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A Fortunate Life

Readers who are interested in politics ought to begin Paddy Ashdown’s autobiography on page 155.

It describes the author’s conversion from hesitant Labourite to convinced Liberal. The “instrument of the epiphany” was a general election canvasser who spent two hours explaining the merits of a party that its future leader had previously regarded as “too small, too zany and too incoherent to be worth looking at”.

If Ashdown talks as he writes, it must have been a solemn 120 minutes. From start to finish, A Fortunate Life justifies the suggestion – attributed to Charles Kennedy – that Ashdown’s answering machine invites callers to “leave a message after the high moral tone”.

The early pages – though they include interesting stories about Ashdown the marine and intriguing glimpses of him “in the more shadowy side of Foreign Office activity” – are padded out with far too much inconsequential information. “We borrowed a car-top tent from a friend and, together with Kate and our heavily pregnant dog Pip, spent a week camping close to Abergavenny” is the stuff of which Christmas letters to neglected relatives are made.

Ashdown is admirably frank about the parliamentary Liberal Party that he joined after the 1983 general election.

It might easily have been described as “too small, too zany and too incoherent to be worth looking at”, although, as he rightly says, there were moments during the campaign when it seemed the Liberal-Social Democratic Alliance would relegate Labour into third place, for it polled only 2 per cent less of the popular vote.

The opportunity was missed partly because Labour abandoned the wilder shores of politics and partly because the Alliance leadership wrangled about whether to merge or remain a fractious partnership.

Ashdown was a merger man from the start, and after the creation of the more or less unified Social Democrats he developed a passion for reuniting the progressive forces which, as it is fashionable to say, were disastrously split in the early years of the 20th century.

But New Labour began to occupy the middle ground that he believed was rightly his.

Almost 20 years on, he writes about his thwarted hopes of turning “the Blair phenomenon into something from which [the SDP] could benefit”. So he went on a bear hunt and ended up inside the beast.

Tony Blair and Ashdown had met semi-socially before either of them became a party leader. They “met again just before [their] respective 1994 party conferences. It was then that [they] laid the foundations of the next five years of close and mostly secret co-operations.”

The arrangement did not have the effect hoped for by the SDP. “Attention from the press was being seriously squeezed by the national love affair with Blair.”

Ashdown suggests improbably that Liberal Democrat fortunes were revived by the defection from the Tories of Emma Nicholson – rather ungallantly described as a “big fish”.

The illusion of importance was created by the creation of a joint commission on constitutional reform. Not even the appointment of Robin Cook (a devotee of proportional representation) to occupy one of the chairs should have encouraged the belief that, once the election was won, Blair would change the voting system.

Honour prevents Ashdown from revealing exactly what was promised, but there was “a clear plan about how the relationship would develop after the [1997] general election”.

Whatever Blair really wanted, there was no question, once he had won with a landslide majority, of coalition. The theory that it would have been more acceptable to the Labour Party if it was negotiated from a position of strength is hokum.

Perhaps Gordon Brown and John Prescott did veto the idea; if so, they were only representing the view of a party which (briefly) regarded itself as invincible.

All that Ashdown was offered was the nom­ination of members to sit on a quasi-cabinet committee that had no power. The Baldwin precedent was quoted, but it was Lloyd George’s experience that mattered: sixty years earlier he endured a similar sham.

Ashdown had more patience and less personal ambition. So he pinned his hopes of realignment on the government’s acceptance of Roy Jenkins’s report on electoral reform.

Blair “made it very clear that the price he wanted for agreeing to the Jenkins proposals was a full merger between the parties”.

This was an offer to which Ashdown did not have the power to accede – had he even wished to do so. And not even Blair could have believed that a great party could or should live or die according to the wishes of its leader.

Ashdown gave up politics and, eventually, had his finest hour in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

He ruefully concludes that, in 1997, he did not recognise the fatal flaws undermining the Blair premiership.

He should comfort himself with the thought that he was not alone in that.

Roy Hattersley’s “Borrowed Time: the Story of Britain Between the Wars” is published by Abacus (£12.99)

A Fortunate Life
Paddy Ashdown
Aurum Press, 416pp, £20