The life and times of Paddy Ashdown

The military man who rescued the Lib Dems during its darkest hour: How former Royal Marine Paddy Ashdown fought ‘with every ounce of his considerable stamina’ to enter politics and became a hero to his party

  • Paddy Ashdown was born in New Dehli in 1941 but was raised outside Belfast
  • In 1959, he joined the Royal Marines and later the elite Special Boat Service 
  • After time in the Foreign Office, he was elected an MP and later party leader 
  • The 77-year-old pioneering politician died from bladder cancer earlier today  

Paddy Ashdown was the first leader of the Liberal Democrats when the SDP and Liberal Alliance merged in 1988. 

He was born in New Dehli on February 27, 1941, although he grew up on the outskirts of Belfast when his parents bought a farm on the outskirts of Belfast.  

In 1959, he joined the Royal Marines in 1959 and served in the Indonesian-Malaysia insurgency where he was a young officer in charge of 20 marines. 

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

Paddy Ashdown, left, pictured here with members of 42 Commando, Royal Marines on Mutla Ridge, Kuwait, was keen during his political career to highlight his Action Man image

After completing parachine training in Poole in 1965, he was given command of a section of the Special Boat Service in the Far East. 

One of the techniques developed by Ashdown was known as ‘Goldfish’ which enabled operatives to enter and leave a submarine without the vessel having to surface. 

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He later commanded Commandos in Belfast in 1970 before leaving the Royal Marines in 1972 and joining the Foreign Office. 

Lord Ashdown first stood for election in Yeovil in 1979 for the Liberals, although he did not make it into parliament until 1983 where he remained until his retirement in 2001. 

In 1988 he was elected as the first leader of the Liberal Democrats. 

Yet, while party leader he managed to survive an expose by The Sun, who branded him ‘Paddy Pantsdown’ over a five-month affair he had with his secretary. 

Ashdown had the five-month relationship in 1985 but in 1992 the News of the World discovered the story. He managed to secure an injunction against the paper before handing it to The Sun – who branded him ‘Paddy Pantsdown’. 

Following the scandal, he changed the message on his answering machine to ‘Hello, this is Paddy Ashdown. Please leave a message after the high moral tone.’ 

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

Ashdown, pictured, was born in India but grew up outside Belfast on a farm before he joined the Royal Marines and later the Special Boat Service

As the leader of a minority party, Ashdown was always praying at election times for a hung Parliament in the hope that the Liberal Democrats 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 which followed this ‘feeler’ 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.

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

And 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.

When in 1998 he had served as leader for 10 years and 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 Liberal Democrat 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.

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

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

And the resignation of Peter Mandelson as Trade and Industry Secretary in December 1998 made it more difficult for Mr 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 at any such moves.

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

Finally, in the spring of 1999, Ashdown announced his decision to 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 in the House of Commons.

But in the immediate aftermath of his quitting the leadership, Ashdown’s hopes for a big international post, such as leading Nato, were swiftly scotched. Even though Prime Minister 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 on his part.

Former Conservative prime minister Sir John Major hailed his former opponent as ‘a man of duty, passion, and devotion to the country he loved – right up to the very end”.

He said Lady Ashdown and the rest of his family could be proud of his achievements, adding: ‘In Government, Paddy Ashdown was my opponent. In life, he was a much-valued friend.

‘His loss will be felt deeply by many – and not least by myself.

‘Throughout his life, Paddy was a true patriot, whose overriding wish was to serve his country: first, in the Marines, and then in both Houses of Parliament.

‘I can attest to the fact that – even when he knew he was gravely ill – Paddy’s concern for the future of our country continued to dominate his thinking.

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

‘I was not surprised. For Paddy, his country always came before personal or political advantage.’ 

Born Jeremy John Durham Ashdown – as an Irishman he preferred the homespun Paddy, his schoolboy nickname – 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 front-line areas in the Bosnian conflict.

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 Ulster in Northern Ireland to run a pig farm, but the family gradually grew poorer as a result of Ashdown Senior’s poor business sense.

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’

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 his wife Jane, the cousin of a fellow officer. Ashdown studied Chinese during a naval course in Hong Kong, and reputedly used to order his Chinese meals in Cantonese at UK takeaway shops.

But in 1971, he left behind a military life, and joined the Foreign Office. At the age of 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.’

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 then sought and acquired the Liberal candidacy for Yeovil, for years a seemingly impregnable Tory stronghold. But Ashdown worked for years, ‘nursing’ 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 as trade and industry man, 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, quieter and certainly more thoughtful MP for Berwick.

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

They plumped, however, for the brash bravado of Paddy Ashdown, whose 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 that was 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 to his image that went beyond his political weight.

However his leadership was rocked to its foundations by the disclosure, early 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.

And 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 later described this description as ‘dreadful but brilliant’.

Ashdown held an abrupt 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 leaving the House of Commons, Ashdown was nominated to the House of Lords

After the 1992 general election, Ashdown devoted a vast amount of his 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, dustmen, 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.

The former leader, pictured at the party’s spring conference in 2015,k was the UN’s High Representative for Bosnia and Herszegovina between 2002 and 2006

From this location, through his binoculars, Ashdown claimed to have seen Serbian forces shelling several villages. Defence counsel for Milosevic claimed it was impossible for Ashdown to have seen this.

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, who was then leader of the Liberal Democrats, 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 November Lord Ashdown revealed that he had been diagnosed with bladder cancer

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

However, in November this year, 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.’

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