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On 28 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 am 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 of the great themes of this book.
The account which brings Ashdown gives here of his negotiations with Tony Blair to bring about reshaping, which were to an extent and intensity until now totally unguessed at except by their immediate advisers, is the main political story which this 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 threads in an entertaining and gripping book. Ashdown shows the extraordinary pressure with which the political leaders 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 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 scared 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 or 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 novel 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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