Paddy Ashdown 1941–2018

Paddy Ashdown, Leader of the Liberal Democrats 1988–99, passed away on 22 December 2018. As a tribute to his memory, we reprint here in full the chapter on his time as leader from our 2015 book, British Liberal Leaders. We hope this may help to explain to those readers who did not know him why he is remembered with such respect and affection. Rest in peace, Paddy.


British Liberal Leaders (2015): Chapter on Paddy Ashdown by Duncan Brack

Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats from 1988 to 1999, ranks as one of the most effective and successful Liberal leaders since the collapse of the Liberal Party in the 1920s. Although the Liberal Democrats won more seats under Charles Kennedy and entered government under Nick Clegg, Ashdown inherited the party in much worse shape than Kennedy and left it in better shape than he found it, unlike Clegg. He created, out of the wreckage of the Liberal–SDP Alliance, a professional, modernised and effective political force. He took it through the wrangles over its name and collapsing support in the opinion polls to a new respectability, stunning local election and by-election victories and a higher number of Commons seats than at any time since 1929. And yet, his grand strategy of working together with the Labour Party, based on a common progressive agenda, to change the face of British politics forever – ‘the project’ – ultimately ended in failure.

  • Jeremy John Durham Ashdown (b. 27 February 1941), born in India to a family of soldiers and colonial administrators.
  • Grew up in Northern Ireland (hence his schoolboy nickname ‘Paddy’); educated at Bedford School.
  • Served in the Royal Marines (including Special Boat Section), 1959–72; diplomat and spy, 1972–76.
  • Married Jane Courtenay in 1962; one son, one daughter.
  • Fought Yeovil in 1979; elected in 1983, held seat until stood down in 2001.
  • Leader of the Liberal Democrats 1988–99, high representative and EU special representative for Bosnia & Herzegovina 2002–06.
  • Awarded KBE 2000, GCMG 2006, CH 2015.
  • Ennobled as Baron Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, 2001.
  • Chair of Liberal Democrat 2015 election campaign.

Ashdown came into the Liberal Party as an outsider, with no long record of political activism. Nevertheless, his upbringing and early experiences clearly helped to generate strong political views. His father, ex-Indian Army, argumentative, politically radical and never afraid to hold a minority opinion, was a key figure, and his upbringing in Northern Ireland left him with a dislike of sectarianism (reinforced by a period of soldiering in the province in 1970–71). His years at boarding school in Bedford gave him self-confidence and self-discipline, together with an enquiring mind and a drive to learn and to compete; also self-sufficiency and a dislike of clubbishness. His years in the army, and the social structure behind its officer class, reinforced his progressive beliefs.

Initially a Labour supporter, Ashdown lost his sympathies for the party at the time of Barbara Castle’s abortive attempt to reform industrial relations law in the late 1960s and Britain’s drift towards industrial conflict under the Wilson and Callaghan governments. He only joined the Liberal Party by a lucky chance. In January 1974, while digging in the garden of his cottage in Yeovil, he was interrupted by a Liberal canvasser, who ‘wore an orange anorak, looked rather unprepossessing and had a squeaky voice to match’.[1] Despite Ashdown’s scepticism, he invited him in, and ‘two hours later, having discussed liberalism at length in our front room, I discovered that this was what I had really always been. That Liberalism was an old coat that had been hanging in my cupboard, overlooked all these years, just waiting to be taken down and put on.’[2]

Two years later he gave up his diplomatic career and set about contesting the apparently hopeless constituency of Yeovil – a decision he described as ‘naive to the point of irresponsibility. It just happens also to be the best decision I have made in my life.’[3] Displaying characteristic energy and drive, he built up his local electoral base, recruiting a formidable team of campaigners and applying the community politics approach promoted by the Association of Liberal Councillors. In 1979, he achieved his immediate objective of taking second place from Labour, and the party also won all the council seats it contested the same day. Although his plan had been to win the seat at the third election, he actually succeeded at the second attempt, in 1983.

