Amid the alcoholic haze of many old friends meeting, Tuesday turned out to be an exceptionally good day for the Liberal Democrat conference.
The media attention was on Charles Kennedy's hail or farewell speech, which it was depended on who you talked to. He is popular, and with good reason- an intelligent and thoughtful man. There is a lot of human sympathy for him, and his appearance was a major step in the healing process both for Charles himself and also for the party, which has been very bruised by the leadership problems since last year. As for the speech- well he would have been cheered if he had recited the telephone directory- but it was workmanlike and solid, if not inspirational. As a demonstration of the recovery of the party, however, it was worth a lot. It was good for the psyche of the party to see him in Brighton. Despite media hopes, of course, Charles would not want to rock the boat- and his statement of loyalty to the party and to Liberal principles was genuine and heartfelt.
Yet Tuesday also saw the popular return of another previous leader: Paddy Ashdown. In recent years Paddy has been running Bosnia as the High Representative. By all accounts he did his job wisely and well. He is held in great affection by many of the people in that fractured land- and this affection is clearly returned. As a former first class translator of Mandarin Chinese, learning Serbo-Croat seems to have been a relatively easy prospect for him, and he clearly wished to continue to help the peoples of the Western Balkans become reconciled. Nevertheless he has now returned to London and his first intervention- supporting Ming Campbell as leader- was just the opening salvo in his resuming role in British politics.
Paddy's latest intervention is even more significant than Charles' speech. Admitting that all is not well in the garden of the European Union is essential in order for us to tackle the problems. The petition that was circulating to force the European Parliament to abandon the expensive and distracting plenary sessions in Strasbourg was one example of the increasing crtiticism amongst Liberal Democrats about the way that the EU conducts its business. Lord Ashdown's comments highlighting the "dysfunctional" and protectionist about the EU are well taken. We need an open and liberal Europe- and a protectionist "fortress Europe" would be damaging in the short term and a failure in the medium term.
As we see increasing geopolitical instability- and the possibility of the US becoming a less reliable ally- it is clear that Britain needs to reinforce our relationship with the rest of Europe. In the case of the more free market central Europeans, we have been quite successful at doing this. Elsewhere we have not been able to engage with the larger powers in the Union. It is true that this relationship can not come at any price. However, it is time for the UK to engage with all of the EU and to work for a definite agenda of free trade inside and outside the Union- including improving access to the European market for the developing world. In the context of the failure of the Doha round, it is now more important than ever that the free trade agenda is promoted- but by doing so, we also reinforce the idea that Britain is not merely an appendage of the United States in international affairs. Ashdown's comments are laying out the ground for Liberals to speak up about the future direction of the European Union- and to criticize the many things that need improvement.
Tuesday could have been a difficult day for the party- but actually it was significant in a good way. Ming got his tax proposals endorsed solidly. Charles' speech was a renewal, and Paddy reminds people that while we are genuinely internationalist and European, we are so on the basis of full use of our critical faculties- with our heads- rather than slavishly with our hearts.
The Liberal Democrats are having a good conference. I wonder, in the light of continued problems for Tony Blair, whether Labour will be able to say the same. Meanwhile the intervention of Edward Leigh against the gimmicky and shallow initiatives of David Cameron suggest that even the Tories' wunderkind may not get things all his own way.
With perhaps three and a half years before the next election, there is a growing sense that there is still all to play for the Liberal Democrats- and after a difficult year, there is a sense of relief and emerging optimism on the sunny and windswept beach in Brighton.