An Essay to my Party II

An Essay to my Party on the eve of Conference

Part II

So, here, as promised are three dangerous ideas for the future. Please be clear. I am not necessarily proposing these. Just asking why we are not even discussing them?

Dangerous idea 1.

We are guiltily obsessed with student fees. The fact that we don’t need to be, because the principle is right, does not make life easier (how I wish we had called them a Graduate tax!). But now with the student loan debt rising, do we not also have to consider how we get better value for what students pay? If we have a tertiary education system which cannot be paid for without loading more and more debt on our young, should we not be looking at the system, not just at how they pay?  We persist in the medieval practice of taking students to medieval ivy covered buildings, to receive their education in the medieval manner from minds, too many of which, when it comes to delivering education, are stuck in the middle ages. Yet distance learning was pioneered in Britain at the Open University when communicating with your tutor meant stuffing your academic paper in an envelope, licking it, sticking a stamp on it and putting it in the local post-box. Today the whole planet is into distance learning. Many of our own Universities make tons of money providing distance learning degree courses to students all over the world. But none of them are in Britain! If we were to convert at least part of our tertiary education syllabus to distance learning we might reduce the cost of degrees without diminishing their quality, give students more flexibility, force lecturers into the modern age, widen access and create a superb platform for adult education all at the same time. Why, beloved Lib Dems, do we allow medieval vested interests to preserve our ivy covered tertiary education system exactly as it is, loading more and more debt on students and preventing us from doing what much of the rest of the world is doing already? Just asking.

Dangerous idea 2.

We have long understood that property owning rights are one of the foundation stones of democracy. Yet each of us, gives away our most intimate of property free and daily to the most powerful corporations, who make millions and millions from it.I am talking of course, about our personal data. Why do we Lib Dems not assert the citizens right to own their own data and to have control over how it is used? Why about proposing a law – perhaps a European one – which says to Messrs Amazon, Google, Starbucks etc, that they can use our personal data for their commercial purposes, but only with our permission and if they give us a share of the profits. Can you think of anything which would more alter the relationship between these masters of the commercial universe and the customers whose information they exploit for such enormous profit? Can you think of anything which would more empower the citizen in the market pace? Isn’t that what we Lib Dems are supposed to be about? So?

Dangerous idea 3.

The political parties or movements that are thriving at the moment (e.g. En Marche, Italy’s 5 star movement and Momentum to name a few) are those who have adopted an internet based model which enables mass younger membership, flat low cost management, modest entry fees, direct democracy, constant engagement, high participation and the opportunity to take part in politics as just one of the multi-transactional things we do in our busy lives. The older conventional political parties are stuck in the model of the1870s; vertical hierarchies, festoons of committees which claim democracy, but end up with management by those who can spare the time; low and ageing membership; high cost of entry; limited engagement; even less real participation and a dependency on political obsessives (like me). And they are dying. The number of people in political parties has dropped from 10.5% of the electorate 20 years ago, to 1.5% today. Should we be worried about this? Apparently not. I know this, because I sent a paper to our Party Board suggesting that we might take a look at these revolutionary new ideas being followed by those who are succeeding, where we are not. I did not suggest anything as radical as actually doing this. Just that we should look at it. I know it was discussed (and rejected with some muscularity) as I read about it, not always in the most admiring terms, in these and other pages where the Party, usually with delicious irreverence, exchanges its views. Fine. It probably was a dotty idea. But here’s the thought. Imagine if this was one of our new members suggesting an idea for us to consider and they heard nothing more except rumours of its death, without even an acknowledgement, let alone an explanation or reply. Would they consider us, a Party open to new ideas? Or one defensively closed against them?

Dangerous idea 4. In Estonia and Lithuania they are thinking ambitiously about the application of blockchain and bitcoin to public services, and what these innovations can do to deliver greater efficiency, transparency and citizen power. Why aren’t we?

I have concluded that all this is so, not because we have really lost our intellectual curiosity, but because of the dead hand of Brexit. I admit second place to no-one when it comes to fighting for the best Brexit we can, and preferably no Brexit at all. I am proud of our Party’s clear position on this defining issue. But is our obsession with Brexit in danger of distracting us from what kind of country we want Britain to be, whether in the EU or out of it? For me the heart of liberalism is our crusade for the empowered citizen, not the powerful state. This is a radical disruptive and insurgent idea. But where is it? When did you last – at Conference or outside it – hear us arguing that case, debating new ideas to make it happen or proselytising it before the court of public opinion?

Look, for instance at this week’s resolution on the Grenfell Tower tragedy. The answer to the abuse of tenants in places like at Grenfell, is to give them the power and support to manage themselves through tenant’s co-operatives. I thought this was our policy. So where is it?

Answers on a post card please – preferably post marked Bournemouth and dated next week.

See you there.

Citizen’s Britain


By Paddy Ashdown – Pages 14 – 22

(Here are) two pictures of how Britain could develop, each dependent on the decisions we take. They are not intended as an exercise in futurology; their purpose is to highlight some fo the major policy dilemmas we will face in the remaining years of this century.


1999 In Citadel Britain

“The danger of the past is that men became slaves. The danger of the future is that men may become robots.” – Erich Fromm

The Citadel

The classical facades and glittering glass skyscrapers of our capital, and our major cities, provide the offices of our financial empires -banks, insurance companies, pension funds, the headquarters of international enterprises. They also house our government departments, which guard the state. These form the tightly linked power centre of society, monopolising communications, information and control, giving high priority to security, both internal and external. The highest levels of finance, government and the security apparatus have used their access to advanced technology as the means of increasing their power at the expense of wider society, fusing their systems in recognition of their common concerns. This citadel of power is characterised by suspicion and secrecy, thinly veiled in public relations disinformation and evasive ministerial statements. Ministers and decision makers themselves are cut off from the grubby public. Official cars and a cordon sanitaire of functionaries stand between them and the slashed seats on the underground, the graffiti and faeces in the underpass and the pavement strewn with hamburger boxes. For them, through the tinted (and discreetly reinforced glass) of the 1999 equivalent of the Daimler Sovereign, the world looks different. Nationalistic in its stance towards the world, Citadel Britain nevertheless adopts opportunistic policies within the global economy, seeking only the highest short term gains from international investment and trade.