His campaigning background helped him to build a reputation among the grassroots of the party and he proved an effective spokesman, first on trade and industry and then on education, during the 1983–87 parliament. He once observed that he never felt happy in the chamber of the House of Commons unless both the other two parties were attacking him. Having largely stayed clear of the bitter arguments over merger in the winter of 1987–88, he stood for the leadership of the new Social & Liberal Democrats (SLD). He based his appeal on the need to rethink the party’s approach, with the underlying theme that choice and individual freedoms were the entitlement of every citizen, but that with that came rights and responsibilities. Specific areas for new thinking included looking at the social security system, putting green politics at the top of the agenda, and using the market wherever possible to promote prosperity. On 28 July 1988, after a highly professional campaign in which he always seemed ahead, Ashdown was elected leader over Alan Beith, with over 70 per cent of the vote.

The characteristics he displayed during his early political career were to become ever more clear in his leadership. First, his self-belief and love of a challenge, perhaps fuelled by not thinking about it too clearly ahead of time – exemplified by deciding to fight Yeovil in the first place; as he put it later, quoting David Penhaligon, he won because ‘he was too naive to know it was impossible’.[4] Second, his penchant for plans – as in his three-election strategy for the constituency. Third, his political courage, including a number of instances where he took principled positions which were unpopular locally; although this caused some difficulty, they did not appear to damage his prospects in the long term, and he concluded that in general voters preferred MPs to do what they believed to be right, and respected them for it, even while disagreeing with them. He was to follow this instinct later, in supporting the Conservative government over the Maastricht Treaty of European Union. Finally, his evident love for the party and respect for its activists – which is not a universal characteristic of leaders.

It was clear even before his election to Parliament that he was a naturally gifted speaker; his first-ever speech to the Liberal assembly, in 1981, successfully opposing the deployment of US cruise missiles in the UK, won him a standing ovation. As leader he worked hard on his delivery and style, receiving assistance from, among others, Max Atkinson, author of the classic study of political speech-making, Our Masters’ Voices.[5] Although his conference speeches could occasionally suffer from being over-rehearsed, at his best he was a powerful and inspiring speaker, with a compelling voice and distinctive turn of phrase. He was probably even better at talks with small groups of party members or ordinary citizens, taking his jacket off and turning his chair round in an easy, familiar way. He dealt effectively with the media and although at times could sound sanctimonious (something of an occupational hazard for politicians from third parties, used to criticising both government and opposition), he came over well to the public, and frequently featured in opinion polls as the most popular party leader.

His career as leader of the Liberal Democrats can be divided into three phases, following the plan he himself had mapped out on becoming leader: ‘The first was survival from a point of near extinction; the second was to build a political force with the strength, policy and positions to matter again in British politics; and the third was to get on to the field and play in what I believed would become a very fluid period of politics.’[6] Strategic planning of this sort was absolutely typical of Ashdown, one of the characteristics almost everyone who worked with him remembered – he always had a plan, and a position paper, and when he achieved one objective he was often already looking ahead to the next. Other personal qualities included an apparently inexhaustible supply of energy, helped by his obvious physical fitness, and hyperactivity. He thought – and worried – about everything, ringing up party spokesmen, for example, to get them to respond to an obscure proposal in a local party’s conference resolution. He was fascinated by ideas, and published a series of books and pamphlets, including Citizen’s Britain in 1989, and Beyond Westminster in 1994;[7] his conference speeches often challenged party orthodoxies, particularly in the early years.

