Tip-toeing in a leftward direction

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The Independent Online
THESE are strange days. Europe could soon be faced by a holocaust worse than the carnage of either World War - or so the Liberal Democrat leader believes. 'I think there are now all the signs that the next decade in Europe could be as turbulent and dangerous as any we have seen in this most turbulent of centuries,' Paddy Ashdown told his party conference yesterday in the keynote speech. He presented a Hieronymus Bosch nightmare of ethnic, tribal and religious conflict, 'Bosnia writ large', except run by war-lords with nuclear weapons.

This was a notable event, was it not? Here is a man with a military background, close to senior generals, who has visited Bosnia regularly and leads the third-largest party, one that could well share in power after the next election. And he stands in front of the country and says we are standing on the edge of a horror, during which 'Western Europe will lock itself together to create a tight island of security and stability at the Western end of a sea of chaos and war'.

Ashdown has been building up to this warning for some time. Yet it passed almost unnoticed. Activists were not talking about it as they left the hall. Observers from the other parties didn't notice it. Almost all attention focused on Ashdown's few highly coded words about his party's relationship with Labour.

A little odd, no? Maybe everyone thinks that the Liberal Democrat leader has been experimenting with hallucinogenics, but is too polite to mention the fact. That would mark a rare display of delicacy by the enemies of Liberal Democracy. Or perhaps everyone assumes we are heading for oblivion and feels it unworthy of comment. Again, unlikely. The third possible explanation is that party conference speechifying, and the political conversation generally, is profoundly weird. The messages picked up are not the obvious ones, and the 'real' agenda is not the obvious one.

This is the best explanation and provides a useful key to understanding what has happened in Brighton over the past week. Ashdown is right to be worried about the instability and danger of the post-Soviet east of the continent. His alarm call was, in cold print, too strident. But we take a lot of waking up in this country when it comes to Abroad. And in this case, the too-strident language still was not strident enough to be heard. The fate of the continent is off 'the agenda'.

What agenda?

The agenda of power - the realignment of the parties - which sometimes seems to bear little relation to policies. This is what senior Liberal Democrats, and the other parties, and the media, have been homing in on. And this conference has reinforced one basic point: the Lib Dems will enter the next election quite close to Labour - uncomfortably so for many of its members. They will do this because the Conservatives cannot ever offer them voting reform, which has the potential to burst the Tory party wide open.

If the Lib Dems get into power with Labour, then we are in for changes to our democracy of huge scope and importance. Ashdown may have been guilty of some conference hyperbole when he spoke of 'the most fundamental turnaround in our politics since the Great Reform Act of 1832'. But the likely joint agenda of a Lib-Lab government, and the extreme Conservative opposition to it, would provoke a period of political turmoil comparable to the pre-democratic crisis that shook Britain before the Great War.

This is starting to become widely understood, if not yet much talked about. So the real relations between the two leftish reform parties are a matter of national interest. It may be absurd that this internal British agenda drowns out the Ashdown warning of a looming European nightmare: but the 'power agenda' is not, as many Lib Dem activists thought, an unreal confection of journalists who couldn't be bothered to read policy papers.

Here again, however, the week was characterised by very strange messages. The old SDP gang have been lavish in their praise of Tony Blair. But Bob Maclennan, the last SDP leader and now the Lib Dem president, was very hostile to Labour. Ashdown's final speech mentioned the other party only in the most cautious terms. He affected to be irritated by journalistic interest in the subject.

But if one analyses his speech, passages on the economy, taxation, education and the political culture were almost interchangeable with what Blair and, for instance, Gordon Brown, have been saying. The similarities extend to phrases like 'fair taxation' and an enthusiasm for commissions to study difficult areas of social policy. And in private some serious Lib Dems have made no bones about the desirability, even the inevitability, of some arrangement with Labour.

There are still big philosophical differences - no Labour politician would say, 'it is time to dismantle much of the central state'. There are also big holes in Lib Dem thinking: the tax and benefits package is a woeful mess. But the underlying story is of a party moving, however uncertainly, into an entente cordiale with its old enemy, Labour, in order to destroy Conservative power. And the clever thing is that Ashdown largely persuaded the media to do his job for him: he didn't need to be explicit about what was happening, because every newspaper and broadcaster was doing so.

Not surprisingly, some Lib Dem activists were confused and irritated. But their anger at the press over this was largely misdirected. So we live in a confusing political environment. Subtle and murmured hints about vague potential arrangements between two out-of-power parties echo loudly through the land, while stark warnings of mayhem, uttered in vivid and perhaps extreme language, are ignored.

Despite the flurries over cannabis and the Crown, this has not been a conference that will leave a big mark on the years ahead. But it has been a fascinating gathering, strongly hinting that those years may be ones of great turbulence and interest for British politics - even if Ashdown's Apocalypse turns out to be just a personal nightmare, passing fast and lonely into the ether.

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