Screwdriver Industry

Although the economy still produces rich profits for some, Britain’s industrial base has continued to shrink. Those industries which thrive on high technology, creative innovation and adaptive skill have declined. Because education and training have been neglected, Britain has not been able to keep pace with competition from America, Western Europe, Japan or the newly industrialised countries (NIC). More and more products with high capital input, high skills and high added value are being imported. British industry is characterised by assembly plants, where workers with few skills and little training do a screwdriver job for overseas companies or local firms. In our low productivity economy, workers’ standards of living and skills lag behind those of other countries, as does the quality of their products. Britain competes for investment with the newly industrialising countries of the Third World. It tries to attract new plants from overseas companies looking for weak planning controls, weak trade unions and workers willing to undertake long hours for low pay. British industry is distinguishable from the rest of Europe by poor training, low skills, low investment, poor working conditions, continuing high overtime and an archaic management style.

Rent a Mop Services

As the gap between rich and poor has widened, the rich can afford to pay for more personal services. Overall unemployment has fallen, but there are pockets where labour shortages persist. Low pay is very common, especially in the service industries. More households have nannies,nurses, maids, cooks, cleaners and gardeners. The leisure industries, in particular, employ casual labour on a large scale. Few of the people in these categories get paid enough to meet their basic needs, but they are able to claim means-tested benefits to bring them above the poverty line.

Just as public services have been privatised, so the largest sector of employment has become private services. The scope for productivity increases in this sector is so low that firms can compete and be profitable only by employing short term part time casual labour. Most of those in this casual sector do not have pension rights, sick pay, holiday pay or redundancy protection. Typically, these workers are married women or young people living with their parents, since wages are insufficient and too unreliable for the ‘main earner’ in a household.

Private Life

Citadel Britain boasts of family life as its centrepiece, and claims as its foundation the self-reliant, self-responsible household each in its own ‘castle’. But behind the security-locked front doors all is not so rosy. Ordinary families experience a good deal of stress during their working lives and increasing anxiety and fear as old age advances. Unable to afford insurance against the hazards of disability, and lacking the support of public services, the growing elderly population increasingly depends on the next generation for help and support. The burden falls unfairly on women expected to give unpaid assistance, or take their parents in, while still trying to sustain the part-time earnings on which household income depends.

The strain on mental and physical health is considerable, and the social costs are high. Women feel themselves increasingly subordinate, excluded and exploited; their paid and unpaid labour is required, yet they are not getting their share of power or income in Citadel Britain.

Meanwhile, whilst the majority of opera, concerts, art galleries and theatre can only survive with the patronage of business for the benefit of the few, the vast majority in Citadel Britain are wholly in the grip of the ‘Jumbo culture’. There is little reading and almost no access to conventional culture for the ordinary person. All of these are replaced by the surrogate of soap operas, in which there is an almost ritualised national preoccupation.

Public Perils

Every city has its deprived areas, where the poor and dispossessed live. Despite the apparent general prosperity, a significant minority have been left out. Black people in particular (survey after survey shows that they have lower paid jobs and poorer housing) are disproportionatly numerous among the poor who depend on state benefits and state services for their living. Although there are skill shortages in many areas, unemployment in these districts remains high because whole households are unable to afford to work.

High travelling and child care costs combine with low pay and means tested benefit withdrawal, to make it impossible for such people to improve their situation. Many of them feel that their only alternative is fiddling, hustling and crime.

As a result state officials maintain a brooding and coercive presence in these areas. Employment officials try to enforce low paid work under threat of benefit withdrawal; taskmasters supervise ‘workfare’ schemes for cleaning streets and public buildings; offenders are engaged in ‘punishment in the community’, doing similar tasks, monitored through electronic tags. All residents carry identity cards; relations with officials are tense and volatile; community relations are hostile; curfews for the young are in force; while the police are seen as protecting some, they are regarded as persecuting others. Coercion and control are part of the experience of daily life.

All over the country, the public environment has become shabby, down at heel and dangerous. Public transport is so unreliable, comfortless and risky that it is used only by the poor, while roads are congested and private motorists live with endless delay and frustration. The vulnerable avoid using all public amenities and increasingly stay behind locked doors at night. Some of the young and robust find expression for their frustration and surplus energy in loutish, drunken and violent outbursts. The environment is polluted, crime rates are high; the quality of public resources, public health and public behaviour continue to sink.


The government of Citadel Britain is built on its outdated political system. The concentration of power in Whitehall is very convenient and whichever political party is in power uses it to maintain its grip on authority. For many years Parliament has been used to acting as a servant of the executive, ensuring that the government of the day gets its way. The power of the state to control the release of information and to crack down on dissent is greatly aided by the absence of a Statute of Rights and an enfeebled official opposition which, willing to wait its turn for power, always plays its politics by the conventional rule book. Meanwhile, more and more citizens are disillusioned with the political choices available to them and turn out has fallen consistently at elections to the point where Parliament has decided to make voting compulsory. Nevertheless, the standing of Parliament continues to fall in the public esteem.

Regionally, too, Britain has become a nation of citadels. Many within the citadel walls, especially in the south and east, enjoy security and prosperity. Many more are outside, banging at the gates to get in.


1999 In Citzens’ Britain

“Some people see things that are and ask themselves ‘Why?’. I dream things that never have been and ask myself ‘Why not?’ ” -Aeschylus

Democratic Society

In Citizens’ Britain, it is the people’s homes in all their rich if untidy diversity, which have become the real centres of power. Information technology has not been used to concentrate power but to disperse it. Government has taken active steps to give all citizens access to new communications systems, giving people more control over their own lives and over the organisations which influence them. Decision makers, both in government and out of it have recognised that the best structure for managing and governing is one which does not concentrate power but disperses it, and enables a teamwork rather than ‘top-down’ approach. Workers have more knowledge and power in their workplace. Many own their own jobs and are self employed. Every person owns an economic stake in the nation’s economy, through a universal share ownership programme, the Citizens’ Trust. Similarly, all citizens have a share in the ownership of the privatised utility industries which serve their needs. Citizens participate more fully in government. Emphasis is on openness and rights of access, on sharing information, not guarding it; on discussion not secrecy. A reformed legal system gives each citizen on equal access to justice, with a Statute of Rights to protect freedoms. Internationally, Britain, an active participant in an increasingly integrated Europe, is seen as a promoter of constructive co-operation. We enjoy good relations with Eastern Europe, many of whose nations have taken affiliated status with the EEC. We are also leaders in international moves to solve global problems such as environmental destruction, disease and famine.

