THE SNP and Ukip reach the public's "erogenous zones", Lord Ashdown has suggested because Nationalist arguments resonate in a time when division wins over unity.

The former party leader also described the pre-Coalition Liberal Democrats as a "wonderful, slightly furry little animal" on the edges of British politics while what Labour leader Ed Miliband was now offering was "phantom socialism".

The peer's comments came when he addressed activists at a fringe meeting on what liberalism meant to him. He told them: "If you look back for the last 100 years it's how can we bring people together? How can we unite the nation? How can we unite society? How can we unite Europe?

"And yet it seems to me today we live in an age where division holds sway. Those who have the arguments that are most powerful, most simplistic, are those who argue not for unity but for division and that is why liberals find it so difficult to be liberals."

He went on: "You look at SNP, you look at (Nigel) Farage, you look at Marine Le Pen, you look at the right of Austria and Germany, you look at the Tea Party in America.

"They have these powerful arguments that reach the erogenous zones of the public to whom they are talking and around which they can generate the mass movements that used to be generated for unity, and they're being generated for division."

On the role of the party in coalition, Lord Ashdown said the existing deal with the Tories had been "excruciatingly painful" for him.

Stressing how any future decision on who the party dealt with was for voters to decide upon, he said: "In the Coalition, if it were Labour we will make sure we do what is necessary to ensure responsible economic management since they have a record exactly antipathetical of that.

"In the case of the Tories, who reveal themselves again to be red in tooth and claw, Mr Osborne, we will make sure that they don't smash society."

The former leader added: "Now we've been in government we expect to be in government again.

"Now the process of using liberal power within a coalition, so imperfectly from time to time, with compromise, to empower people by giving them opportunity; that's the key element."