Paddy Ashdown could have been Prime Minister. But no. He was leader of the Liberal Democrats instead, slogging it out on what George Lucas might call the ‘Outer Rim of British politics’. He was party leader from 1988 to 1999. He’s a great elder statesman. So why won’t he join them in Government? “I’m nearly seventy for fuck’s sake’, he bristles. ‘My time for big jobs is over.”
Unlike most politicians Ashdown is a man of many identities: born Jeremy, nicknamed Paddy, and now elevated to the peerage as Baron Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon. He came from nowhere- never went to university, not particularly interested in politics until his ’30s, and before that a soldier with the SBS. Despite, or perhaps because of this, he’s an amiable chap. Even before I meet him at the Union, his stately procession down St Michael’s Street is accompanied by recognising shouts from passing tourists and, especially, inebriated tramps. He greets all with a chortling ‘why hello there!’ and a bone-crushing shake of the hand.
Ashdown is here on behalf of the excellent student charity Oxford Aid to the Balkans, but I’m here to talk about other stuff. Such as, is the West in decline? “Yeah. The thing is that power is migrating fast out of the institutions of the nation-state which we created, and on to the global stage. The real powers that are growing are the powers that are no longer affected by borders. The globalisation of power is one of the phenomena of our time.”
A common Liberal theme is to accept the decline of British and Western power in global power-politics. This is an accurate stereotype, fitted by Ashdown. “We’ve moved away from a mono-polar world. I think the pattern of world power will look much like Europe in the nineteenth century. Canning called it the European Areopagiticus, the European concert of powers. We are seeing the end of five hundred years of western power, western institutions and western values. The west used to even 10 years ago propose and dispose in every corner of the world. It can no longer do so.” Different values mean different ideologies, and hence conflict. Though Ashdown isn’t so worried it’ll bring about war. “If you realise that globalisation and unregulated power is a key issue you can make it safer by creating institutions that will bring governance and the rule of law to the global space.”
What of Great Britain’s role in this new global order? It’s Europe, Europe, Europe I’m afraid. “Our strength internationally will depend on our ability to be able to create genuine integration in European policy. And the more we can do that the more we will be taken seriously by the US. Now, no one is doing that. No one is saying it. The population is hostile to it. But that remains the fact.
“The reality of it” he broods mournfully, supping at a crisp pint of Young’s, “is that Europe will either deepen or die. And if it doesn’t deepen we have consigned ourselves to perfectly sovereign corks bobbing around in the wake of other people’s ocean liners.” I rather like these Ashdown-isms. Dumbledorean in style and substance, not unlike the man himself. (He’s not infallible though, later referring to a quotation by Keynes as by Bernard Shaw. Sacrilege!)
His views on British politics are distinctly Coalitionish. “I think the mismatch between a centralised system that tries to dominate everything and the reality of the way which people live their lives is what is breaking up politics.
“The solution really is to reduce Westminster to an institution which looks after only those things which must be looked after at the level of the state and hand as much power back down to people in their own communities. I think one of the baleful developments of our time is that politics has been professionalised. You go into it at the age of eighteen in short pants. I arrived in this by accident.”
But what we need above all, in the age of economic uncertainty, is an end to managerialism. ‘You can’t run politics without creeds. We have been trying to but you can’t.’
Ashdown thinks Con-Demnation will last five years. ‘If you were a betting man, I’m not sure you’d put much money on it. But do you know I think it will. It has surprised me- it really has- for three reasons. First there is genuine congeniality which stretches quite a long way down, it is not just Cameron and Clegg. Secondly in a strange way, I hadn’t spotted it but Nick had, Cameron wants to be Disraeli. I’m not sure it’s our job to help him be Disraeli, but there is a reformist streak there. The coalition agreement is a genuinely reforming document. The third thing is the public is prepared to give us a chance. They can see how bad the economic situation is and are prepared to give us a space to put that right. Even if the outcome is pretty painful.”
Many say that outcome will be painful for the Lib Dems as well, as their support haemorrhages to the two bigger parties. On this the Peer is chirpy. “There is always a possibility. You can’t be in politics unless you take risks, and that is what I could never tolerate about the old Liberals. If you want to be a cosy furry little think-tank on the edges of British politics whose ideas are always robbed by others then fine. Don’t take any risk. You have to make compromises about power. The party understands that now.”
All the same, the Lib Dems being the main coalition partner is still a way off. “We have our fate in our own hands. Look we can fuck up, in which case we get smashed. On the other hand if we show- and I think that Nick has a real ability to show- that we can handle power, that we can take tough decisions, if he handles that well he looks like an alternative Prime Minister at the end of this process.”
That little ambition is behind Paddy these days. What does he want to do now? “My garden my grandchildren- and my eighth book! The 17th anniversary history of the Cockleshell Heroes. I shall really enjoy that paddling up the Gironde, struggling up the Pyrenees. Then I will see what happens after that!”