Ashdown needed all these qualities in his first phase (1988–92), that of survival. The party he inherited was demoralised, shedding members and almost bankrupt after the long-drawn-out process of merger; on the day he was elected leader, the Inland Revenue sent officials into party HQ to seize assets in lieu of unpaid national insurance contributions. Furthermore, the SLD faced challenges to its role as Britain’s third party, initially from the ‘continuing SDP’, those followers of David Owen who had refused to join the merged party, whose high-water mark was beating the SLD, in February 1989, into third place in the Richmond by-election. Four months later the SLD ended up in a humiliating fourth place in the European parliamentary elections, scoring just 6.2 per cent and falling well behind the Green Party. It sank even further in the opinion polls thereafter and had to sack more than half its staff in response to the membership and financial crisis. As Ashdown put it, he was ‘plagued by the nightmare that the party that started with Gladstone will end with Ashdown’.[8]

The financial and electoral crises of summer 1989 were bad enough, but they helped to bring to a head the third challenge faced by the party: confusion over its identity. Was the new party to be Liberal, Social Democratic or something else entirely? In practice, the argument was conducted over what the party was to be called. The decision, which Ashdown backed at his first party conference, to opt for the new name of ‘Democrats’ to replace the clumsy merger compromise of ‘Social & Liberal Democrats’, proved disastrous, undermining the sense of identity and self-image that party members need, particularly in difficult times. ‘Being a relative outsider compared to the older MPs,’ as he put it later: ‘I had, in my rush to create the new party, failed to understand that a political party is about more than plans and priorities and policies and a chromium-plated organisation. It also has a heart and a history and a soul – especially a very old party like the Liberals … I had nearly wrecked the party by becoming too attached to my own vision and ignoring the fact that political parties are, at root, human organisations and not machines.’[9]

An all-member ballot in the autumn chose ‘Liberal Democrats’ by a clear majority. In retrospect this marked the beginnings of recovery. Party finances and membership both stabilised, and the local strength and campaigning tenacity of the core of activists who stayed true to the party ensured that it saw off the other competitors for the centre-left ground; the Greens had clearly faded by early 1990 and after humiliating by-election results the Owenites wound themselves up in May 1990. The shock Liberal Democrat by-election victory of Eastbourne, in October 1990, underlined the fact that the party had survived – and also helped signal the beginning of the end for Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. The party won two further by-elections in 1991 (the victory in Ribble Valley heralding the end of the hated poll tax) and achieved 22 per cent in that year’s local elections. Further local election and by-election gains, some with record swings, were to follow in the 1992–97 parliament, and in 1994 the party won its first ever seats in the European Parliament.

The fact that the party survived at all was very much due to Ashdown; it seems unlikely that had his leadership opponent Alan Beith been elected, he would have displayed the energy, drive and charisma the party needed. Ashdown also succeeded in finding positions for his party which were principled and distinctive, the constant quest for third-party leaders; as Ashdown himself said, ‘I would sell my grandmother for some distinctiveness for the party’.[10] The first of these was his championing, after the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989, of the right of Hong Kong citizens to be given British passports in advance of the colony’s incorporation into China. Later on it included support for the Maastricht Treaty of European Union in Parliament, which included voting with John Major’s government after it lost its majority following internal rebellions, and pressing for western action on Bosnia and Kosovo; his repeated visits to the Balkan war zones helped to build public support in Britain for the NATO-led action that ended the Serbian attempt to destroy the Bosnian state.

Ashdown’s interest in policy ideas led him to take the chairmanship of the party’s Federal Policy Committee and to use it to establish a series of key policy positions, including a more market-oriented economic policy than the Liberal–SDP Alliance had possessed (including the proposal for independence for the Bank of England, later implemented by Labour), a strong environmental platform and a pledge to invest in public services, including, most memorably, a penny on income tax for education. By 1993, the party was coming top in opinion polls asking which party was the best on environmental issues; it also scored relatively well on education. Both the election manifestos produced under Ashdown’s leadership were well regarded by the media. ‘The Liberal Democrat essay far outdistances its competitors with a fizz of ideas and an absence of fudge,’ stated The Guardian in 1992.[11] In 1997, The Independent called the party’s manifesto the most challenging of the three, saying that politics without the Liberal Democrats would be ‘intolerable’; Peter Riddell in The Times enjoyed its ‘refreshing candour’ and admired Ashdown’s willingness to leap where Tony Blair feared to tread.[12] Ashdown was able to stamp his ideas firmly on the party largely because of the respect and admiration he came to enjoy among its members; as The Economist commented in 1991, ‘Ordinary party members will take things from him for which they would have lynched David Owen.’[13]