Adaptive Industry

British industry is adapting to new conditions through the benefits of political commitment to education and training. Taking its lead from Europe, Britain has invested in a crash programme to improve standards, especially in higher and adult education. Many people retrain or ‘up-skill’ twice or more in their working lives. Education has moved away from early specialisation to establishing a broad base on which specialist skills can be built. Distance learning, especially through the use of information technology, has become far more widespread, particularly in higher and adult education. There is a thriving high technology sector of industry. A skilled workforce earns high wages through producing good quality products.

The labour process is much more varied and flexible in Citizens’ Britain. In many enterprises, a relatively small core of permanent headquarters staff manage the work of employees who are dispersed, some working on a self-employed basis from their own homes and some in small decentralised units. This is not simply to save costs; it also gives workers greater autonomy and a better quality of life. Men and women are more able to share unpaid household work and child care, and both work part-time when there are major caring duties to share. People place a higher premium on adequate pay with adequate leisure than on high pay for long hours. Quality of life has become just as important as large wage packets. Indeed emphasis has shifted from overall levels of pay to a greater concern with net levels of disposable income. With more frequent retraining, the idea of sabbatical periods away from full time employment has become more accepted.

Income Security and Employment

As part time work increases, and a variety of employment contracts develops, the rights and protection of those workers becomes a matter of concern. Employers and trade unions value these ‘irregular’ as well as regular workers, and seek to advance their interests. The government adopts an income maintenance system which encourages part time work and flexibility – a Basic Income, which gives security to each individual. Although this seems controversial at first, (because it guarantees a tax-free income to each citizen irrespective of work or marital status) it is soon recognised as encouraging enterprise, self-employment and a rational use of technology and human energies. It also provides an income for periods of training and advanced education. The Basic Income gives unskilled workers far better opportunities and incentives in the labour market than a means-tested benefits system. Every citizen also receives an annual, if at first limited, dividend from the shares held in a Citizens’ Unit Trust and in the privatised utility industries. They understand that clean water and unpolluted air are essential to their own health and that of their children. Meanwhile, conditions of work, security of employment and pay bargaining are increasingly seen to be protected better through employee rights and profit sharing than through trades union rights and government legislation. Most workers in Britain have a share in the ownership of the firms in which they work.

A Healthy and Caring Society

In Citizens’ Britain people are concerned about quality of life, and not just about quantity of material possessions. They want to live a healthy and fulfilled life, to take an interest in what they consume and in self care. They use information technology to monitor their own health, and expect professionals and experts to act as advisors and consultants, rather than taking all decisions for them.

As people live longer, the proportion of elderly and disabled citizens rises. Neither the traditional ‘solution’ of institutional care nor the alternative of unpaid family care is acceptable. People with disabilities (of whatever age) are not willing to be ‘put away’ in hospitals, nor to be cut off from contact with their community. And married women, whose skills are in demand for paid employment, want choices which extend beyond low-paid menial work in institutions or accepting the assumption that they will be full time unpaid carers in the family home. So new approaches to care, which respect the autonomy and aspirations of people with disabilities, which support the carers, and which allow women the same opportunities for participation in society as men, are encouraged by state policy.

Community and Citizenship

In Citizens’ Britain, people increasingly recognise the importance of an active life as members of a community, and the value of shared resources. They prize their association with others in voluntary organisations, clubs and groups, and their membership of cultural and religious communities. They value good relations between races and faiths. Central and local government promote co-operation between citizens, providing communal facilities for a good quality of life. Environmental protection is a high priority, locally, nationally and in the international community.

Citizens have learnt to place a greater value on shared public amenities, allowing a better balance between private and public, owned and shared, quantity and quality. Public transport and public services are properly resourced, being recognised as a part of the common wealth and essential elements in a good society. It is recognised that the question ‘Who owns?’, which dominated the debate about public services and utility industries in the 1980s, is less relevant than the question ‘How is the citizen served?’. A single powerful watchdog body acts as guardian of the consumer interest where monopolies (state or private) or near monopolies operate in the public sector. Elsewhere consumer power, buttressed by rights to information, guarantees of quality and access to redress, dominates in the market place.

The need to protect and improve the environment is recognised as being central to all the decisions taken in Britain and millions of people spend part of their spare time helping to preserve our natural and cultural heritage.

Published by Fourth Estate Ltd – London 1989

An Essay to my Party Part I

An Essay to my Party on the eve of Conference

Part I

I am getting old. Like most old men I have a tendency to be grumpy and claim that things aren’t as good as they were in the old days. Please bear this in mind when you read this.

I was trained as a Commando officer so I don’t know any other means of tackling a challenge than fix bayonets and charge. I don’t really do subtlety. Please remember that, too when you read on.

I am an enthusiast, and have a tendency to paint in large shapes and bright colours. What follows is Gaugin, not Canaletto. Please make allowance.

When you read this please finally note that I have been a committed and passionate Liberal since a canvasser knocked on my door forty-five year ago and explained what we stood for. That day, I put on Liberalism like an old coat waiting for me in the cupboard and I have worn it ever since with pride – come what may.

In all those long years I have never glanced to right, left or centre for a better political home for my beliefs than our Party – and that remains the case still. So please understand, if the words which follow offend, they are written with love.

So, now you have been warned, here goes.

There are good things – really good things – to celebrate as we gear up for Bournemouth. We have a multi talented Leader who deserves our whole-hearted support. We have 12 MPs in place of 9 before the last election. We still retain thousands of new members and we are winning local Council by-elections at a good rate.

