“I sincerely hope that you’re not one of those selfie-obsessives” Lord Jeremy ‘Paddy’ Ashdown jokes as he enters one of the Forum’s numerous faux-salubrious seminar rooms. Dismissing the accusation, I happily reassure him that the next twenty minutes will not consist of any gratuitous and/or narcissistic camera angles, to which he chuckles.
Even in his mid-seventies, Ashdown maintains a vigorous charm. His sense of humour has, unlike most politicians, continued to flow through him, and, coupled with his deliriously large intellect, he makes for quite the partner in a conversation. With an almost limitless pit of experience to call upon, from his days in the marines and the SBS, to his role as a diplomat, to his time as the leader of the Liberal Democrats, it’s no surprise that he attracts near-universal respect from his contemporaries.
Indeed, it may be the case that the Liberal Democrats now only hold eight seats in the House of Commons, but their sizeable presence in the House of Lords and strong membership numbers means that they will not be keeping quiet. In spite of what the Mail would have you believe, they’re not dead yet, he assures me.
The individual politics of Paddy Ashdown himself are, thanks to his years of diplomatic service, eternally routed in the need to observe the global tides. His views of the future form the opening exchanges of the conversation, and they are, as he sees them, threefold.
Firstly, he comments on what he describes as the vertical shift of power: from the checked state to the unchecked multinationals. Second is the lateral shift, which he describes as “the end of four hundred years of the hegemony of Western Power.” Thirdly, and perhaps most crucially, he prophesies the death of the nation-state as the “key institution by which we govern ourselves and have our identity.” With these great shifts come greater dangers, or, as he puts it, “more power now resides on a global level than within nations, and that power is largely unchecked by any sense of the word.”
This rather dystopian vision can only be fought against, he believes, by establishing “a system of global governance. We need a rule-based world order”. You could think of it as being not too dissimilar to the United Nations, but with the legal power of the European Union, an institute spawned from the continent, which he believes, has been the “home and birthplace of all great political ideas, be it socialism, conservatism, and liberalism, of course.” He smiles. He couldn’t have afforded to miss that particular example.
“This has been the case since Pericles’ Athens, which is where these ideas first formed, and the greatest idea of the last century has been to pool our sovereignty to give us better protection, and I think that this is the most important single idea which Europe can offer the world.”
“the greatest idea of the last century has been to pool our sovereignty to give us better protection”
“Obviously the Union is flawed, but so is Westminster. But, the answer is not to ditch it, the answer is to reform it.” An optimistic tone, it seems, especially for a subject which is so controversial nowadays. Not everybody sees that as being the key to a safer world. Nationalist anti-Europe movements such as UKIP, the Front Nationale and the Danish People’s Party have exploded in popularity over the last few years, to great aplomb from some, and disdain from others. Ashdown nods along, but quickly dismisses their ideologies, proclaiming, “The Devil has all the best songs. But they’re wrong, if you think that this is the moment where you retreat into nationalism then you don’t understand the world in which we live.”
“America doesn’t see us as a friend in all circumstances anymore, they’re looking across the Pacific, we now have a highly aggressive Russian President who will use force to get his way, we have to the South-East an Arab world in flames, and to the south we have Mahgreb in chaos, and this is the moment where we abandon our solidarity in Europe? How can that possibly help us? In favour of the illusory solitary of becoming corks floating behind one’s ocean liner? Those who propose that we should retreat back into our little domestic capsules fail to understand that our domestic issues are now international issues as well.”
Once again, his opponents in belief are forcibly removed from the picture by his fundamental belief in the creeds he supports. For better, or for worse, Ashdown has always been evangelical in promoting his political views. So where should we look for guidance?
“Liberalism is where they should look.” No surprises for guessing that he would say that. “It’s the only contemporary doctrine which promotes an internationalist viewpoint. The Tories have abandoned it in favour of proto-nationalism, and the Labour Party, which used to be a great internationalist party, are no longer”. One can sense his yearning for the early days of the 21st century, wherein the EU’s future was bright and Britain’s internationalist parties dominated the stage.
