger readers, I should perhaps explain who Clement Davies was. He was a prosperous Welsh barrister who was leader of the Liberal Party from 1945 to 1956. He was by no means a negligible figure, having played a leading part in bringing down Neville Chamberlain in 1940. In 1951 Winston Churchill offered him the Ministry of Education in his new cabinet but Davies declined. Even so, his biography would hardly have been a bestseller. Mr Shulman shunned the offer. It remains a gap in the market to this day.

A Life of Mr Paddy Ashdown might prove a livelier read. There has already been a biography of Mr Jeremy Thorpe, who has nevertheless been written out of the history of his own party as comprehensively as any opponent of JV Stalin and who now promises an autobiography. His predecessor, Jo Grimond, published his memoirs. His successor, David Steel, has published his, together with a separate account of the Lib-Lab pact.

There is nothing new about the dilemma which Mr Ashdown faced and which his successor will face as well. It is about the position the Liberal Party is to occupy in relation to the other two parties if it chooses to remain independent or, if not, which of the other parties it is to ally itself or even to merge with. I wrote a book, The Liberal Dilemma, about this very subject over 30 years ago which is now, in the booksellers' argot, rare and scarce.

It was written at Grimond's high tide. He was a glamorous, good-looking politician who tended to patronise others and whose great advantage was that he was deaf, a condition he was either too indolent or too vain to remedy. In 1964 he obtained 18.5 per cent of the vote and won nine seats; in 1997 Mr Ashdown obtained 17 per cent and won 46. Grimond's vision was of an opening to the Left. Unfortunately he never fully explained what it was precisely that he saw before him: whether a revivified Liberal Party which had replaced Labour as the principal party of opposition to the Conservatives, or a Liberal Party which had allied itself or even merged with Labour. In 1964-66 he extracted no concessions of any substance from a Labour government which had a majority of only four.

After the election of February 1974 no party had a majority but Labour had the largest number of seats. On the pretext that the Conservatives had won the largest number of votes, Sir Edward Heath tried to hang on to power by offering the Liberals a Speaker's Conference on electoral reform and by hinting - no specific offer was ever made - that Mr Thorpe might become Home Secretary in the new Conservative administration: a most satirical position for him to hold in view of subsequent events. Mr Thorpe's inclination was to accept the offer, such as it was, less out of vainglory than a desire to see the Liberals in government once again, even if it was a Conservative government, which was unfortunate but better than nothing. The party, however, was having none of it. Mr Thorpe was kept away from No 10 by assorted colleagues pulling him back by his coat tails.

Chief among them was Lord Steel, who succeeded Mr Thorpe in 1976. He was the last leader of the Liberal Party, as Mr Ashdown was to become the first leader of the Liberal Democrats 12 years later. The party, if you are interested in these matters, was launched in March 1988 as the Social and Liberal Democrats, with the short title the Democrats. But that did not catch on, and in October 1989 the short title was changed to the Liberal Democrats, the original title being retained for legal purposes.

In all the justly complimentary talk about Mr Ashdown, few pointed out that he was the leader of a new party, maybe because he started off life as a Liberal rather than as a Social Democrat. Indeed, those days in the 1980s have been largely forgotten, when Lord Jenkins and his three chums formed the SDP, when they forged the Alliance with the Liberals, when that new party won 25 per cent of the vote in the 1983 election and 23 per cent in 1987, and when David Owen took his bat home (retaining, however, the loyalty of Ms Polly Toynbee). What stirring times they were!

If Lord Jenkins had refrained from taking not so much his bat home as his aeroplane into the air in 1981 we might not have had to endure another 14 years of Conservative government after 1983. But a different result then would have required a Labour Party that was sensible or, at any rate, not quite so obviously insane. It was precisely the lack of such a sane party which had impelled Lord Jenkins to form one of his own. So the argument is as profitless as "what if?" arguments usually are.

It has likewise largely escaped attention that Mr Charles Kennedy, the favourite to succeed Mr Ashdown, was originally an SDP member. He has been an MP since 1983 and has still to reach his 40th birthday. He would have been perfectly happy in the old Labour Party, though whether he would be equally comfortable in Mr Tony Blair's version is more doubtful. Certainly the present mood among the Liberal Democrats favours wide berths and long spoons as far as Mr Blair is concerned.

Mr Ashdown believes in the Pardoe Principle. The phrase derives from the Liberal, once a figure of pomp and power within his own party, who used to call on the Chancellor, Denis Healey, much to the latter's annoyance, during the Lib-Lab pact. Mr Ashdown, according to this criticism, has been vouchsafed a glimpse of the trappings of power, like an onlooker on the old Brighton Pier being given a turn with What the Butler Saw.

Nor was it a free peep. The Liberal Democrats were forced to support closed lists for the European elections, which made them look distinctly illiberal even if, paradoxically, the system turns out to be to their advantage. They were not given anything back either.

Mr Blair fulfilled his manifesto commitment to set up an independent commission, under Lord Jenkins as it happened, to investigate electoral reform. Lord Jenkins worked rapidly and hard, and managed to make an intractable subject not only understandable but even partially diverting. He advocated the alternative vote with a topping-up mechanism. But Mr Blair shows no sign of putting this or any other system to the people in a referendum, as he promised to do.

No 10's answer - that this was a kind of generalised promise of a referendum, a referendum some day, some time - is disingenuous, to say the least. It was clear that the referendum was to be held during the present Parliament. Mr Kennedy, or whoever Mr Ashdown's successor turns out to be, is in no position to force Mr Blair's hand. But he can certainly withhold future

co-operation. This is what his party wants him to do. The mood is for Liberal independence. It may be that the resolution of the dilemma does not lie in trying to replace Labour, which was always a vain hope, but the Conservatives, who seem on the path to moribundity.