"I would absolutely LOVE to do this." Those were the typically enthusiastic words from Paddy Ashdown when I emailed him to invite him to take part in one of the first episodes of my new political panel show, CROSS QUESTION. Sadly it was never to happen.
Only a few days before he was due to appear the news broke that he had been diagnosed with cancer. This was a week after I had recorded an interview with him and John Simpson for my book club podcast. Paddy was at his brilliant best. He was there to talk about his new book, which was about the German resistance to Hitler. I didn't need to participate much in this conversation - I just let John and Paddy relate anecdote after anecdote. Looking back, this may have been the last interview Paddy ever did.*
Paddy was a leader, not just of a political party, but of public opinion. He was a leader, not a follower. He wasn't afraid to say things he knew would be unpopular, and he never lost his radicalness. Most people get more conservative (note the small 'c') as they get older. Not Paddy. He was just as radical on the day he died as the day he joined the Liberal Party back in 1976.
He was of course not just a political leader, but also served in the military. He never quite let on exactly what he did through all of his time in the military but I think it's fair to say he spent some time working in the security services. Given that he was one of the world's greatest gossips, I was always disappointed that he wouldn't reveal anything about it to me! Perhaps he knew that he had a rival in the 'world's greatest gossip' stakes!
Paddy never lost his love of or fascination with politics. When they leave the leadership of their political party, most leaders either go and make money or fade into retirement. Not Paddy. He was always a player, sometimes to the immense frustration of his successors. He knew how to find the 'G' spot of his party's activists and each one of his successors knew that if they were to make a radical departure in party policy or organisation they needed to get Paddy on board first. If he spoke out against something, more often than not, it never happened.
The coalition negotiations were a case in point. Paddy had what I always felt was a visceral hatred of the Tory Party and I always felt he was the stumbling block for the Tories to form a full coalition with the LibDems in 2010. Like Ming Campbell, he was privately talking to Gordon Brown throughout, but in the end he made a crucial intervention at a meeting of the LibDem Parliamentary Party and gave his full support to Nick Clegg and told his colleagues he would back what his leader clearly wanted to do. It was apparently quite a moment.
I have interviewed Paddy many times over the last ten years. Many of the radio interviews would play out in the same way. They would invariably end up with two wizened old political hacks reminiscing about something from the dim and distant past. My then producer, Matt Harris, and I would crack up with silent laughter as Paddy would say in his gravelly voice: "Well, Iain, you and I have been around a bit in politics, haven't we. We both know..." and he'd then come out with some anecdote or other to illustrate the point he was making. I just loved the old rogue.
Paddy had three opportunities to serve in government but he never did. Tony Blair wanted him to be a full cabinet minister in 1997 but his massive majority put paid to that. Gordon Brown wanted to make him a GOAT (Government of all the talents) and appoint him Northern Ireland Secretary. He was after all brought up in the Province and it must have been very tempting. In the coalition he could have demanded any role he wanted, but decided he would instead perform the role of unofficial sounding board for Nick Clegg, if only to keep him on the straight and narrow. I have no doubt that if he had indeed become a Cabinet Minister he'd have been a huge success. He may not have been a details man, but he'd have provided direction and inspirational leadership.
After he left the leadership of the LibDems in 1999 Paddy turned his enthusiasm into writing. He published two superb diaries of his leadership of the LibDems, detailing (and I mean in huge detail) all the secret talks he had held with Tony Blair over a potential coalition and electoral reform. He then wrote a series of books on military history, mainly on events in World War Two. His latest book NEIN, about the German resistance to Hitler, was published in October. In his interview with me at the time he revealed he was working on a novel. Sadly it will now never see the light of day.
Paddy had a great sense of humour and could be very self deprecating. He knew he was seen as slightly sanctimonious on occasion and was happy to take the mickey out of himself. I'm sure he roared with laughter when Rory Bremner (I think) said he rang Paddy once and got an ansafone message saying: "This is Paddy Ashdown. Please leave a message after the sanctimonious, holier-than-though moral tone".
Although I knew he was very ill, the news of Paddy's death this evening hit me surprisingly hard. I cried. I paid tribute to him on LBC half an hour later wondering if I would hold it together. I did, but only just. Paddy wasn't a close friend, but he was a friend. And I hope he thought of me in that way too. I'm going to miss the old rogue.
Tonight, as I write this, I think of many LibDem friends who will be utterly bereft. Olly Grender, who shared an office with him in the Lords and one of his closest confidantes. Nick Clegg, who said tonight, like many other LibDems, that it was Paddy who had got him involved in politics. My old adversary in North Norfolk Norman Lamb, who took huge inspiration from Paddy. My friend Jo Phillips, who served as his Press Secretary and gave her name to 'The Jo Group', the group of LibDem politicians who'd secretly meet to discuss how to realign with Labour. I think of Chris Rennard and David Laws, who both did so much to make the LibDems both an electoral and policy force in the 1990s and early 2000s. And all those thousands of activists who sweated blood for Paddy in 1992 and 1997. They will all be devastated and for many it will mark the end of an era.
Let me finish in this way. Paddy Ashdown rescued the Liberal movement in this country. When he took over the leadership of the Social and Liberal Democrats in 1988 they were barely registering in the opinion polls. Margaret Thatcher (with whom Paddy enjoyed warm personal relations - she always liked a man in Khaki) wrote them off in her famous 'Dead Parrot' conference speech, but Paddy had the last laugh. In 1997 the LibDems won 46 seats, up from 18 and the most since the days of Lloyd George and Asquith. It was a real achievement, and perhaps he's never quite got the recognition he deserved. Many think he resigned needlessly, and far too early in 1999 and that if he had stayed the LibDems would have got an even better result in 2001 than Charles Kennedy achieved. We'll never know, but there are very party leaders who do well after ten years in the job.
Paddy was nothing if not self-confident. In 2009 he told me: “I have had a wonderful life but I am pretty pissed off at not being prime minister! I really would like to have been prime minister. Whatever you do, that’s the measure of a life. Did I manage to achieve that?” I suggested he was too emotional to do the job well. “I never said I would have been a good prime minister!” came the immediate retort, together with the typical Paddy laughter. “The other two parties have conceded that it is the Liberal Age. They are all liberals now. They are all trying to be Liberals. David Cameron even proclaims himself to be a liberal Conservative, so here’s the conundrum. If this is a Liberal Age, why the bloody hell aren’t I Prime Minister?” Actually, I think he’d have been a good one.
Paddy Ashdown was a patriot. A hero. A leader. The genuine warmth of the tributes paid to him tonight from all over the political spectrum will be some solace to Jane, his wife, and his children as they try to come to terms with their loss.
What a man.
* You can listen to my interview with Paddy and John Simpson on the Iain Dale Book Club podcast which can be found on iTunes the Global Player App or wherever you download your podcasts. More details HERE.
Read my review of Paddy's autobiography HERE.
Listen to my 2014 interview with Paddy about his second book HERE.