EVEN though Paddy Ashdown never spoke from the despatch box in the House of Commons, he was a far more significant figure than many of those politicians who have spoken – and still speak – from this privileged position.
After becoming leader of the Liberal Democrats in 1988, the party’s support didn’t even register with opinion polls. When he stood down 11 years later, it had become a major national force with 46 MPs.
A redoubtable grassroots campaigner committed to fighting social and economic inequality, he made liberalism more relevant for contemporary society at a time when both the Tories and Labour were still rooted in the political centre in contrast to today.
It is significant that the most heartfelt tributes came from John Major and Tony Blair. Opponents in the turbulent 1990s, any political acrimony – and there was much – never stood in the way of their personal respect, and appreciation, of Lord Ashdown whose formative years in the Royal Marines and Special Boat Service ultimately led to him being tasked with bringing peace to the Balkans.
A much respected international statesman because of his work in Bosnia where he came to regard his own ‘eyes and ears’ as the best intelligence, his humility was epitomised by a social media post two months ago when he was diagnosed with bladder cancer.
Typically, he said that his condition did not “merit a fuss”. Almost certainly, this public figure universally known as ‘Paddy’ would have been embarrassed by the tide of tributes from friends and foes alike.
But they do matter. For, at a time when British politics has never been more divided, his work trying to encourage more cross-party collaboration following the murder of Batley MP Jo Cox could, in time, still prove to be his greatest legacy if the Brexit fallout, and possible political realignment, leads to a renewal and revival of the liberal values that he so espoused.