Paddy Ashdown remembered: ‘He was in politics to do things, not to be someone... If only we had more like him’

Sean O’Grady was Paddy Ashdown’s press secretary. He pays tribute to the politician who revived the Lib Dems and had a ‘rip roaring career’

Sean O'Grady@_seanogrady
Saturday 22 December 2018 22:44
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Former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown dies aged 77

I could never keep up with Paddy. Few could. His hobby was yomping, which means walking at a challenging pace, usually across the Somerset hills he knew so well, though it was a little safer than skiing off piste, one of his other passions. At Westminster, he also set a rapid pace, from dawn till dusk. He was a soldier, a spy (an open secret though he thought no one knew) and a man of action – no cliche where he was concerned. He enjoyed – there is no better word for it – plotting, and he preferred always to work with small groups of trusted, and gifted, advisers such as Ming Campbell, Richard Holme and Chris Rennard.

That said, his party adored him, though his unofficial view was that they were small furry creatures who needed prodding with a sharp stick from time to time. It was one such, unidentified, furry creature out canvassing in 1971 or so who knocked on Ashdown’s front door and got him interested in the Liberal cause in the days of “pavement” or “community” politics. By 1976, he was out of the Marines and the parliamentary candidate in Yeovil, during another lean time for the Libs. Working obsessively with a band of friends and activists he won his seat with the biggest swing against the Conservatives at the 1983 election. In a parliamentary party that was more or less a collection of eccentrics he was always a future leader. He was a natural liberal, who never lost his belief in freedom and the European idea for his whole life, but had a charisma surprisingly rare in the Commons.

He was in politics to do things, not to be someone. As leader after 1988, he grew easily frustrated about being “part of the constitutional wallpaper”, part of the rituals of the state, PMQs (where he was routinely disrespected by Tories), the banquets and functions.

When I worked for him, briefly, he was determined to get his party into government, at that time with Tony Blair’s New Labour. He recognised Blair’s potential and the threat that his appeal in the 1990s posed to the Lib Dems’ relevance.

When the Labour landslide arrived in 1997, and with it a post-war record Lib Dem contingent in the Commons, his “project” of realigning the left and bringing together the strands of the progressive centre left foundered. He wanted a coalition government with Blair to reshape the landscape, but the sheer scale of Labour’s hegemony made it impractical.

It was hardly his fault, and there were plenty of small c conservatives in his own party and in Blair’s that would have hated it, but it is a tragedy it never was achieved. The idea was to keep the Tories out of government for a generation. Instead the Lib Dems put them back into power in 2010, and the Tories swiftly repaid their help by targeting their seats and destroying them. Paddy was loyal and supportive of Nick Clegg but for whatever reason did not take part in that administration. He was not a natural ally of the Tories. It always gave him some satisfaction that they could never attack his patriotism, having fought with bravery and distinction for the British during the civil war in the insurrection in Borneo in the 1960s.

For a third party leader who never made it to ministerial office, he had a rip roaring career. He did revive the party when he took over, when it was bankrupt and hardly registered in opinion polls: a repair job they need again now. He did suffer a few crises in his personal life, pruriently raked over by the Tory press. Working as his press secretary, I saw first hand that there was nothing they wouldn’t do to damage him and his party. It was a vast tribute to his spirit that he never let the forces arraigned against him overwhelm him. He took disappointment well, and it only made him redouble his efforts. He’d have made a fine football manager (though he had little interest in it).

A lifelong believer in the European ideal, perhaps his greatest public service – with a topical aspect now – was to ensure the passage of the EU Maastricht Treaty in 1992 and 1993. That was a moment, to Labour’s fury, when he rescued a Tory government under John Major from collapse. He knew it was a time to put country before party. If only we’d had more like him.

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