The Ashdown Diaries: 1988-1997 v. 1

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9780140297751: The Ashdown Diaries: 1988-1997 v. 1

On July 1988, the day Paddy Ashdown was elected Leader of his party and this diary begins, the men from the Inland Revenue had to be hurried from the party's headquarters so he could make his first Leader's statement to the press. (The Revenue had called "because of our persistent failure to pay National Insurance contributions"). The party was virtually bankrupt, morale almost extinguished. In the depths of despair eleven months later, with everything apparently dissolving around him, he wrote in his diary, "I'm plagued by the nightmare that the party that started with Gladstone will end with Ashdown". But history turned out otherwise. On 2 May 1997, when this volume ends, the Liberal Democrats under Ashdown's leadership had been brought to their strongest position in two generations - 46 seats in the House of Commons and, as this book now reveals, on the brink of reshaping entirely the centre ground of British politics. The astonishing revival of his party (ruthlessly internally managed, as his daily thinking shows, and despite his frequent confessions of nervousness and absence of confidence) is one the great themes of this book. The account which Ashdown gives here of his negotiations with Tony Blair to bring about that reshaping, which were of an extent and intensity until now entirely unguessed at except by their immediate advisers, is the main political story which the book has to tell. "Let me give it to you absolutely straight", Blair says to him in May 1996. "I repeat what I have said to Roy. The preferred option is very clear. It is to have you in the Government, even if there is a majority". The portrait of Blair himself and of those around him is the least varnished and most three-dimensional yet published. Yet these are only two threats in an entertaining and gripping book. Ashdown shows the extraordinary pressure with which political leades now live, constantly in the eye of the media, fighting to protect some small patch of personal life, surviving on a few hours sleep per night often for weeks on end. The stresses on him and his family are almost overwhelming. racist thugs torch his car, and threaten to do the same to his house in his constituency ("I am sacred to death of the house being fire-bombed with Jane inside"). The news of his earlier affair with Tricia Sullivan breaks in the press. The book shows how media crises are handled, and how he and Jane coped with what was thrown at them. Finally, the Balkans. No British politician had such an intimate personal involvement with the crisis there during the 1990s or can write so authoritatively about it. Ashdown's account of coming over Mount Igman at dawn and entering Sarajevo through the tunnel underneath the airport is as exciting as anything in adventure fiction. yet contemplating Britain's role there he writes, "I don't know which was the stronger emotion, the anger of the shame". His condemnation of the inaction of the Conservative government is complete and unequivocal. The completion of Ashdown's account of that story, as of the domestic political negotiations which reached their high-water mark in April 1997, must wait for publication of his second and final volume in autumn 2001. In the meantime, it is clear from this first volume that Ashdown is providing us with the best and most detailed account of what it's like to be a front-line politician, and of the processes of politics in Britain since Richard Crossman.

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Review:

Alec Guinness, David Attenborough, Quentin Crisp, John Simpson--many fascinating autobiographies have been read by their authors, but the ex-leader of the Lib Dems has produced a dog. Yet the facts of his story are interesting. He inherited a divided and bankrupt party which agreed--after marathon debates--to assume a new and forgettable name; he attempted to end the confusion about what they stood for, without success; he laid secret plans with Tony Blair to form a coalition designed to send the Tories to perdition; he repeatedly visited the Balkans to try to repair the damage left by meddling and fainthearted Western governments. His tale ends in 1997 with Blair pulling out of the secret compact, and with himself standing down as party leader. Part Two is promised soon.

The trouble with these diaries--and with his reading, which, alas, suits them perfectly--is that they are trudgingly, achingly dull. The blurb describes him as "charismatic", but of that quality these cassettes give no sign. Very occasionally he produces a nice turn of phrase--as when he speaks of the Tories "murdering Caesar" in ditching Mrs T--but for the most part his account has as much colour as a police report. He may have invaded Blair's inner circle, but we get no sense of what that must have been like, no whiff of personalities. He is either hopelessly unobservant, or else too mealy-mouthed to reveal what he sees; he seems devoid of the humanity which could illuminate the more tragic figures (John Major for one) with whom he consorts. OK, he's worked like a Trojan in the Balkans; OK, he can speak Chinese; OK, he only sleeps three hours a night--but, being no Thatcher, he clearly longs for his rightful eight. No mention, by the way, of his notorious affair. Several times he speaks of going to bed "dog-tired". Perhaps he should now curl up in his basket. --Betty Tadman

About the Author:

Before he began his political career, Paddy Ashdown served in the Royal Marine Commandos and the Special Boat Service (SBS) and afterwards as a member of the Diplomatic Service. In 1983 he became MP for Yeovil, and in 1988 won the leadership election for the new Social and Liberal Democrats. In the May 1997 election he led the Liberal Democrats to their greatest electoral achievement since 1929. He stood down as the party's leader in 1999.

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