Paddy And Tony A Cautionary Tale

Paddy Ashdown became the leader of the Liberal Democrats in 1988. He inherited a party which was not in a particularly good place.

The merger of the Liberal Party and the SDP had been difficult, to say the least, poll ratings were low.

Worse still Dr David Owen continued to lead a separate force supported by MPs Rosie Barnes and John Cartwright.

Thatcher appeared to be going on forever, still with a comfortable Commons majority and showing no signs of going anytime soon.

Labour under Neil Kinnock was modernising a party very much on the left.

Dreams of breaking the mould seemed a long way off for the newly formed Lib Dems. However, the space for a radical party of the centre-left still exited if it could be rebuilt.

The Continuing SDP were seen off within a short period following humiliation in a byelection in which they finished behind the Monster Raving Loony party, and despite a surge in the 1989 European elections, the Green challenge came to nothing.

By the 1992 General Election, the good ship of Liberalism had steadied, and the crisis seemed to be a thing of the past.

Then two years later Tony Blair came onto the scene.

Paddy quite rightly viewed Blair’s project of positioning Labour more in the centre as a challenge that couldn’t be ignored, and he sought to build a new relationship based on cooperation.

Meetings followed the details of which are documented in Paddy’s diaries of the period.

Blair despite his repeated line that the split in what he described as the progressive forces in Britain at the start of the 20th century being disastrous and his desire to heal it came up short.

Paddy paints a vivid picture of a man frightened to death of the Tory press and increasingly unable to deliver Labour to a position where it abandoned tribalism in favour of pluralism.

Proportional Representation quite rightly a deal breaker for the Lib Dems was something Blair would not embrace.

It is clear that is was the Liberals who were the principled ones walking away from a deal which could have meant seats in the cabinet.

The result was a missed opportunity to reform politics in our country radically.

In the circumstances Paddy’s actions were understandable, and in the 1997 General Election, he led a party that more than doubled its parliamentary representation.

Unfortunately, despite all the hype he was dealing with a party which was just the same old Labour in a different guise.

In future should the moderates take back control of Labour which I believe that they will we must tread very carefully should they make overtures in our direction?

We have returned to a position of equidistance, and we should maintain it under all circumstances.

No pacts or deals but instead a crusade for Liberalism campaigning to get our candidates elected in all circumstances.


* David is a member of Horsham and Crawley Liberal Democrats

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This entry was posted in News and Op-eds.


  • Mmmm. My Impression was always somewhat different. Paddy was a very upfront and sincere individual. Unfortunately, this came with an element of naivety exploited by Blair. As history so often repeats itself Cameron was equally able to pull the same trick on Clegg.

  • Straight after the 1992 the party moved away from equidistance following Paddy’s Chard Speech. If we are equidistant we need to move away from this position and I think we are slowing doing so. Our natural position is a party that opposes the Conservatives.

  • Richard Underhill 16th Jan '19 - 1:26pm

    David Warren | Wed 16th January: ?typo?
    ” the space for a radical party of the centre-left still exited”
    At this time today we should be very precise in our language.
    A personal view is that too many people say ‘regular’ when they mean ‘frequent’. On frequent but irregular future occasions they may be more motions of confidence or no confidence.
    The government may be shown to be ‘unwilling’ and ‘unprepared’ to do certain things, such as extending Article 50.
    In 2016 very little was made of the importance of many sectors of Just In Time deliveries, which are now much better understood by the current electorate.

  • John Marriott 16th Jan '19 - 1:35pm

    The plain fact is that, following the 1997 General Election, with a majority to die for, Blair just did not need the Lib Dems. I sometimes wonder whether, had the circumstances of 2010 been there 17 years earlier, there might have been a coalition between Labour and the Lib Dems and whether the minor party would have experienced meltdown earlier. All I would say is that we might by the time of any breakup have had electoral reform and the kind of devolution that would have created a federal Britain. But we didn’t. I blame Blair as much as Cameron for blowing a real chance to drag the country, politically at least, into the modern era. I just wish both would just go away.

  • “Proportional representation quite rightly a deal breaker for the Lib Dems was something Blair would not embrace.
    It is clear that it was the Liberals who were the principled ones walking away from a deal which could have meant seats in the cabinet.”

    I admire your seemingly endless capacity for positive spin, David – but your arguments may carry more force if borne out by more recent history. If only our leaders had demonstrated similar commitment to principle during the 2010 Coalition negotiations – by showing that the promise of meaningful electoral reform (which a referendum on AV definitely was not) really was a “a deal breaker for the Lib Dems”.

  • Andrew Toye 16th Jan '19 - 2:20pm

    I think we would have been shafted whatever we did in 2010. Walking away because we didn’t get our way on PR would have been seen as self-indulgent and, given the state of the financial markets at the time, irresponsible. As it was, we gave in on our biggest policy pledge (tuition fees) and got a referendum on AV – that was seen as a shabby deal and little wonder that the public voted it down.

  • Equidistance is exactly the WRONG strategy.

    It means be defined by other parties.

    On a whole range of areas it is difficult if not impossible. What does it mean on electoral reform, Europe, environmentalism etc.? A people’s vote on Europe is IMHO the right policy it is not equidistance.

    Who is to measure the distance? And where is the middle point?

    We reject authoritarianism as it raises its ugly head in BOTH the Labour and Conservative parties.

    It is no coincidence that are most electorally successful period happened after Paddy abandoned equidistance.

  • Thank you, David Raw, for reminding us about the Jenkins Commission and the other political realities which made it impossible to extract a commitment from Blair to deliver PR for Westminster.

