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Page last updated at 11:44 GMT, Sunday, 9 May 2010 12:44 UK

Lord Ashdown - 'We have to think again'

On Sunday 9 May Andrew Marr interviewed Lord Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats from 1988 until August 1999.

Please note 'The Andrew Marr Show' must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Lord Ashdown

ANDREW MARR:

The Liberal Democrats may not have polled anything like as well as they'd hoped, but they are now the party to be wooed, the party that everybody is watching. The paradox of doing poorly in terms of seats, but winning the jackpot in terms of Westminster leverage, is a remarkable one. If indeed it's actually true because if this is horse trading, they bring only a relatively moderately sized pony along to the paddock. They can probably afford a second General Election this year less easily than any of the main parties. But they can't get that much from the Conservatives either, so agonising choices. Welcome to the new politics. I'm joined now by Lord Ashdown, the man who was Lib Dem Leader during the last time we were talking about these things before Tony Blair got his landslide, of course, which pushed it all to one side. An agonising choice for your party, Lord Ashdown. What's your instinct as between the attractions of formal coalition and some kind of arrangement outside government?

LORD ASHDOWN:

Well Paddy Ashdown will do, Andrew. I've been on your programme before. We know each other. Look, I think the important thing here that people have to fasten on, to be fair I think Michael Gove fastened on it very clearly, is the country's in a crisis. The nation has spoken and in so far as we can determine what it's said, it's said you guys are … we're going to give none of you power to govern alone; you've got to learn the habit of working together. And it's very interesting indeed the way frankly all three parties, the tone of the discourse of British politics has changed in a way I never believed possible. I mean everybody is showing respect to others. We are now sitting down, we're talking. And what is the central proposition here? The central proposition is how do we provide a government of stability at a time of crisis? And I think what has to inform our discussions, and I think is informing our discussions on all sides, isn't the sectarian party interest but it's the national interest. Now we'll have different views about how the national interest can be secured, whether that's about political reform and electoral reform which we discussed, you discussed with Michael Gove; no doubt you will discuss with me as well. But what the package is - the electoral reform is part of that package, it's not separate from it, and I think all of the parties now involved in this are saying we hear the voice of the electorate, they've said something new, they have said they want a new kind of politics. We'll respond by having a new kind of dialogue, which I think has been very encouraging, and what we want to do is to secure the maximum stability in the present circumstances in the national interest to tackle the present crisis.

ANDREW MARR:

And the tone of voice may be good, but it doesn't seem to me that when it comes to the actual tough …

LORD ASHDOWN:

(over) Yeah, sure.

ANDREW MARR:

… the raw meat of the discussion, we're there yet.

LORD ASHDOWN:

No, but don't underestimate the tone of voice …

ANDREW MARR:

I don't, no.

LORD ASHDOWN:

… because that is something completely new. Frankly I didn't think it would happen in that way.

ANDREW MARR:

Yes.

LORD ASHDOWN:

And let me just pay tribute. I mean I admire the way the Conservative Party has responded to this. I think Mr Cameron showed a considerable degree of leadership. He'll have trouble in his own party. We all will. But this is a dialogue that is being conducted with respect, with congeniality. Now that isn't enough, of course we know that isn't enough …

ANDREW MARR:

(over) Right, well let …

LORD ASHDOWN:

… because there is a mountain to climb here.

ANDREW MARR:

Absolutely.

LORD ASHDOWN:

No-one can doubt that. And in the end this isn't going to be determined by how congenial we are, although that helps. It's going to be determined by those policy issues that are in that mountain that has to be climbed.

ANDREW MARR:

So if we look at a few of the knobblier bits of that mountain …

LORD ASHDOWN:

(over) Guess what you're going to say next.

ANDREW MARR:

Well let's start with the economy actually because you know we've had three or four weeks of an election campaign in which your party was saying that to make the Conservatives cuts at the timing and in the manner they want to do would risk the recovery, would cause terrible problems for people at the bottom of the heap. Almost whatever happens, you're going to have to let them go ahead and try anyway, aren't you?

