Magazine article The Spectator

Commando Leader in Politics

Magazine article The Spectator

Commando Leader in Politics

Article excerpt

THE ASHDOWN DIARIES, VOLUME I, 1988-1997 by Paddy Ashdown Allen Lane, L20, pp. 638

Naive, they call him. Well, if Sir Paddy Ashdown is naive, naivety is clearly no obstacle to extraordinary political achievement. Consider what he has done. By 1976 he had abandoned two promising careers (as soldier and diplomat) and, though married and with young children, decided to try his luck as a politician. But not the easy way. As a convinced Liberal, he set his sights on the apparently safe Tory seat of Yeovil, where he settled and, with some difficulty, found employment. For a time he was on the dole. In 1979 he contested the seat unsuccessfully. In 1983 he won it, and he has held it ever since, at the last election with a five-figure majority.

In 1988 he was elected leader of the Liberal Democrats (as they became after a name controversy which provided an early test of his toughness and skill). A majority of Liberals and Social Democrats had decided to merge, but a substantial minority of the SDP, led by one of its founders, David Owen, would not accept the democratic vote and broke away, continuing to use the original name. There was also a significant defection of Liberals. Ashdown thus found himself leading a party which was `an organisational shambles, financially bankrupt and inherently split'. The words are his own, in the diary that he began to keep, at Tam Dalyell's suggestion, on the day of his election as leader.

The diary is a major achievement in itself. Dictated, as a rule, at the end of a frantic day, or sometimes the following day, it could well have been scrappy and diffuse. But in fact it is lucid, lively and pacy. It brings home to one the strain under which a modern party leader has to work, especially when leading a small party with limited resources. Ashdown is candid about his difficulties and does not conceal his dark nights of the soul, showing how often public machismo had to be sustained to the accompaniment of private anxiety and distress. He is scarcely less critical of himself than of others, though his comments on individuals can be sharp and shrewd. He has a remarkable gift for recording conversations verbatim, in a way that seems utterly authentic. Anyone at all interested in politics could hardly fail to find the diary absorbing.

As leader his daunting task was to unify the party and then make it a force in the land. Within three years the Owenites and the dissident Liberals had been seen off, and the Liberal Democrats were no longer regarded as no-hopers. Their base in local government was strong and rapidly improving. Though the 1992 general election was on the whole disappointing for them, it was far more so for Labour. The party's strength in parliament after that election was 20. In 1997, despite the countervailing attraction of Tony Blair and New Labour, the party returned with 46 MPs, the largest representation for a third party since the 1929 parliament.

True, this outstanding result was due to tactical voting rather than to any increase in the aggregate vote (which was a little down). But Ashdown's leadership had done much to encourage Labour voters to support Liberal Democrats in seats which their party could not hope to win. His key decision, taken in 1995, was to abandon the policy of 'equidistance' and to state clearly that the Liberal Democrats would not support a minority Conservative government. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.