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Paddy Ashdown - Liberal Democrat Party Leader

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Paddy Ashdown became the first leader of the (then-named) Liberal and Social Democrats (now the Liberal Democrats) upon the merger of the Liberal and Social Democratic Parties in 1988. He was to take the two parties, which on the day of his election were facing bankruptcy and held only 19 Parliamentary seats, to their strongest position since the days of David Lloyd George, with 46 MPs.

Early Life

Jeremy John Durham Ashdown (more commonly known as Paddy) was born in New Delhi, India on 27 February, 1941, towards the end of the colonial empire. His family had been soldiers and colonial administrators and so his birth in this environment and his later life in a new context of both these paths is interesting. However, his family returned to the United Kingdom when he was aged four, buying a farm in Northern Ireland. For his secondary schooling he was sent to Bedford School where his inherited Northern Irish accent earned him his lifelong nickname 'Paddy'.

A Soldier's Life

On completing his education in 1959 he joined the Royal Marines as an officer; he was to serve in the regiment until 1972. He saw active service in Borneo and the Persian Gulf as a commando officer. Then he underwent Special Forces Training in 1965, before taking command of a Special Boat Section in the Far East. One of the skills which he may have inherited from his family's diplomatic history was for languages, and so in 1967 he was dispatched to Hong Kong to take a full-time course in Chinese. He returned to the UK in 1970 and was given command of a Commando Company in Belfast.

The Diplomat

On leaving the Marines in 1972, Paddy joined the Foreign Office, his first posting being to the British Mission to United Nations in Geneva. Here he was responsible for UK relations with some of the UN organisations, and was involved in negotiations which resulted in several international treaties and agreements from 1974 - 76. He also played a role in some aspects of the European Security Conference (the Helsinki Conference).

Somerset Man

On leaving the Foreign Office he took work in the Yeovil area in Somerset. He started life with Westlands1 where he worked until 1981. In 1981, he took a position in Tescan, a Yeovil-based subsidiary of Morlands. However, the company closed down later in the year leaving Paddy facing unemployment. After four months on the dole, Paddy got a job at the age of 41, as a Youth Worker for Dorset County Council Youth Service, where he worked on initiatives to help the unemployed young people.

The Politician

Paddy first sought election in 1979, when he stood for Parliament for the Yeovil seat. Although he failed to win, he had raised the Liberal vote to its highest ever level. At the following General Election in 1983 he was returned to Parliament with a majority of 3600.

Shortly after he arrived, his experience was put to use as the spokesman for Trade and Industry Affairs for the Liberal and Social Democratic Party (SDP) Alliance. He moved on to deal with education in 1987 and in the election of that year saw his majority increase to 6000. The leaders of the two alliance partners (David Steel of the Liberals and Robert Maclennan of the SDP) decided to step aside when the two parties agreed to formally merge. Paddy became leader of the Liberal Democrats in July, 1988, in a straight race with Alan Beith, and, as befitted his station as leader, was appointed to the Privy Council in 1989.

Party Leader

Paddy took charge of a new party following the amalgamation of the Liberals, with their long history and tradition in UK politics, and the SDP, which consisted largely of former Labour members who had broken away from that party at the start of the 1980s. Tensions were still present between the two factions at this time - three of the SDP MPs refused to join the new party and carried on as a rump SDP into the new Parliament. This caused some early difficulties for the fledgling party and their leader, as some of the public still thought there were divisions.

The SDP ghost was finally put to rest, only for the Greens to achieve their greatest European Election result in the 1993 elections. The Liberal Democrats had remained the mainstream party with the greenest policies and this upturn in Green Party support greatly affected Liberal Democrat support, which had only just seen the end of the SDP rump at the 1992 General election.

Paddy's style as leader took a lot from his military upbringing. At the time he was the only party leader to have served in the military, and as such he held a lot of respect from areas of the general public, politicians from home and overseas and the military. He would often brandish headlines from the papers to highlight his points during Prime Minister's Questions. He didn't duck tough issues and did not see why the Prime Ministers he faced2 should do so either. Whilst leader, one tough incident he faced was when the Sunday tabloids threatened to expose an affair he'd had with one of his secretaries. He beat them to the story by releasing a statement. His wife stood by him, but Paddy obtained the nickname Paddy Pantsdown, which resurfaced at times.

His various experiences served him well on official duties. At the annual cenotaph service at Whitehall he wore his medals with pride. At the time of the handover of Hong Kong to China, Paddy, who is fluent in Mandarin, took a key role and interest in ensuring the rights of Hong Kong residents under the terms of the handover.

However, it was the break-up of Yugoslavia that brought Paddy to the fore as an international diplomat. In the early days of the various conflicts, Paddy was sent in - with John Major's blessing - to see the situation first-hand. As a former solder and a politician he was able to get alongside the people on every side of the conflict, understand their concerns and raise these with the appropriate authorities in the European Union and the United Nations.

In the 1997 General Election he further increased his majority to over 11,000. Paddy stood down as the leader of the Liberal Democrats in 1999, to leave time for his successor, Charles Kennedy, to get established before the next General Election in 2001, at which Paddy retired from the Commons.

Diplomat Once More

His involvement in Bosnia-Herzegovina led to him being the natural choice for the appointment in 2002 as the United Nation's High Representative for the country. Here he used his in-depth knowledge and vast diplomacy skills to allow the people to emerge from the ravages of war, which first brought them to his attention.

Private Life

Paddy is married to Jane, who tends to shy away from being a public politician's wife, and they have two children, Simon and Kate. Kate is married to Sebastian, a Frenchman from near the family holiday home in Irancy; they are the proud parents of Paddy's grandchildren.

1The company that infamously led to the resignation of Michael Heseltine and Leon Brittan from the Conservative government in the 1980s.2Margaret Thatcher until 1991, John Major until 1997 and Tony Blair for Paddy's last few months as leader.

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