‘They don’t make ‘em like Paddy Ashdown anymore’

‘They don’t make ‘em like Paddy anymore’: The fast-talking, quick witted diplomat who rose from special forces soldier to become a giant of British politics

  • Paddy Ashdown died yesterday aged 77 following a brief battle with cancer 
  • The former politician had an extraordinary career as a special forces soldier
  • Ashdown was elected as MP for Yeovil in 1983 where he remained until 1998 

To those unaware of how ill he was, Paddy Ashdown’s death at the age of 77 will come as a shock – because he was always bursting with the energy of a man two decades younger.

The fast-talking, quick-witted former diplomat, Royal Marine and Special Boat Squadron captain brought a vibrancy and muscularity to his party – he would wake up colleagues with 7am mobile phone calls and pound on a rowing machine in the House of Commons gym.

He drew on his military experience to take instant naps and eat on the move: when he took over the leadership of the newly-merged Social and Liberal Democrats – the Lib Dems – in July 1988, the party was on the brink of extinction, languishing at five per cent in the polls, neck-and-neck with the Greens, and earning it the soubriquet of the ‘dead parrot’ party from Margaret Thatcher.

Paddy Ashdown, pictured here with his wife Jane, and dog Luke, died earlier today aged 77

Ashdown, pictured, was first elected to the House of Commons in 1983 following a military career and time with the Foreign Office

Ashdown, second right, began his military career in the Royal Marine Commandos 

Within two years, Ashdown had pulled the party up to 18 per cent of the vote in local elections. Admiring colleagues called it the ‘bang! wallop!’ approach.

His breakthrough came when the party captured Eastbourne from the Tories in October 1990, in the wake of the IRA killing of Ian Gow, Mrs Thatcher’s parliamentary private secretary.

Ashdown polled as the most popular leader of a national party.

When it was disclosed in 1992 that he had had a five-month affair with his former secretary, Patricia Howard, the ‘Paddy Pantsdown’ monicker led to a torrent of mocking headlines but, perversely, a further increase in his personal poll ratings.

Ashdown, right, pictured in Borneo, was also in the Special Boat Service 

His wife of 30 years, Jane, forgave him, however, and his constituency party rallied to his support.

He went on to turn the party into a political force that could not be ignored during the late 1990s, at the same time as Tony Blair was performing similar feats with Labour.

The Sun dubbed him ‘Paddy Pantsdown’ after breaking news of the five-month affair he had with his secretary, although the former Commando changed his answer machine message as a result of the scandal to ‘Hello, this is Paddy Ashdown. Please leave a message after the high moral tone’

Yet, despite the affair, Ashdown’s wife Jane, left, stood by her husband, right, who continued as Lib Dem leader until 1998

And the two forces nearly combined: after Ashdown announced his decision to quit as party leader in 1999, boasting that he had brought it in the space of 12 years from near-extinction to a position in 1997 with 46 MPs in the House of Commons, it was revealed that he had been involved in secret ‘coalition’ talks with Blair before the 1997 General Election in which Labour secured a landslide victory.

But Blair decided that Ashdown’s lack of experience in running a big department counted against him. His hopes for a big international post, such as leading Nato, were also scotched.

Instead, he evolved into a grandee figurehead for the party, commanding a level of respect which his successors could never match.

Born Jeremy John Durham Ashdown in Delhi in 1941 to an Irish family, he preferred the homespun Paddy, his schoolboy nickname.

Ashdown was a hugely-respected figure on the world stage despite never being a Government minister 

He was described as a swashbuckling, rangy and handsome figure, who became the youngest commander in the SBS after joining the Royal Marines in 1959. After learning Malay, he studied Chinese for two-and-a-half years before transferring to MI6 in Geneva. But he became restless in the ascetic Swiss city and decided to return to England to attempt to launch a political career from the dole queue.

A former Labour supporter, he started to move to the Right, explaining: ‘I discovered that I had never really been a socialist’.