This all meant that in the 1992 election the party was able to run an effective campaign with an attractive policy platform. The build-up to the election was nearly thrown off course, however, by the revelation of a brief affair between Ashdown and his former secretary five years earlier. The support of his wife Jane, his own willingness to face a Westminster press conference and some deft public relations saw him through this painful experience, though it cast a shadow over the campaign. Overall, however, the 1992 election was a personal success for Ashdown, establishing him as a significant voice in British politics. He was consistently described in opinion polls as the most popular party leader, and the party’s policies, especially its pledge to raise income tax to spend more on education, were widely praised. The result – 17.8 per cent of the vote and twenty seats – proved that the Liberal Democrats were not going to disappear, as had seemed possible in 1989.

The second phase of the Ashdown leadership, from 1992 to 1997, centred around his attempts at realignment of the left, a common theme of previous Liberal leaders and an objective of Ashdown’s since the very early days of his leadership. Although there had been some contacts with Labour politicians and sympathisers before 1992, it was Labour’s fourth successive election defeat that provided the main opportunity for action. Exactly a month after the election, Ashdown delivered the ‘Chard speech’, given to an audience of only forty or fifty in a small town in his constituency, arguing that the party needed to ‘work with others to assemble the ideas around which a non-socialist alternative to the Conservatives can be constructed’.[14] Although the speech was deeply unpopular within the parliamentary party (one hostile MP took to referring to it as a ‘burnt offering’), it was to prove the opening scene of more than five years of delicate negotiations with Labour, particularly after Tony Blair took over as leader in 1994. In due course Ashdown and Blair reached an agreement to focus their attacks on the Conservatives rather than each other. This included a formal abandonment of ‘equidistance’ by the Liberal Democrat conference in 1995, a decision reached after extensive consultation within the party by Ashdown; but since Liberal Democrat policy positions were generally much closer to Labour’s than to the Tories, and since the Conservative government was deeply unpopular by 1995, this seemed mainly simple common sense. In fact, cooperation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats extended further than most realised at the time. In the run-up to the 1997 election the two parties agreed a (secret) list of Tory seats in which one party had little chance of winning and would therefore not invest resources, so as to give the other a clear run. Also as a result of joint discussions, during the election the Daily Mirror published a list of twenty-two seats where, if Labour voters backed the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives would be defeated; in the event the party won twenty of them.

Blair and Ashdown also agreed to collaborate on policy areas where they hoped to work together. The key outcome was a series of talks on constitutional reform led by Robin Cook, for Labour, and Robert Maclennan, for the Liberal Democrats. In March 1997 the group reached agreement on a package of proposals including incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law, freedom of information legislation, devolution to Scotland and Wales (and elections by proportional representation to their parliaments), an elected authority for London, removal of the hereditary peers from the House of Lords, proportional representation for the European elections, and a referendum on voting reform for Westminster elections. Most of this had been Liberal Democrat policy for years (or was a watered-down version of it), but much was new for Labour.

