Paddy Ashdown is one of the people I most admire in politics; I voted for him as Lib Dem leader, was a candidate and election agent for the party in Cambridge in 1990 and 1991, and then was the head of the local branch of the Lib Dems in Northern Ireland for several years (a position in no way incompatible with my Alliance Party activities). A few years later I found myself running the major source of informed but critical commentary on his tenure as High Representative in Bosnia. So I felt that I knew him a little, through politics both domestic and international.
I feel I know him better now. The book takes us through the start of his life in India, growing up in the northern part of County Down (his grandfather, from Rathfriland a bit farther south, supposedly owned the first motor car ever seen in Ireland), his decision to join the Royal Marines and the the SBS, his slipping into diplomacy and espionage, and then the momentous decision to give it all up and concentrate on a political career.
He adopted Yeovil (and the Liberals of Yeovil adopted him) in 1976, and decided then that it would take three elections to win the seat from the Conservatives. In fact it took only two, and he won in 1983 despite limited local resources and spells of unemployment. I think this part of the book is particularly instructive for anyone wanting to take up a career in representative politics; it’s tough for all political parties but particularly for smaller ones.
We then jump almost immediately from 1983 to 1988, when he was elected leader with my vote and many others, and was faced with a party in crisis, bumping along the bottom of the polls and often behind David Owen’s continuing SDP. What interested me here was that Ashdown was always on the lookout for the best political terrain to occupy: equidistance was appropriate between Major and Kinnock, but when Blair moved Labour to the right, Ashdown surged to the centre-left. He allowed himself to get seduced by Blair’s vision of a historic realignment of the British left, but once Blair had failed a couple of critical tests (most notably, binning the Jenkins recommendations for electoral reform) Ashdown decided that the project was over, as was his leadership.
The most moving parts of the book are about Bosnia; the prologue takes us to the camps of Manjača and Trnopolje, located in that long valley between Banja Luka and Prijedor which I came to know well at a later year. Always gifted for languages, Ashdown quoted pithy local proverbs – a particular favourite was “Lako je tuđim kurcem gloginje mlatiti”, which translates “it is easy to beat down thorns using other men’s pricks”. But he also did more in three years to create a sense of confidence and dynamism in Bosnia than the international community had managed in the previous decade. (All this progress, though Ashdown does not say it, was wilfully squandered by the indolence of his somnolent successor.)
The book ends with two bizarre episodes: first, Gordon Brown’s attempt to get him to join the cabinet in 2007 as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and second, his near miss at becoming UN special envoy for Afghanistan – an interesting case study of what happens when all the conditions have been put in place but one key actor (President Karzai) changes his mind at the last moment. I’ve seen some speculation that he may return to the EU as a special Balkan envoy but I fear this may just be wishful thinking from activists rather than anything based on reality.
One constant theme from about Chapter 4 onwards is the presence of his wife Jane. Despite one well-publicised wobble, this is clearly a deep and strong political and emotional partnership, as is obvious to anyone who has met the Ashdowns in action. But what comes out from the book is that Ashdown does draw his strength from his family; as he gets formally invested as a member of the House of Lords, his granddaughter shouts down from the gallery, Je veux faire PIPI! and his sympathy is entirely with the little girl.
It’s a well-written and entertaining book, and I think even those with much less interest than I have in Northern Ireland childhoods, British liberal politics, or Bosnia will enjoy it.