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What if no one wins British vote? Candidate fields questions on Alliance role in hung Parliament

The small village hall, perched at the edge of the A303 road, which runs through this gently rolling Somerset landscape before rising more steeply to the uphill, down dale Devonshire countryside further to the west, was packed to capacity. The local residents of Ilminster, about 20 miles from Yeovil, were responding to the handwritten notice stuck on a post outside the George Taylor Liberal Hall: ``Come and hear Paddy Ashdown tonight at 7:30.''

The slim, athletic, former British Marines officer who is the area's popular Liberal Party member of Parliament apparently needed none of the Social Democratic-Liberal Alliance's big guns to increase his firepower.

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The meeting went off well for this approachable MP, who had loosened his tie, slung his jacket behind his chair, and flung his briefcase wide open on the floor next to him. But it would certainly have been more electric if the ``two Davids'' - David Owen and David Steel, leaders of the Social Democratic and the Liberal Parties, respectively - had been present.

While the 60-odd people in the hall responded appreciatively to their MP, saying out aloud ``I understand that'' or ``you answered that very well, Paddy,'' they seem troubled about recent reports that the Alliance leaders were in disarray.

The newspapers had given prominent publicity to the fact that the Alliance could not agree what would happen if it held the balance of power in the next Parliament.

Dr. Owen made it quite clear that he could not work with the Labour Party because of its unilateral nonnuclear defense policies. Equally, Mr. Steel had shown his distaste at the thought of working with Conservative Party leader, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The day after the village meeting, the London Times carried a cartoon showing two newly wedded couples marching off in opposite directions. David Owen was seen betrothed to Mrs. Thatcher, while the bride on Mr. Steel's arm was a female version of Labour chief Neil Kinnock.

When the questions over the Alliance's joint leadership surfaced, Mr. Ashdown, as befits a former Marines officer, didn't run for cover.

When a questioner asked if, in the event of a hung Parliament, the SDP would go to the Conservatives and the Liberals go to Labour, Ashdown took the whole question of Alliance tactics head on.

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``In my judgment, no. I see no way of that happening. I have worked with David Owen. I can't say it was always comfortable working with him. He probably finds the same with me. Sometimes he shouts at me, and sometimes I shout at him.''

But then on the wisdom of a joint Alliance leadership, he was even more outspoken:

``I'll be blunt with you. I told them [the leadership] we should have a single leader at the top. I told them that 18 months ago that [dual leadership] was wrong and so it has proved.''

But Ashdown said that the two parties were so welded at the bottom, meaning at the local level, that the Alliance partnership held well together.

Personally, he said, ``I don't rule out a balance of power situation, working with the other political parties. I don't want to go into a hung Parliament. It's like whether I want to be run over by a train or a bus. Frankly I'd like to be run over by neither.'' The audience laughs knowingly feeling at one with Ashdown in their mutual antipathy to both Thatcher and Mr. Kinnock.

Then George Huish, a man of ample frame who had lived all 75 years in Ilminster expressed his concern about Owen. With a marvelous local accent that makes Somerset sound like Zummerrrr-zet, and made this reporter wish he had brought a tape recorder with him, Mr. Huish said that Owen was ``already a turncoat once. He'll be a turncoat again.''

The man was hinting that Owen, who had left the Labour Party to join the SDP, could just as easily in a hung Parliament wind up on the side of the Conservatives.

Ashdown came down on the questioner like a ton of bricks:

``What is better,'' he appealed to the wider audience, ``to change principles and stay with the party, or, stay with your principles and change the party?'' he said in a spirited defence of Owen, Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and Roy Jenkins, four former Labour Party Cabinet ministers who had walked out of Labour because of its defense polcies and started the SDP in 1981.

In two interviews, first at his campaign headquarters at Yeovil, and subsequently over the telephone to his home, Ashdown made clear his deep unhappiness with both major Labour and Conservative parties.

When asked how he would respond to a complaint from a young Labour supporter, who said it was hypocritical of the Alliance to attack Labour's defense policies when the Liberals had probably the largest ratio of Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament supporters of any political party, Mr. Ashdown replied: ``My argument with the Labour Party is not that they are unilateralists, but isolationists.''

He said at a time when arms talks were going on, and when Britain as a nuclear power should be a participant, the Labour response was ``Stop the world. I want to jump off.''

But his most stringent criticism was reserved for the Conservatives.

``Britain has been more significantly let down by this government on education than any other factor,'' says Ashdown, the Liberal Party's education spokesman.

He said education was indispensable to a stable society, but in terms of research funding as a percentage of GNP, Britain was second from the bottom in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development rankings.

Education had suffered generally, he pointed out, because of the government's preoccupation with free-market policies.

``This government knows the cost of everything, but the value of absolutely nothing.''

Ashdown, an articulate and energetic campaigner, seems certain to be re-elected in Thursday's poll. But with the Alliance faring less well at the polls - they are just hitting 20 percent - there are doubts whether it can improve on its present position.

The Liberals disappeared as a major party soon after World War II after the fall of their last prime minister, David Lloyd George. Yet they clung to their seats in the Celtic rim of Britain and are still represented in Wales, in the very north of Scotland (as well in the Borders area), and in Cornwall.

Nationally, Liberal support has inched up from 1974 of only 6 MPS - enough to squeeze into a London taxi - to a busload of 19 MPS.

Successful Liberal MP's like Paddy Ashdown in Yeovil could well pull in a new Liberal MP's in neighboring Somerton and Frome and in Tiverton, just across the Devonshire border, where polls are optimistic for them. Other real possibilities in the West Country are Cheltenham and Bath.

Much of Liberal support in the West comes from traditional Methodism. (The established Church of England has been dubbed the ``Tory Party at prayer'').

Nick Speakman, election agent for Paddy Ashdown, defines the Liberal voter as ``someone who has a greater say in his own affairs, who is looking for greater local council democracy, a choice in his own destiny, and who rejects the dogma of Toryism and the dogma of socialism.''

In recent years the Liberal party is also finding a new constituency: the deprived inner city where on local councils and even in Parliament, Liberals are eating into traditional bedrock Labour support. Fully a third of Liberal MPs now represent deprived inner city areas.

But ironically, the prospect of a hung Parliament, which is a principal Alliance objective, worries some Liberals.

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