Equipped for the fray?

It is somewhat ironical that Ian Duncan Smith might well have put the final nail in the coffin of the Ashdown-Blair "project". Not, of course, deliberately, nor by anything he said or did - apart, that is, from becoming leader of the Conservative party, and thus opening the way to the wild dream of the Lib Dems becoming the Opposition to the Labour Government rather than being in cahoots with it. The "project" itself was a typical product of Paddy's ever fertile imagination, in the course of which every tenet of the SBS was, I suspect, broken. It is never a case of "Who Dares, Wins", but of who has a viable cause, good intelligence, a supportive backup team, an achievable objective and good timing, wins. But no doubt it was a fun interlude, and it sells books.

Now there's a very different ball game, with the great temptation to appear seductive to all those nice, decent Conservatives whom Mr D S is gleefully consigning to outer darkness. And why not? There is certainly something unusual happening when a seventy-five year old, lifelong and highly articulate Conservative joins the Liberal Party in Leeds. Perhaps this is a unique opportunity which the Lib Dems should just go for, and sort out any philosophical niceties later. Come to think of it, rather like Blair and Mandelson did in 1997.

The reasons why the Lib Dems should beware of the siren voices are crucial to us all. First, it would be difficult to appear more conservative than New Labour; second, trimming to the current breeze is not electorally necessary - enough Conservatives sufficiently terrified by IDS, to want a new home cannot conceive of joining Labour and will arrive at the Lib Dems anyway; third, and most important, it provides a positive political atmosphere, and a brief time window, in which to attempt to focus on key beliefs that can address the current agenda. This was done by the Liberal Party in 1979, during my time as Assembly Chair, in order to face up to the challenge of a newly-elected Thatcher Government, and is now being tackled by the Lib Dems. I note with interest that Alan Beith is in charge of this exercise - at least someone who is not frightened of debate. Alan was, after all, the only establishment figure who made a half decent speech in favour of the "Euro Bomb" option at the 1986 Eastbourne Assembly defence debate.

With the BBC alleging that a "Quiet battle rages for Lib Dem soul", speakers at this year's Bournemouth Lib Dem Conference were inevitably classed as either "right" or "left"- by reporters apparently incapable of looking beyond five letter words. I sometimes think that support for the values of the French Revolution would be much easier if its Assembly hadn't broadly identified "right" and "left" with conservatives and radicals. It is high time that everyone claiming to be a Liberal united to attack this outdated, inaccurate, irrelevant, simplistic and damaging definition which simply does not fit so many key issues and policies. By what intellectual convolution can Mrs Thatcher's rampage through Britain's best loved institutions be called "conservative" or "rightwing"? Or by what philosophical standard can Labour's staid and all too comfortable local government hegemony in industrial areas be described as "leftwing"? It's a nonsense and it needs to be tackled before there can be a wider awareness and understanding of what Liberalism is about.

For a start, whenever an opponent accuses Liberals of being left or right wing in different areas as it suits their purpose, just agree! Most Liberal philosophy and Liberal policy, if examined honestly, defies pigeonholing as "right" or "left". It simply begins from completely different premises. It instinctively favours the spreading rather than the concentration of power and thus it opposes an enforced national curriculum in education. It is aware of the tendency to abuse otherwise legitimate authority, and it therefore opposes identity cards and CCTV. It recognises the dichotomy of the human personality and therefore supports measures, such as worker co-operatives, which match altruism with personal benefit. It understands the importance of human linkages and of scale, and consequently supports measures that enhance the neighbourhood and build on its strengths. It believes that in politics means and ends are inextricably linked and that genuine tensions in policy making - in health, for instance - have to be publicly argued out if society is to avoid an increasingly disillusioned minority. It is aware that personal belief, and the opportunity to express it, is a key right, but that a secular state is the only way of ensuring the primacy of reason and logic in political decision making for all. It is passionately concerned to safeguard the vitality of the planet, and therefore realises that the ecological imperative must invest all political action, rather than being relegated to green party ghettoes.

All these, and more, make up a Liberal philosophy which is incapable of being put in a box marked "left" or in one marked "right". Some have a tinge of one or the other; some can be forced, kicking and screaming, into one corner or another. But, taken as a whole, as underlying and underpinning beliefs must be, they make a distinctive and unique philosophy. What is more, they provide a philosophy that strikes chords with a citizenry that has become disillusioned with politics as a whole because it instinctively realises that the old and weary right/left battle is completely sterile and has no answers to today's problems.

Only if one can absorb key elements of Liberal philosophy sufficiently to be confident to express its outworking in practical policies, can one avoid being caught having to position oneself by the policies alone. That is to say that most policies can be pigeonholed and classified as "right" or "left" by those who want perversely still to relate them to that spectrum. It is the philosophical foundation of Liberalism that makes it relevant and unique, and it is the welding of policy into a holistic programme that provides its effectiveness.

Given this background, I am not as bothered as some colleagues by allegations that this individual or that member is a right or left wing Liberal. Nor have I ever been particularly troubled by some of sister parties in other countries whose style of Liberalism is inevitably greatly influenced by history. I have often disagreed with their tactics, their strategy and their policies, but more often than not I find their instinctive beliefs well within the Liberal family. Even in Britain one cannot too easily pigeonhole colleagues. I recall, for instance, that Emlyn Hooson, invariably regarded as a rightwing Liberal, made the best speech against the Falklands War in either House of Parliament.

If the Lib Dems are serious about a review of their philosophy, I hope that it will be rigorous, open and ongoing. There is a great need to encourage debate and discussion about deeper and more fundamental concerns. It is no use any party trying to grasp any political opportunity unless there is a solid awareness of what that party wants to achieve, and a knowledge of how to get there.

01 October 2001