Last night the death of Paddy Ashdown hit me quite hard. Perhaps it was the realisation that at the age of almost 66 I am only 12 years his junior. But actually, it was because even now, Paddy was one of the few people to whom everyone would listen. People didn’t always agree with his arguments but they knew that those arguments were worth listening to. In turn, he listened to almost everyone and talked with almost everyone. He did that from an absolute belief in the liberal principles which he espoused.
But before I go on let me turn briefly to another more recent Leader who I also admire greatly – Nick Clegg. The great charge levelled against him and his fellow MPs was that he sought the coalition so that he could get his seat on a Ministerial car and the perks of office. This, of course, is absolutely nonsensical. If Nick or Paddy or Charles Kennedy or Jo Grimond or David Steel or Tim Farron had seen that as their first objective, they would never have joined our Party in the first place.
Being a Liberal, now Liberal Democrat, has never been the obvious place to be whether you are wanting to be a Councillor, MP or PM. You have to fight to win; you have to fight to stay elected; you have to fight to make yourself heard in what is still largely a two-Party system. There are no safe seats for us although some are safer than others! Any of our Leaders could have held high office in another Party. Any of the Lib Dem candidates seeking your vote in Liverpool in the elections next May would have been welcomed in another Party. Indeed, it is fascinating listening to Cllr Kay Davies who came from Labour to us describing the differences between our Parties.
So, if High Office was not their ambition what was? An absolute belief in our liberal principles with a clear understanding that those principles would not be delivered by any other Party in British politics.
Those principles are 100% clear:
- A fierce Internationalism combined with a patriotism that says that the UK should be up there as a World and European Leader championing the causes of world peace and fighting the poverty; lack of education; environmental degradation and sectarian fighting. Not for us the false patriotism of jingoistic flag raising and drawing up of barriers but an outward looking Britain taking its values to the World.
- An environmentalism that recognises that we only inherit the world from our predecessors and must bequeath it to our successors, our children and grandchildren, in such a way that they too will be able to thrive in clean air; clean environment and cleans seas.
- A sense of fairness which questions the need for people to earn tens of millions of £s but instead calls for and works a greater sharing of the Country’s and the World’s wealth.
- A belief that the Country cannot be run by politicians and bureaucrats in London or our economies decided by global capitalists taking their profits to offshore islands. With a decentralisation of power and a breaking up of international cartels.
- All these being underpinned by a strong economy without which there is no money or other resources to fund the things that ordinary people need. The NHS; Education services; transport services; parks and libraries on which we all ultimately depend.
Of course, other Parties share or claim to share most these values but above all it is the penultimate one about the sharing of power which absolutely distinguishes us from any other British Party. We seek power to reform society to give it away again to the people who it really belongs to who just lend it to us at election time.
Paddy and Jo and Charles and Nick and others all understood that and in the face of all the odds argued strongly and coherently for those ideals. Those ideas were often accepted by the two parties of the establishment years after our Party promoted them. Too often we could have said, “We told you so” but didn’t because that was pointless. Our policies evolved to meet new challenges and pressures within the principles outlined above.
What links the Leaders of my party in the 51 years I have known them is their sheer humanity. I actually thought that a few years ago about someone who was our Leader even longer ago, David Lloyd-George. When Mrs Thatcher was buried with great pomp after a service in Westminster, I recalled that Lloyd-George was buried in a simple service in the parish church in the where he had grown up.
Anyone could talk to Paddy. If you were depressed, he cheered you up. If you lacked motivation, he provided it in bucket loads. If you were unsure of where our policies applied in the greater scheme of things, he would make it all seem so simple. He did it with a smile, a joke and often a pint in his hand. He could talk as easily to a lot of bolshy Young Liberals (YLs are always bolshy thank goodness) as he could to great statesmen, presidents and Global Leaders.
I remember him coming to Liverpool at one election to support David Alton. We had arranged to meet at St Oswald’s Gardens in Old Swan. When we got there so had Militant who were barracking him from a balcony above where we were trying to hold a press conference. With no hesitation he took one look at them and shot straight up the stairs to meet them. After five minutes they went quiet for the rest of the visit and Paddy came down again. Whether he had swayed them with his arguments or just reminded them that he was the only Party Leader trained to kill with his bare hands I don’t know! But he went to talk to them when many others would have turned away.
Paddy, I will miss your acute brain and your reasoned and reasonable arguments so much. But so also will the body politic at a time when reasonable voices able to discuss thing rationally and calmly are so rare. At a time of shrill voices; huge prejudices and even huger chips on shoulders our final tribute will be for politicians to try and remember his example and come together at this acute hour of need for our Country.
Of course, for Liberal Democrats there is an easier way to honour and remember him. Next time it’s pouring with rain but you have 250 leaflets to deliver put your wellies on; find a bag for your leaflets; brave the elements and do it with the message inside your head, “I am going out for Paddy”.