Jo Grimond spoke of marching his troops toward the sound of gunfire, but in Paddy Ashdown’s case, he actually had. This gave satirists plenty of material following his election as leader of the Liberal Democrats in 1988.
The party Ashdown led was new, but also in crisis. I was reeling from battles over merger with the continuity SDP under David Owen. It is to his credit that in his eleven years at the helm, Paddy established his party as the clear third force in UK politics seeing off the challenge of the Social Democrats and the Greens, who in the 1989 Euro elections, polled 15 percent of the vote. Ashdown also had to counter the political reality that Labour had shifted rapidly away from its left-wing agenda to an avowedly centrist stance.
Born into a military family as Jeremy John Durham Ashdown (he acquired the nickname Paddy in childhood and it stuck), Paddy joined the Royal Marines where he served in a variety of theatres. He joined the Liberal Party in the mid 1970s, apparently as a result of an encounter with a bloke in a bobble hat, and was selected as the candidate for Yeovil in 1976 (then held by former Conservative minister John Peyton). Sheer hard work got him elected to the seat in 1983 and in 1988 he contested the leadership of his party winning by a wide margin. His first General Election at the helm was one of consolidation following the previous turmoil, but by 1997 a targeting strategy yielded 46 seats in parliament more than doubling the previous total. Though the result for the Liberal Democrats was strong, Labour’s landslide effectively scuppered any chance of a Liberal presence in government. Tony Blair had made all the right noises, but with a Commons majority of more than 170 he had no need to reach out beyond his own party ranks.
Ashdown’s diaries set out in great detail his meetings with leading figures in what by then was New Labour. Tony Blair lacked the courage to spearhead a battle for electoral reform and the recommendations of the Jenkins Commission, which would have delivered AV+ for Westminster elections, went into the waste bin.
By 1999 the project was running out of steam and Paddy decided to step down from the leadership remaining as an MP until 2001 when he went to the Lords. He received the offer of a cabinet post from Gordon Brown in 2007 which he turned down and he was centrally involved in events in the Balkans throughout the decade. He continued to make brilliant speeches at Liberal Democrat conferences right up to his death from cancer in 2018 and I was fortunate to have witnessed one of them.
Paddy was a force of nature whose enthusiasm and energy was infectious. His legacy is a party which he steered through difficult times, in policy terms he will be best remembered for championing the proposal to increase funding for education and in electoral terms a target seats strategy that increased Liberal representation in parliament to its highest level in more than fifty years, Paddy was the archetypal Liberal Action Man and he is much missed.
David is a member of Horsham and Crawley Liberal Democrats