Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Paddy Ashdown: An Interesting Life

This is from Paddy Ashdown's talk at Malvern Theatres last October, which I forgot to post at the time.  Better late than never I suppose!

As a commando; a member of the Special Forces; a spy, a Member of Parliament; formerly the leader of his party; and the UN’s High Representative to Bosnia; Paddy Ashdown has certainly led an interesting life.  Lord Ashdown was at Malvern Theatres to promote his auto-biography, ‘A Fortunate Life’ and to raise money for the charity which he patrons, Hope and Homes for Children.

When asked why his book was called ‘A Fortunate Life’, Lord Ashdown quoted from the copy he was holding:  I was a soldier at the end of the golden age of soldiering; a spy at the end of the golden age of spying; a politician while politics was still a calling and an international peace-builder, backed by Western power, before Iraq and Afghanistan drained the West of both influence and morality.”

He recalled his family’s move from India to Northern Ireland and joked about the complications of having a Catholic Father and a Protestant Mother:  On my first day at school, the other children wanted to know whether I was Protestant or Catholic and I realised that I didn’t know.
I asked my Father when I got home and he told me to tell the other children that I was a Buddhist.  They then wanted to know whether I was a Protestant or a Catholic Buddhist”.

Lord Ashdown beams with obvious pride, when recalling his career in the Royal Marines and as a Commander in the elite Special Boat Service:  I loved my time in the forces, with the exception of parachuting; it just doesn’t seem rational to jump out of a perfectly serviceable aeroplane."  

"In Malaya, I picked up the local language, so I managed to convince my superiors to send me to Hong Kong to learn Chinese."  It was in Honk Kong that Lord Ashdown was approached by a shadowy figure who claimed to be from the Foreign Office with an offer of a job.  I found myself working for an organisation, which I’m not allowed to name, but they have a large office by the Thames.  We were taught to be discreet when entering the office, in case Soviet agents were keeping watch, however the conductor of the bus used to shout, ‘Lambeth Bridge, can all spies alight here’, which rather ruined the secrecy."

He left a world of military service and espionage to enter politics in 1975 and became the Liberal MP for Yeovil eight years later.  Yeovil had been Conservative since 1910 and was considered such a safe seat that they weighed the vote.  I was selected as a candidate for the reason that I was the only person foolish enough to put my name forward, but I don’t believe in people being MP for another area, I wanted to represent my own town.  

"All my friends thought I was mad when I told them I was not only going into politics, but was going to be a Liberal as well.  The ninth of June, 1983 was the night of my life; I would like my tombstone to read, ‘Paddy Ashdown, MP for Yeovil."  

Leader of the Liberal Democrats for 11 years, Lord Ashdown believes he achieved success from an uncertain start:  I’m the only leader of a party whose support in the opinion polls was recorded as an asterisk, we had no discernible support whatsoever, but when I left Parliament in 1999, I had doubled the number of our MPs.  It was the right decision to leave then, at a time of my choosing."

Lord Ashdown became the UN’s High Representative to Bosnia-Herzegovina; a period he says changed his life.  The Balkan conflicts were terrible, some horrendous things happened there, it was the Spanish Civil War of modern times; it predicted what was to come.  I met Radovan Karadzic, I always thought you would be able to see evil in a man’s face but he was actually quite charming towards me.  It was in Bosnia that I met Colonel Mark Cook, he set up Hope and Homes for Children after coming across an orphanage there and they are doing tremendous things for children."

Lord Ashdown left with an anecdote about a visit to the grave of a famous ancestor, Daniel O’Connell, a prominent Irish nationalist.  The Irish government provided a car to take me to the grave and on the way the driver asked, ‘You’re O’Connell’s Great Grandson then? You know what they used to say about him?’  I knew they called him the Great Liberator, but I wanted to hear the driver say it, so I shook my head.  The driver told me, ‘It wasn’t that he had many kids, it’s just you couldn’t throw a stone over the orphanage wall without hitting one on the head.  They certainly didn’t call him the father of the nation for nothing.’”

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