Asked in an interview taking place while a UK General election was happening, in the 1990's, how he would vote, Sir Peter Ustinov said, immediately, "I'm an Ashdown man!" It was not surprising that the inspiration for this Ustinov Prejudice Awareness Forum, opted so definitely for the leader of the Liberal Democrats, he had voted Liberal all his life. But in his response to the question, he had mentioned, the man, at the helm of that party, an interesting choice of words from someone never given to hero worship even in his youth, here, commenting on a political leader, a man a generation younger than Sir Peter. But though very different in careers and trajectory, on the surface, the afinity with and similarity between, each other, could be realised, as the developing career of Paddy Ashdown, later, Lord Ashdown, showed, and his passing today makes worth noting. It is the loss of a true champion of values these two men shared with many who visit and take part in the work of our forum here.
Paddy Ashdown was indeed a man first and last, not a politician at heart, or in his soul, the latter word chosen well, to refer to a man of progressive Christian belief, and a life and career that revealed it. Here was a man whose rise to great heights, was the result, not of a blueprint or plan, nor by following of obvious rules to gain success, but of a man's enthusiasm and determination, for the many and varied tasks he pursued, with vigour and energy. His was a life of success earned gradually by service revealed constantly.
He went to no university, but in his life he learnt several languages. The boy who had not excelled in those languages he had been taught in school, went on to speak Mandarin and Malay. He left school at sixteen and went on to join the Marines, a military career period of many years, military service, which became the testing ground for the further public service he would give, in the diplomatic and political fields. A Commando, a Captain, from Borneo, to Singapore, in Hong Kong and Northern Ireland, the experiences he had and the roles he took on, were testament to the man. He was in harms way, often, not seeking a way out, or dodging a draft, like some future political leaders, who unlike this one, preached no gung ho, politics, for he faced no draft, rather, giving of himself voluntarily.
The security service and MI6, gained his interest, after over a decade and a half as a Marine, his cover, of work at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, leading to actual diplomatic work too, both then and especially later on. He was based in Geneva for a very important period that included his involvement in the preparation of the Helsinki Accords, on European security, as well as interaction with the United Nations for the first time in this work.
Then to the surprise of many, he gave it all up, to pursue an increasing and strong interest in politics. Typical of the man, he chose, not the Conservative or Labour parties, the governing parties who took turns and had become a duopoly, but the Liberals, who only ever in many decades of trying, then, got few seats in parliament, and were the very distant third force, electorally. After several years of lively, intense, and almost militaristic campaigning, to win the seat he was attempting to win, and with the same brio he brought to every task, these professional years including work for businesses and a year of unemployment, he got elected as a member of parliament, in his early forties. After five years of service as an mp, he was leader of his party, now called the Liberal Democrats, a merger of the age old Liberals and more recent social democrats, but this was leadership of a party in trouble, so low in opinion polls as to be in fact mocked at times.
But Paddy Ashdown led from the front. The humanity of the man, as clear as the normality of his human qualities. He established a reputation for honesty and a combination of clear headed moderation and far sighted radicalism. He had an empathy for the unemployed and the homeless, and was a real spokesman for the cause and voice, of the Hong Kong people, he had once lived amongst and whose languages he knew, when they faced the inevitable loss of their British status, and impending control of China.
His was a leadership that led to his party doubling in seats, but, more importantly for a third party not in government, it being considered, and him as leader, worth listening to, very much taken seriously. For seriousness was his hallmark, and if an earnestness or a holier than though sort of tone ever krept in to his delivery , it was dissolved by the passionate oratory and self deprecating humour that was evident often. A brief affair with his secretary, who in fact was a real friend, a one off, was handled by him in a way only few could. Knowing his marriage of twenty five years, was strong and his affair, not lasting, with the support of his wife Jane, aware that the media were sniffing for a story, he did not allow them to get their scoop, calling a mini press conference, in which he told his story himself, and knocked it out. It did not stop the tabloids naming him "Paddy pantsdown" for a while, a nickname that made the man, all the more obviously human than he already was.
This was a man who followed up the nonsensical trivia of headline news, with years of new service and a new role yet again. For after a decade as a party leader, that nearly saw him in government under Tony Blair, a coalition that proved not possible when the Prime Minister won a landslide, Blair asked him to consider the position of High Commissioner of Bosnia and Herzegonia, a crucial one, in the transition of that very stricken new state, in a state of recent turmoil. Ashdown took on the task with such dedication and singlemindedness, to some, he was referred to as the Viceroy, an interesting jest, as though meant to mean he led from the front in ways at times almost too obvious, it was poignant, for he was born in India, during the years of the waning of the British colonial rule, and of the last Viceroy!
Paddy Ashdown was a man of peace who had been a man in actual conflicts. He was a man who had been in war torn countries in battle fatigues, and fought, but who yet did not tire of the need to work , and work hard, for peace. His though, was not a nature in conflict. He worked cross party, with friends in all parties. He was on the governing body of the charity Interpeace, he was a founder of the bipartisan organisation, More United, and gave his name and some money, to the Ashdown Prize, a competition in the Liberal Democrats, for radical new ideas.
And if all this would have delighted Sir Peter Ustinov, one thing more would have the most. For nearly a decade in these recent years in his seventies, Paddy Ashdown has served as the President and an Ambassador, for Unicef UK. Travelling not so long ago, to countries such as Syria. Sir Peter, after Danny Kaye, as only the second, ever, Unicef Ambassador himself, would have been an admirer of Paddy Ashdown all the more than he was a supporter, those many years, ago, in that election.
Paddy Ashdown was a great political leader and a good man. The extent of the first was known by Liberal Democrats and some beyond. The extent of the second was known by anybody and everybody, surely, who knew of him and how true it was.