RIP Blair's Project, but it died long ago

Ashdown's departure shows that the dream of party realignment is over

Knowing Paddy Ashdown a little, I have no doubt that the reasons he gave for the announcement of his resignation as Liberal Democrat leader in June are both straight and sincere. The timing of the announcement may have been a more contingent matter. He probably did not plan to scupper media coverage of Lords' reform by going public on that same afternoon of 20 January. Perhaps he did not expect to make quite such a splash; he has an understated view of his own importance.

He has caught the imagination of the people, though, as a man of courage, honesty and fundamental decency. The people, not parliament - he shares that preference with the Prime Minister, to whom he is close. And he also shared with Tony Blair "the project" which, without Ashdown and Peter Mandelson, now needs to be rethought.

The project is the realignment of the centre. The elusive dream is probably one of Blair's motive forces in politics. At any rate, much of what he does and says makes sense only if one assumes it is. It is simple really: 80 per cent of Labour (new Labour), plus 90 per cent of Lib Dems, plus 30 per cent of (one-nation) Tories equals an unbeatable new constellation. The subjects around which such a project could be built were evident: constitutional reform and Europe; or perhaps the other way round, Europe and constitutional reform.

Today, this must be said in the past tense. With Mandelson gone, Ashdown going, and Messrs Clarke, Heseltine and Patten fading, the driving forces of the project have become less visible and therefore less powerful. I think that the project collapsed much earlier, and that Ashdown's departure is an admission of defeat by a man who in most other terms had a spectacularly successful career as leader of his party.

The important date was that day in late October 1997 when Gordon Brown announced, with the consent of the Prime Minister, that the UK would not join EMU for the time being. I was certainly no advocate of EMU but it seemed to me on that fateful day that if Blair was to be a great prime minister he should have had the referendum then and there. He might have lost it, though he would probably have won; and in any case this was his chance to put his formula to work: to carry his own party, to rally the Lib Dems and fatally to split the Tories. After the referendum, he would also have been free to join euroland at a time of his choosing rather than make the momentous decision the subject of an uncertain popularity contest later.

Perhaps October 1997 was also the only time to get Ashdown into the cabinet. In any case, everything that has happened since by way of co-operation between the government and the Liberal Democrats is distinctly second best, and support for it is rapidly declining in both parties. In constitutional terms, Blair cannot give the one thing that most Lib Dems really want, which is proportional representation; and a referendum on Lord Jenkins's proposals is by no means a foregone conclusion. (Referenda now reveal one major weakness: governments cannot afford to lose. Referenda are therefore only partly about the issue and largely about the popularity of the government at a brief moment in time.) The recent widening of the remit of the joint cabinet committee has neither thrilled Blair's colleagues nor revealed any distinctive Liberal Democrat policy which could become a popular issue.

Which brings the argument to Ashdown and his party. Creating an apparently stable party with a set of agreed policies and a significant parliamentary base is one of the great successes of Ashdown's leadership. Forty-six Lib Dems - who would have thought it possible when jokes were made about the group fitting into a London taxi?

Yet it is a sign of Ashdown's stature that he realised the morning after the 1997 election that this was not due to a massive and sustainable change in electoral preferences, but rather the result of a unique constellation. He therefore asked himself one question: what could he do to make sure that as many as possible of these 46 were returned to parliament the next time round? His answer was coalition - or at any rate, an opposition sufficiently constructive to continue to make it possible for new Labour voters in many constituencies to vote tactically for Lib Dem candidates.

I think Ashdown was right, and his successor will pay a heavy price if he explicitly abandons this line. In practice, however, it has already been abandoned. One reason is that the Lib Dems are in an important sense not a national party. Menzies Campbell is one of very few Lib Dem spokespeople whose voice carries on national issues. The Lords' group apart, Lib Dems find it curiously difficult to accept the national stage. They know their way in local government, in some regions (especially the West Country, Scotland and Wales), and in Europe; but they have largely abandoned the country as a whole as a political space. In this regard Ashdown is the exception: he is actually interested in national power. Many of the rest will settle for national opposition, constructive or otherwise, in order to run local councils, share power in new assemblies and have a finger in the European pie.

