History / Politics

Ashdown in the lead

Plenty of people have had plenty to say on the late Baron Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, aka the Rt Hon Captain Jeremy John Durham Ashdown GCMG CH KBE, aka Paddy Ashdown. But oddly, not much on the event that first qualified him for such memorialising.

Mr Ashdown, as he then was, headed the newly-merged (Social and) Liberal Democrats as their first permanent leader from 1988 to 1999, over the course of several party names and a couple of general elections. But of course he had to be elected to that role first.

Given Ashdown beat Alan Beith with almost 72 per cent of the nearly 58,000 votes cast by party members in July 1988, it might seem more appropriate to call his ascent to the leadership a low-key coronation rather than a contest (an impression encouraged by the brief coverage it receives in the victor’s own autobiography). But far from it.

The more reassuring – and less dynamic – Beith was over two years younger than Ashdown, though he had become an MP nearly a decade earlier, first being elected in 1973 in the approved Liberal style: a by-election gain. Beith certainly seemed the safer pair of hands, a solid Methodist lay-preacher with frontbench experience dating back to Jeremy Thorpe’s leadership.

Former Royal Marine captain Ashdown (who had not even been a Liberal member when Beith first joined the Commons) had a habit of speaking out of turn to the media, and as a relatively new MP had made headlines through his opposition to nuclear weapons at the 1984 Assembly, helping to defeat the leadership on the issue (before rowing back over the next two years).

Replacing the Polaris weapons system was a major cause of tension between the hawkish SDP leader David Owen and the more dovish Liberal membership in the later days of the Alliance. And Ashdown’s shift on that issue set the tone of the post-merger, Owen-free leadership contest.

With the support of former SDP grandees including Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and David Marquand, Ashdown had clear appeal to those who had come over from that party – around a third of the leadership electorate. On the other hand, with the likes of Cyril Smith* (never a fan of the SDP) in his corner, Beith stood, as a Times leader put it, ‘very much for the apostolic succession of the old Liberal tradition’ from Gladstone via Grimond to Steel.

Ashdown proposed explicitly challenging Labour as the main alternative to the Conservatives, rather than seeking to co-operate and hold the balance against the Tories. In 1987, he wrote: ‘What we need is a fresh assembly of new ideas’. And in his campaign argued for a more radical approach of green policies, welfare reform and embracing the free market. Beith declared that Liberalism, was not ‘a cherished relic from bygone days’ and chided his rival for being ‘outside the Liberal tradition’.

That even came down to what the new party should be known as. The unwieldiness of the post-merger moniker Social and Liberal Democrats meant something snappier was needed, perhaps not as the official party name, but for everyday usage. Ashdown favoured Democrats, with an echo more of Jack Kennedy than William Gladstone. Beith, on the other hand, preferred Liberal Democrats, keeping the continuity of the L-word.

Even the election literature distributed to members emphasised the difference: Ashdown’s was slickly designed and in colour with a bespoke campaign logo, while Beith’s monochrome effort included the thrilling front-page headline: ‘In the council chambers’.

Though this was pretty mild stuff compared to other internal party contests in the 1980s, there was something of a controversy over a letter (suspected author: Alex Carlile) that was circulated among Beith-supporting MPs and leaked to the Independent. It complained of Ashdown’s ‘shocking record’ on defence policy, ‘lack of general political experience’, and ‘poor understanding of economic policy’, especially when compared to Beith’s ‘abstemious godliness … a quality, not a disqualification’.

Obviously, this didn’t make too much difference to the landslide result, and Ashdown bore little ill-will; in his memoirs, he praised ‘Alan Beith’s personal qualities’ in quickly distancing himself from his supporters’ criticisms. And Beith remained a senior part of the leader’s team throughout his eleven-year tenure, though ironically he was not one of the trusted circle during talks with Tony Blair about the very co-operation with Labour (albeit a New version) that had been implicitly disdained by Ashdown in his leadership campaign.


However, the fact that there was someone in the contest who sought to create a new party, rather than some kind of continuity Liberals, and that he won comfortably (with plenty of media backing), was a crucial moment in British politics. The survival of what became in 1988 the Democrats, and after a change of mind in 1989 the Liberal Democrats, was hardly guaranteed.

Ashdown inherited an impoverished party (twelve of the thirteen-strong campaign team were made redundant, with Chris Rennard the cannily-picked survivor), facing an existential threat in the rump SDP, who were clear rivals in the opinion polls, perhaps because David Owen was a more recognised political force than Ashdown (the other three members of the Gang of Four may have gone with the merged party, but none were MPs by 1988).

Certainly, Ashdown’s first months in charge were not easy. His party was beaten by the SDP in the Richmond by-election that allowed William Hague to slip into Parliament, and finished a distant fourth behind the Greens in the 1989 European election. And by his own admission, the Lib Dem leader was a weak parliamentary performer and considered aloof by the party grassroots. But the SDP and Greens were soon seen off, and by the 1992 general election the Lib Dems were at least re-established as a clear third force, picking up 2,000 seats in council chambers in the first half of the 1990s.

Being able to win seats in councils and, by 1997, in Parliament, showed there was something to be said for Ashdown turning the party into something distinct from the old Liberals. The old party were pleasingly heterodox and sometimes eccentric, but Ashdown was able to focus the public view of their offering to something concrete – mainly a pledge to put 1p on income tax to fund education. An organisation that not long before had been seemingly on the critical list now appeared to stand for something practical and original. His more dynamic pitch also allowed Ashdown to shift his position over things like the party name, positioning with regard to Labour, and policy matters, displaying greater flexibility than a leader elected on an explicit call to ‘Liberal tradition’ would have been afforded – or probably would have afforded himself.

There might have been a comfort in returning to the ‘Liberal tradition’ which had threatened, but failed, to decisively revive in the 1970s (and might well have fallen away without the injection of adrenalin provided by the Alliance the following decade). But Ashdown’s 1988 leadership bid instead pointed the way to professionalising the party in a way that allowed them to build their strength in the 1990s, to get to above 60 MPs in the 2000s, and to enter government (for better or worse) in the 2010s.

That initial decision allowed successive leaders more freedom to mould their message and manifesto in a fashion that gave the Liberal Democrats a sustained period of growth even as their focus shifted from Ashdown’s scepticism about protest politics and hawkishness over the former Yugoslavia, to Charles Kennedy’s anti-war emphasis, to Nick Clegg’s Yellow Book embrace of Coalition. That did not seem like a feasible trajectory prior to the 1988 leadership election and the option that the members were given by Ashdown.

Admittedly, as Paddy Ashdown is obituarised, the Lib Dems seem to be back to where they started in the 1980s. In his final months, the man himself suggested that the party rethink their strategy and tactics, just as he similarly encouraged when he ran against Alan Beith. When Vince Cable’s successor as leader is elected next year, will there be a candidate prepared to take up the challenge set by their late founder?

* Picked out because of his influence as a representative of the SDP-sceptic wing of the party rather than some kind of dig at Beith due to later revelations about Smith.

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