But – didn’t you just know a ‘but’ was coming? – nevertheless, the biggest danger for our Party at the seaside next week lies in glossing over the existential challenges which now face us. Unless we are prepared to be realistic about where we are, return to being radical about what we propose, recreate ourselves as an insurgent force and re-kindle our lost habit of intellectual ferment, things could get even worse for us.

Consider this. We are the Party who, more than any other, represents the progressive centre in our country (I prefer centre left, but I am not in the business of dividing here). That space has never been more empty, voiceless, vacant and uncontested than it was in the last election. And yet far from filling that gap and mobilising those in it, our vote went down to an even lower base. Not in my life time have their been conditions more favourable for a Lib Dem advance in a General Election. But we went backwards.

Now, with Labour and the Tories spinning way to the extremes, Britain is polarised as never before and the vast sea of people who share our beliefs, find themselves voiceless and silent.

Not all of them, sadly, are Liberal Democrats or want to be. Many belong to other Parties and many, many more do not belong to any party – or wish to, with party politics as they are.

Politics in Britain is unsustainable in its present state. The moderate, majority voice of our country, which usually determines elections, cannot be left so unrepresented. If we cannot, or will not be the gathering point for these, the new left out millions, then who will and what are we for?

Twice before in our recent history, others have moved onto our ground– once with the SDP and once in the early days of New Labour. Both times we reached out to these new forces and prospered as result. These days we look hostile to this possibility. We will be at very grave danger indeed if this should happen again in the near future and we stand aloof.

Our reluctance on this front does not just threaten our future. It also contributes to the disfigurement of our national politics. If we are to fulfil our historic role at a moment when liberalism is more at threat than ever in my life, then we have to be less tribal, more inclusive and more willing to engage others than we have sometimes seemed in recent years.

What does this mean?

I do not oppose local electoral deals where they make sense. But I do not think they are the answer. These so-called “progressive Alliances” are almost always anti-Tory and always end up denying voter choice. Political partnerships work best when they are for something better, rather than against something worse.

Any attempt to create a new framework for our politics should begin with widening the space in which we can make common cause with people who share our values, rather than harping on about the things that separate us.  We should not find it impossible to work with individuals in other parties and none (including, yes even Tories) who share some cardinal principles we jointly believe in – say, creating a green economy, tackling the gap between rich and poor, working to reform our political system, rejecting isolationism and sustaining a market system which serves the individual not the economically powerful.

If this strategy is to work for us, it must be confidently led from the top, not just mildly tolerated at the top.

Here’s a proposition.

Why could Lib Dems not lead in launching a series of studies which brings in those of other Parties and none to make proposals on some of the big issues of our time, as Norman Lamb has done so brilliantly on Health. Issues such as creating a green but successful market based economy; sorting out the fabulous mess of our broken constitution; spreading wealth in the age of robotics and artificial intelligence; adopting a foreign and defence policy more appropriate to our fractured, unravelling world– I am sure you can think of others. This worked well for us in the past; the Cook/Maclennan Commission paved the way to the great surge of devolution of the late 1990s; the Lib Dem sponsored Dahrendorf Commission on Wealth Creation and Social Cohesion in 1995 gave us great credibility and a host of new ideas.

The Chinese philosopher Sun Tze said “Strategy without tactics is the longest way to victory. But tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat”. Winning by-elections and distributing Focuses are a tactic, not a strategy. Our strategy should be to do whatever we can, whenever we can and wherever we can to work with all those individuals in other parties and none, who share our values and want to join us on the great enterprise of re-shaping and renewing our broken politics.

Consider next, this.

When I joined our Party we had been, for the best part of a hundred years, a radical and insurgent party and remained so right up to the moment when being insurgent became popular – when we became the Government. Now people see us, not as a force for change but as a part of the establishment. Whether we could have been insurgents in Government is a question for history. The question for now is; there is a hunger for change out there, why don’t we any longer look or sound like the people to bring it?

There may be many reasons for that. But the biggest one is that we are doing very little new thinking and producing very few new ideas.

The party I joined all those years ago our Party was a ferment of debate and new thinking – that was one of the reasons, inspired by Jo Grimond, that I joined. Some of our ideas were mad, others were silly and a few were mildly embarrassing. But many, many of the things we pioneered, like green politics (with the Greens), devolution, fair voting, internationalism, gender equality (with Labour), gay rights (without them), sensible drug laws (without me at the time, I am ashamed to say) are now common place and unquestioned in today’s political life. So here is a question. Can you name one big, dangerous idea we Lib Dems have produced since 2015? Vince’s speech of last week began the process of thinking big again. We should pick up his lead and start coming up with our own new, dangerous ideas – and debating them at Conference.

Tomorrow I will suggest four dangerous ideas for starters.

Here is Ashdown’s second rule for the internet age: “If you see a business model that takes no account of the new technologies, you see a business model which is failing”.

This applies to most newspapers, some old fashioned businesses and nearly all political parties.

Conventional political parties remain immovably stuck in the 1870s.

They are vertical hierarchies, when the paradigm structure of our time is the network.

They are high overhead, narrow membership, high cost of entry, limited participation organisations, while successful social and commercial structures are based on a low overhead, mass membership, low (or no) cost of entry and instant participation model.

They are festooned with lumbering committees and a tangle of elections which pretend to provide accountability and transparency, but actually obscure both, when direct instant democratic participation is the rule for the most successful modern civil society movements and political structures (think Cinque Stella, Momentum, More United and En Marche).

In order to play a full part, today’s conventional political party requires its members to be obsessives prepared to spend evenings in damp village halls and bright September days when they could be on the beach, in stuffy conclaves at faded seaside resorts, passing obscure amendments to policies no-one will ever hear of again. But most ordinary people nowadays conduct their internet lives, not through consuming singular obsessions, but through multiple daily transactions which mix what they believe in, with earning a living and having fun.

Political Parties, as institutions are dying (except those who have in some form or another adopted the internet in their internal structures, like Momentum and Labour). This is one of the reasons why our politics seems so bewildering and senseless to ordinary people and voters.

Our Party is in an extremely hazardous condition. Unless we do something radical and different soon, our old members will become disheartened and our new members will fade away.

