Obituary: Paddy Ashdown, former commando and popular high-profile politician who led the Liberal Democrats

Paddy Ashdown on the campaign trail in Edinburgh in 2010. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Paddy Ashdown on the campaign trail in Edinburgh in 2010. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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Paddy Ashdown, former leader of the Liberal Democrats. Born: 27 February 1941, New Delhi, India. Died: 22 December, 2018, aged 77.

It is a mark of the esteem in which ­Paddy Ashdown was held within the Liberal Democrats that the grandee continued to be summoned as a figurehead for the party, long after he stepped down as its leader.

Ashdown was in charge ­during what, by today’s standards, might be remembered as an almost unbelievably successful period for the Lib Dems.

The former soldier continued to command the sort of respect and adoration that his successors – Messrs Clegg, Farron and Campbell – could only dream of.

Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, formerly Sir Paddy Ashdown, or just plain Paddy, made the Lib Dems a political force that could not be ignored at Westminster during the late 1990s and into the next millennium.

His warm and jovial manner endeared him to voters on the doorstep – his preferred office, as opposed to the House of Commons.

But he never managed ­fully to shake off the ‘Paddy Pantsdown’ moniker planted on him by The Sun on the ­disclosure of a ­five-month-long affair with his secretary.

As the leader of a minority party, Ashdown was always praying at election times for a hung Parliament in the hope that the Lib Dems could form a coalition with either Labour or the Tories on the understanding that moves would be made towards a ­proportional representation form of voting.

His dreams of power became partially true when, after the 1997 election, in which Labour secured a landslide triumph, Ashdown and some of his ­colleagues were invited to join a Cabinet sub-committee.

Cynics saw this as the start of a coalition between the two parties, and Ashdown even spoke of the possibility.

But the outcry caused the then-Liberal Democrat leader to pipe down – and to intensify his attacks on Labour in the belief that people would assume he had dropped the idea.

Although Ashdown always insisted that he was in politics to “do things, not to be things”, there was no doubt that he had longings towards a ­Cabinet post in Tony Blair’s Labour Government.

In 1998, when he had served as leader for 10 years, a TV interviewer asked whether he was now considering standing down in favour of someone else. Ashdown retorted: “You must be joking” – a remark which left the impression that after increasing the ­party’s showing in the Commons to 46 MPs, he felt there was a Cabinet post in the offing, which would ­disappear, as far as he was concerned, if he handed over the leadership.

However, there was growing resentment in significant parts of the Labour ­Party about the inclusion of ­Ashdown in any part of the governing process.

The resignation of Peter Mandelson as Trade and Industry Secretary in December 1998 made it more difficult for Tony Blair to pursue his desire to increase cooperation with the Liberal Democrats. The Old Labour stalwarts, led by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, now had more scope with which to express their distaste.

Finally, in the spring of 1999, Ashdown quit as the party leader, boasting that he had brought it, over the space of 12 years, from near extinction to a state, in 1997, when it had 46 MPs.

But in the immediate ­aftermath of his decision, Ashdown’s hopes for a big international post, such as leading Nato, were swiftly scotched. Even though Tony Blair was anxious to find him a berth, Ashdown’s lack of experience in running a big department counted against him.

Ashdown, who received a knighthood shortly after he quit the leadership, disclosed in his diaries, published soon after that, that he and the man who was to become Prime Minister had been involved in secret “coalition” talks before the 1997 general election in which Labour secured a ­landslide victory.

That “coalition” did not take place, and Ashdown implied in his diaries that Blair was “flawed” as a decision-maker. But Ashdown’s critics put that down to sour grapes.

Born Jeremy John Durham Ashdown – as an Irishman he preferred Paddy, his schoolboy nickname – he was a swashbuckling, rangy, handsome figure, an ex-marine commando ­captain with an illustrious military career, who became the first MP to enter the House of Commons direct from the dole queue.

But his antipathy to Parliament – which he regarded as pompous and unreal – did not diminish his passion for ­politics. He liked to think of himself as the Action Man of Westminster, photographed jumping out of helicopters, his jacket slung over his shoulder, and paying regular, highly publicised visits to dangerous ­frontline areas in Bosnia.

Ashdown was born in India, the son of an army colonel, and attended a public school. When he was five, his father returned home to Northern Ireland to run a pig farm, but the family gradually grew poorer as a result of ­Ashdown senior’s poor business sense.

At 16, Ashdown signed ­himself up for an Army ­scholarship to save his father the fees for his schooling. He joined the Royal Marines and served in the Special Boat Service in the Far East. His service also led him to patrols on the streets of Belfast during the height of the troubles.

In 1961, he married Jane Courtenay, the cousin of a ­fellow officer. Ashdown studied ­Mandarin Chinese during a naval course in Hong Kong, and reputedly used to order meals in Cantonese at ­takeaway shops.

But in 1971, he left behind a military life, and joined the Foreign Office. At 31, he was a diplomat with two children, attached to the ­United Nations and living in Geneva.

