Ex-spy whose party came in from the cold

He’s been a spy and has written about losing his virginity to his maths tutor, but today there’s only one subject in town: our seismic political upheaval. Ipswich-bound Paddy Ashdown tells Steven Russell about how long the honeymoon might last and what Labour ought to do now – but probably won’t

A MONTH or so on from the General Election that altered our political landscape . . . Is Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon – “everybody calls me Paddy” – still pinching himself to check it wasn’t a dream and that the Liberal Democrats really are at the heart of Government? “Everybody is, really,” he chuckles.

“We suddenly find ourselves waking up blinking in the sunlight of something nobody anticipated. But I think most of us, nevertheless, take comfort from what the British people said. They didn’t want to give any of us (absolute) power; they told us to work together in a constructive fashion for the good of the country in a time of crisis. I think the coalition reflects a genuine political will to deliver that sovereign instruction.”

While some commentators are waiting like hyenas for the first signs of blood, the political veteran is optimistic and says the early days have been remarkable for three reasons.

“The first is the genuine coincidence of views, vision and statesmanship of the two leaders, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, which extends in terms of congeniality between the personalities well down into the coalition itself.

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“Secondly, a truly remarkable coalition document produced in record time – not only very comprehensive but, as we saw from the Queen’s Speech, very radical. It’s not something you associate with coalitions; usually they’re the compromise around the mushy centre.

“The third – although I must say I don’t think we politicians can take any credit for this, because we didn’t tell them as much of the truth as we should have done – the country realises just how difficult the economic crisis is, and is prepared to give it (the coalition) the space to take the tough decisions necessary.”

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Indeed, there does seem a general and genuine willingness to give the alliance a chance.

“Yeah. Look, that’s not going to last – there will be bumps and grinds along the way. Honeymoons are always one of the nicest parts of marriage, until you’ve settled into a long-term relationship, and so there will be tiffs, there will be disagreements, and there will be decisions to be made which will cause public concern and even unpopularity. That’s what Governments get when they make hard decisions. But who can look ahead? The fact is it’s started better than any of us could have imagined; and that’s a pretty good beginning.”

The $64,000 question is, of course, “How long can it last?”

“I can’t say that it will hold for five years. It’s a long time – most Governments find it difficult to ‘hold’, with one party, for five years! – but I do think that given the way it’s started, and with the public patience giving us space to make it work, it will certainly last long enough to take us through the economic crisis we’re facing. And if it’s successful in that, I think you’ve got the basis for it to go on further.”

For those of liberal persuasion who lived through the Thatcher reign, and whose view of Conservatism is forever coloured by that experience, it must surely be hard to stomach a pact with David Cameron’s party?

“That’s a very important point. Those of us who were slightly more hoary old warhorses and learnt their politics in the Thatcher era perhaps did not as accurately understand the shift that had taken place probably in both parties.

“The Lib Dems had become a much more disciplined party capable of handling power and taking tough decisions, largely because of the effect of our huge experience in local government. And it has to be said that Mr Cameron appears to be a genuine consensual politician in the way Mr Brown manifestly was not, and genuinely interested in political reform, and genuinely returning the Tory Party to those old values they held in the past: of civil liberties, the environment and so on. All that I think is extremely helpful.”

Perhaps the risk of fracture comes not from the Conservative/Lib Dem alliance but from within the Tory Party, then? – because their leader is too centrist for members’ tastes.

“He is a paradox. I remember – and bear the scars on my back from being the leader of the Liberals – we were a fractious, dissenting, tough, difficult party to lead. When Mr Blair asked me to go to the Balkans, and be the Higher Representative in Bosnia, one of the European leaders said ‘Is this guy up to it?’ Mr Blair said ‘Look, he’s managed the Liberal Democrats for 11 years, after which the Balkans is a doddle!’

“But the fact is the Liberal Democrats are now more united behind this than the Tory Party are, and that does startle me. In the past, the Tory Party’s secret weapon was always its unity, and ours was always its disunity! We seem to be doing a lot of political cross-dressing here!”

How does getting into bed with the Conservatives seem to have gone down among grass-roots Liberal Democrats?

“I was speaking to the Yeovil office the other day and we have gained net members. I was told the party overall has lost about 200 members and gained about 1,000; so I think it’s been good for us. And that was again very counter-intuitive; I didn’t expect that to happen.”

There have been mutterings about exactly when a referendum might be held on an “alternative vote” system. If there’s one thing likely to have Lib Dems up in arms, it’s surely any delay to that prize . . .

“You’re asking me to look in a crystal ball, and I’m not very good at that!” laughs Lord Ashdown. “It’s up to my coalition colleagues; but certainly May of next year would be a good time in my view: consistent with the local government elections, and therefore the cost of a referendum would be less.

“My view that I’ve always said to the parties in the past is that the British people will not give us proportional representation locking-in partnership-politics until such time as we have shown that partnership-politics can actually work, and that we’re prepared to behave responsibly.

“I think by that time it will be a year into the coalition, the public will have had a good chance to see whether the coalition’s working and whether they’re prepared to see this kind of politics for the future.

“Would Liberal Democrats be disappointed if AV is lost? Of course we will be. But I think there is a mood in the country in favour of electoral reform.