    To those who advocate maintaining a policy of so-called “equidistance”, a major problem with this stance is that it necessarily implies that our philosophical and strategic position should be defined by reference to the shifting positions of both the Conservative and Labour parties. On the contrary, we should have the confidence and self-belief to define our own position according to principle and also in the light of evidence – and then be prepared to reach out and build bridges to those in other parties and none who share our values or with whom we can make common cause on specific issues. However, in essence, the Lib Dems (and both our predecessor parties) naturally belong to the radical and progressive traditions in British politics – and when we tried re-positioning towards “centrism” under the influence of Nick Clegg, it was hardly a resounding success!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 16th Jan '19 - 3:22pm

    Good effort from David as in Warren, some reminding needed from David as in Raw, but the latter should not accuse the former of tribalism, David Warren, is ex Labour and fair in all his pieces.

    And, Sean Hagan, Clegg failed , not because he embraced “centrism,” but due to an acceptance, rather than an embrace, of right wing policies most of the Tory Reform Group did not even like, let alone our party, and attitudes from the top Cabinet Tories, to the right of Thatcher, who never touched let alone cut, welfare, or disability benefits, and Major so like our input he wanted the Coalition to go into the election as a joint ticket, in fear as he was as PM, of the right wing drift otherwise!!!!

    There is nothing wrong with cross party agreement, but much with calling things that which they are not.

    Many in all parties should be friends. We who can work together invariably have the word liberal and centre as describers, liberal democrats, liberal conservatives, liberal socialists, centre, centre right, centre left…

  • Lorenzo Cherin 16th Jan '19 - 4:47pm

    David Raw

    I joined the party firstly, in 2004 and have thus , voted and supported it nearly fifteen years, quite a while, but that is of no relevance to me , getting things wrong, as I have been interested in and involved in politics since I first heard Nixon resign aged seven!

  • Jayne Mansfield 16th Jan '19 - 7:14pm

    @ David Warren,
    Would you mind giving me your definition of pluralism?

  • David Warren 16th Jan '19 - 7:50pm


    Political parties working in cooperation.

  • jayne mansfield 16th Jan '19 - 9:18pm

    To what end David?

  • David Warren 16th Jan '19 - 10:08pm

    To achieve reform Jayne.

    Starting with the introduction of PR for all elections.

  • Jayne Mansfield 16th Jan '19 - 10:57pm

    I would be careful what you wish for David.

    PR gave us UKIP MEPs and a platform for 3rd rate demagogues to embarrass us in the EU. It gave us two BNP MEPs.

    If there was a PR system, it would highlight the true core vote for the liberal Democrats, and that might be an unwelcome surprise given the continued concern about the mass movement of people and immigration.

    David Raw has already mentioned the Jenkins report that was commissioned by Tony Blair.

    In 2010 when I still supported the Liberal Democrats, I assumed that PR would be the bottom line before entering into coalition with the Conservatives. It wasn’t , so it clearly did not have the importance that you attribute to it. And now the importance I gave to it has also withered. I do not detect a great groundswell of desire for changes in the voting system.

  • Jayne Mansfield 16th Jan '19 - 11:11pm

    @david Warren,

    I must eat my words when I say that I do not detect a groundswell for a change in voting system. There was a poll in 2017 commissioned by “Make Votes Matter of 2578 people which showed strong support for Proportional Representation.

  • What Michael 1 said

  • David Warren 17th Jan '19 - 10:43am



    I support PR not for party advantage because it is a fair voting system.

    Anything is better than what we have now where a right wing religious party gets bought off literally to keep a failing government in power.

  • Nonconformistradical 17th Jan '19 - 11:53am

    On the STV issues raised by the Jenkins Commission… ignoring the current disfuntioning of the Northern Ireland Assembly – Northern Ireland voters seem to manage the STV system OK.

    I recall very vaguely there was a public information campaign to educate voters in using STV prior to its first use in Northern Ireland – might have involved a cartoon character called PR Pete.

    I see absolutely no reason why the same cannot be done for Westminster elections. And if the public is getting increasingly fed up with party politics – STV is the system which places most power into voters’ hands – including the ability to organise one’s preferences across party lines if one wishes.

  • David Warren 16th Jan ’19 – 7:50pm…..Political parties working in cooperation……

    Isaiah 11:6

  • Callum Robertson 17th Jan '19 - 12:45pm

    PR has been a flagship policy of our party since its inception in 1988.
    The fact that it gave UKIP MEPs is, in my opinion, rather beside the point, this is chiefly because in a functioning parliamentary system, people are entitled to vote UKIP or BNP if they wish. The incumbency falls on people like us to convince people that we are a better option and earn votes

  • Jayne Mansfield 17th Jan '19 - 2:23pm

    @ Callum Robertson,

    My memory is not all that is should be Callum, but I seem to remember in 2010, the last time I bothered to look at the Liberal Democrat’s manifesto, the party preference was for STV.

    Why may I ask are the party wedded to this, when Labour supported by the Liberal Democrats supported the commissioning of the Jenkins Commission which rejected STV rejected for the reasons given by David Raw.

    I am afraid that when you are doing your persuading, you will be up against the same forces that led to a ‘leave’ vote in 2016.

    @ Michael 1
    A properly planned, publicly funded , neutrally controlled education programme to prepare voters for the decision they would have to make was one of the secondary recommendations of the Jenkins Commission.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 17th Jan '19 - 3:57pm

    David Raw

    I have consistently supported the party since the Iraq war, as member, voter, campaigner.

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