Here is my proposition. The Party Board should commission a study which would report in short order (but before the end of July) to investigate whether and if so how and in what time frame, the Lib Dems could be converted into a modern, internet based political organisation (, structured around a low overhead, low cost of entry, mass movement model in which a one person one vote internet enabled democracy, was the normal way of taking all our key decisions.

A Tale of two cities

A Tale of Two Cities

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. The opening lines of Dickens great book about London and Paris in the French Revolution, seem peculiarly appropriate this morning, as Theresa May drags her battered authority to meet newly triumphant President Emanuel Macron in a desperate bid to show that, despite her self-inflicted defeat, it is still “business as usual” in the Downing Street bunker.

Compare and contrast.

In Paris the mood is everywhere of renewal. In London the stale smell of stagnation and paralysis hangs over Whitehall and Westminster. President Macron, with his new majority in parliament is now in total command of what happens in his country. Mrs May is more the prisoner of her Government than its triumphant leader. He has a modern, European, globalist forward-looking vision which has set France on fire. She has ridden to disaster on a closed, isolationist, right wing tide in our country, which she now does not have the authority to control. He has beaten the nationalist right wing forces back into their heartlands. She has been forced to incorporate them into her Government. He has united France behind a movement for radical change built around the moderate voices of the nation. She has tragically and deliberately divided our country from the moment she became Prime Minster and forced us to a general election which has produced an outcome so polarised  between the political extremes, that the moderate progressive voice of Britain has been crushed into silence. He has a wide selection of young, professional new comers to choose his Government from. She can only choose from the narrow pool of those stale talents who share responsibility with her for the disaster in which they have landed our country – she must even submit to bringing back a bitter enemy like Michael Gove, who she threw out only nine months ago. She depends on a Parliament which is dominated by the old failed Parties of the past, he has one which has pushed aside the worn out and exhausted structures of France for something more in tune with the modern internet age. He is head one of the two nations which now steer the European Union, whose economic growth is now running faster than the US. She is a poor friendless supplicant at the gates, in charge of an economy dominated by the dark clouds of piled up debt and stagnant productivity.

None of this is to say that the Macron enterprise will work. Maybe today will turn out to be “never again glad confident morn”, to misquote Robert Browning on the failure of another Liberal giant. But after three terrifying years in which the politics of “peoples movements” have brought forth the misshapen, the ugly, the divisive and the preposterous, is it not refreshing that we now have proof they can produce something positive and hopeful too? If, as I think true, the peoples of the advanced Western democracies are aching to sweep away the old failed structures of our politics, is it not inspiring that this can be done in favour of a change which reaches out to decency and the realities of our internationalist future, rather than back to isolationism and the dark forces of division?

That our election failed on all counts to help our country out of its current mess, is now obvious. That it has ended up by polarising us between a proto-UKIP Tory party and an neo-socialist Labour Party, both of whom have abandoned any pretence to appeal to their centrist traditions, is unquestionable. Nowhere is this more powerfully or painfully illustrated than in the most important single fact of the 2017 election – that the moderate, decent, progressive centre of British politics, the place where elections up to now have always been won and lost, now lies largely empty, voiceless and waiting for someone to claim it.

So how can we replicate what Macron has done in France?

Not easily, I fear.

No single person amongst those elected last Thursday has yet the stature – or perhaps the courage – of Emanuel Macron. It is a terrible indictment of our politics that the most powerful figureheads of the progressive centre our country needs so badly have either, like David Miliband chosen for the moment to pursue their careers elsewhere, or like Nick Clegg, been rewarded for a lifetime of putting country before party, by being kicked out at the ballot box. I do not think that we can replicate an SDP type, Macron coup de theatre in Britain. Nor do I support, except as an occasional sideshow, the so-called “Progressive Alliance” which depends more on mathematics, than principle and ideas. I believe in partnership politics. But partnerships for something constructive which we want, not just opportunistic alliances against something we hate.

Nor is it, I believe, reasonable in these turbulent times to expect any but the very bravest to leave their tribe and join another.


We probably need something which looks more like a process, than an event. Would it really impossible, for instance for politicians of the progressive centre from all parties and none, to get together and pledge to work across party divides, so as to prosecute and protect say five or six principles which we believe essential to our country as it passes through these dangerous convulsions.

I am an impatient man. I would like to move faster. Time is short for a British en marche, with another election potentially round the corner. But getting started with the possible, is probably more useful at this moment, than wasting time puzzling about perfection. Mao Tse Tung was once asked by a follower why, since his Long March was a thousand miles, they had to start that afternoon? He replied, that because it was a thousand miles, they had to start that afternoon.


Where are we after surprise Thursday?

Politics after the 2017 Election.

Saturday 10 June

Some things are clear as the smoke begins to drift way after the election – more can be sensed as dim shapes in the murk which, for the moment, remain more hinted at than certain.

