PADDY ASHDOWN: an elder statesman with his eyes set on the future

Ashdown’s old-fashioned rhetorical mastery blew the Chamber apart on Monday night.

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It is his cause, not the means by which he pursues it, for which he should be credited. 

A good James Bond is supposed to look equally at ease hanging off the bottom of a helicopter as he does standing over a roulette table in a dinner suit. Roger Moore nailed the latter, but never quite got the former, and brutish Daniel Craig is the other way around.

Paddy Ashdown managed both, but in real life. He has spoken in the past about his experience with “some strange part of the foreign office” and looked – when I met him – as if he had been born wearing that bow tie.

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Bond. Paddy. Bond.

Our generation’s main exposure to Paddy Ashdown has been by virtue of his promise to “eat his hat” last year if the exit polls suggesting that the Tories had won proved not to be an error.

He was at the Union to lead the ‘Stay’ side in the EU debate. He believes “students and young people are crucial to this debate”, which he backed up with statistics on how dramatically in favour of staying in the EU young people are. He doesn’t think we should listen to the politicians with a stake in it, he adds without prompt. I was sceptical. Ashdown had clearly already thrown his hat into the ring and seemed just as invested as many other politicians.

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Ashdown had said he would eat his hat if the Tories won in 2015

I didn’t however, lose any respect for him, and you shouldn’t either. He simply has a cause and is willing to use his political skills to further it.

I asked him about the future of the left. His eyes lit up. He spoke, almost without breathing, for four minutes. “The political classes have failed us”, he proclaimed. “The left is in chaos, and our politics, our further education, our media and the Church are all stuck in the 19th century”. The left, in its function as the flagbearer of progressive people’s movements, is where he thinks a difference can be made.

I asked whether he thought that combining the Lib Dems, the Greens and Labour might be a good idea. He said this kind of “engineering” wouldn’t work. Something “organic” was needed.

He tried his hand at another one his famous predictions. He proclaimed a “peaceful revolution” in progressive politics is on the horizon. Through the use of social media outlets, progressive ideas are being shared and discussed. They are gaining traction and in his view, they have a great influence on public debate.

The Union was packed to the rafters to hear Ashdown.

The Union was packed to the rafters to hear Ashdown.

He actually seemed a little obsessed with the power of the web. “We need to use the internet to bring people together, and who knows, it may even be what I’m intending to see if we can do”.

What he meant by this, well, I don’t quite know. Your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps he is a technology wizard, an ambitious politician, or just trying to boost Union turnout.

Ashdown is just as rehearsed as the other politicians, but what separates him is the fact that he is doing it because he cares about the future. As someone who is likely to be living most of their life in that future, I have a lot to thank him for.