Paddy's war on a sterile dichotomy;Opinion

5th February 1999 at 00:00
PADDY ASHDOWN followed an unusual route to party leadership. Most of his colleagues chose careers at the bar, or in the City or the research department of their chosen party. Ashdown joined the army, became a diplomat, worked for a helicopter company and experienced unemployment. Having unexpectedly won Yeovil at the general election of 1983, he equally unexpectedly found himself Liberal Democrat leader five years later, following the collapse of the LiberalSDP Alliance.

Ashdown's unusual background left him unencumbered by traditional party shibboleths. In education, he will be best remembered for two proposals - first, his 1997 election pledge to invest an additional pound;2 billion, funding it by an extra 1p in the pound on the basic rate of income tax; second, his call for "cradle to grave" education, based on "individual learning accounts", to supplement the principle of cradle-to-grave welfare. Yet, his real significance lies well beyond these manifesto proposals.

He has striven harder than any other modern political leader to overcome the sterile dichotomy between state and market in education. He shared the 1980s' reaction against the state but found the market an inadequate substitute, "a convenient cover forI centralisation and more restrictive control", a not inaccurate description of the education policies of Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

Most Liberals sought to overcome the statemarket dichotomy by championing the rights of local authorities. Ashdown, however, argued for the transfer of ownership of schools from local councils to the community. He proposed that non-profit-making, community-based groups contract with local education authorities to run the schools. Only admissions policies and standards would remain the province of LEAs.

Liberal Democrats, however, are a cussed lot; and Ashdown's proposal was defeated at the party's assembly at Brighton in 1996, largely as the result of a speech by Jackie Ballard, now Liberal Democrat MP for Taunton. She argued that, not only would community schools weaken local government, but also that they would not be viable in areas of educational deprivation, where community spirit was absent. When we bask in the warm glow of "community", we are all too often thinking of east Surrey, not east London.

A similar difficulty attends Liberal Democrat support for federalism. Ashdown fought hard for a Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. But is devolution compatible with the kind of massive attack on educational under-performance that Ashdown favoured; or would it not rather encourage a dissipation and diversion of effort away from the national policies needed to combat educational deprivation?

Ashdown's ideas, nevertheless, reflect a continuing Liberal concern, with echoes in the past and pointers toward the future. Lloyd George's New Liberalism of the years before the First World War sought to combine public control with private incentives in unemployment and health insurance. Today, New Labour seeks to mobilise both public and private provision so as to combat social exclusion.

We have probably not heard the last of Ashdown's ideas. Perhaps they will become Liberal Democrat policy at some future date. More likely, they will be adopted by the Government and proclaimed as the ark of the New Labour covenant.

"If one regards the existence of the Liberal party as a route to power, I agree that one is probably wasting one's time," John Maynard Keynes said, sadly, in 1928. The Liberals have, all too often, been a pressure group for ideas later taken up by others. Paddy Ashdown wanted to transform the Liberal Democrats from a party of protest into a party of government. Only time will tell whether he has succeeded.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at Oxford University. His book, Devolution In The United Kingdom, is to be published by OUP in April.

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