“I think we should go into this with every opportunity to win it. It depends how those in the coalition who are opposed to reform argue their case. If they do so showing respect for their opposite number in the coalition – if it is a genuine, mature, adult debate – I think people will feel that a fair crack of the whip has been given, even if we lose. It would diminish our disappointment.

“If, on the other hand, this is a knock-down, drag-out, red-in-tooth-and-claw, insult-laden debate of the sort you’d have seen before we began the new politics, then the outcome of that would be a bit different.”

Many Lib Dems would have felt more comfortable sitting around the Cabinet table with Labour Ministers than Conservatives, but Lord Ashdown recognised there were problems within Labour, such as a tribalism among “old knuckle-draggers” that helped exploratory talks falter. He’s cited heavy-hitters such as John Prescott, Jack Straw, David Blunkett and John Reid.

It was a missed opportunity, he feels, “but I think it would have been a very fragile minority coalition: very tough to hold together”.

He doesn’t particularly blame the Labour Party, however – recognising it had essentially lost the will to live.

“You know, there is something that occurs at the end of 13 years in Government. You don’t have to be in the Labour Party to see it – you saw it in the Major government. They just become tired, fed-up, scratchy, unpleasant, arrogant – so a party that is in its death throes of Government is not a party that is very well equipped to look ahead with confidence to a completely new kind of politics.

“We no doubt have our Neanderthals in the Liberal Democrats – I’m not going to name them, but we no doubt have them, and there are lots in the Tory Party – but in a situation where we were all quite doubtful about Labour’s will to carry on, then the appearance of a few Neanderthals hitting the public airwaves, without anybody from the more progressive wing of Labour saying anything at all, only confirmed the impression – however much you may have found that (a Lib Dem/Labour coalition) more comfortable – it wasn’t a thing that could sustain.”

It will be interesting to see what Labour does now, he muses.

“The view is that they’ll almost certainly make two mistakes: because that’s what you do when you’re feeling miserable. One is that parties in these circumstances always think they lost because they weren’t extreme enough, and go off to the extreme wing. The Tories did it after ’97.

“It’s always a mistake, as British elections are led from the centre and not from the left.

“The second is, I think, that they can’t resist being proactive and getting out there and throwing mud pies at the Government for the next two years. That’s a foolish thing to do.

“If I were Labour leader, I’d refurbish my party, build its strength up again, engage new members, train new activists and let the coalition go through the normal processes of becoming unpopular over time through the decisions it makes. I certainly wouldn’t go around adding to its difficulties. But I suspect they won’t be able to resist the temptation to do so.”

By the way, he thinks Ed Miliband will be Labour’s next leader.

On matters away from the Westminster hothouse, Lord Ashdown wrote a critique last summer about where he thought we’d failed with Afghanistan. We’d needed more “boots on the ground”, and the right strategy “to ensure that tactical military victories no longer get lost in strategic political defeat, because of division amongst the international forces and the lack of a properly integrated plan”.

Have things changed much in the nine or 10 months since?

“At last we’re following a strategy of protecting the people, rather than pursuing the enemy. I think the Taliban must feel under military pressure, though I don’t think the battlefield balance has yet been turned.

“What happens next in Kandahar is a very big issue: a much more difficult nut to crack than Helmand. But my worry isn’t that we are not doing better militarily: we are. In these kinds of war, if you win militarily but lose politically, you lose; and we are losing politically. The grip of the Kabul government, the respect for President Karzai, is not increasing in Afghanistan; it’s declining. That’s the bit that worries me most.”

Paddy Ashdown will be 70 a couple of months into 2011. He’s packed more into those years than most of us would manage in four or five lifetimes. Does he have any burning ambitions left?

He rattles them off. “My garden, my grandchildren, my next book. I’ve just done my seventh book – off to the publisher now. (It’s called No Perfect Heroes.) It’s a thriller. It’s got a little bit of Bosnia in it, a lot of Islam, a great deal of spying, a very great deal of Special Forces and a little bit of sex!”

Er . . . not based on your life, is it?

“No, it’s absolutely not based on my life! Somebody as different from me as you can get, but obviously my experiences come into it and add colour here and there. But absolutely not autobiographical!”

Paddy’s Chinese whispers

PADDY Ashdown talks about his memoir A Fortunate Life at Ipswich Council Chamber at 6.30pm on June 30. It’s part of the literary strand of the annual Ip-art festival. Tickets �7 (�5 concessions. www.ip-art.com). The hardback was published last year and Aurum Press released the �9.99 softback edition this spring.

The book was widely acclaimed by as the polar opposite from some stuffy political memoirs. Here’s a taster:

“Chinese is not, as it is often regarded, a difficult language grammatically. What makes it difficult is the fact that Chinese is monosyllabic, with the difference between one word and another being conveyed by tone.

This not only provides many traps for the unwary but also gives almost inexhaustible scope for punning, which the Chinese love, especially when the pun is pornographic – and most particularly when a foreigner, trying to say something polite, ends up saying instead something completely disgusting.

On one occasion, at a Chinese language school dinner, during one of those moments of silence that always seem to attend a conversational catastrophe, I attempted polite small talk with a very refined Chinese lady sitting next to me by asking her if she had ever flown in an aircraft. I got my tones wrong and asked her, instead, if she had ever sat on a flying penis.”

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