Paddy Ashdown: A Fortunate Life

Paddy Ashdown - A Fortunate Life - book cover

It is a tribute to Paddy Ashdown’s varied and fascinating careers that even hardened politicos reading his autobiography, A Fortunate Life, do not express regret at how relatively briefly his British political career features in it.

Around two-thirds of the book document his times as a Royal Marine, in the Special Boat Service, then as a spy and finally, after time as an MP and leader of the Liberal Democrats, international peacemaker in the former Yugoslavia. Even if his time as leader of the Liberal Democrats had ended quickly in ignominious failure, Ashdown would have multiple impressive legacies to outweigh it. That, in fact, his time as leader saw remarkable success in rescuing the party from death’s door makes all but the most hardened reader end up feeling their life is just rather tame, straight-forward and under-performing compared to Ashdown’s.

With such brilliant raw material to pull from, the book itself has an easy time enchanting and moving the reader. The life story is so good that the occasional clumsy language hardly detracts, and the scale of the horrors that Ashdown saw – and in part stopped – in the former Yugoslavia was so gruesome that fancy writing is not needed for the accounts to have a huge emotional impact.

For those interested in politics, and in winning elections in particular, the chapter on how Paddy Ashdown won the Yeovil seat acts as an excellent short primer with his strategy for the constituency still reading well, three decades on.

For all that his politics was a surprisingly small part of his overall life, they were an important part too. 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”

Ashdown does not shy away from some of the controversies of his own life, including his affair and his own  personality, which could both entrance and enrage:

My favourite lunch at this time [the mid-1980s, after becoming an MP] was an hour in the gym and an apple at my desk, which must have made me quite insufferable to more normal inhabitants of the Westminster village.

Paddy Ashdown tells many stories against himself in a funny, self-deprecating account of a remarkably varied and successful life.

He passed away in 2018. His book is a lasting tribute to what he achieved, and this caricature by Rory Bremner is still affectionately very funny:

Paddy Ashdown’s books are available from Amazon and Bookshop.org (affiliate links).

4 responses to “Paddy Ashdown: A Fortunate Life”

  1. I read `A Fortunate Life' by Paddy Ashdown and found the book a totally self effacing account of his singular mind and influence on the upward movement of Liberal Democrat support and respect in the country.Lord Ashdown has an effusive and dynamic style of positive but sensitive to all people leadership and has in my opinion, had the widest influence of any Libera, l since Lloyd-George.

    • I know him Mr. Smith. Actually, Tiger and I have peered through the complete list of House of Lords. Tiger was somehow still carrying the hope to be among them one day.. And we would move and introduce ourselves to the charities community..Who knows, may be one day even one of us could in in the Prince Lodge. Preferably him..If I were to be his. But his peers are still undecided to be overcritical or not to the 3rd veil and the girl is stubborn not to let the toy away. So I am alone..

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