I didn't agree with much that Paddy Ashdown had to say. But what a man! If we could all die knowing that we have given a tenth as much to our country as Ashdown, we should be very pleased indeed. This is from a review of his autobiography I did nine years ago for the Sunday Times.
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IT IS DOUBTFUL doubtful that when George Osborne's autobiography, say, hits the bookstands it will reveal that he once slashed his arm open on a viciously sharp bamboo panji while camped in the jungle of Borneo fighting a covert guerilla war against the Indonesians. Still less, I reckon, the method of treatment for said injury, fashioned by an aboriginal tracker scout: "He went to a nearby ant heap . . . and picked out, one by one, about two dozen very large soldier ants which he put in a box. Then, squatting beside me, he proceeded to close the wound with one hand and place a soldier ant, with its mandibles open, one on each side of the wound . . . one by one the soldier ants closed their mandibles, sealing the wound almost painlessly." Don't you just love that "almost"?
This is, then, less a political autobiography than a real-life Dangerous Book for Boys, and all the better for it. In fact, the political stuff does not start until page 165 and disappears not long after; leading Britain's third political party to its best electoral performance in 60 years is, for Ashdown, little more than an interesting footnote. This is more than anything else an adventure story. Fascinating and uplifting and genuinely, without irony, heroic, the sort of book you should read to your kids, just to let them know what can be done. And it will make your own life seem timid and beige.
Ashdown was born in Delhi, where his best friend was, we learn, a monkey, but was brought up in Northern Ireland, where he and his charismatic if occasionally tyrannical father enjoyed fishing in the loughs and, to raise cash, smuggled goods over the border with the south. Later he had a singularly unimpressive academic career at a second-division private school in Bedford, where he was not considered university material. At 18 he joined the Royal Marines, and later the Special Boat Section, seeing action in Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong and Northern Ireland. His extraordinarily devoted wife Jane followed him from posting to posting, where the couple lived together usually, it seems, in penury. After that he became a spy for a while, which very properly he does not tell us much about
And then Paddy decided he was a Liberal - the notion occurred to him quite late in life, just at a time when most people are deciding that they're not liberal at all - and that he ought to stand for election in Yeovil. Winning what was a safe Tory seat took scarcely less bravery and sense of adventure than smiting those Indonesians or spying on the Chinese, and also saw Paddy middle-aged and unemployed for a while. But no matter that the family couldn't afford food - Paddy grew it himself, on an allotment. He was party leader for 11 years and managed to sweep away the damaging detritus of the former alliance with David Owen's SDP, while more than doubling his party's representation in parliament. Ever restless, even as party leader, he absented himself on dangerous fact-finding missions to the new war zones in the former Yugoslavia, leading to him becoming United Nations High Representative to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2000, a job he executed with enormous compassion and, again, some bravery. The only reason he is not now doing a similar job in Afghanistan is that the ghastly Afghans were suspicious of him.
The Ashdown that comes through here is not without flaws: he is reckless and wilful, possessed of a sense of fun but a poor sense of humour and he is frequently pious and a little smug. He made the wrong call plenty of times and was given the right old run-around by Tony Blair over the terms of Liberal-Democrat co-operation with new Labour in the 1997 election. Just as well, one supposes, because closer co-operation might well have seen his party annihilated, in the end. And he is also either fabulously naive, or disingenuous, when writing about his manoeuvrings to become party leader (David Steel must have wanted to punch him), and later about being offered a role in Gordon Brown's new cabinet, two years ago. But still; how one wishes to God there were more people like him in parliament, or indeed in the country as a whole: a man driven not by a wish to accumulate power or money, or simply to serve time, but propelled ever further by compassion, decency and principle, no matter how often that made him seem sanctimonious and even occasionally risible. Nor can I imagine how a single human being could give much more to his country than Paddy Ashdown has given.
Almost the only orthodox thing he did as a politician was to shag his secretary. And I think we can forgive him that.