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Ashdown was an inspiration to a generation of Liberals

December 22, 2018

The news that Paddy Ashdown, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, has passed away has already drawn generous and eloquent tributes from across the political spectrum. Righty so, as he was a man who lived several lives, often in the service of his country and always with a deep sense of duty.

He was an inspiration to a generation of Liberals who in the late 1980s felt sidelined and demoralised after the heady early days of the Liberal-SDP Alliance descended into acrimony and electoral failure. To many of us the new party born out of that Alliance seemed an alien place, especially as it tried to expunge the word Liberal from its campaigning name.

He picked the party up after the shambles of the merger and enthused everyone. He was always approachable and reached an audience well beyond the party faithful. Most importantly, he put Liberalism back at the heart of the party and it is from then that its revival can be traced. Perhaps there are parallels for today.

I was lucky enough to meet him on many occasions and many of my memories illustrate his ability to inspire loyalty and also reach people beyond the party and engage them on many levels. He was accessible, human and genuinely interested in people, a far cry from many of today’s political leaders. He was also often simply good fun to be around.

He made you want to go out and fight for the party, its policies and for Liberalism. At the 1990 party conference he spoke at a reception for Liberal Democrat councillors. 1990 was a grim year. We were hovering around 5% in the opinion polls for most of it. Many of us had defended our council seats that May – mine was in Leyton in Waltham Forest. At that reception Ashdown told us that those of us who had fought and won against that background had literally saved the party. It made us feel proud and inspired to strive even harder.

My favourite memory of him, however, shows his human side. A couple of years later at the end of another party conference he wandered into the room where the exhibition stands were being dismantled just as Mariette and I emerged from the creche with our three children. Our eldest daughter was 7 or 8 and went straight up to him with a CND frisbee and asked him to play with her. The children who were regulars in the conference creche knew him well as he always took time to visit it.

He took one look at the bright yellow frisbee with its large CND logo and said that would make a good picture in the papers after the many debates about nuclear weapons. It didn’t stop him. He proceeded to play frisbee with her and several of the other children in the hall. And her school teacher refused to believe her!

He will be missed, especially at a time when his country – which he was proud to serve in many capacities – is so bereft of true political leadership.

From → Politics

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