A Politician with substance

Michael Fotis 23 October 2009

Michael Fotis talks to Paddy Ashdown, soldier, spy, political leader, super-diplomat… and future Defence Secretary?

By rights this interview should be set in Afghanistan, and Lord Ashdown should be knocking heads together amid the snipers and powerbrokers of Kabul. Instead it’s 9.30 am and our protagonist is at his home in Yeovil, about to face a barrage of questions from an eager interviewer who has only just emerged from ‘A Fortunate Life’, Ashdown’s absorbing autobiography. Page 39 is a must!

I began by congratulating him on his new role fronting the Lib Dems election campaign in the South-West – Ashdown led his party from 1988-1999. According to Nick Clegg, the current leader of the Liberal Democrats, “in the battle between Paddy Ashdown and David Cameron, I know who my money is on.”

But is this not a failure of leadership on the part of Clegg?

(laughter) “No, of course it’s not. I don’t know to what extent you’ve looked at previous elections, but it’s always the case that when it comes to elections, the leader parcels out parts of the country for people, some of his colleagues, to head up campaigns. I believe in my town it’s perfectly normal, and it’s absolutely not a failure of leadership, sweet of you to suggest that it might be.”

I’m not all that comfortable being described as sweet. In his autobiography Ashdown reveals that “it somehow seems improper to vote for oneself.”

Are you too principled to be in politics?

“I don’t think so, no. For some politicians, politics is the game, and for others it’s about values. By the way, of course, you have to have both of these elements, but values are my underpinning in politics. You might argue that the fact that Mr Blair was not attached to a set of clear values that belonged to a creed, meant that he didn’t have any shoot-anchor that held the head of the ship into the storm when the storms blew.”

Ashdown would write about turning down Mohammed Al-Fayed’s £1m donation offer, citing the “reputation he has today” as his vindication.

What reputation is that given that your party has accepted a much larger donation from a fraudster? (Michael Brown’s £2.4m donation is under investigation by the Electoral Commission)

(laughter) “You really have designed this to be as aggressive as you possibly can be. The truth is that the decision was taken by the party leader at that time. In my time I didn’t want to be associated with Mohammed Al-Fayed because it was clear, well, his reputation then was not what it is now, in fact most people thought that he – I didn’t want the party to be associated with it, that was a judgement that I made, you had better ask Charles Kennedy about the judgement he made when he accepted the gift.”

I have to say I was left wondering about Al-Fayed’s reputation. But as the tone of the interview had now changed, I decided to turn to the safer ground of Afghanistan, and it’s President Hamid Karzai – who Ashdown describes as “having skilfully outwitted those in the international community.”

Isn’t that, to an extent, quite a useful thing for a President of Afghanistan to possess?

“It depends what you want. I suppose he would be admired in Afghanistan amongst the people who are Pashtuns for his skill and cunning. But if you really want to make sure that you are a President that builds a broad partnership not just with your own people, but also the international community, you’ve got to be regarded as trustworthy on both sides, and I think the fact that there is deep unhappiness about Karzai in Washington, because of the way he runs the country, and also because of his unreliability from time-to-time.”

After months of preparation for his role as the UN representative in Afghanistan, the plug was pulled. Ashdown was no longer Karzai’s preferred candidate, reportedly concerned over the level of influence he would have. Nevertheless, Ashdown has not backed away from Afghanistan. In one influential article on the subject, he cites a letter he wrote to Gordon Brown, David Miliband, and Condoleezza Rice almost two years ago, which warned that ‘containment could be the bottom line’.

Do you think that containment should be something that is more openly discussed with the public?

“I think that it is important that political leaders explain to their public what the purpose of the campaign is, explain to them the likely possibility of success, and explain to them what the bottom line could be.”

Yet in a second article published in the Guardian just last month, there would be no mention of containment. This article was co-authored with ‘we will strain every sinew to win’ Clegg. I decided to accept this as a compromise between politics as ‘the game‘, and the engrained values politicians such as Ashdown have.  

Yesterday The People reported that you’re about to become the next Defence Secretary…

“I really wouldn’t believe everything you read in the papers, if they know that, I certainly don’t. No one has asked me, and I have already given an answer to Mr Brown about whether I’d join his cabinet.”

Upon becoming Prime Minister, Mr Brown (who according to Ashdown “can bear a grudge”), offered Ashdown the post of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. But given Ashdown’s stark warnings over Afghanistan, and his sophisticated plan of action, wouldn’t such an appointment be a wholly different kettle of fish? I decided to persevere.

The reason you gave at that time for not wanting to join Brown in any capacity is because you wanted to be able to influence policy…

“No, the reason is very simple. Cabinets run on collective responsibility, if you’re a member of a Cabinet, you have to buy into all the government’s policies. You can’t have somebody who is operating as an independent person, so even if you’re defence secretary you have to go along with the party’s policies on home affairs and so on. And unless you can buy into the collective responsibility, you can’t be a member of the Cabinet. I couldn’t understand why Mr Brown couldn’t understand that, and that applied then, and it still applies now.”

I suggest that maybe Brown couldn’t understand this because more recently Ken Clarke has rejoined the front bench of his Conservative party, in spite of his famously pro-European position.

The reason you cite in your book is specifically the fact that proportional representation wasn’t on the table…

“No, not true. The reason I used with Mr Brown for not joining was that he was about to mount a substantial attack on the civil liberties of this country, and I couldn’t go along with that… the two parties are separate, will fight independently, and my view is that the real opportunity for the Lib Dems is to take over from Labour, not to align with them, but that’s up to the party to decide.”

By 1997 Ashdown had held a series of discussions with Mr Blair, regarding the creation of a coalition for the left. These talks were halted by Labour’s resounding victory in the general election of that year. Any shared policy platform to include proportional representation, the holy grail of the Liberal Democrats, was a wholly unattractive proposition for a then bullish Labour Party.

Yet given the current state of the Labour Party, proportional representation may well be the only manoeuvre with which to check a Tory majority. Days before our interview, Ashdown would slam the Tories as “hard right, neo-con, Little Englanders” who would prove themselves “completely inadequate” at running the country.

A fortunate life it may well be, but mission accomplished it is certainly not: “the long term aim is for the Liberal Democrats to be the party that represents the sensible liberal centre-left in Britain, and to achieve that by the best way we can… none of us are going to be satisfied until that’s achieved.”

Ashdown will address the Cambridge Union on 17th November. A Fortunate Life is published by Aurum Press.

Michael Fotis