Here is what can solidly be said

  1. This was the most unusual and unpredictable election of our time.
  2. That may indicate that last Thursday presages a real change to the structures and habits which have dominated our elections for the last 30 years.
  3. Most pundits claim that politics has reverted to the old two party system of the immediate post-war period. Others (me amongst them) disagree. Though the results have a retro look about them, there is no evidence that Britain below the surface has returned to the bi-polar politics of our fathers and grandfathers. The multiplicity of opinions, aspirations, wishes, ambitions and world views which are so much a function of this pluralistic internet age, remain today as much a feature of life in Britain as they are in any other Western democracy.
  4. The election results were binary, not because Britain has suddenly become binary, but because of the peculiar overlay of the Brexit in-out choice and the failure of those who represent the now voiceless centre in politics to reach out beyond their huddled tribes with a proposition capable of motivating the moderate voices in Britain in the way that Jeremy Corbin did for his neo-socialism.
  5. Mrs May was widely praised before the election for miraculously healing the chasm everyone which knows lies at the heart the Tory party. But British elections have an extraordinary habit of finding out our leaders’ flaws and weaknesses. In what will go down as the most catastrophic election campaign in history for a ruling Party, our Prime Minister for all her virtues of straight-forwardness and patriotism, was revealed, not as the re-incarnation of Margaret Thatcher, but as brittle, bad tempered, tunnel visioned and extraordinarily insensitive to her own deficiencies and the limits of her power.
  6. Nothing better illustrates these personal faults more than her decision yesterday to try to hang on to power when her continuation in Downing Street is now, not, as she preposterously claims, the means to see us through this crisis, but the greatest single road block to that happening. As the largest party, the Conservatives’ right to form the next Government is clearly established under the practices of our Constitution (our essential sheet-anchor in stormy times such as these). But the Tories go beyond the sensible limits of those rights if they think they can propose to our Parliament (or should suggest to our Queen) a legitimate Government headed by a Prime Minster who has now, not a shred of democratic legitimacy left.
  7. Mrs May has done her country, her Party, and herself no favours by trying to hang on. On the surface this appears to be an act which combines wilfulness, irrationality and the fact that she and the small cabal around her have completely lost touch. But is there another explanation for her seemingly perplexing and self-damaging behaviour? Could her Cabinet colleagues, perhaps headed by the ambitious Philip Hammond, have persuaded her that, since a Party election for yet another PM unelected by the country, would be damaging, divisive and destabilising, she must hang until they find someone by acclamation to  crown seamlessly in her place (Mr Hammond himself perhaps)?
  8. One thing however is beyond speculation. The yawning divisions in the Tory party are now laid bare. The humiliation (and danger) of begging for support from the DUP will go unnoticed and unfelt by the hard-right, hard-Brexiteers who now dominate the Mrs May’s proto-UKIP Tory Party. For them the DUP are soul-mates in policy, attitude and world view; they are welcome re-enforcements to the right wing cause – and perhaps even to an historical return to the good old days of the Conservative and Unionist Party (did you notice Mrs May used just this phrase yesterday?).
  9. But for the left of the Tory Party (as also for all who recognise the dangers to the Northern Ireland peace process), playing hard-line Ulster unionism into our already highly volatile post election political crisis, will be total anathema. Many of us have long speculated that, what Robert Peel called the “battle for the soul” which split the Tories over the Corn Laws 200 years ago, is being replicated by the issue of Europe today. We are about to discover if this is so, as Tory leaders try desperately to stop the blood letting from the wounds laid bare by Mrs May’s leadership and the pressures of a Tory/DUP partnership in a hung Parliament. Ruth Davidson the heroine leader of the Scottish Conservatives and Anna Soubry the narrowly elected Tory MP for Broxtowe appear as harbingers for this.
  10. It is not in any way to diminish Mr Corbyn’s remarkable successes in this election campaign (and before) to warn that, nevertheless for Labour, these results flattered to deceive. Many of us have been warning for two or more years that Jeremy Corbyn (like Bernie Sanders in the US) would have much wider traction than most of the tabloids and all the  Tories hoped. He has an attractive, straightforward and decent personality which has been re-enforced an appealingly under-stated public style (in sharp contrast to Mrs May). The Corbin team fought a campaign which showed real mastery of the arts of mobilisation and sectoral politics, especially when it came to using social media and targeting the youth vote.
  11. One thing will not be the same again in future elections. Political Parties will never again ignore the young vote or treat them with complacency. This is Mr Corbyn’s permanent legacy and it is a proud one.
  12. Nevertheless and withall, the hard fact is that even at the top of their game and despite the manifest and many targets presented to them by Mrs May and the Tories these last seven years, Mr Corbyn’s Labour Party still could not win – or even get close to winning. This is not a definitive verdict – and does not necessarily mean they cannot win in the future. It is only to observe that, despite all Labour’s successes in the last five weeks, there is no evidence yet that with these policies and these people, Labour can carry the wider country in the future. Indeed there is much evidence that they cannot. This presents moderate Labour MPs with a difficult dilemma. Do they, like Chukka Ummuna, gulp down as much humiliating crow as necessary to re-ingratiate themselves with those they have excoriated, in order to secure a front bench position in a Party which, all rational argument says, will never have power. Or do they, like Chris Lesley tell the truth that Labour is still far away from power and likely to remain so, unless and until it can make a wider appeal to the centre ground.

Conclusion? This election has plunged our country into a crisis no-one saw coming. Finding a way through is going to prove very difficult, especially given the deep polarisation of our politics, which, despite the ballot box results, still imposes a binary choice on a nation which remains at its heart deeply pluralist, multi-layered and multi-faceted. Nowhere is this more powerfully or painfully illustrated than in the most important single fact of the 2017 election – that the moderate, decent, progressive centre of British politics, the place where elections up to now have always been won and lost, now lies empty, voiceless and waiting for someone to claim it.



6 February 2017

Paddy Ashdown welcomes the Government’s promise, at last, to maintain and support Yeovil’s full capacity to manufacture and design helicopters.

Like many others I have become increasingly concerned about the risk that Leonardo’s Yeovil site would drift towards a maintenance and assembly facility only. For this reason I have been pressing the Government for six months now to make it clear that they are committed to maintaining and supporting the full range of skills at Yeovil, so that we can continue to design and manufacture the nation’s helicopters.

I therefore greatly welcome the answer I received today in the Lords from Government Minister, Lord Prior in which he promised:

“The capacity to manufacture helicopters in the UK is extremely important. The MoD is entirely committed to that. We will be publishing a refresh strategy later on in the year which … will make that clear”

Note to editors:

Paddy Ashdown asked:
“The Minster is aware that a Defence Industry Strategy.. paper will be published later this year. Is he aware that if, like the Industrial Strategy published last week, that document does not contain a clear commitment by the Government to maintain and preserve our national ability to design and manufacture helicopters… then that capability will be lost, along with hundreds of jobs in Yeovil and a key national aero-space industrial asset. Everyone else recognises that danger. Why is the Government blind to it?”

Lord Prior of Brampton is the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

For further details please contact Theo Whitaker – 07884145397 /

Tuition fees Yorkshire Post 12 December 2010


Tuition fees Yorkshire Post 12 December 2010


There is a cartoon by the most famous World War I cartoonist, Bruce Bairsnworthy , which shows two British Tommies, covered in mud and grime, holding onto their helmets while sheltering in a shell crater. The hole is full of water and there explosions on all sides and shells falling all round. One Tommy turns to the other and says “If you know of a better ‘ole – get to it!”


