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Paddy Ashdown

A Fortunate Life

The Autobiography of Paddy Ashdown

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
Ashdown describes himself as having had a fortunate life, but he really had several quite different and eventful lives, as a soldier, a student of Chinese, an intelligence officer and diplomat, a politician and party leader, and UN High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina. He describes all this in a lively and often funny book.

Ashdown's military career was as as a member of the Royal Marines and Special Boat Section. He served in the Far East, which provided plenty of adventure and drama, especially in the experience of jungle warfare. He presents a vivid account of this, which for me was probably the high point of the book,

While still in the Marines he went to live in Hong Kong, where he studied Chinese intensively for two years, living with a Chinese family. He was a good linguist and learnt a number of other languages in the course of his life.

He retired from the Marines in 1970 with the rank of Captain and joined the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), He is unable to tell us any details about his work at that period, but it seems that he acquired diplomatic skills that served him well in later life. Eventually he became first secretary to the UK mission to the United Nations in Geneva

In the 1970s he and his family were living comfortably in a large house in Switzerland, but he decided to give up this career and enter politics in Britain as a Liberal. Most of his friends thought he was mad to do this but he was determined. He was unemployed for a considerable time after his return, but at the general election in 1983 he won the Yeovil seat and entered Parliament.

Later he played a major part in the merger with the Social Democrats that led to the formation of the Liberal Democrats, of which he became the leader. I don't usually read political memoirs but I found no difficulty in keeping going when I came to these sections of the book. Ashdown never preaches and avoids pomposity. He provides an interesting account of his attempt to form a coalition with Tony Blair's New Labour party after 1993. Ashdown thinks that Blair wanted this and was only prevented by opposition from his colleagues, but I found myself wondering how genuine Blair's apparent enthusiasm really was.

Ashdown gives the impression of someone who feels things deeply and that this was what mainly motivated his political career. It was certainly the case when he became involved for four years in Bosnia after the disastrous war; he evidently acquired a strong affection for the country and its people and he gives this experience the space it deserves.

Ashdown started life with few advantages. He left school without taking his A-level exams owing to his father's financial difficulties, but he went on to succeed in several different careers, acquiring numerous honours along the way including a life peerage. I find it hard to realise that he is no longer with us (he died in 2018 at the age of 77 after a short illness). Our loss, I think. In an age when politicians seldom command a lot of respect we can ill afford to lose such people.

Incidentally, before reading this I hadn't realised that "Paddy" was actually a nickname which he acquired because of his Northern Irish background.


%T A Fortunate Life
%S The Autobiography of Paddy Ashdown
%A Ashdown, Paddy
%I Aurum Press
%C London
%D 2010
%G e-book ISBN 978-1 84513-647-5
%K autobiography
%O kindle version

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