Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Remembering Paddy Ashdown

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 23rd December, 2018

85F45194-2F0C-4119-85D7-EDB22A8486DBI first met Paddy Ashdown, who died yesterday from cancer at the age of 77, in a queue for coffee at a Liberal Party Assembly (probably his first?), some time after he had been adopted as candidate for what was assumed to be the “safe” Conservative seat of Yeovil, in Somerset. He had the advantage of having put down roots in the area and of being eminently presentable. Only later would we all learn of his exotic background in India and elsewhere, his sterling service in the Special Boat Service and the Diplomatic Corps (possibly with an MI6 sideline). He was quite diffident at this stage and eager to learn. He thought it would take three elections to crack Yeovil, but in fact he did it in two, seizing the seat in 1983, the year that the great anticipated Liberal-SDP Alliance breakthrough failed to happen, mainly because of Mrs Thatcher’s fortitude and good luck in the Falklands War. The Liberal Democrat Party emerged out of the wreckage of the Alliance; Paddy would have preferred we rebrand ourselves as the Democrats, clearly underestimating the affection many Liberals had for their long tradition and values.

00280C49-71D1-42FE-A736-E5E1D0BD1818When David Steel’s leadership of the Party ceased to be really tenable, Paddy threw his hat into the ring, emerging triumphant in 1988. But triumphant over what? The Party’s standing in the opinion polls was so low that it once appeared as an asterisk — so minimal as to be within the margin of error of non-existent. Undeterred, he sought to rebuild it with the same military determination that must have helped him in Borneo. He was aided by a string of by-election gains in southern Tory seats, masterminded by Chris Rennard, and he established weekly meetings of an advisory group (inevitably, but misleadingly, dubbed the “kitchen Cabinet”), which foregathered early in the morning in his office. I was a member of this, each time rushing off afterwards to fulfill my work obligations at BBC World Service radio. I was impressed initially by how he did listen to other voices, but as time went on, he would become less tolerant of dissent, even impatient. This would eventually come to a head when he entered a political bromance with Tony Blair, which stuck in the craw of many of us who had had to deal with the nasty side of the Labour Party in the North.

7619CB55-4509-445A-932D-BBB8D58E5C87Blair’s landslide win in 1997 put paid to any possibility of a Lib-Lab coalition or working relationship, and Paddy started to look elsewhere for opportunities to use his talents. He had asked me to put him in touch with my literary agent, who placed his first book based on fact-finding visits he had made round the countr when he assumed the Party leadership, but later he would go on to produce much more substantial works, including volumes of diaries and military history. By then he had also moved into a new sphere as High Representative to Bosnia-Herzogovina, with plenipotentiary powers, which he clearly savoured. Later he made good use of being part of that anachronistic but often valuable institution, the House of Lords. I would run into him in Parliament or at various occasions and he would reminisce over all that had happened over the past four decades since our first meeting— often with a little cheeky side-remark in Mandarin Chinese, which we had both studied as young men and which created its own, special bond.

 

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One Response to “Remembering Paddy Ashdown”

  1. Clearly a man with an understanding of China.

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