Paddy on the Coalition, joining the party & that Sun headline

by Stephen Tall on September 25, 2012

There’s a fantastic interview with Paddy Ashdown by The Guardian’s Simon Hattenstone published here. As you’d expect it’s crammed full of anecdotes and quotable bon mots. I’ve picked out just three to enjoy…

Paddy on the Coalition

He regards those who feel betrayed by the party as weak or naive – notably Guardian leader writers who backed them in 2010. “The Guardian feels like a jilted lover. It hates the Liberal Democrats. The Guardian feels personally betrayed because for the very first time it gave the Liberal Democrats its support and what did we do? We went off with the Tories. But what else would you have done in the circumstances?”

What about the first-time voters who voted Lib Dem because of their promises on student tuition fees, and because they believed they were a radical alternative to the main parties? Again he says it comes back to the single question, which he spells out in one-word sentences. “What. Would. You. Have. Done?”

Well, I say, many voters might say it was right for the Lib Dems to team up with the Tories but it was wrong for them to vote Lib Dem in the first place and won’t do so again. “But what is the point of being in politics if you are not able to influence the government of your country? And it is the eternal battle for any thinking politician – between principle on the one hand and what is practical in effecting the government of your time. I think at the next election the Liberal Democrats will get a much bigger dividend than most commentators think because we’ll have seen this thing through and stuck with it.”

What if the polls prove correct, and the party does lose half its vote? “Even if the party were terribly damaged at the next election, I would still think it was the right thing to do.”

Paddy on becoming a Liberal

After leaving Labour in 1969 he found himself in the political wilderness – sceptical of all party politics. And then he heard a rat-a-tat-tat on the door. “This is a bizarre story. It was 1974 and I’m off out to Geneva to the Foreign Office … or some strange part of it.” Ashdown likes to allude to his time as a spy without saying the word. Don’t you mean MI6, I say.

He affects a disapproving tone. “Well, you can say what you like about it. I was a diplomat in Geneva. Anyway, I was on my way out to this posting, and a more unlikely angel of conversion you could not imagine. A bloke knocks on my door and I can’t remember if he had sandals on, but he certainly had a cagoule on.” He impersonates an insipid Liberal stereotype. “‘Hello, I’m from the local Liberals.’ I said go away, and he said: ‘Well, I’m canvassing for the election.’ So I said: ‘OK, come in, talk to me and if you can persuade me to be a Liberal I’ll vote for you.’ From that moment on I took liberalism down from the peg that it seemed to have been hanging on as an overcoat all those previous years and it’s felt totally comfortable ever since.”

Paddy on the worst moment of his leadership

In 1992, he admitted to a past affair with his secretary and the Sun reported it under the headline: It’s Paddy Pantsdown. Did that put an end to your ambitions to be PM? He bristles. “No.” It didn’t make any difference? “No, it improved my poll rating.” Really? “Yes, of course it did.” He smiles. “By the way, don’t imagine I recommend it as a way of improving your poll rating.”

So Paddy Pantsdown was good for you? And now he is wholly serious – there isn’t a hint of bluster or braggadocio, just a very raw vulnerability. “It was terrible for me. Terrible for me. You have no idea. It was terrible for almost every aspect of my life. I thought the party was seriously damaged and it wasn’t, but that was a tiny glimmer of light in what was an irretrievably bad period.”

Was he a victim of a fantastic headline? He shakes his head. “Well, if you put yourself in a position where you can be done that kind of damage by a Sun headline, you’re a fool. Aren’t you? So don’t blame the Sun, blame me.”

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.