So Blair will have to count out the Lib Dems in pursuing his project. He also has to accept that the grand old Tory names have less resonance in the country as time goes by. Thus his formula of new Labour plus Lib Dems plus one-nation Tories is reduced to new Labour plus very little.

This need not be disastrous for the project. Party mergers, even coalitions, are high-risk ventures. Extending the range and appeal of his own party may well be the more effective option. For Blair, it may also be a difficult option; there are times when one wonders if he likes his party enough to settle for it. However, for the Lib Dems as a national force, Ashdown's departure from Westminster highlights problems of a different order. Writing the script for his successor will be an unenviable task.

Lord Dahrendorf was Warden of St Antony's College, Oxford, 1987-97

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Puffins in peril

Britain’s best-loved seabird is vulnerable to global extinction.

The boatmen helped us scramble ashore and soon there were 50 people wandering on an uninhab­ited slab of sea-battered dolerite called Staple Island. It is one of the National Trust-owned Farne Islands in Northumberland and among England’s most spectacular wildlife locations. There are 100,000 pairs of breeding seabirds here and they were everywhere: at our feet, overhead, across every rock face. The stench of guano was overwhelming.

While the birds seemed to be boundless, the human beings converged on the grassy knoll where the local star attraction resides. It’s the creature that adorns the boat company’s publicity and is emblazoned on the National Trust’s website for the island, the bird that possesses what the poet Norman MacCaig called the “mad, clever clown’s beak”: the pint-sized, parrot-faced puffin.

The British love for this creature is so intense that it is, in essence, the robin redbreast of the sea. Nearly all of its breeding colonies around our coast are tourist attractions. Just across the water, along the shore from Staple Island, is the town of Amble, which holds an annual festival devoted to the puffin. From Lundy in Devon and Skomer in Pembrokeshire to the Isle of May off the Fife coast, or Fair Isle in the Shetlands, trips to puffin colonies are frequent, sometimes daily, events.

“Every tourist shop on these islands sells puffin merchandise – knitwear patterns, tumblers, carvings, coasters, cuddly toys, clothes and, of course, puffin hats,” Helen Moncrieff, the area manager in Shetland for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), told me.

While the love affair is unquestionable, what seems in doubt is our ability to help the bird now that it is in trouble. Fair Isle once supported a puffin colony of 20,000 birds. In less than three decades, that number has halved. Similar declines have been reported at Britain’s most important puffin site on St Kilda, Scotland, where millions are said to have bred. Now there are fewer than 130,000 pairs, half the total recorded as recently as the 1970s.

The national picture is alarming but the news from elsewhere is even worse. Continental Europe holds more than 90 per cent – five million pairs – of the global total of Atlantic puffins but they are shared primarily between three countries: Denmark (the Faroe Islands), Iceland and Norway. Across this subarctic region, losses have been estimated at 33 per cent since 1979, when monitoring began. But the most striking figure comes from a colony on Røst, Norway, where there has been a fall over this period from nearly 1.5 million pairs to 285,000.

The Westman Islands off the south coast of Iceland hold a substantial proportion of the country’s puffins. Since 2005, breeding success there has been almost nil, and a similar failure has recurred on the Faroe Islands for more than a decade. In both places, where hunting puffins was once a staple of cultural life, catchers today have initiated a self-imposed moratorium.

Puffins are long-lived species and a life­span of between 20 and 30 years is not unusual, yet Euan Dunn, principal marine adviser to the RSPB, explains the implications of persistent breeding failure. “Puffins on Shetland or the Westmans may go on attempting to breed for years, even decades, but eventually all those old adult birds will die off and, if they haven’t reproduced, then the numbers will start to plunge.”