LORD ASHDOWN:

Well I mean that's true to a certain extent, but here is the point. That we heard from Cameron's lips, it was a theme throughout the election, and we read in their manifesto that they believe they can do this without damaging the poor and without cutting frontline services. Now that's their promise, that's their commitment. I have some scepticism on whether in their figures they can do that. But if they say they can, the question for us is are we going to give them the opportunity to try and do that? Now there's a lot of other things in the package. For us, the centrepiece of the decisions that have to be taken is that they must be taken with fairness in mind. That's what has to inform this. I don't frankly, and I don't want to be … I'm not getting myself back in electoral … I don't see how you can use £6 million for the 2,000 … 3,000 richest families to relieve them from inheritance tax and meet that target. But the Tories have said we want to do this with fairness in mind. We want to preserve frontline services. I'd like to know how they're going to do it, but I don't think we should close the dialogue on that. If they say it, we should start off believing they can do it.

ANDREW MARR:

And the possibility of agreeing some kind of concordat between the parties. Without actually going into formal alliance with them, without Liberal Democrats sitting around the cabinet table, but allowing them to get certain things through in return for things that you want. That seems to be emerging as a possible way through.

LORD ASHDOWN:

I rather like the phrase that Michael Gove used a moment ago, and actually I think it's been used by his party leader as well; that you know there's a "spectrum" and you know there's a spectrum at one end which is maximus and there's a spectrum at the other end which is minimus. Can you reach agreement at some point in that spectrum? But that depends on, as you rightly said, on what are the policy issues. And we will go into this, and we are going into it, with the national interest at the front of our mind. But we have our own things we want to argue …

ANDREW MARR:

(over) Well I was going to say.

LORD ASHDOWN:

… because they are part of what we regard to be the national interest.

ANDREW MARR:

Another knob…

LORD ASHDOWN:

So that's where the trick is going to be.

ANDREW MARR:

Another knobbly part of the mountain therefore - electoral reform voting reform, as you call it. Having won a relatively small number of seats against expectations, do you think that you could possibly get proportional representation out of this system? Probably not.

LORD ASHDOWN:

Let me put it you … Let me put it to you a different way. You are and you must, and I don't complain about it, seeking to establish on your programme what our bottom lines are.

ANDREW MARR:

I am. (laughs) .

LORD ASHDOWN:

Let's be very clear.

ANDREW MARR:

Well spotted.

LORD ASHDOWN:

Let's be very clear. No-one is going to tell in open discussion. We have our bottom lines, but those are matters for negotiation and I'm not going to discuss them with you.

ANDREW MARR:

Sure.

LORD ASHDOWN:

You'll understand that because no-one goes into the negotiation telling their opposition what the bottom lines are.

ANDREW MARR:

Yuh.

LORD ASHDOWN:

But here is the central proposition. I don't believe that anybody can now establish a new government who is deaf to the calls from the British people for a reform to our political system.

ANDREW MARR:

(over) We saw the people demonstrating outside.

LORD ASHDOWN:

(over) And we saw them. And part of that is electoral reform, there can be no doubt. I mean the excuse so far made - let me just make this point - the excuse so far made for all the unfairnesses of the electoral system which have led to safe seats and been an instrument that has produced expenses scandals, etcetera, is that it produces strong government. Oh yes? How do we get to this position? You know the truth is you can get …

ANDREW MARR:

(over) But if I'm David Cameron and I say to you it's alright, we want equalised constituencies and we're prepared to go …

LORD ASHDOWN:

(over) Equalised constituencies has nothing to do with it. Equalised constituencies frankly is a way of getting rid of those constituencies that happen to vote Labour, which is the inner city ones. I mean there's a whole package here, you know - limitation on campaign funding …

ANDREW MARR:

(over) And your party … You know your party would go spare, frankly, if your leader did a deal …

LORD ASHDOWN:

(over) Yes, but …

ANDREW MARR:

(over) … did a deal which didn't involve some move towards changing the voting system.

LORD ASHDOWN:

Let's put it this way. Negotiations always begin with setting out your opening position. When the Conservatives said "our proposition to you is the same proposition that Jeremy Thorpe rejected when he was offered it by Edward Heath in 1974", I mean we have to assume that was an opening bargaining position. Surely the Tories, I'm sure the Tories realise things have moved on from then. Let's see what this gets to. But I think it is … You know you can't have the national interest serves in the future without cleaning up your politics and changing the political system, including the voting system. And there's an overwhelming view for that. And what we have seen, by the way, is that the famed first past the post system, which is supposed to produce strong government, doesn't even produce that.