The two Parties in our coalition Government must feel a little like that as the House of Lords today does what the Commons did last week and debate the issue of tuition fees the second week.


Things are very tough – especially for my colleagues in the Lib Dem. But there ain’t no better ‘ole to be in. Everywhere else is worse than where they are now.


There are two central questions which need to be answered in this debate.


The first is one primarily it seems for the Liberal Democrats. Why have we changed (some people, especially some students, would use a stronger word such as “betrayed”) the policy we stood on in the Election? I have to say this is a little unfair, since every Party has changed the tuition fees policy they stood on at the Election. The Tories went into the election opposed to tuition fees and are now in favour because of the economic crisis. The Lib Dems did the same and now find they have to change because of the coalition. And Labour went into the last election in favour of fees and now oppose them because of the opportunities this offers to bet up on the Government.


But then politics isn’t fair, so it’s the Lib Dems who have to answer for their u turn, not the others. I think this is probably so because our MP’s and Leader were seen signing those pledges and the point is somehow made that if its in the manifesto, that’s one thing, but a personal pledge is something different – something special. I think this is a bit Jesuitical. If its in your manifesto and someone asks you to sign a pledge saying the same thing, how can you say no. Whether it was right for it to be in the Lib Dem manifesto, of course is a different point – but then apply that to the other Parties who have also done u turns, in the same way. I don’t see people protesting about Labour’s “betrayal” but if breaking your word is the sin that’s getting people upset then surely this should apply to them, too?


The second point to make is that Labour abandoned their manifesto support for tuition fees, not because they needed to reach a compromise with another party in order to provide the country with strong government at a time of crisis. Labour didn’t want to work with anyone else if they couldn’t govern alone. They preferred to run from their responsibility to clean up the mess they had created. No, they changed their election stance on tuition fees, not for reasons of national interest, but for reasons of opportunism.


The promise Lib Dems made at the election was “If we become the Government, we will get rid of tuition fees”. But we are not the government. We have a coalition Government. And that means two Parties working together in the national interest. And that means compromising with each there. In a Coalition neither Party gets everything it wants. They both have the chance to put into operation some of the policies they like and some they don’t. How could it be otherwise? Both can honour some of their promises, but at the price of giving up others.


And if that’s not a price you are prepared to pay, then forget partnership politics. Forget, too a strong Government with a clear majority at a time of economic crisis. Forget a lot of other things as well. Like economic stability; low interest and mortgage rates; public expenditure choices made by an accountable Government, rather than unaccountable markets. And jobs – lots and lots of jobs.


The truth is that thanks to the mess the last Government made, we don’t have any choice now. We have to take drastic action to start living within our means. And that includes our Universities too. Every other public service is getting a cut of 25%. If they don’t bear their share, the pain for everyone else will have to be greater.


That leaves us with a choice. Either cuts which will ruin our Universities for ever, or ask students who will benefit in later life to pay something back when they do.


I am clear which f those two choices is in the nations interest.


Which leave the final question.


Are the Government’s proposals for tuition fees fair.


I do not condemn people who demonstrate in support of their views. I’ve done a bit of that myself in my time. And I suspect that demonstrating students condemn the violence we have seen quite as much as everyone else. Nevertheless I do wonder whether all those demonstrating on the streets of our cities (and no doubt we will see them outside Parliament again tonight) know the actual details of what they are demonstrating against.


And if they do, then I have to ask why didn’t they demonstrate against Labour’s tuition fee scheme that we have at present? Because the new ones are far, far better. Like the current scheme, no-one will have to pay up front to go to university. They only pay afterwards IF their salary is more than £21,000 a year (£6,000 above the £15,000 which is the repayment threshold at the moment). And even then when they do pay, they will pay less – about a half less – than they do at present. And unlike at present the richest will pay most and the poorest least, which is not the case at the moment. And part time students, who pay now will not pay at all. And those from the very poorest families will get up to two years without any fee charges.


I understand about the issue of debt. And I don’t like it either. And I know its tough. But then, if we are going to get out of the mess we are in, it’s going to be tough on us all. And students, who have more to gain than most by pulling this country out of the dangerous place we are in now can’t be an exception to that.


I agree, this ‘ole ain’t comfortable. But I don’t know of a better – or a fairer – one to go to.



Student fees article Heffer Column Daily Telegraph 7 Dec 2010

Student fees article Heffer Column Daily Telegraph 7 Dec 2010


A Liberal MP, elected in the Liberal landslide of 1906, which also changed the face of British politics, wrote


“The people in between

Looked underdone and harassed

And out of place and mean

And horribly embarrassed.”


Hilaire Belloc was probably not describing the eternal difficulties of trying to occupy the center ground in British politics. But if he had been, he couldn’t have done it better, as my Lib Dem colleagues are finding to their discomfort.


Having said we believe in partnership politics we Liberal Democrats now have to show it can work. And in the process, wrestle with the fact that this is terra nova for us all. We are all having to invent new ways of doing things. We are all stumbling a bit in the dark.


This is difficult enough for those inside the coalition. Much more so for those reporting on it from outside, or trying to change the Government’s mind by exercising their democratic rights on the streets.


This is not going to be a smooth process or an easy one. There are going to be tough passages and inelegant moments. And, as on tuition fees at the moment, it is not always going to be a pretty sight. It was Bismarck who said “those who love sausages and respect the law, should take care not to watch either of them being made”. It turns out to apply – and in spades – to coalition politics, too.


Being the leader of a party in coalition is arguably the most difficult job in politics; you have to succeed in two key tasks ; holding the coalition together – and holding your party together at the same time. And this job is even more difficult if you happen to be the leader of the smaller party – then you get blamed for everything, as Nick Clegg is finding, as his opponents ordure is dumped upon his head (or, more literally, put through his letter box). It’s all becoming a bit French, with the Prime Minister taking the place of the French President hovering above the grubby scene with elegance and detachment. And the poor Deputy Prime Minister, like the French PM, taking the can for everything.