BirdLife International, a conservation network that classifies the status of birds worldwide, has reached the same conclusion. It judges that the Atlantic puffin is likely to decline by between 50 and 79 per cent by 2065. The nation’s most beloved seabird has been declared a species that is vulnerable to global extinction.

To unpick the story of puffin losses, marine ecologists have examined the bird’s oceanic ecosystem and looked particularly at changes in the status of a cold-water zooplankton called Calanus finmarchicus. This seemingly insignificant, shrimp-like organism plays a crucial role in North Atlantic biodiversity and has experienced a huge decline as sea temperatures have risen steadily since the 1980s. While the decline of the finmarchicus coincided with swelling numbers of a close relative, this other zooplankton species is less abundant and nutritious.

As the finmarchicus has suffered, so, too, has one of its main predators, the lesser sand eel. And it is this formerly superabundant fish that is the staple food of puffins in many areas of the Atlantic. At the root of the disruption to marine life are the hydra-headed effects of climate change.

Though no one disputes that an important shift is under way in the sea areas of northern Britain and beyond, not everyone agrees that the present puffin situation is a crisis. A leading British expert, Mike Harris, thinks it is premature to designate the bird an endangered species. There are still millions of puffins and, he says, “We need numbers to plummet before we even start to assume that things are terminal.”

Similarly, Bergur Olsen, one of the foremost biologists studying puffins in the Faroe Islands, believes that the talk of extinction is over the top. “The food situation may change and puffins may well adapt to new prey, and then their numbers will stabilise and perhaps increase,” he says.

***

On Staple Island, the extinction designation does appear bizarre. The Farne Island puffin population has increased by 8 per cent since 2008 and there are now 40,000 pairs. This success mirrors a wider stability among puffin colonies of the North and Irish Seas. The distinction in feeding ecology which may explain the birds’ varying fortunes is that, in the southern parts of the range, puffins can prey on sprats when sand eels are scarce. Sprats appear to have suffered none of the disruption that assails the other fish.

But Dunn says it is important to look at the whole picture. “It’s fantastic that puffins are doing well in places like the Farnes, but remember: Britain holds less than 10 per cent of the world total. Also, the declines that have beset puffins in Shetland and St Kilda are even worse for other seabirds.”

The numbers of a silver-winged gull called the kittiwake have fallen by 90 per cent in Shetland and St Kilda since 2000 and by 80 per cent in the Orkneys in just ten years. Shetland’s guillemot numbers have also halved, and the shag, a relative of the cormorant, has experienced falls of over 80 per cent on many islands since the 1970s – 98 per cent, on Foula. Most troubling is the fate of the Arctic skua, which feeds mainly on fish it steals from other seabirds and is reliant on their successes. Its declines are so severe that Dunn fears its eventual loss as a breeding species in Britain.

While there is disagreement about what to call the puffin predicament, there is unanimity on one issue: much of the data that informs the discussion in Britain is out of date. All of these seabirds, which are of global importance, have been monitored decade by decade since the 1970s. Yet the most recent big audit of our cliffs and offshore islands was concluded in 2000. The full census data is now 16 years old. The organisation that underwrites this work is the Joint Nature Conservation Committee; it is sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has suffered deep budget cuts since the 2008 financial crisis. There is no certainty that another comprehensive census will be mounted any time soon.

“Much is made on wildlife television of how special these islands are for wildlife and how much we care about it,” Dunn says. “In the case of our seabirds, one of those claims is indisputably true. Britain holds populations of some species that are of worldwide significance. But if we lack even basic information on those birds and how they’re faring, especially at a time when our seas are in such flux, what message does that send about how much this country cares? And how can we ever act effectively?”

The plight of the puffin is shedding light on the fortunes of our marine wildlife generally and the shifting condition of our oceans as a result of rising carbon-dioxide levels. Now, puffin politics is also starting to show
this government’s indifference to nature.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue