Under the skin with Paddy Ashdown

Former UK politician talks books, coalitions, 007 and the greatest PM ever

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To say that Paddy Ashdown has lived a full and colourful life somehow seems a drastic understatement. Best known as a politician, Ashdown has been, amongst other things, a soldier, spy, businessman, peacemaker, youth worker – and most recently – writer and historian.

Born in 1941 in India and raised in Northern Ireland, aged 18 Ashdown joined the military, serving in the Royal Marines in the Gulf, and commanding a Special Boat Section (SBS) in the Far East, all while still in his twenties. In 1972 he joined the UK’s Foreign Office, was posted to the British Mission to the United Nations in Geneva, and is widely reported to have been working as a spy for MI6.

After an early switch from the UK’s Labour party, in 1976 he joined the Liberal Democrats, entering parliament in 1983. In 1988 he became the party’s leader, a position he held for 11 years, and is today one of the most memorable British politicians in recent history.

Since leaving politics, in 2002 he took up the post of the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, and over the past decade has published a number of books, including his diaries, biography A Fortunate Life, and recent historical work A Brilliant Little Operation – which is what the 73-year-old will be discussing when he appears at Dubai’s Litfest for the first time on Thursday March 6.

You’re best known as a politician, military man, spy... what is it you get out of writing?
Oh, the joy of creation I suppose, if that’s not too pompous a word. I think you’d call me an author rather than a writer, a writer is probably a somewhat higher level – if someone called me a writer I’d be very, very flattered. Probably more flattered than being leader of the Liberal Democrats or High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina. I’ve always written – my eighth book is to be published in June – and writing always gives me pleasure. I do it in the little corners of my life; the cracks, sitting on trains, rattling for hours from one place to another, or waiting for a plane that’s been delayed.

You’ve lived a very active life in the public eye, but writing appears to be a very solitary occupation.
It is, but you need that solitary time. You can retreat into an interior world. You’re right – It’s time with yourself, it’s time which you can concentrate on a subject which has captured you. My wife often calls it my train set, my hobby. Once when I was upstairs writing three fire engines went past and our neighbours’ house was on fire and I hadn’t noticed a thing, which was quite frightening.

Your two most recent books, A Brilliant Little Operation and the forthcoming The Cruel Victory, are World War Two histories. What is it that attracts you to this time, and these stories.
Having been there. Having been in the special forces, having been involved in active service, I think I can bring a light to this, a detail which is not available to people who haven’t been through that experience. I have paddled up dark rivers in the middle of the night somewhere that I shouldn’t be, so I know what it’s like. I lived for five or six days in a canoe trying to remain hidden – that’s what we had to do.

So essentially your experience in the special forces means you can write in a way others can’t.
I’m sure others could do it. When I was in the special forces we had a saying – ‘big thumbs on little maps, that’s the way to kill the chaps’, and I’m always struck by politicians that sit a thousand miles away and take decisions on the green benches of the [UK Government’s] Houses of Commons who haven’t a clue what it's like to do these jobs. And indeed there is a real problem about this, when I first went into the House of Commons we had people leading us in conflict and taking decisions who had actually been there themselves, and that really doesn’t exist now.

So your SBS experience was one of your strengths as a politician, and as a peacemaker?
I think far too many politicians today come into politics in short pants straight out of school never having done anything else. Before I was elected I was a solider for 11 years, I was in the foreign service, I was a businessman, I was unemployed twice, I was actually elected to parliament from the unemployment register when I was given a temporary job as a youth worker. I’ve done a lot of things before I went into parliament. What I can say is that all of those things proved an accidental apprenticeship for the job that I then did. And I do think politics is diminished today by being far too professional. And having people telling us what to do who have never done a real job themselves.

And you’ve recently taken a step back towards politics. Why did you accept the role chairing the Liberal Democrats 2015 election team?
Because my party asked me to. Because my leader asked me to. My position has always been I’m in politics because I’m a liberal... and I’ll serve my party and hopefully my country. I’ve always been like that – as a soldier, as a as a diplomat, as a politician, as parliamentary representative, in Bosnia. I think perhaps we don’t understand the concept of mobility of service – I’m not trying to aggrandise this, I do it because I enjoy it and it gives me fulfilment.

So if you were asked, you’d consider taking a more senior role in the party?
My time is over, come on – the next thing for me is pipe and slippers. Although as you rightly said I’m not very good at it [stepping back].

Well in that case, will you ever retire?
I hope I won’t stop writing books, I love writing books, and I’m here to do the role that my party asked me to play and my country asked me to play. I’m getting a bit long in the tooth for that now, but if you live your life by that standard then you live your life by that standard.

So looking back on it all, what was the greatest lesson you learned from your 11 years as Liberal Democrat leader?
Never stop learning. I wasn’t very good at school. I’ve learned every day of my life, and I’m still learning every day. Provided you keep your mind open to new things I don’t think you can go too wrong. Learn from your mistakes, learn from other people – just don’t stop learning.

It’s crunchtime – the 2015 UK election, another hung parliament – who would you rather form a collation with, the Tories or Labour?
This decision is entirely in the hands of the British people. We’re not saying we like this person, we like that – I don’t like the Tories, I’ve fought the Tories all my life, but it’s the people of my country speaking to me in the ballot box, [and if they] say this is what we want you to do, form a stable government and take the country through an economic crisis, then this is what we do.

A UK newspaper recently described you as the ‘Lib Dems' very own James Bond’...
[Laughs] Oh listen I’ve been called all sorts of things in my life, that’s probably on the rather politer end of things.

Still, some might see it as a compliment.
I don’t think you take the things other people call you as a compliment. In all these things there’s an element of truth, but you know the press, they adore to be as dramatic as they possibility can. You’re one of them yourself. If I spent my rather long life worrying about the nicknames that have been invented for me, and there are many that are so much nastier than that, you’d just lose your mind.

So on a triter note, who is the best 007?
I haven’t a clue, it’s all a fairytale.

Okay then, the greatest Prime Minister of the 20th Century, not Churchill?
You just have to say Churchill, you just can’t say anything else. The fact is that Churchill was a failure until 1939 – everything he touched was a disaster. And yet he’s not just the greatest Prime Minister, I would say the greatest Englishman of all time. The most popular PM of all time [appeared to be] Neville Chamberlain when he came back with the piece of paper [the Munich Agreement which initially appeased Nazi Germany]. The most unpopular at that time was Churchill by a mile. Who was right? Popularity is not always the thing that tells you you’re on the right track, and he knew that.

Paddy Ashdown discusses A Brilliant Little Operation: The Cockleshell Heroes at the Dubai Litfest, InterContinental Hotel, Dubai Festival City on Thursday March 6 at 7pm. Tickets for Dhs65 here

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