However, the Ashdowns became restless in Geneva and were concerned about their children’s schooling. They decided to return to England, to Yeovil, Jane’s home town.

Over these years, Ashdown had become increasingly interested in politics, and had shifted to the right from his earlier support for Labour. He once said: “I discovered that I had never really been a socialist.”

He then sought the Liberal candidacy for Yeovil, for years a seemingly impregnable Tory stronghold. But Ashdown assiduously ‘nursed’ the constituency which he subsequently won in 1983 after failing in 1979.

This was a tough period in his life. He undertook a series of jobs, including working for Morlands (the sheepskin ­coat makers), for Westland Helicopters, and as a youth worker for Dorset County Council.There was also a six-month period of unemployment. “Nothing I have ever done was as hard as that,” he said once. “It unmanned me.”

But the shakily upwardly-mobile Ashdown did not take readily to the Commons, the place he grew to despise. He was a poor performer there at first, but strove to improve.

Ashdown’s bounce, and ­practice of bounding up and down the stairs like an eager young executive, did not endear him to everyone at Westminster – but at least he was being noticed.

Everyone in the Liberal ­Party, the later Alliance and eventually the Liberal Democrats had to be a ‘front-bench’ spokesman on something. He started with trade and industry, moved on to education and science and finally ­landed the Northern Ireland portfolio.

But in 1988, barely five years after he entered the Commons, Ashdown found himself the party leader, after a battle with Alan Beith, the dour, longer-serving, and certainly more thoughtful MP for ­Berwick.

The brash bravado of Paddy Ashdown’s campaign was based on the thesis that Labour was doomed and that the Liberal Democrats – as they were about to become – would replace them.

It was a theory laughed out of court at Westminster – but it secured him the leadership of a party described by a ­commentator at the time as “confused, demoralised, starved for ­money and in the grip of a ­bitter identity crisis”.

Ashdown approached the matter as a military campaign, a style which was not to ­everyone’s liking. But luck ­continued to run his way. His position after the Tiananmen massacre – that Hong Kong citizens should be allowed to come to Britain – made many Liberals feel the party had recovered its soul.

The Gulf War gave him a chance to display a combination of military experience and political judgment and he set up his own “war cabinet”, spending the conflict speeding between TV and radio ­studios. He had added a gravitas that went beyond his political weight.

However his leadership was rocked by the disclosure, in 1992, that he had a “brief relationship” with his former ­secretary, Patricia Howard. That “brief relationship” turned out to be of five months’ duration.

It was in vain for Ashdown – by now The Sun had delighted his enemies (and some of his friends) by dubbing him Paddy Pantsdown – to plead this was an invasion of privacy, because he had used “happy family snaps” on his personal election material.

Ashdown held a news ­conference at the ­Commons where questions were at a ­premium, his wife forgave him, and his ­constituency ­party rallied to his ­support.

But it was damaging in the long term because it showed him to be a man who had lied to his wife for five months. Even so, the affair seem to draw the couple closer together.

This episode prompted him to say in a subsequent interview: “Most people think I am a rampant carnivore, but there is an oddly feminine quality to my character.”

After the 1992 general election, Ashdown devoted a vast amount of time to the ­Bosnia conflict, making ­frequent visits to the battlezones. He also underlined his ­disdain for ­Parliament by ­touring the country from Cornwall to the Orkneys, spending time on housing estates, in schools and factories, with social workers and policemen, miners, ­farmers and fishermen.

This was all in the interests of finding out what “real people” think and do for the purposes of a book, Beyond Westminster, charting his experiences and underlining the trials and tribulations of British folk.

At the time of the 2001 ­general election, Ashdown was elevated to the peerage as Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon. In the House of Lords he concentrated on ­foreign affairs.

In March 2002, Ashdown ­testified as a witness for the prosecution at the trial of ­Slobodan Milosevic at the International Criminal Tribunal. He said that he was on the Kosovo-Albania border near Junik in June 1998.

From this location, through his binoculars, Ashdown claimed to have seen Serbian forces shelling several villages.

He took up the post of the High Representative for ­Bosnia and Herzegovina in May 2002, reflecting his long-time advocacy of international intervention in that region. He was sometimes denigrated as “the Viceroy of Bosnia” by ­critics of his work as High Representative, because of his allegedly high-handed approach to the post. Ashdown left that job in May 2006.

In 2007 it was reported that Gordon Brown, then the Labour Prime Minister, had offered Ashdown the job of Northern Ireland Secretary. However, Sir Menzies Campbell, then leader of the Lib Dems, did not want members of his party to hold office in a Labour Government.

It was widely thought he would be offered a Cabinet post in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government formed in 2010, but that was not to be the case.

In his final years, Ashdown continued to be a regular ­contributor to agenda-setting political shows.

However, in November, he revealed he had ­cancer.

“We must see about the outcome, which as always with things like this, is unpredictable,” he told Somerset Live.

“I’ve fought a lot of battles in my life. This time I am lucky enough to have the magnificent help of our local hospital, and my friends and family, and that gives me great confidence.”