The Cook–Maclennan process was public, and in general was cautiously welcomed by Liberal Democrats. What was discussed in secret, however – and which would have alarmed many party members – was something much more dramatic, what Ashdown called ‘the big thing’: an agreement to fight the election on a common platform on at least two or three major issues. ‘If, as it appears,’ Ashdown confided to his diary in April 1996, ‘I have more in common with Blair than he has with his left wing, surely the logical thing is for us to create a new, more powerful alternative force which would be unified around a broadly liberal agenda.’[15] Ashdown went so far as to draft successive versions of a ‘Partnership for Britain’s Future’, covering constitutional reform, cleaning up politics (after several examples of corruption and dishonest conduct among MPs), the reform of welfare systems and economic policy reform, including investing in education, awarding independence to the Bank of England, and adherence to the criteria for entry into the single European currency. From July 1996, Blair and Ashdown started to talk about Liberal Democrat participation in a Labour government; Peter Mandelson later claimed that this would have involved including two Liberal Democrat MPs, Alan Beith and Menzies Campbell, in Blair’s first Cabinet.[16] Blair even sprang on a surprised Ashdown the idea of merger between the parties; Ashdown responded by saying ‘that may be a long-term destination … that may happen, say, ten years from now, probably under someone else’s leadership’.[17]

In the end, the ‘big thing’ was too big a step. What worried Ashdown and his colleagues was Blair’s refusal to commit firmly to the introduction of proportional representation for Westminster elections – the absolute bottom line for the Liberal Democrats, who could not be expected to tie themselves to a much bigger partner without being able to survive its eventual fall. Ashdown’s diaries record in painstaking detail a long series of meetings in which Blair was first educated about what PR meant and the different systems through which it could be introduced, and then prevaricated, hinting at his own possible conversion to it but stressing the opposition he would face in the Parliamentary Labour Party. By January 1997, the very small number of Liberal Democrat colleagues who were kept in the loop by Ashdown were unanimously urging him to drop the project, but he persevered, despite his advisor Richard Holme’s warning that: ‘You must not get carried away with the film script you have written in your head – two strong people standing up and shaping history.’[18]

As late as election day in May 1997, Blair and Ashdown were still talking about whether they could entertain any form of cooperation; Blair declared that he was ‘absolutely determined to mend the schism that occurred in the progressive forces in British politics at the start of this century’.[19] By the next day, however, Blair had changed his tone, talking merely of a ‘framework for cooperation’. Robin Cook later confirmed that Gordon Brown (Labour’s shadow Chancellor) and John Prescott (its deputy leader) had both made clear to Blair overnight their virulent opposition to any role for Ashdown or his colleagues in government. In any case, the size of Labour’s majority destroyed any argument for it.

The second phase of Ashdown’s leadership, like his first, must be accounted a success. He successfully rode the rising tide of support for centre-left sentiment and the rejection of the Conservative government that not only swept Labour into power in 1997 but delivered the highest number of seats for a third party for seventy years. Under a less skilled leader, the Liberal Democrats could easily have been squeezed out by Blair’s New Labour. Indeed, Ashdown feared this at the time, referring to the months after Blair’s election as Labour leader as the most difficult period of his own leadership; the party’s standing in the opinion polls sank from 25 per cent in 1993 to 12 per cent in 1996. It might have fallen further had the party not benefited from the defection of two Conservative MPs in 1996–97, helping to thrust it back into the limelight and suggesting that some at least of the departing Tory vote might prefer the Liberal Democrats to Labour. The abandonment of equidistance can thus be seen as an – ultimately successful – attempt to become part of the movement for change rather than being swept aside by it, and the party was able to benefit from the high level of anti-Tory tactical voting in the 1997 election, winning forty-six seats on a slightly lower share of the vote (16.8 per cent) than in 1992. Without this cooperation between the voters of both parties – and, to a certain extent, between the party organisations themselves – the Conservative defeat would probably not have been so overwhelming. The election campaign itself, focused tightly around the need to improve public services, was a success, and seen as a credit to Ashdown personally; it added five points to the party’s standing. And ‘the project’ with Labour had a direct impact in the shape of the constitutional reforms Blair implemented after 1997: probably Labour would have brought in Scottish devolution without any prompting from the Liberal Democrats, but their attachment to Welsh devolution and to proportional representation for the European elections was much weaker and may not have borne fruit in the absence of the Cook–Maclennan agreement.