In 1976 he won the Liberal Party candidacy for Yeovil – a seemingly impregnable Tory stronghold – and worked for years to take the constituency, failing in 1979, but claiming it in 1983.

He and his young family had gone through a brutally tough period. He had to make ends meet with a series of short-term jobs including working for a sheepskin coat-makers, Westland Helicopters and as a youth worker for Dorset County Council. He was also unemployed for six-months.

‘Nothing I have ever done was as hard as that,’ he said once. ‘It unmanned me.’

He hated the Commons at first, and struggled in the chamber, so strove to fashion the energetic everyman image instead.

His brash bravado – and insistence that Labour was doomed and the Liberal Democrats would replace them – carried him through his difficult early years as leader as he tried to reshape a party described at the time as ‘confused, demoralised, starved for money and in the grip of a bitter identity crisis’.

When he took over as leader of the Social and Liberal Democrats – the Lib Dems – in July 1988, the party was on the brink of extinction, languishing at five per cent in the polls, neck-and-neck with the Greens, and earning it the soubriquet of the ‘dead parrot’ party from Margaret Thatcher

The position he took after the Tiananmen Square massacre – that Hong Kong citizens should be allowed to come to Britain – made many Liberals feel the party had recovered its soul, while the first Gulf War gave him a chance to showcase his military experience as he set up his own ‘war cabinet’ and sped between TV and radio studios.

He never lived down the ‘Pantsdown’ nickname and it was painful: particularly because he had used happy family snaps on his personal election material. In one interview he claimed that it had drawn him closer to his wife, saying: ‘Most people think I am a rampant carnivore, but there is an oddly feminine quality to my character.’

In 1988, Ashdown, pictured with his wife Jane, was elected leader of the newly created Social and Liberal Democratic Party which saw a merger between the SDP and the Liberals

In his final months, Ashdown had been co-ordinating talks between politicians about creating a new centrist party to oppose Brexit 

After resigning the leadership in 1999, he was elevated to the peerage as Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon and spent much of the subsequent period concentrating on his interest in Bosnia. In March 2002, he testified as a witness for the prosecution at the trial of Slobodan Milosevic at the International Criminal Tribunal.

After taking up the post of High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina in May 2002, he was sometimes described mockingly as ‘the Viceroy of Bosnia’ by critics because of his allegedly high-handed approach to the post. He 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, Menzies Campbell, then leader of the Lib Dems, did not want members of his party to hold office in a Labour Government.

Ashdown, pictured here with John Major and Tony Blair survived the scandal over his affair with his secretary 

It was widely thought he would be offered a Cabinet post in the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition Government formed in 2010 – but again he was to be disappointed.

Ashdown spent his final months playing a key behind-the-scenes role in attempting to reshape the political landscape again by holding talks with anti-Corbyn Labour MPs about a new party.

As leader of the Liberal Democrats, he had hoped for a hung parliament, so his party could hold the balance of power and change the electoral system to proportional representation to further boost his party’s prospects

He also became reflective about the personal and political forces which formed him, including the tragedies of his younger brother Richard dying when he was just 11 months old in India, his brother Robert succumbing to leukaemia when he was 14 and a sister dying in a car crash.

‘Losing three children was very hard on my parents, who turned to spiritualism for comfort. Those losses affected me too, of course. I have always felt great anxiety when any of the children or grandchildren have been ill,’ he said.

He had met his wife when he was 20 and she was 21. In 2014, he described her as ‘the bedrock of my existence but admitted: ‘Sometimes she has said she could have done with fewer adventures during our marriage.’

Asked whether he was a good father he said: ‘I made space for my children to have their own lives, but my political ambitions swallowed a lot of the time I could have spent being with them.

‘Jane gets much more of the credit for bringing up two wonderful children. I adore being a grandfather’.

He finished his military service, pictured here with the Royal Marines standing on a Land Rover in Belfast. He served in Northern Ireland between 1970 and 1972

 

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