Tribute: Paddy Ashdown
Marine, diplomat, politician and leader of the Liberal Democrats, it was Paddy Ashdown’s drive and commitment that secured the future of his newly formed party. Menzies Campbell remembers his courageous, and charismatic, colleague and friend
There are some people who can fill a room simply by walking into it and Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon was one of them. But for all his achievements and the public recognition which followed he remained “Paddy” to himself, his family, his friends and his colleagues, and even to those who knew him only by reputation.
He was professional at everything but never a “professional politician“. He had the kind of career of which Denis Healey would have approved. Marine, diplomat, Member of Parliament, party leader, international public servant. He gave everything to which he turned his hand the same undiluted energy.
When he became leader of the newly-formed Liberal Democrats following its painful gestation there was little time for consultation or committee meetings. It was only his determination that kept the new party afloat. There were still splinter groups from both the Liberal party and the Social Democrats who would not accept the merger. In his first week, he was told that there was no money to pay the wages of those who were working for the party. Morale was at rock bottom. Without his drive and commitment, the new party might have folded.
Not that his party always found it easy to keep up with him. His restlessness was all too obvious. What he saw as the timidity of his fellow MPs or the inhibiting structures of his party from time to time frustrated him. For him, decisions once made had to be implemented immediately.
The first serious political test of his leadership was the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein in August 1990. Given his military experience, this was the perfect opportunity for him to display his leadership. There were party members in the Commons and Lords and in the country who were nervous about him giving support to the United Nations’ authorised effort to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait. But he brought together a small group of senior military figures and diplomats to advise himself and others speaking for the party. At the next Liberal Democrat conference, he got almost total support from his party.
Paddy Ashdown’s close relationship with Tony Blair in the run-up to the 1997 General Election has been well documented and had Blair not won that election so comprehensively it might have produced the realignment of the left in British politics longed for by Jo Grimond, David Steel and the Gang of Four. He pursued the possibility of realignment with the same determination as in all things. When it did not come to pass, Paddy, who had by then been leader of the Liberal Democrats for 11 years, began to think of other things to do. When he stepped down he left a Parliamentary party of more than 40 MPs with a well-established and effective third-party role in parliament.
Following the breakup of Yugoslavia he had taken a keen interest in the Balkans and at some considerable risk had made several visits to the region. There was, therefore, no surprise about his appointment as the UN’s High Representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina where his characteristic decisiveness and determination were fully displayed. His authority was absolute and his impact immediate and immense. It is arguable that when he was working in that capacity he was happiest and at his most effective.
For my own part, Paddy was both a colleague and a close friend. He had more energy than anyone else I have ever known. His sense of responsibility and duty was unparalleled.
We worked closely together and while we did not always agree with each other we never once fell out. He was unwaveringly loyal and generous. Courageous, committed and charismatic. What more could you hope for from a friend and party leader?”