In contrast, the third phase of the Ashdown leadership, 1997–99, was a failure, as the leader and his party increasingly came to differ over its future direction. Ashdown was determined to adopt a stance of ‘constructive opposition’ – opposing the new government where the Liberal Democrats disagreed with them, but working with Labour where they agreed, especially over constitutional reform. In place of a coalition, a Joint Cabinet Committee was established between the two parties to discuss issues where there was already agreement in principle, such as devolution or first-stage reform of the House of Lords. The announcement of the Committee came as a shock to the party, most of whom were not aware of the close relationship Blair and Ashdown had built up over the preceding three years. Ashdown freely admits that he bounced his party into accepting it – ‘I am absolutely convinced that we would never have got the party into the Joint Cabinet Committee … if I had gone through a consensual process’[20] – but this was a calculated part of his strategy. As he put it later:‘I quite deliberately went round building up my popularity in the party, both by delivering results and also by being very consensual, conscious of the fact that when I started to play on the field in Stage 3, I was really going to have to [use up this political capital and] … make myself unpopular with the party.’[21]

Being friendly to Labour was not too difficult to accept when both parties were in opposition; but maintaining this closeness when Labour was in government increasingly seemed less sensible to a growing portion of the party membership. Not only did this risk the Liberal Democrats being tarred with government unpopularity, when it came, but it seemed to achieve less and less in policy outcomes. The two big unfulfilled promises of Cook–Maclennan were reform of the House of Lords, where Blair showed no likelihood of accepting the principle of an elected chamber, and proportional representation for Westminster elections. Ashdown, increasingly frustrated with Blair’s prevarication, suggested a deal by which Liberal Democrats would agree to a coalition with Labour on the basis of an agreed policy programme, including PR. But Blair would never commit firmly, and the greater the delay in forming a coalition, the less possible it became, as the government steadily became less palatable to Liberal Democrat sensibilities. The government’s centralising approach to politics, its determination to stick to the Tories’ previous spending plans, thus putting public services under pressure, and the lack of any announcements on PR or British entry into the European single currency were not what the Liberal Democrats had fought the election for.

In December, the government finally announced the establishment of an independent commission on voting reform, to be chaired by Roy Jenkins. In practice this further weakened Ashdown’s chances of getting a coalition through his own party; if the government was doing what Liberal Democrats wanted on constitutional reform anyway, why tie the party in to the rest of its agenda, with an increasing proportion of which it disagreed? It was against this background that the Liberal Democrat conference in March 1998 agreed the ‘triple lock’ procedure for agreeing to ‘any substantial proposal which could affect the party’s independence of political action’. The support of the parliamentary party and federal executive would be needed for any such proposal; failing a three-quarters majority in each body, a special conference would be held; and failing a two-thirds majority there, an all-member ballot would need to be organised. The system was deliberately designed to tie Ashdown’s hands, though in fact it was not to be put to the test until 2010.

Throughout the summer of 1998 Ashdown attempted to nail Blair down to a commitment to a PR referendum, and other aspects of the Cook–Maclennan agreement. But despite a long series of meetings Blair seemed ever less likely to reach a final decision. Richard Holme described the process as like ‘being condemned to attend endless repeats of Hamlet’; Ashdown noted in his diary that ‘waiting for Blair is like waiting for Godot’.[22] In September Blair agreed with Ashdown to hold a referendum on PR before the next election, but six weeks later changed his mind yet again, feeling that he could not overcome opposition in the Cabinet and did not want to risk splitting the government. When, on 29 October, the Jenkins Report was published, advocating an additional member system of PR, Blair’s response was entirely neutral, with no commitment to a referendum; later that day Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, rubbished it publicly, and did so again in a Commons debate on the report the following week.

