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banner Monday, 24 September, 2001, 19:40 GMT 20:40 UK
More special than ever?
With the "special relationship" figuring prominently in current international events, "Europe or America: which way ahead for Britain?" was a timely subject to feature on the Liberal Democrat conference fringe.

The line-up included New Yorker Bob Kiley, London mayor Ken Livingstone's transport commissioner, and Shirley Williams, a confirmed pro-European and Atlanticist who spends much of her time based in the US, lecturing and teaching politics.

And party leader Charles Kennedy, having earlier delivered from the conference platform his speech on the terrorist attacks in America, turned up to introduce the Independent's fringe debate.

He started with remarks which he revealed he had not put in that speech because "it would have looked as if I was simply trying to win an easy plaudit or two".

What he had not felt able to say was one of the reasons his party was right to go ahead with its annual conference amid all the speculation about cancellation was because "a free press in a free society comes to the party conferences".

He left as soon as he finished his introduction to an engagement with, appropriately enough, the US ambassador.

East Midlands MEP Nick Clegg told the meeting that since 11 September everyone had witnessed a far greater degree of transatlantic solidarity - which had been under severe strain before that date.

There had been a "well-founded fear" that the US was turning inwards and becoming increasingly isolationist, as its ripping up of the Kyoto treaty showed.

But the "huge political psychic shock to the body politic" of the terrorist attacks would now convince the US that international engagement was essential.

Baroness Williams later made a related point, saying that following the attacks the US now understood what is was to be "part of a vulnerable and suffering humanity".

Mr Clegg praised Europe as a place where life was "singularly and qualitatively better" than life in the US across a range of crucial indicators, including poverty, literacy and child mortality.

As for the UK, we lose more days in strikes than e European average; productivity is also significantly lower here than the European average.

And yet a "false stereotype" of the European social model - as red-tape bound, bureaucratic, economically deficient and incapable of running a market economy - somehow still existed.

It was plain that Europe had to be the way ahead.

Bob Kiley, imported by Mayor Livingstone from the US last year, had won spontaneous applause when his name was merely mentioned during the introductory roll-call of the meeting.

Inevitably, when he spoke he focused on the London Underground.

He repaid the applause by praising the Lib Dems as "true friends", saying that all the party's figures he had dealt with since arriving in the UK to do battle with the government over the Tube were worthy of the description.

The US, he told the meeting, evolved as a nation in a much looser way than the UK, making America the much more devolved place that it is today.

Even now, he pointed out, the majority of US tax revenues are raised at the local level.

The UK, in contrast, was only just starting to introduce the "intermediate level", somewhere between boroughs and national, central government. But he wondered, "Will London, and its mayor, be allowed to govern itself?"

The London mayor, for example, could not himself go and raise funds from the private sector for the capital's transport system.

"Just as America has the great isolationist streak, so too is the Treasury a control freak," he declared - and although the connection between the two was hard to spot, the audience didn't mind.

"We have a lot to learn from each other," was his final conclusion. "No one has a perfect purchase on life."

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