“The Tories have abandoned it [internationalism] in favour of proto-nationalism”
Nowadays, however, these sentiments are harder to practically enforce. Having been thrown back to the 1970s in terms of MPs, the Liberals’ future is in doubt. “We’ve been diminished,” he confesses, “and Labour’s regressed into another ‘stop the world I want to get off’ party and are hiding under the stairs. But, the great question of our time is not how do we stop it, but how can we use it. Mr. Corbyn is simply running away from that.”
“The problem is, of course, that to be realistic, you need to win power. I wouldn’t say that people are now averse to Liberalism, it seems to me that people were more afraid of Mr. Miliband and Mr. Salmond than afraid of us. Of course, if Liberalism is the answer, then why aren’t I Prime Minister?” He laughs again, but this time you can catch a glimpse of longing in his eyes. This is a role that you can see he has longed for, and a creed he wishes would remain at the heart of government, and not as an occasional sidepiece. Nevertheless, he tries his best to cover up this desire by joking that the sole reason is that “not enough of you bastards voted for us.”
Speaking of bastards, it’s his firm belief that Cameron has been shackled by a bunch of them, namely from the far-right Eurosceptic vein of the Conservative Party. This, to him, does not bode well for the government’s future. “He’s a very weak Prime Minister” Paddy proclaims, “he responds to the latest pressure wherever it’s coming from and latches onto it, and that means that the steady course is not there. He’s all over the place. He’s a perfectly nice man with good instincts, but that’s not enough.”
“He may mean well, but David Cameron is the most dangerous Prime Minister of our time, he doesn’t have any core beliefs, he never stands up when he should and he snatches at ideas, rather than embracing them, and to make matters worse, he heads a government that is hubristically arrogant.” Once again, these dystopian soliloquies confine the future’s pallet to nothing but grey’s. Perhaps the rhetoric is a little hyperbolised, but, simultaneously, you still fear that he is correct.
No time to reflect on the future, however, because at the flick of the proverbial hat, we find ourselves discussing his core values, and perhaps the most enticing part of Ashdown’s political philosophy. “I believe in powerful citizens, not big governments”, he elucidates, prodding with his finger, as if to ensure that I take note of his jab at what can only be Labour’s ‘nanny state’ solution.
“David Cameron is the most dangerous Prime Minister of our time”
To clarify, he draws in data security, and Ashdown races to tell me of his signature policy idea: “What if we should say that every man should be the master of his own data?” In one fell swoop, Pericles is remade in binary.
“If Google want to make money out of you, they can do so, but, A; they have to ask you, and B; they have to share some of the profit with you. Now you begin to see the citizen become empowered. It’s outrageous that companies like this are making billions out of data that doesn’t even belong to them. It belongs to us. This is how you empower people.”
The move is a suitable one. Here is one of the first MP’s to use a computer in Parliament. Ashdown was on the frontlines at the dawn of the information age, fighting to ensure that data lay in the hands of the users, rather than the producers, so it’s only fitting that he continue in this role.
Interest engaged, I decide to bring up Edward Snowden, as I interviewed Ashdown on the day that the European Parliament voted to drop its charges against him. Although he admits that Snowden has been an expedient tool in uncovering government surveillance, it appears that Ashdown is not his biggest fan. “Snowden is not somebody admire”, he admits, “nor do I agree with his apparent intent. It seems that he did it for vanity, and his own ego, rather than about whistle-blowing, but he has done a very important thing. He is a narcissist, but he is a useful one. The situation we have at the moment gives the government far too much power.”
“The situation we have at the moment gives the government far too much power”
The issues raised by Snowden have provided an ideal ground for debate within the context of data security, and a discussion on the government’s ‘Snooper’s Charter’. Unfortunately, however, fortune has ceased her smile.
I would have posed the acknowledged issues to him, but we’re out of time, a packed Alumni Auditorium is eagerly waiting to hear him speak, and now the organisers are growing concerned. Whilst being hurried to the door, he finishes our time together by reciting a quote of Oscar Wilde’s, one which has given him a great deal of solace during his time in Parliament; “in a Democracy”, he laments, “the minority is always right.”
It’s just a shame that he’s probably correct.