Former Lib Dem Leader Ashdown reflects on his life at Burgh House event

Paddy Ashdown

Paddy Ashdown - Credit: James Gifford-Mead

A night encompassing India’s partition, the armed forces, and the Liberal Democrats was held at Burgh House on October 17, as Paddy Ashdown spoke in the latest ‘Lifelines’ talk.

Ashdown, who lead the Lib Dems into the 1992 and 1997 elections reflected on his life, and spoke about his concerns for Britain outside the EU, and for the Balkans.

Born in New Delhi during the time of the British Raj in 1941, Ashdown recalls boarding a train to leave to move to Northern Ireland. He told the room of his reaction to getting off the train and seeing bloodshed. “We had come down through India in partition. It was one of the first riots. It was one of the times the flimsy veil that keeps civilisation together slips”, comparing India to Northern Ireland.

After his schooling at Bedford School, where he got the nickname ‘Paddy’, he spent time in the Royal Marines and Special Boat Section. He told those in attendance at Burgh House that it taught him to “never be afraid of being in a minority.” Advice that would serve him well. A former superior commented on his attitude, saying: “Colonel Ashdown’s men would follow him anywhere. Chiefly out of curiosity.”

Chaired by former Liberal Democrat councillor Linda Chung, she quizzed Paddy about his time in the Liberal Democrats. A former Labour supporter, he drifted away from the party and was converted to being a Liberal member. He later left his MI6 job in Geneva to join the party and run as candidate for Yeovil.

Ashdown won the Liberal Democrat leadership in 1988, and spoke about one of his greatest moments as leader, helping John Major’s government get the Maastricht Treaty vote passed in 1992, amid large-scale rebellions from the Conservative Party’s Euro-sceptics.

His opportunity to be part of government was taken away from him after negotiations with Tony Blair ahead of the 1997 election were rendered pointless by Labour’s landslide election win. “We talked at the time, and we felt that it would be undemocratic to add our 50-seats, our largest ever, to their 170 majority.”

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After the election he announced his surprise decision to step down as leader. “I thought it was better to stand down and have people ask why you are going, rather than the opposite and have people ask why you’re not,” he said.

Now a member of the House of Lords, he followed his time lobbying for military action against Yugoslavia in the 1990s with four years as International High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country he still believes is in trouble. “There’s alarming levels of corruption there, and the European Union hasn’t done enough to stop it.”

The next Lifelines talk is set to take place on January 18 by author Helene Attlee.