Paddy Ashdown: former marine whose fighting spirit energised the Liberal Democrats

Lord Ashdown led his party out of the political wilderness in the 1990s before serving as a special representative in the former Yugoslavia and speaking out on climate change

Former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown dies aged 77

Paddy Ashdown served his country as a Royal Marine, a diplomat, as an intelligence officer in the security services, as an MP, as leader of the Liberal Democrat party and as emissary for the world community.

Of politics and war – in the 1960s and 1970s, he saw active service in Borneo and Northern Ireland during the Troubles – Ashdown, who has died at the age of 77, once claimed that politics was more exciting and often more terrifying than active service.

“On active service nothing happens for 90 percent of the time,” he said. “But in politics things happen all the time, and the bullets can start flying just when you least expect them.”

For Lord Ashdown of Norton-Sub-Hamdon, as he was ennobled after leaving the Commons, collecting a knighthood along the way, the two were always closely linked. His public school background allowed him to take officer status in the Royal Marines. This he said steered him towards becoming a liberal, as he was commanding men who were better soldiers than he, simply because of his relatively fortunate upbringing.

“A socialist believes everybody is equal in terms of outcome, or should be. I believe everybody deserves to be treated as equal in terms of their status as a human being, but the outcomes they produce are totally different.”

Although he had voted for the Labour Party his whole life, it was drawing on this experience – and a visit from a Liberal campaigner – that saw him change his views as early as 1971.

Ashdown was born in New Delhi in 1941, the eldest sibling of seven children, and with a strong military tradition: his father was in the army in British India, his mother in the nursing corps.

The family returned to Britain when he was four, buying a farm in Northern Ireland where he spent most of his childhood before attending Bedford School in England.

Christened Jeremy John Durham Ashdown – a bit of a mouthful – he settled for the nickname ‘Paddy’ awarded him by his classmates due to his Irish twang.

At 18, Ashdown joined the Royal Marines where he served as an officer until 1972, seeing him undertake active service in Borneo and the Persian Gulf as well as in the early most dangerous phase of the Northern Irish conflict.

In 1965 he underwent elite Special Forces training, later commanding a Special Boat Section in the Far East.

Ashdown spent three years on a full-time Chinese course in Hong Kong before being given charge of a Commando Company in Belfast and in 1972 he left the Royal Marines to work for the foreign office. He was always proud of his fluency in Mandarin, though he bypassed the usual undergraduate degree in an eventful life.

Lord Ashdown was elected leader of the newly formed Liberal Democrats in 1988 

His life wasn’t without moments of uncertainty. Ashdown had been unemployed twice, leaving him signing on for the dole.

When he left the foreign office in 1976, where had conducted some undercover work in Switzerland, he moved to Yeovil with his wife, Jane, and two children, but it took him six months to get a job as a personnel boss for a sheepskin manufacturer.

In the early 1980s, the first recession under the Thatcher hit and the company’s parent firm collapsed, leaving Ashdown facing the decision to make himself and everyone working under him redundant.

“As a manager, I had one terrible and unforgettable day, to shut down my division of the firm ... and make all those I worked with and myself redundant. It was the most soul-destroying day of my life.”

But things picked up when Ashdown channelled his fighting spirit into politics. Despite supporting Labour until 1969, in 1971 a local canvasser knocked on his door and brought him to the realisation that he had always been a liberal.

He recalled, “I told him pretty roughly that I certainly would not vote Liberal unless (which I considered highly unlikely) he could persuade me that I should.”

Ashdown was elected leader of the newly formed Liberal Democrats in 1988, after the Social Democratic and Liberal parties combined.

The Tories has held power in Yeovil since 1910, but Ashdown managed to raise the Liberal vote in the southwest town to its highest ever rate of 11,000 – the biggest swing against the Tories in the 1983 general election. It was a seat with which he would form a solid bond.

Having picked up a party bankrupt and behind the Greens, he rebuilt its membership and regained political success through effective by-election campaigning scoring spectacular gains in previously rock solid Tory seats such as Christchurch and Newbury.

Although he supported the Major government’s European policy he was a stern critic of much else. He led the Liberal Democrats party to its best election result in more than 70 years in 1997 through tireless campaigning and the sheer force of his personality.

None of that seemed inevitable. The 1992 election campaign was punctuated by a dramatic expose of an affair with his secretary, Tricia Howard. Yet his swift decision to tell the truth, apologise and move on had the perverse effect of improving the public’s perceptions of him. Ashdown’s polls soared after news of the affair was leaked when burglars mysteriously broke into his solicitor’s office and stole papers from his safe, leading to the notorious Sun headline, “Paddy Pantsdown”.

His marriage and his reputation survived.

After repeated and sincere attempts to build a progressive coalition with New Labour under Tony Blair, Ashdown looked for new opportunities. He stood down as leader in 1999, with Charles Kennedy his successor. In 2002 he was appointed as High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovnia, with extreme challenge of rebuilding a state riven by ethnic cleansing and civil war. He with others helped the build a fragile peace.

Ashdown’s work in recent years revolved around broader campaigning, including against Brexit, and in 2015 he took on the thankless task of running the Lib Dems' election campaign after five years coalition with David Cameron’s Tories. No one could blame him for the wipe out they suffered.

He was appointed a Unicef Ambassador in 2016 after six years as President of Unicef UK.

An instinctive globalist he had long believed in the evil of climate change and added his own voice to the clamour of warnings on global warming – the biggest threat to mankind and that politicians ignored it at their own peril.

“World leaders have consistently let their own parochial concerns get in the way of making the sort of agreement on cutting carbon emissions that the world needs to avoid catastrophic warming.”

The politician, spy and soldier also found a vocation late in life as an author, with two volumes of diaries and historical works. His latest, Nein! Standing Up To Hitler 1935-1944, was published in October. He also wrote about his experiences during a year-long tour of the UK, Beyond Westminster, signalling a certain disenchantment with the ways of the “bubble”.

Ashdown was rightly proud of taking a party fear weaker than the Lib Dems are today and becoming the second party in local government; electing its first MEPs; doubling their MPs in Westminster; helping to deliver devolution to Scotland and Wales; participating in the government of Scotland and ensuring proportional representation was used in European elections.

Support free-thinking journalism and attend Independent events

The one thing he regretted about his leadership was that he did not see in his time the Liberal Democrats participating in the government of the country.

He did live to see them do so after 2010, but not in the partnership and realignment of the centre left he fondly wished for. He himself was offered a cabinet post by Gordon Brown and could easily have served in the Cameron-Clegg coalition, but curiously turned the offers down.

Having lived a life of unusually good health, it was disclosed last month that Ashdown had been diagnosed with bladder cancer, and he passed away yesterday after a short illness.

Paddy Ashdown, soldier, politician and diplomat, born 27 February 1941, died 22 December 2018

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments