Baron (‘Paddy’) Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamden
This is my response to the bloganuary prompt to write about a person you admire.
“The moment he enters the room it is clear that this is someone special. The crowd that has come to see him are eager, excited at the prospect of meeting this man whose reputation has preceded him. They are here for the full four days of the conference. They hope for an opportunity to contribute to one or more of the debates on policy in the main hall. They have made a note in the programme of several fringe meetings where men or women with expertise in a subject about which they are passionate will expound their ideas. Most of those are in small spaces, able to accommodate 50 or a hundred people.
This, too, is a fringe meeting, for sure. It’s not in the main hall, though it is in a space almost as large. There is a hush as someone approaches the microphone, coughs, holds up both hands to silence the few who are still chattering. His name is spoken and here he is, striding on to the stage in . . . the audience gasps . . . a frogman’s suit!
The shiny rubber emphasises his ripped body. As the applause fades, he tears off the hood revealing craggy cheek bones beneath piercing blue eyes. He is yet to open his mouth to speak, but it is obvious that he is a force of nature; a man to reckon with. A man with ambition; an ambition that matches theirs. They will follow him where ever he leads, never questioning his certainties, for they are certainties they share. If only they had his eloquence, his charisma, his confidence, they would be standing where he is. But, lacking those qualities, they are content to let him show them the way.”
That is a somewhat over dramatised account I wrote as an exercise during a creative writing course. I was in the audience that evening, when Paddy Ashdown* made his first appearance at a Liberal Party conference as a member of the UK parliament in 1983. It was my first time at a party conference, too, and I was more than a little overawed. I had no idea then that I would meet him in person a few years later.
Before entering politics Paddy had been a Royal Marine and member of the Special Boat Service – hence the frogman’s suit. He had also served as a diplomat at the United Kingdom Mission to the United Nations in Geneva.
At its 1983 conference the Liberal Party was filled with optimism. Their Alliance with the recently formed Social Democratic Party (SDP) had produced a series of by-election victories and saw them securing almost as many votes as Labour in the 1983 general election. It was on the back of that euphoria that I was elected to my local county council in 1985. By then Paddy was the Alliance’s parliamentary spokesman for Education. I held a similar role on our council. Paddy set about finding out the state of the education service in the country at large. That is how I came to meet him in person. I presented him with a paper outlining the situation in the service in our county.
At the general election in 1987, the Alliance failed to maintain its momentum. The two constituent parties merged and, in 1988, Paddy was elected as leader, a post he held for 11 years. At that point the party was bankrupt and at 5% in the national opinion polls. When Paddy stood down in 1999, the party had more MPs than at any time since 1929. He retired from the commons in 2000 and was subsequently granted a peerage.
His determination to see much closer co-operation between the Liberal Democrats and Labour and, ultimately perhaps, a merger, led to interminable meetings with Tony Blair, both before and after the 1997 general election. Reading his accounts (in The Ashdown Diaries, vol. 2, Allen Lane, 2001) it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Blair was constantly stone-walling.
At the same time Paddy was actively involved in the conflict in the Balkans, a process that began with a series of visits in the autumn of 1992. After leaving the commons he was appointed UN High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovenia, a post he held for four years, from 2002 to 2006. He died from bladder cancer, aged 77, on 22 December 2018.
*Jeremy John Durham Ashdown earned the nick name ‘Paddy’ at Bedford School, the English boarding school to which he was sent from his parent’s home in Northern Ireland, in 1952. He was born in India to a family of soldiers and colonial administrators. After WWII his father purchased a farm in County Down.