Thursday, August 20, 2009

Book Review: Paddy Ashdown's Autobiography

I don't know about you, but I find nowadays that it takes me three months to read a book, as the only time I have to read is just before I go to sleep. And within three pages my eyes have closed. Indeed, sometimes I wake up at 5am with the light still on and with me still holding the book open. As a consequence, it took me a couple of months to complete Paddy Ashdown's excellent autobiography.

I use the word 'excellent' because it really is. It's a very honest book, in which he is very up front about his own failings as a man and as a political leader, but his book deserves to be read for another reason. Many people have got the impression that Ashdown is a slightly holier than thou figure - a caricature he recognises himself in the book. What they don't know much about - and why should they? - is the bravery of the man. For the first time he talks about his career in the armed services and special forces. At times he has to pull his punches, but you get the feeling that if the Great British Public had known about his service career in more detail, they might have been inclined to vote for him in greater numbers.

Whatever his political failings - and he admits to many - what no one can take away from him is the fact that he singlehandedly rescued the Liberal Democrats from the brink of going out of business, and took them to a point where they very nearly entered government. To go from 22 MPs to 46 was indeed a real achievement, which established the LibDems as a real third force in British politics.

One of the reasons I describe this as an honest book is because of the way he describes the whole 'Paddy Pantsdown' incident. It's not easy for anyone to write about painful personal issues, especially issues which must have been devastating to one's nearest and dearest. But he does so movingly and with candour. It is to my eternal shame that at Politico's we used to have a set of political lingerie with political slogans across the front. It's not often in my life that I have felt an inch tall, but I remember running the bookstall at the LibDem conference many years ago and Jane Ashdown came by and saw one of pairs of knickers with "Paddy Pantsdown" on the front. She was not impressed. I was crimson with embarrassment. When I got back to the shop I threw away the remaining stock.

Jane Ashdown is one of the heroes of the book. She clearly had to put up with a lot - moving from place to place, her husband's seemingly deranged ambitions to become a Liberal MP in a seat the Tories had held for seventy years and the fact that his work constantly took him away from her. But it is clear that he could have achieved none of it without her.

I don't normally like reading about politicians' childhoods or pre politics careers, but in Paddy's case, these were the best parts of the book. Many of the chapters read like a thriller, with great tales of daring-do. His description of the cameraderie and loyalty which run through every vein of his service career was something which many of us in the political world would do well to draw a lesson from.

Several LibDem friends point to the chapters on winning Yeovil as the most enjoyable of the book. And indeed, they give a great lesson in perseverance and doggedness that any candidate in a marginal seat must have if they are to win through.

The final part of the book is devoted to his three years as Imperial Ruler (I jest) of Bosnia. The horrors he witnessed during the Balkan wars had a great effect on him, and his bravery in visiting the region on several occasions, when his life was clearly in danger, may have seemed cavalier and foolhardy to some. But these visits gave him a clear hinterland when he was appointed to oversee the government of Bosnia. It is a shame that in the end he was never given the chance to repeat the experience in Afghanistan.

So, as you can see, I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending Paddy Ashdown's autobiography. It is a cracking read and will no doubt be one of my books of the year.

Buy it HERE.


Anonymous said...

I first saw Jeremy in action at a British Aerospace AGM, in 1982 or 1983. He was then the prospective Liberal candidate. He was very impressive, and ran rings round the Chairman, Sir Austin Pearce.

My mother-in-law was living in the Yeovil constituency at the time, and said that he was doing a very good job there. She pegged him then as probably overturning the natural Tory majority.

Max Atkinson said...

Hear, hear - and congratulations for giving him credit for (a) saving the party from oblivion and (b) increasing the number of MPs so dramatically. As a former aide to Paddy from the bleak times onwards, it used to get up my nose hearing people making out the advance was down to Charles Kennedy when they should have been asking why he hadn't developed the Ashdown legacy much further than he did.

UKIPer said...

A very good assessment of what is a thoroughly interesting book.

A Noune said...

You should read on the toilet, it's where my best reading takes place.

Bill Quango MP said...

He did well with David Laws too. Helping to show him the ropes and how to be a 'local' MP.

Salmondnet said...

All very well, but the man was still a LibDem. A tragic case of misdirected talent.

Anonymous said...

Cannot be as good and as readable as Alan Clark's diary. Whenever I pass through Hotel Amigo in Brussels I cannot help chuckling that Alan Clark used to stay in this hotel as a govt minister.

It is not about Pantsdown's persona , but his patronising advice on proportional representation and his smugness that he alone knows about Europe and the Balkans that I cannot take.

Paul said...

Haven't read the book but wholeheartedly agree with the assessment of the man (and his wife).

In my view the Paddy Pantsdown episode was the turning point in his leadership. Before that point he had managed to acquire a rather sanctimonious public persona that wasn't really chiming too well. The obvious bravery and honesty with which he tackled the extremely embarrassing revelations both brought him down to earth and showed the rest of us that he was capable of great humility as well as courage.

Politically I think his greatest domestic achievement was not 1997 but rescuing the party from oblivion after the catastrophe of the 1989 Euro-elections. However his aggressive strategy of targetting winnable constituencies and letting other areas go hang, effectively, was not universally popular in the party but paid off spectacularly in the end.

All this and and then Paddy the international statesman afterwards. Quite a guy and quite a career. The Lib Dems were very lucky to have him.

gordon-bennett said...

If indeed the libdums are "a real third force in British politics", is it more because the beeb shows them disproportionate and undeserved favour in featuring them on TV and Radio?

Think of the number of times the beeb calls on vince cable when they could get a clearer and more expert opinion from John Redwood.

Anonymous said...

"It is a cracking read and will no doubt be..."

...remaindered for about £2.99 at all large bookshops within about 6 months.

Sadly, this kind of book has a notoriously short shelf life.

neil craig said...

Ashdown knowingly & deliberately supported unrepentent ex-Nazis poblicly committed to racial genocide (the Bosnian Moslem & Croatian leaders). He lied to sell these obscenities to the British people. He lied to promote racial mass murder & to install blatantly ethnicly cleansed Nazi derived regimes in eastern Europe. He has been proven to have perjured himself in the Milosevic "trial". During the Kosovo war he abandoned leadership of the LibDems to help organise the KLA - a NATO armed & organised group of drug lords, sex slavers, secret police torturesr & ex-Nazis openly & admitedly engaged in racial genocide. With his secret service contacts he must have known that this "liberation army" consisted of people who had already been dissecting Albanians, including babies, to sell as medical parts, yet his support for them was unlimited, both then & when they became Britain's "police". As gaultier of Bosnia he exacerbated tensions by opposing the release of Fikret Abdic, the only Moslem leader not implicated in genocide & almost tailor made for any attempt to create a country. He also did nothing to diminish the trade in schoolgirls in Bosnia, particularly among members of his own international administration & feted Nasir Oric, the perpetrator of the only proven Srebrenica massacre, of 3,870 Serb villagers & now running what is described as a "night club".

Hardly "holier than thou" - certainly not holier than Goering.

Anonymous said...

Ashdown is just incredibly pompous. He is humourless too.

SDW said...

I have been reading the book over the Summer and have 2 chapters left. Also thoroughly enjoyed it, especially the early years and the winning of Yeovil.

I think Iain is right; if the public had known more about his varied background when he was leader Paddy might have done even better than he did. And he clearly took the party from the brink of collapse to some stunning successes. He doesn't even mention a highlight of the 1992 election for the Lib Dems (and some Tories?) was Don Foster winning Bath and unseating Chris Patten, who then was Tory party Chairman.

I thinks its 'derring do' btw not 'daring' but not certain......