It is a tribute to Paddy Ashdown’s varied and fascinating careers that even hardened politicos reading his autobiography, A Fortunate Life, do not express regret at how relatively briefly his British political career features in it.
Around two-thirds of the book document his times as a Royal Marine, in the Special Boat Service, then as a spy and finally, after time as an MP and leader of the Liberal Democrats, international peacemaker in the former Yugoslavia. Even if his time as leader of the Liberal Democrats had ended quickly in ignominious failure, Ashdown would have multiple impressive legacies to outweigh it. That in fact his time as leader saw remarkable success in rescuing the party from death’s door makes all but the most hardened reader end up feeling their life is just rather tame, straight-forward and under-performing compared to Ashdown’s.
With such brilliant raw material to pull from, the book itself has an easy time enchanting and moving the reader. The life story is so good that the occasional clumsy language hardly detracts, and the scale of the horrors that Ashdown saw – and in part stopped – in the former Yugoslavia was so gruesome that fancy writing is not needed for the accounts to have a huge emotional impact.
For those interested in politics, and in winning elections in particular, the chapter on how Paddy Ashdown won the Yeovil seat acts as an excellent short primer with his strategy for the constituency still reading well, three decades on.
Ashdown does not shy away from some of the controversies of his own life, including his affair and his own personality, which could both entrance and enrage:
My favourite lunch at this time [the mid-1980s, after becoming an MP] was an hour in the gym and an apple at my desk, which must have made me quite insufferable to more normal inhabitants of the Westminster village.
Paddy Ashdown tells many stories against himself in a funny, self-deprecating account of a remarkably varied and successful life.