PADDY Ashdown is in combative mood. Affable and charming? Sure. But the former Royal Marine and Special Forces man isn’t about to pull his punches when it comes to passing judgement on the architects of the broken Britain he sees before him.
“David Cameron will go down as one of the worst Prime Ministers we have had along with Chamberlain and Eden,” he bristles when asked what sort of legacy the man who brought us the Brexit vote leaves behind.
“I said two years ago that Cameron was the most dangerous PM of our times, not because he’s not a decent man, he’s a perfectly decent man. But it’s this kind of casual, Eton insouciance which means you do things without thinking about them.”
Ashdown, in case you hadn’t guessed, has strong views about leaving the European Union. More of which later.
But first to the principal reason for our conversation: to set the scene for the former Liberal Democrat leader’s visit to Yorkshire later this month, a stop at the Harrogate History Festival where he will be discussing his brand new book.
Game of Spies follows the deadly espionage triangle played out between three men trapped in the maelstrom that was Occupied France in the later years of the Second World War.
It’s a gripping story featuring beautifully drawn characters that might have stepped straight from a Hollywood thriller. Roger Landes, the brilliant, ruthless British secret agent; Friedrich Dohse, the Gestapo officer charged with finding him; and French Resistance leader Andre Grandclement, responsible for one of the most controversial betrayals of the entire war.
The story of how the book came into being is just as intriguing, and Ashdown enjoys telling it. The trio had “flitted across” his 2012 retelling of the Cockleshell Heroes’ mission, then one day a friend called with an exciting find.
“He said, ‘I’ve got a box of documents here that were taken out of a house when the owner, called Aristide, died’,” recalls Ashdown. “My ears pricked up because Aristide was Roger Landes’s codename. So we rushed out to see them and spent a whole day going through the private papers of, in my view, the greatest secret agent we ever dropped into France.”
A bit of digging in the Bordeaux archives then unearthed Dohse’s memoirs, allowing him to piece together an intimate account of the lives of these three men and how they came to be intertwined.
“In a sense it’s a completely counter-intuitive book because all the things you think you knew turn out to be the opposite. The most likeable man in the book, arguably, is the Gestapo officer. The Frenchman is a stupid man more than a traitor, and the ruthless, single-minded operator who in the end kills far more than the Gestapo officer is Roger Landes.
“It’s not a book about great events,” concludes Ashdown. “It’s a book about how ordinary people plunged into great events face those existential challenges that wartime presents and how they react to them.”
There’s little doubt that he sees our leaving of the EU as something of an existential crisis too. Ashdown says he sensed which way the June vote was heading and blames a “very badly run” Remain campaign for the outcome.
“We were fighting on the wrong message and without any heart. The idea that when John Major came in it would all be alright was exactly the contrary.”
The way Ashdown tells it, it was he who rallied the troops, meeting with Major, Gordon Brown and “my friends from the past” in a last-ditch bid to turn the tide. “It didn’t come as a surprise, but it came as a terrible disappointment,” he says of the eventual result. “In many ways a lot of the things I’ve fought for all my political life have gone out of the window.”
Should the British people have been trusted with the vote in the first place? Yes, he says, but he feels they should have been far better prepared for it.
“There would have been a much more sensible debate,” he insists. “The problem was that David Cameron became obsessed with the management of the Conservative Party rather than the national interest.
“But the thing that really strikes me between the eyes is that while I have always known there’s an undercurrent in every society, somehow or another the Brexit vote has given permission for this to appear in public.
“This is not to say, absolutely not, that all those who voted Brexit are somehow racist or believe these things, they are very decent, honourable people who have voted with as much patriotism as I have. But the rise in hate crimes has really struck me.
“I think we have to work very hard to maintain our country as one that is tolerant, respectful of others and retain the habit of compromise, because that’s what we’re famous for and what makes us love this country.”
Ashdown warms to the theme of a “revolt” against the Establishment in the West being a case of history repeating itself. “Besides the fact we don’t have a madman with an army who’s dying for a war, although God knows what happens if we get Trump, this age reminds me horribly of the 1930s,” he suggests.
“In my view revolting against the Establishment is a perfectly sane, rational thing to do. We have not been treated well these last 20 years by our systems of government. But why does every public revolt have to produce something worse? Why does it have to produce a Trump, or a Farage or a Marine Le Pen?”
As a counter-balance, Ashdown has launched a new political movement (he is at pains to stress it is not a political party). More United has gathered just short of 40,000 members since its July launch, a bit more than half the membership of the Lib Dems.
“The purpose is to say, ‘Look guys, can we not create a gathering point for those people of decent instinct?’ and it appears we can,” he says. “The most fascinating thing about these times is the rise of people’s movements. Parties have become narrow sects that go to the seaside once a year and celebate their purity and their tribalism. They’ve become separated from their people’s movements.
“One of our difficulties is that the centre left, the progressive left, which I think is where the centre of gravity of Britain lies, is broken and fractured. It’s divided between the Liberal Democrats, the fractured elements of Labour who now find themselves cast into the darkness and the Greens, as well as the millions who do want to make a difference and believe these things but don’t want to do it through a political party.
“There’s a huge move for something like this and now we’re going to try to build an organisation that can have an effect on politics.”
If you want a model, he says, think of the National Lottery. More United will fund and support any candidate, from any party, who shares its core principles – including social justice, proportional representation, action on climate change, close ties with Europe and a UK that welcomes immigration.
As for his own beloved Lib Dems, he thinks Tim Farron is doing a decent job but isn’t sure the rebuilding work will be far enough along by the time of the next General Election, which he suspects Theresa May will call for next May.
Still, it could be worse. “I feel strongly for those really decent Labour MPs, I better not name them, who find themselves completely left out,” he says grimly of Corbyn’s divided party.
“They remind me a bit of prisoners in the (Beethoven) opera Fidelio who have to come up from the underground dungeon singing the Prisoners’ Chorus, then emerge into the sunlight to find they’re still in bloody prison.”
‘It’s a tragedy for British politics’
Paddy Ashdown believes history will be kinder to the Liberal Democrats over their role in coalition government, as well as former leader and Sheffield Hallam MP Nick Clegg.
“I think he’s one of the most gifted politicians we’ve ever had and it’s a tragedy, for him and for British politics generally, that he isn’t there.
“This is a moment for which he was absolutely made. I think he has been extremely unfairly dealt with, but that’s politics. But I think he has real gifts which are no longer available to the British body politic and we’re all poorer as a result.”
Paddy Ashdown will appear at the Harrogate History Festival on October 20. Game of Spies is published by William Collins, priced £20.