A Fortunate Life, By Paddy Ashdown

Politics is war by other means in this memoir
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The Independent Culture

Everything in Paddy Ashdown's life seems to have been a battle: his soldiering, getting into parliament, and his marriage, by the sound of it. Ashdown writes of politics: "If you make a mistake you usually pay the price very quickly. It is this that makes it more exciting – and often more terrifying – than active service. For on active service nothings happens for 90 per cent of the time. But in politics things happen all the time, and the bullets can start flying just when you least expect them."

Had it not already been taken, "My Struggle" might have served as a suitable title for this volume of memoirs, riddled as they are by these bullets of military analogy. The 18-year-old Ashdown is depicted as "setting out to battle with the world"; as a party leader he is scrapping over the political "open ground"; and all his life the SAS motto "Who Dares Wins" has been a "statement of wisdom". Were it not for some last minute diplomatic wrangling a year ago, he might now be our man in Kabul, advising the Americans on their battles with the Taliban.

Battles have been lost, too. He is still angry about how the West abandoned Bosnia to its fate – ethnic cleansing – 15 years ago. The "shameless inactivity of my country" in the face of the "beasts of intolerance and bigotry" still rankles, as does his own failure, early on, to read the likes of Radovan Karadic: "I still believed, naively, that it must be possible to see great evil in a man's face." In a swipe at where politics is now, he says he is happy to have been a politician "while politics was still a calling".

After two volumes of Diaries, 10 years near the top of politics, and the events that saw the "hurtful" nickname "Pantsdown" conferred on him by a gifted Sun sub-editor, most of the bullet holes are fairly familiar. A Fortunate Life adds in light and shade – background, childhood, the years of active service in Borneo, and much of his home life.

Personally, I could have done without quite so many pet anecdotes, and without the account of his first sexual encounter, which is told in disturbing detail. Just in case you needed to know, Paddy went from boy to man when he was 15, with a tipsy, busty and married maths teacher, which, I admit, might make some of us envious. However, were they fiction, these sweaty, testosterone-soaked paragraphs would surely be a contender for the Literary Review's 2009 Bad Sex Award for terrible erotic writing.

Mostly, though, Ashdown's candour is engaging, and he is honest about his failings (vanity, poor team player, and being "excessively Irish", according to one school report). The revelation that one of his distant relatives was a "boot maker and brothel keeper" seemed about right. I was more surprised to read the very private information that "money has been one of the most contentious issues in our marriage and the cause of most of our rows". Ashdown is generous to his wife, Jane, who is often mentioned as bearing the burdens of his "fortunate life". Fortunate it may have been, and comfortable now, but it has not always been prosperous. His 10-year journey from unemployed Liberal candidate in a no hope seat to party leader is an impressive one. Occasionally you glimpse the resentment he feels about Tony Blair's relatively easy ride to the top.

This must be the first political memoir to offer advice on the best way to execute a jungle ambush (a distance of 70 yards is ideal) and on how to treat an open wound using red ants. But it is the political rather than the martial or diplomatic struggles that are the more vivid. The Ashdown strategy, framed when Blair became leader, was that the Liberal Democrats, with or without Ashdown himself, would have joined Blair's government, provided there was some commitment to electoral reform. But what was clear, even then, is that whether Blair was or was not sincere in seeming to agree to this deal, the other two in Labour's Big Three of 1997 formed a formidable defensive line. A minimal reconnaissance of the New Labour landscape ought to have told Ashdown that John Prescott and Gordon Brown would oppose the "airy fairy" idea – as Prescott told Ashdown to his face when the pair eventually got round to meeting, in February 1998.

Yet Ashdown still believed he was on the verge of government and persisted in this delusion long into 1999, after the Jenkins Commission on electoral reform came and went and Blair continued to prevaricate. Finally Ashdown lost patience and resigned. "The Project", as it was known, was dead. It may yet be revived, if we see a hung parliament after the next election, in which case Ashdown himself may see yet more active service. There seems plenty of fight in him yet.