Like many I was shocked by the recent death of Paddy Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader, at 75. Having seen him in only September I thought that he had a lot more to give. That’s cancer. He was a very special person.
I only met him a couple of times. The most substantial was early in his leadership in 1989 when he held a reception for local party chairs at the House of Commons. I remember little of our conversation, except that he had that way of giving you his total attention… and then he was whisked on to the next person by a colleague. After that I was in the same room as Paddy many times, but rarely got beyond a handshake. Unlike many of my Lib Dem friends I have no photo of him and me.
I first became aware of him after he entered Parliament as a Liberal in 1983. But his main impact came when he became the first Liberal Democrat leader in 1988, following the merger between his Liberals and my SDP. He was inspirational. His speeches to conference were thought-provoking and inspiring. Looking back on it, a couple of things stand out. First, he really did seem to be in it to promote a cause rather than pursue a successful career. It was typical of him that he saw that the purpose of the party was to achieve real political ends, rather than just being a feel-good place for liberal activists. After saving the party from the oblivion that faced it in 1988 (its standing was even worse than it is now), he therefore engaged with Tony Blair’s New Labour project, looking to a possible coalition. This gave rise to a sort of non-aggression pact which helped crush the Conservatives in 1997 and, with over 40 seats, took the party into the political second division – still the happiest election night I can remember, even though the party lost vote share. The size of the New Labour victory, and ongoing Labour tribalism, meant that coalition was in fact out of the question. But a degree of collaboration with Mr Blair’s government achieved a number of things, especially in the area of electoral reform: establishing a regulatory framework for political parties, which in turn allowed proper disclosure of donations; proportional representation in the Scottish and Welsh parliaments and the London Assembly (and the European Parliament too, though that had less to do with the Lib Dems). The collaboration was quickly dropped by his successor, Charles Kennedy, in 1999, who was much less focused.
A second characteristic was his willingness to engage with people. While he did not have much patience with formal consultative processes, he was very happy to listen to people that disagreed with him. He managed to engage with the party’s conference Glee Club, a notorious hotbed of party whingers, while leader and afterwards. No other leader has come close to managing this.
Towards the end of his leadership the chorus of whingers was becoming ever stronger. Members struggled to keep up with his bright ideas, and he tended to run roughshod of the party’s internal structures. By the time he stepped down the party was ready to move on to a less charismatic leader who would be more comfortable to be around. He then disappeared from party politics as he was awarded tough diplomatic jobs in the former Yugoslavia, especially as UN High Representative in Bosnia. He impressed many with his energy and toughness, though he inevitably attracted snipers. The contrast between him and his SDP counterpart David Owen, who had earlier also taken on an international role in the former Yugoslavia, showed the latter to be a much less effective operator, for all his clever talk. Paddy was nominated to an equivalent role in Afghanistan, but was vetoed by Hamid Khazai, the Afghan president, doubtless because he knew that Paddy would call out the corruption in his regime. That tells you all you need to know about the failure of western policy in that country.
Paddy then returned to Lib Dem politics as an elder statesman, where his role was quite selfless. He supported the party leadership in the difficult coalition years of 2010 to 2015, though he must have had reservations. The then leader, Nick Clegg, then put him in charge of the 2015 General Election campaign. This was not Paddy’s finest hour. He was dynamic and focused, but badly misjudged the Conservative campaign. Whether anybody could have saved the party from its relegation to the political 4th division in that campaign is open to question, but others might have less the party in a less weakened state afterwards.
But the really striking thing about this dismal episode was how quickly he bounced back. Unexpectedly the party’s membership surged after the 2015 election, and grew some more with its unequivocal stance for Remain in the EU referendum. Paddy made it his business to engage with and encourage this flood of new members, which had done so much to encourage him. A new generation found him inspirational.
By 2016 Paddy’s political judgement was much more realistic. A couple of weeks before the referendum he came to visit us in Tooting, where we were fighting a hopeless by election. He was very gloomy about the probable outcome of the referendum: he had seen the writing on the wall. And, he said, if the referendum was lost then exit would almost certainly follow. He said that it was possible that a Leave result could be reversed, in the event of a constitutional crisis, but that would be so bitter and messy that “it was not to be wished for”. How right he is proving to be. Brexit might yet be averted, but the mess that would leave does not bear thinking about, even if it pales beside the mess a no-deal Brexit would create.
Above all I remember Paddy as a liberal whose values I share. A loyal servant to his country, he hated nationalism. He saw that our Westminster-based politics was failing most people, and needed radical surgery. He was not afraid to speak bold ideas, even if many of them did not stand up to close examination. I will miss him a lot.