Paddy Ashdown has cast aside a red, disposable lighter on a table in his otherwise immaculate late 19th-century town house in south London. The former Liberal Democrat leader, still authoritative of voice and bushy of eyebrow, lights up only once or twice a day. He likes a cigarette with a drink in the evening.
This is Parliament’s toughest man, a trained killer who was a commander in the Special Boat Section. Yet he moans at the 50 free cigarettes he was given when he joined the Royal Marines more than half a century ago. “Shocking,” he chuckles – too many ciggies make him sick. Every hard man has a weakness, but his restraint might explain why he looks closer to 60 than his actual age, 74.
Lord Ashdown is the Lib Dems’ elder statesman and its grandest grandee. Next week marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Dayton Agreement, which put an end to the Bosnian war that killed nearly 40,000 civilians. Lord Ashdown led a party of only 20 MPs, but spent much of what little political capital he had advocating the international intervention that led to the accords. A picture of a square in Sarajevo hangs in the corner of his top floor living room.
His experience of orchestrating diplomatic means to secure peace could provide useful information for David Cameron, as the Prime Minister wrestles with the question of whether to ask Parliament to approve the bombing of Syria.
Should the PM approach Lord Ashdown, his advice would be stark. “We’ve got to stop this knee-jerk reaction: see a problem, bomb it,” he sighs. “This is the fourth major failure of international Western intervention: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria.
“The reason for all the failures is the same: we have forgotten the great dictum of [Prussian military theorist Carl von] Clausewitz that war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means. It is the baleful inheritance of bloody shock and awe.”
The UK and US are in a stand-off with Russia over Syria: the Western powers want to crush President Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial regime, Vladimir Putin wants to defend him. Both sides, though, want to destroy Islamic State, the terrorist group that controls parts of eastern Syria.
Lord Ashdown sees hope in the recent deal between Iran and world powers to lift sanctions in exchange for Tehran’s agreement to curb its nuclear development.
He also thinks that Russia’s economic problems mean Mr Putin will not be able to bankroll military operations in Syria indefinitely.
“My guess is that Tehran is much more interested in building on the recent rapprochement to create a substantial, deep relationship with the West than they are in dealing with a bankrupt and bellicose Russia,” he says.
“We can outflank Putin. We can begin to build that wider diplomatic coalition, which Putin will need as a way out in the end. Instead of saying: ‘Let’s drop more bombs with more British aircraft in Syria,’ which will have no effect, adding a widow’s mite of explosives …. We need Europe and the US working together, building on the Tehran agreement to construct a Dayton-style, regional, diplomatic treaty involving the neighbours – Tehran, Russia obviously, Turkey … moderate Arab states.
“That provides the diplomatic context with which you could reach a solution in Syria. In Syria, now that Isil [Isis] has come in, you’ve got to choose: do you want to get rid of Assad or do you want to get rid of Isil? That’s a no-brainer – you want to get rid of Isil.”
From this, he believes, an “unsteady peace” can be forged. However, the UK could only become a broker in this deal if Mr Cameron does not join the bombing in Syria – Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, said last week that it is “morally indefensible” to not participate in the raids.
“[By bombing] I think you immediately remove yourself from your capacity to be a major player creating the diplomatic solution,” he says. “All this talk [of bombing] always was nonsense. I don’t think the Prime Minister will bring it back to the Commons, and if he did I don’t think he would be able to answer the question ... [bombing] to do what?”
Lord Ashdown is annoyed the PM has focused on bombing and failed to listen to those who have said such a plan is redundant, given the difficulty of identifying targets.
He thinks that, with Labour in a state of civil war under left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn, the Government is not being challenged by an effective opposition. Ministers have grown sufficiently confident that they are willing to introduce legislation that is disliked by much of the public, such as savage welfare cuts.
“The tragedy is there isn’t a leader of the opposition,” he says.
“It’s always hubris that kills you and I can see the worm of hubris has already dug deep into the Tories’ soul. They’re already going far too far on many, many issues.
“They believe they have a right to push through things no sensible government would be seeking to push through.”
Not that the Lib Dems can mount much of an opposition, given that they were reduced to only eight MPs at the general election – fewer than half the number Lord Ashdown had when he “inherited the party in the margin of error of nothing in the opinion polls” in 1988.
Lord Ashdown spent 11 years building the Lib Dems from “a laughing stock” into an electoral force, but Tim Farron, who became leader in July, has an even tougher job.
In the spring, when it was clear the Lib Dems were teetering on the brink of electoral disaster, Lord Ashdown slapped down Mr Farron, arguing “his well-known [leadership] ambitions would probably be better served with a little more patience and a little more judgement”.
But the two have made their peace. Lord Ashdown says Mr Farron has “greatly exceeded the expectations of the naysayers” and has been particularly effective on calling for the Government to accept tens of thousands of refugees.
Certainly, this is one accord the Lib Dems badly need. Following the death of Charles Kennedy in June, the party lacks big beasts who are both widely known and popular. Nick Clegg is the former and Lord (Menzies) Campbell is the latter, but that’s about it.
Lord Ashdown is both – and the Lib Dems need him on the front line again.
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