Devastating news tonight – the death of former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown, who had previously been treated for cancer. He took Yeovil from unwinnable into a safe Liberal Democrat seat, and also rescued the party from near annihilation in the fallout from the SDP-Liberal merger. His political strategy was central to achieving the biggest sustained period of political reform in Britain in decades, even if in the end it fell short of securing proportional representation.
There is more than one generation of party activists he charmed, motivated, infuriated, inspired and eagerly plunged into arguments with. Jacket off, seat swung around to sit on backwards, intense debate with a room full of party members. Or online, taking part personally in debates on the party’s then CIX computer conference system, as if he was just another one of us. He had the magic of apparently effortless charisma.
In his later years as a leader, he often disagreed with many activists – a fate perhaps inevitable for all leaders – but he never lost his affection for them and for the party. As he said in a final party conference speech, the party has been, “my pride and my purpose”.
Joining the House of Lords after stepping down as an MP, he remained a firm advocate of democrat reform in the Lords and continued to be a strong voice speaking up for our civil liberties and for reforming international systems.
With a tragic coincidence, the date of Paddy’s death, 22nd December, is the same day on which another hugely talented and charismatic MP, David Penhaligon, died in 1986.
Paddy Ashdown led such an amazing, varied life as a soldier, spy and diplomat that, despite being leader of a political party and for a good while the most popular leader in the UK, politics only made up one chapter of his autobiography.
It’s also a tribute to his warmth and his skill that Rory Bremner’s famous satirical song shows him in such a positive light. Not many politicians get put through a satirist’s humour mill and come out looking better. Paddy did:
As Vince Cable has said:
Our thoughts are with Jane and Paddy’s family this evening.
This is a hugely sad day for the Liberal Democrats and for the very many people across political and public life who had immense affection and respect for Paddy.
He took up unpopular causes where he was respected for his convictions, in particular promoting the rights of the citizens of Hong Kong, and – later – military intervention in Kosovo. He was famous for his politics, but his talents extended well beyond that arena. He was an accomplished author, and had spent many years serving the country before he got near the House of Commons.
Few people know how hard he fought to get into politics following his service in the marines and diplomatic service. He exercised every ounce of his considerable personal stamina to win the Yeovil seat.
Awful news, only ameliorated a little by all the wonderful memories of what he achieved, what he inspired in others and what he fought for.