Ashdown was forced to conclude that ‘the project’ had failed and that his time as leader should end. (He had already decided, before the 1997 election, that he would stand down at some point in the next parliament.) He made one final, and predictably futile, attempt to extract a promise from Blair to state publicly that he would hold a referendum on the Jenkins proposals, and in November he and Blair announced the extension of the remit of the Joint Cabinet Committee, following a review of its work and effectiveness; the remit was eventually extended to cover a number of specific European policy issues. The move roused predictable opposition within the Liberal Democrats, but Ashdown won support for it from the parliamentary party and, narrowly, from the party’s committees. After this had been agreed, he announced, on 20 January 1999, his own intention to step down as leader.

Ashdown’s resignation was to take effect in August, with the leadership election due to take place after the European elections in June. He therefore had the satisfaction of seeing the party do well in the first elections to the new Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly in May, forming a coalition with Labour in Scotland; the party also performed well in the local elections held on the same day. A month later the introduction of PR helped the party increase its representation in the European Parliament from two to ten MEPs, the largest national contingent in the European Liberal group. When the leadership election concluded with Charles Kennedy’s victory on 11 August, Ashdown recorded in his diary: ‘I left the celebrations quietly and walked back to the House feeling just a tinge of sadness that I am no longer a leader of one of the great British political parties. But this was more than offset by the feeling of having cast off a very heavy burden … I felt very contented.’[23]

Why did the third phase of Ashdown’s leadership end in failure? He himself later blamed Blair’s overriding objective in his first term, which was to get elected for a second, rather than achieve anything as fundamental as reforming the political system; Blair’s overestimation of his ability to charm away opposition in his own party; and his underestimation of the strength of that opposition to any deal with the Liberal Democrats.[24] Ashdown felt that that was due in part to the fact that Blair was an outsider in Labour politics, not someone who had grown up in the tribal traditions of the party – a characteristic that Ashdown shared in relation to the Liberal Democrats, and which arguably led him to make the same error, to underestimate the strength of his own party’s opposition to a deal with Labour. Ashdown believed that Blair was serious about the attempt to reach a deal, but: ‘although I think he spoke the truth when he said that partnership with the Lib Dems was the big thing he wanted to do to reshape British politics, it never was the next thing he wanted to do. Hence the delays, which in the end killed us.’[25]

The result of the last phase of Ashdown’s leadership, as Tony Greaves has observed, was that: ‘Liberal Democrats loved their leader but, in so far as they sensed his strategy, most wanted none of it. The “what if?” question must be how much more could have been achieved if all that time at the top and personal energy had been spent on something other than “the project”.’[26] But was there a realistic alternative? Like Grimond and Steel before him, Ashdown was driven inexorably by the logic of the realignment/cooperation strategy. However well the Liberal Democrats performed in elections – and Ashdown hardly neglected that aspect of party strategy – it never seemed remotely feasible that the party would leap straight to majority government from third position, or even replace one of the two bigger parties as the main opposition. Sooner or later the party would hold the balance of power, and in the political circumstances of the 1990s, it was inconceivable that the Liberal Democrats could have reached an arrangement with anyone other than the Labour Party. Indeed, Ashdown was not particularly aiming for a hung parliament, in which, he thought, any attempt to bring in PR would be seen as weakness on the part of the bigger coalition partner; he wanted to introduce it from a position of strength, with both parties of the left genuinely behind it. His problem was that most of the Labour Party was never committed to PR at all, and saw no point in making any concessions to Ashdown’s party once they commanded a 179-seat majority in the House of Commons. But Ashdown was always going to try; he possessed neither the temperament nor the patience to sit quietly on the sidelines, snatching what chances he could to advance incrementally.

No comprehensive and objective assessment of the ‘project’ with Labour has yet been carried out. It is not clear what, if anything, the JCC ever achieved, but it can certainly be argued that the Cook–Maclennan agreement had a direct impact in the shape of the constitutional reforms Blair implemented after 1997. Thus, Ashdown and the Liberal Democrats contributed to permanent and profound changes in the way in which Britain is governed. And in the final analysis, if Ashdown had delivered on proportional representation, the third phase of his leadership would have been seen as a triumphant success. It was a calculated strategy, but in that respect it failed.