ANDREW MARR:

Right, so …

LORD ASHDOWN:

So the price we pay for all the unfairness is a strong government. But if it doesn't do that even, perhaps we have to think again.

ANDREW MARR:

And what about your old dream of a sort of new Centre Left coalition of progressive parties working together - Labour and the Liberal Democrats?

LORD ASHDOWN:

(over) I hold to that.

ANDREW MARR:

It's gone, hasn't it?

LORD ASHDOWN:

No, I don't think it's gone, but depending on the decisions that are made in the next day, couple of days, it could be made more difficult. But you know that remains a dream.

ANDREW MARR:

But a lot of people would say that you know your party is instinctively closer to Labour than it is to the Conservatives.

LORD ASHDOWN:

I put it to … I said the other day that I thought the British electorate had invented a deliciously painful torture mechanism for the Liberal Democrats because our instincts go one way but the mathematics go the other and we have to make our decision. But the real question is this: that in making that decision what comes at the front of it is not my long-term dreams. It's the national interest at a time of crisis. And it is the sovereign command of the British people, which I must obey, which is you may not like these other guys, but we now require you to talk to them. And I think, if I may say, that Nick Clegg who initiated this - you know everybody that assumed that Nick Clegg, he wouldn't live up to his promise, he took an extremely brave decision - it's characteristic of the man, in my view - to say that that was the promise I made to the electorate. Even though it may not be in my party's interest, we may be able to get a better deal elsewhere, we put the national interest first …

ANDREW MARR:

(over) And you have to stick with it.

LORD ASHDOWN:

… and I'm going to honour my promise. And in honouring his promise, he's completely altered the whole dynamics of this.

ANDREW MARR:

Yuh. And because of the maths, to be clear a Lib-Lab deal is now not possible?

LORD ASHDOWN:

Look, again what comes first? The national interest. Could you run the country on the basis of you know a coalition made up of the DUP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens, the Alliance? I mean you have to ask yourself would such … however desirable that might be in terms of delivering the good governance of our country, would that provide the kind of stable government capable of taking strong decisions in a time of international crisis that I think comes first? Now …

ANDREW MARR:

You've posed the question and the answer is no.

LORD ASHDOWN:

Well I pose the question and the answer seems to me is self-evident. Now there may be other ways round this. What we're doing at present, and Nick has been very clear about it …

ANDREW MARR:

(over) Other ways round this?

LORD ASHDOWN:

Well I don't know. I mean there may be, I don't know. But what Nick is doing at present - and the phrase is I think extremely important - he said, "We are talking to the Conservatives, but we're listening to Labour." And I think it's important we should do that. Not that we're going to go here and there, but the central proposition is not from whom can we get the better deal. The central proposition is what combination serves the nation's interest in providing stable, long-term government? And by the way the discussion you had earlier on about early elections is extremely important to this.

ANDREW MARR:

Yes.

LORD ASHDOWN:

So stable, long-term stability in order to tackle the crisis. That is the central proposition. That's the spirit he's going into these talks in. And I think that's right and I think the nation will respond to it.

ANDREW MARR:

And Gordon Brown has to step aside now as the Leader …?

LORD ASHDOWN:

It's not our job to tell the Labour Party who's their Leader. I think I would say to you … I think I'd say this to you. That you know we all have to accept that Gordon I think fought a magnificent campaign coming from where he came from, but amongst his personal qualities, it seems to me, is not one that makes him an easy or a very able leader of a collegiate style government. Now that's a question for Gordon …

ANDREW MARR:

(over) Elegantly … elegantly put.

LORD ASHDOWN:

… and it's a question for the Labour Party. But no, I'm not saying … I'm not revealing a national secret …

ANDREW MARR:

Sure.

LORD ASHDOWN:

…by saying that isn't one of Gordon's skills.

ANDREW MARR:

Sure. Paddy Ashdown, thank you very much indeed.

INTERVIEW ENDS




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