The former UK politician, peacemaker, spy and writer talks World War Two, 007 and the greatest Prime Minister ever ahead of his latest book, The Cruel Victory, released this month.
To say that Paddy Ashdown has lived a full and colourful life somehow feels 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 India in 1941 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 recognisable British politicians in recent history.
Since leaving politics, over the past decade Ashdown has published a number of books, including his diaries, biography A Fortunate Life and two WWII historical works, the latest of which The Cruel Victory is released worldwide this month on the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
Like its predecessor A Brilliant Little Operation, the book zeroes in on the human heroics and loss at the core of an otherwise neglected military operation, in this case the efforts of the French resistance throughout the Normandy landings which eventually allowed the Allied effort to liberate mainland Europe from Nazi occupation.
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.
Your two most recent books are both WWII 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 to this 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 in a canoe for five or six days trying to remain hidden – that’s what we had to do.
So essentially your military experiences allow you to write in a way that 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.
So your SBS experience was also 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.
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 – I’d just lose my mind.
The Cruel Victory is released on June 5. www.amazon.co.uk