Ashdown stood down from the Commons at the 2001 election. From 2002 to 2006 he occupied the post of high representative and EU special representative for Bosnia & Herzegovina, reflecting his long-term advocacy of international intervention in the region. Back in British politics, he supported Nick Clegg for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats in 2007, and played a full part in the 2010 general election campaign. With some reluctance, he supported the decision to join the coalition government with the Conservatives. In 2012 he was appointed chair of the Liberal Democrats’ general election campaign for the 2015 election. The characteristic energy and drive with which he took on the task could not save the party, however, from electoral catastrophe; probably, the party’s fate was effectively sealed after the first year of its coalition with the Conservatives.

Paddy Ashdown is held in enormous affection in the party he once led. His leader’s speeches to party conference – visionary, challenging, displaying a fascination with new ideas – have seldom been bettered, and he was just as at ease with small groups of activists. He coped well with the media and in general was an excellent party manager. He retained his energy, drive and enthusiasm, and his belief in the party and what it stood for, in the most trying circumstances. And above all, having rescued his party from near-collapse, he built it into an effective political force and did something with it. He left it with a distinctive and rigorous policy programme and, through the Cook–Maclennan constitutional reforms, he changed for good the structure of government within the UK. And whatever his disagreements with members over policy and strategy, he obviously always genuinely loved his party – which is rare among party leaders. And – which is even rarer – most of the time, they loved him too.

Duncan Brack is the editor of the Journal of Liberal History, and has co-edited and contributed to all the Liberal Democrat History Group’s previous books. He has been director of policy for the Liberal Democrats, chair of the party’s conference committee, and special advisor to Chris Huhne MP, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. He is currently vice-chair of the party’s Federal Policy Committee.


1 Paddy Ashdown, A Fortunate Life: The Autobiography of Paddy Ashdown, London, Aurum Press, 2009, p. 156.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., p. 162.

4 Ibid., p. 166.

5 Max Atkinson, Our Masters’ Voices: The language and body language of politics, London, Methuen, 1984.

6 Paddy Ashdown, The Ashdown Diaries: Volume Two, 1997–1999, Harmondsworth, Allen Lane / The Penguin Press, 2001, p. 494.

7 Paddy Ashdown, Citizen’s Britain: A Radical Agenda for the 1990s, London, Fourth Estate, 1989, and Paddy Ashdown, Beyond Westminster: Finding Hope in Britain, London, Simon & Schuster, 1994.

8 Ashdown, op. cit., 2000, p. 50 (entry for 15 June 1988).

9 Ashdown, op. cit., 2009, p. 246.

10 Ashdown, op. cit., 2001, p. 495.

11 The Guardian, 19 March 1992.

12 David Butler and Denis Kavanagh, The British General Election of 1997, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1997, p. 178.

13 ‘Paddy’s people’, The Economist, 14 September 1991.

14 Paddy Ashdown, ‘A broader movement dedicated to winning the battle of ideas’, 9 May 1992, in Brack and Little, op. cit., p. 427.

15 Ashdown, op. cit., 2000, p. 419.

16 Peter Mandelson, The Third Man, London, Harper Press, 2011, p. 256.

17 Ashdown, op. cit., 2000, p. 452.

18 Ibid., p. 449.

19 Ibid., p. 555.

20 Interview with Paddy Ashdown, Journal of Liberal History, Vol. 30, spring 2001, p. 13.

21 Ibid.

22 Ashdown, op. cit., 2001, pp. 254–5.

23 Ibid., pp. 489–90.

24 Ashdown, op. cit., 2009, pp. 323–5.

25 Ibid.

26 Journal of Liberal History 30 (spring 2001), p. 28.