I think the last Liberal leader to have his effigy burnt in Whitehall, was Gladstone at the time of the murder of General Gordon. But I remember, myself being the target of quite a lot of abuse, albeit of a politer kind, when I argued that the right of abode should be given to Hong Kong passport holders; that a penny should be put on income tax for education; that we had to vote with a hated Conservative Government for the Maastricht Treaty and our European principles; that there should be intervention in the Bosnian war. So I know a little (a very little in comparison) what it is like.


I think Nick Clegg is dealing with the present situation with wisdom, skill, courage and an almost unbelievable degree of grace under fire.


He has recognised that, when it comes to holding his party together on this most difficult of issues, the process is as important as the outcome. He has listened (almost too much) to the views of his colleagues and, while stating his preference for voting for the student fee proposal, has kept the process open, even against derision and disbelief, until he is satisfied all the voices have been heard. The phrase “we agree to disagree” may have neither weight nor traction for those in our commentariat who like their politics instant, brutal and preferably bloody. But it is nevertheless one of the key phrases that lies at the heart of the British democratic tradition. And it is what the new politics of partnership has to learn if it is to have any chance of success.


I do not believe it likely that all Liberal Democrats will vote in the same lobby on student fees on Thursday. But then, I never have. Perhaps I wish it were otherwise. But I knew it never would be. And, however much they pretend to shock and scandal at their supposed discovery of this obvious fact, anyone worth their salt as a commentator on British politics should have known that, too.


Nick Clegg’s task has not been to seek to impose his will on his colleagues by coercion, as some seem to demand. That would never have worked. These are Liberal Democrats, who think for themselves, thank God. His achievement has been to bring them through this, united as a team, even if they cannot be united in the lobbies. To disagree without rancour.


Now, be honest, when, in our recent politics, did you see that before?


I admire him for this. I am pretty sure I couldn’t have done it half as well. And that’s good news for the Coalition, for the new politics of partnership and for strong government at a time of crisis.


There are some in and out of the Westminster village – and some more on the streets of our cities – who believe that the Liberal Democrats are the weakest link in this coalition, and think that, if they force us out, they can bring it all down. We aren’t and they won’t.


Whatever happens on Thursday, I don’t believe our Party unity will be weaker – it may, indeed even be stronger. That’s Nick Clegg’s achievement. And it’s a very big one.


The dividend for this will not be felt this month, next year, or even in the next two or three years. It will be felt at the next election. If by then, we have held our nerve, stuck to our guns and delivered good government at time of crisis, then British politics will have been changed for ever and the Lib Dems will be beneficiaries, not losers.


As for the substance of Thursday’s vote, that seems pretty simple to me.


The Lib Dems promised at the election, that if there was a Liberal Democrat Government we would get rid of tuition fees. But there isn’t a Liberal Democrat Government. So we had to negotiate an agreement with another Party. And its that agreement, subsequently endorsed by both the Parliamentary Party and the Party Conference, which we now have to honour.


We really would be a laughing stock – and deserve to be – if, having signed that agreement and internally endorsed it, we now run away from it.


All the more so given the merits of the policy itself.


There are three groups of stakeholders here: universities, taxpayers and graduates.


Universities will be better off; with revenues secured, our newer universities can plan ahead, confident of survival, while our elite universities will be stronger to compete in the global market place.


Taxpayers will be better off – as private payment increases, so the burden on the public purse decreases.


And graduates will be better off – particularly those on low earnings. With the threshold at which repayments start increased by £6,000, low earners will repay less, while those from the poorest households – those eligible for free school meals – will be assisted by our pupil premium and then get up to two years at university without any fees at all.


Sounds a pretty good deal to me.


Though, of course, as always, I respect the positions of my colleagues who don’t agree. But, Hilaire Belloc’s spirit please note, I do not intend to look “horribly embarrassed” about it.






Lib Dem Conference News of the World 21 Sep 2010

News of the World 21 Sep 2010


Liberal Democrats heading to Liverpool this weekend may be leaving the comfort zone of more familiar party conference venues; tranquil and sunny Bournemouth or the seaside glitz of Brighton. But we will be heading to a city where Liberals and Lib Dems have never been afraid of the tough choices that come with power and where, since the 1970s we have often run this great city and played a huge part in its regeneration.

While the antics of the Militant Tendency was Labour’s response to the Thatcher years, our Liberal Democrat colleagues in Liverpool learned long ago that politics is about winning power and using it effectively. And exactly the same principle applies today.

No doubt there will be ferocious discussions  – and dissenting voices, too in Liverpool. We are, after all liberals and democrats – so we are not afraid of debate and disagreement

But this will, over all, be a constructive Conference – and one one of the most important and exciting in our history.

My good friend Ming Campbell said there was a risk that we would become like the owner starts to look like their dog. But I think the opportunities ahead are far greater than the risks we face. Entering this coalition partnership has its dangers, of course. But it also presents us with a unique opportunity to give the people of the country we serve the benefits of the policies we believe in. And that’s what I came into politics for.

We made a promise to the British people at the last election that, if we had the opportunity to give the country stable Government and a chance for a new kind of politics, we would not shirk it. Honouring that promise was right. And it now gives us a chance of changing British politics for the better by working together in a way which we Lib Dems have always said we believe in and the British people have always said they wanted.

Both sides of this coalition seem to understand what is at stake. This goes far deeper than just the chemistry between Nick Clegg and David Cameron. We don’t obviously agree with the Tories about everything – but we do agree about the big things; the need to clean up the mess Labour left behind. The need to tackle the economic crisis. And the need to face the tough choices now, rather than ducking them until later, like Labour. There is real strength behind this partnership – and in my view, it will carry us through the very difficult times ahead as Britain fights its way out of recession in an increasingly competitive world.

We can count on Labour to stand on the sidelines and shout like superannuated students, just as they did in the 1980s. This tactic will benefit them as much now as it did then.

What the country needs and expects is a Government which is not afraid to lead, a team which is prepared to tackle the tough decisions and a new kind of politics which is about working together in the national interest, not the old yah-boo scratch-your-eyes out politics which has done us all so much damage in the past.

That’s the challenge Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems face in Liverpool. And I am very confident they will rise to it.

Paddy Ashdown


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