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23 December 2018

Paddy Ashdown leaves behind a legacy of profound decency and kindness

The late Liberal Democrat leader showed the right way to be a politician in turbulent times - with tolerance, liberalism and social justice at the heart of his values.

By Olly Grender

The greatest shock about the loss of Paddy Ashdown is that he was still, aged 77, such a force of energy. I honestly believed that if we had a power crisis at any point we could plug him into the National Grid and he would light up Britain.

He led a political party, served his country as a Royal Marine and intelligence officer, ran Bosnia, wrote eight books and two volumes of diaries, and was still determined to surpass his grandchildren when skiing.  

When the rest of us were beaten back by the EU referendum result or bad elections – and there were plenty of those – Paddy had an extraordinary ability to regroup and single-handedly move forward against the most formidable odds. He never stopped trying to improve the lives of others, make democracy reach beyond Westminster and, above all, understand that our friends and neighbours stretch around the planet.

He was trained in guerilla tactics from an early age – and he used them with great skill throughout his life. His mother and father moved to Australia leaving him in the UK in his teens. When he ditched “diplomacy” (think 007) and pursued a political career, he and Jane (who he married in 1962) were down to their last pennies until he obtained a job as a youth worker.

As Liberal Democrat leader (from 1988-1999) he “banged on about Bosnia” every week in parliament, to the groans of most MPs, but he was vindicated: a humanitarian atrocity was happening on Europe’s doorstep. He fought for the Hong Kong Chinese to obtain British citizenship, a deeply unpopular position but the right one. He inherited a political party on the verge of bankruptcy – financial and political – and by dint of personality built it back up again.

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In 2015 – when most people in their seventies are planning retirement – he took on mission impossible and ran the post-coalition general election campaign. It was a grim, thankless task, which he delivered with his usual humour, energy and inspiration.

Often he believed he was fighting all these battles on his own – “pushing a huge boulder up a mountain single-handed”.  He wasn’t; he leaves behind so many of us who would have willingly followed him anywhere.

He loved having people around him who would give him an argument – he rarely employed people who agreed with him.  He grew and fostered countless careers. He always found time to give encouragement, mentoring and support to so many, from deputy prime minister Nick Clegg to the newest press officer in the party. The only payment he expected in return was fun company, a good argument and great gossip.

Words were so important to him: crafting questions to the prime minister, lighting up a hall with a passionate speech, delivering a broadcast soundbite that captured the essence of the moment. Later in life, his articles and his books were a matter of intense pride and he approached his role as a writer with meticulousness and care.

He leaves behind a legacy of showing the right way to be a politician in the turbulent times we live in – with tolerance, liberalism and social justice at the heart of his values.

Family was everything to him and his pride in his children, grandchildren and love for Jane were a defining part of who he was.

He was astounded by the outpouring when his illness became public. He felt other people went through much more in their lives. During the last conversation that we had about his health, he said that he didn’t want any fuss. So for one last time, I am going to argue with my former boss, mentor, friend and say: he was wrong, let the fuss commence – he led a life that deserved it.

Olly Grender is a former head of communications for the Liberal Democrats and a party peer