Stepping into the House of Lords is a bit like stepping back in time. From the wood panelled ‘Women Peers’ toilets (just past Baroness Thatcher’s coat hook), to the three person cage lift that rattles up and down the belly of the Houses of Parliament, everything has an air of grandeur that feels long since lost in the modern world. Lord Paddy Ashdown is all too aware of the anachronistic nature of the institution, expressing his “outrage” that the Lords is still an unelected second chamber of Parliament.
“You can’t not be a Lord now,” he tells me. “Even if you behave appallingly badly you still stay a Lord. It’s an incredible thing. I think it’s a ridiculous place.” However, Ashdown is not one to waste an opportunity. As he explains, “I play my part here because since I’m here I ought to play my part for the party.” And it is this mix of principles and pragmatism that seems to characterise Ashdown throughout my interview with him – dedicated to serving his country, while fully aware of the practical limitations of being a Liberal Democrat politician.
The eldest of seven children, born in New Delhi to an army nurse and Indian Army officer, but brought up mainly in Northern Ireland, Ashdown’s path to politics is certainly not the usual one. After spending thirteen years in the Royal Marines, serving in Borneo, the Persian Gulf and the Far East, Ashdown moved to Geneva under the auspices of representing the UK to the various UN agencies there, while working in a “shadowy part of the foreign office [MI6]during the night”. It was a “fascinating job”, and a life that Ashdown describes as his “halcyon days”. What then made him leave all that to go into politics?
“I can’t answer that question without sounding particularly pompous and self-righteous”, Ashdown laughs, before plunging into an explanation of what, in his view, was wrong with Britain in 1974: the power of the unions, the three day week, the two elections in one year. This made him realise, he says, that he wanted to do something more for his country. “I said to my wife, ‘What a ridiculous thing, what a terrible way to waste your life living a sybaritic existence, if you weren’t doing something that was of benefit to your country.’”
It was a decision that Ashdown describes as “idiotic” and “irresponsible”, but also “the best” decision of his life. Going into politics though, as Ashdown admits, was not only “insane”, but “doubly insane to go in as a Liberal [when] the party was at 5% in the opinion polls”, and even more so to attempt to win Yeovil, a seat which had been held by the Tories since its creation in 1918.
But win it he did in 1983, after eight long years of campaigning, and shortly before becoming leader of the Liberal Democrats from 1988 until 1999. For a politician who was drawn into the profession by his ideals, does he think that the Lib Dems have compromised too much by going into coalition with the Conservatives? Ashdown is adamant. “Absolutely not. If you want any evidence go and speak to the Tory right, they’re bloody furious. I actually think that the Liberal Democrats have held this Tory party and firmly nailed it to the centre ground.”
It is when he is talking about coalition politics that Ashdown’s synthesis of beliefs and pragmatism is clearest. There is no point in being a Liberal, he tells me, “if you are just prepared to be a cosy, fluffy pet at the side of British politics. Our job is to take power and get power and use power for purposes in which we believed. And to take the compromises and tough decisions necessary to do that.”
Compromise, then, it seems is the lifeblood of Britain’s third party. But isn’t there fear within the Lib Dems of being consigned to the political wilderness at the next general election, as the polls seems to be indicating? “Of course there is,” Ashdown responds, “you’d be fools if you didn’t [worry].”
He continues, “There are going to be headless chicken tendencies in any party. But anyone who seriously believed that there was a political dividend to be delivered from this in the first year, or the second year, or probably the third, was just not living in the real world. If there is a dividend to be delivered in this it comes in the year before the election.”
Since Ashdown assures me that he believes that the Lib Dems will get their political rewards, you can’t fault his optimism. He is also unrestrained in his praise for Nick Clegg, describing his judgement as “outstanding”, adding that Clegg’s “capacity to remain a fully paid up member of the human race in the face of the shit that he’s had to face is astonishing.”
Ashdown is unsurprisingly a touch more measured in his praise of Cameron, saying, “I don’t think he’s as strong at resisting his right wing backbenchers as he should be if he was going to be a really good Prime Minister, but I think he’s a very competent Prime Minister. And I think he’s a decent man.”
Ashdown admits that, along with other former Lib Dem leaders Sir Menzies ‘Ming’ Campbell and Charles Kennedy, he was initially “very dejected” with the coalition deal. He attributes this, along with his change of heart to becoming “a passionate supporter” of the coalition, to misunderstanding what he believes Clegg saw clearly from the beginning: that the Conservative parties of Cameron and Thatcher were very different.
Ashdown also leaps immediately at the chance to praise the coalition government, describing its judgement as “spot on”. On Cameron’s veto of the EU fiscal treaty, however, Ashdown does not hesitate in calling it “completely disastrous’ and “a profound failure to understand what is necessary for Britain”.When I ask whether he thinks that Britain’s future remains within the EU Ashdown’s answer is simple: “Absolutely, where else would it be?” As our discussion ranges from Europe to the American elections, Ashdown’s command of every issue we touch on is clear, and all the more impressive given that he never even completed A Levels, much less university.
Toward the end of our discussion, a man introduced to me as a “Suffolk radical”, Lord Andrew Philips, pokes his head into Ashdown’s office, asking for Ashdown’s help to get him “in” on an Iran discussion group. While my putative journalistic query about the nature of this group is, understandably, rebutted (“Mind your own business!”), Ashdown still doesn’t hesitate to give me his views on Iran. Though events have moved significantly since we spoke a few weeks ago, his affirmation that “sabre rattling is just not sensible”, and that we “need to be playing a much more subtle game with Iran than we currently are” still seems far more realistic than the shock headlines in the press of late.
As for his own future, Ashdown maintains that he has “no particular desire” to be a government minister, and even said to Blair that he wouldn’t join the cabinet in a Lib-Lab coalition. “I’m very happy as I am”, Ashdown tells me, citing writing his seventh book, his role as President of UNICEF UK, his continued interest in Bosnia, where he served as UN High Representative from 2002-2006, and his garden as keeping him busy beyond his role in the House of Lords. No small feat for someone now in their 70s, but then Ashdown has “never been terribly attracted to carpet slippers”.
Ashdown does admit that he would’ve liked to have been Prime Minister, half jokingly telling me, “It really spoiled my whole afternoon when I thought ‘I can’t be Prime Minister because none of you bastards voted for me!’” Despite this blemish on an otherwise unsurpassable CV, Ashdown is still certain that his greatest achievement has been not in Bosnia but in being an MP, “because there is no privilege in the world greater than serving your community.”