Paddy Ashdown’s decision to stand down as leader of the Liberal Democrats, announced last month, came as a great surprise to us all. But on reflection, I can only admire the style of his going. Not pushed out of office, not stabbed in the back by fair weather friends, not crushed by electoral defeat – but at the height of his popularity, at a time of his own choosing.
Eleven years is probably long enough for anyone to lead a political party in this country – particularly a party as independent-minded as the Liberal Democrats! And don’t forget, the other two main parties have both had three leaders while Paddy has held the stewardship of our party.
During that time, we have grown in confidence and in size. From a party on the verge of extinction, with a bare handful of MPs, to the largest third party at Westminster since the days of Lloyd George.
When I stood for Parliament in 1997, the election of Bob Russell as Liberal Democrat MP for Colchester was the highlight of the evening. Not only did we have 46 MPs – but one of them represented the people of Essex!
In 1996 we had overtaken the Conservatives as the second party of local government, with more councillors, and running more councils, a position we have never relinquished.
“Our record in local government these last ten years is something in which we can take genuine pride,” said Paddy, announcing his planned departure. “It has improved the lives of millions in Britain. And nationally our campaign for properly funded public services has, I think, shamed the Government into concentrating more resources on health and education, though it still has a long way to go.”
For myself, I would credit Paddy Ashdown with two major contributions. First, the part he has played in the constitutional changes which are now under way in our country – a Parliament for Scotland, an Assembly for Wales, proportional representation for Europe, and the best chance for a long time of achieving PR for Westminster as well.
Secondly, for beginning to end the sterile adversarial nature of the two-party slanging match which passes for political debate in this country. Many criticised him for his policy of ‘constructive opposition’ – but he could see that with proportional representation just around the corner, such an approach was the only way forward.
I have also been cheered on many occasions by Paddy’s internationalist approach to foreign policy, and by his constructive attitude to Europe.
One of my favourite anecdotes (apocryphal, I’d guess) relates that Mrs Thatcher was thrilled when Paddy Ashdown became our leader – because she would no longer be the only party leader trained to kill with her bare hands!
But let me leave the last word to Paddy.
Here’s a story he told at our Cardiff spring conference in 1997:
One December, a British Ambassador in Washington was called by an American radio station. They asked him what he would like for Christmas.
He said that, as a servant of his country, he couldn’t possibly accept a personal gift. But the journalist persisted. And eventually the Ambassador, anxious no doubt to get back to whatever it is that Ambassadors do, said: ‘Oh, all right then, I wouldn’t wish to cause offence. Perhaps just a very small box of crystallised fruit?’
He then forgot all about it.
Until Christmas Day.
When he turned on his radio and heard the announcer say ‘On this holiday morning, with the new year just a few days away, we called the representatives of three great nations to find out what they would like for Christmas.
‘First we asked the German Ambassador. He said he would like to see the final resolution of the East-West conflict and a long unbroken period of world peace.
‘Then we asked the French Ambassador what she would like. And she said she would like to see the elimination of crime and corruption from our society so that the youth of the world could march without fear into the future.
‘And then’, said the Announcer, ‘then we asked the British Ambassador what he would like for Christmas … and he said he’d like a small box of crystallised fruit’.
There is now a desperate need in this country for leadership in our politics. For ambition. For self-confidence. For vision.
Yet, as Paddy said in 1997, all we were being offered from the Conservative and Labour parties was a small box of crystallised fruit. Sadly, little has changed.
The challenges before us are huge. They have never, perhaps, been bigger. Now more than ever we need leaders who can appreciate the big picture, who have a long-term view. Paddy has always been one of those people; let’s hope that his successor will be one as well.