Action man

The Ashdown Diaries: volume one - 1988-1997

<em>Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 638pp, £20</em>

I

I must admit to feeling ambivalent about politicians' diaries: they ought to be subject to the 30-year rule, especially when they record conversations that the participants did not expect to see in print. Harold Nicolson's diaries are a splendid read, as are Richard Crossman's. Alan Clark's are fascinating, precisely because the author was a bounder, whereas Woodrow Wyatt's diaries fascinate because of their very ghastliness.

The Ashdown Diaries provide a detailed and painfully accurate record of the man's life as Liberal Democrat leader. The principal interest lies in his relationship with Tony Blair and their joint determination to pursue "the project" - namely, bringing an end to the division in centre-left politics, begun in the time of Keir Hardie and Lloyd George to the long-lasting benefit of the Tory right. That was not an ignoble purpose, but it is interesting to note how every postwar Liberal leader has been too caught up in the opportunity offered by a "balance of power" to achieve just that: Clement Davies in 1950-51, Jo Grimond in 1964-66, Jeremy Thorpe in 1974 and this reviewer in 1978-79. In my own case, had Jim Callaghan not postponed what should have been the general election of autumn 1978 - plunging the country instead into the winter of discontent, which led to the Thatcher victory - then the opportunity for a Lib-Lab coalition might have occurred.

Ashdown's thoughts were originally framed in the aftermath of the 1992 Kinnock election defeat, but gathered pace after Tony Blair became leader. (I gloss over similar conversations between John Smith and me because he and Ashdown did not get on.) Blair carried little intellectual baggage: his first election address as a by-election candidate (pro-CND, anti-Europe) shows that. He was much more obsessed with the managerial problems of Labour's four consecutive defeats. He tackled these with vigour, and Ashdown's wooing fitted the purpose admirably.

Extracts from this book have been well-publicised, and the diaries are endearingly frank. They could have done with more severe editing and interpretive comment, instead of the series of footnotes spattered with minor errors. The early chapters, for example, focus on the wretched wrangling that Ashdown had to endure over the new party's name (remember the Salads?). Because the issues are not explained, it is difficult, even for someone who lived close to them, to follow the irritating twists and turns which, in retrospect, seem so trivial. Later, we read about the "big issue" and "small issue" for several pages before it is explained to the baffled reader that they are different degrees of co-operation between the parties.

The planning for a hung parliament or narrow majority seems eminently sensible. What caused more unrest in the party was Ashdown's continued pursuit of "the project", even after Labour's commanding victory. We will have to await a second volume to understand why this was so. Robin Cook sensibly warned him, in April 1996, that the "Labour Party won't accept winning a majority and then having a coalition with you".

For me, the main attraction of the diaries lies elsewhere. Descriptions of his visits to the former Yugoslavia are both vivid and moving. And I was not fully aware of the appalling treatment he and his wife, Jane, suffered at the hands of a combination of local thugs, extended legal process and an intrusive press. We also get occasional glimpses of something he has generally suppressed - his sense of humour. The Thai prime minister is described as "an ex-general who looks as though he has only just finished murdering someone"; at another event, Jeffrey Archer is "poncing about and generally being obnoxious"; and I laughed out loud at his description of a performance of Messiah in Auxerre Cathedral. I felt sympathy for him, too, for the moment he stepped out of his election battle bus declaring "It's good to be back in Devon", only to be reminded that he was in Cornwall.

There is something engagingly Boy-Scoutish about the tone of some entries. He obviously enjoyed the dashing about in flak jackets in the Balkans and inventing code names for potential Tory defectors: "Austin" and "Wolseley". I suppose it comes from the Special Boat Service training. Compared with me, he was confoundedly disciplined as a leader. His mistake was expecting everybody else (in the Liberal Democrats, for God's sake) to act likewise. Countless entries record him as "very" or "extremely" tired - not surprisingly, considering his 5am or 6am starts and meticulous attention to detail. That these diaries got written at all is a great tribute.

He never liked being advised that he might be going too far in his obsession with "the project". He accurately recalls his fury when Richard Holme and Ming Campbell (two of his and my closest friends and advisers) discussed with me, over lunch in Chicago during the 1996 Democratic Convention, how to rein him in.

But, as he himself admits to "the judgements of an impatient personality", Paddy should not put himself down. His judgements in the Balkans were both brave and correct. And his resolute impatience left the third force in British politics at its strongest for more than 60 years.

Sir David Steel is a former leader of the Liberal Party