Today he's shown why that esteem is well-merited.
The front page of The Herald declares that Lord Ashdown has condemned the controversial £500,000 gift to Better Together from Ian Taylor, CEO of oil giant Vitol.
Recently I asked whether accepting the donation was wise. I also questioned whether the actions of Ian Taylor and his company in apparently silencing a group of artists was in the interests of free speech and democratic debate. Finally, and most pertinently in my view, I queried why Liberal Democrats active within Better Together seemed so uncritically supportive of Ian Taylor.
I am absolutely delighted that Lord Ashdown has shown both courage and integrity in making this stand. That stems partly from a relief that at least one senior figure in the party does not adhere to the apparent prevailing orthodoxy that Better Together are beyond any kind of criticism (presumably the product of a misplaced belief that such criticism will inevitably destabilise "the greater good"?). It also reassures me that I am not in fact a sole voice crying in the wilderness, as someone recently described me. But, more reassuringly, it demonstrates that there is a section of the party that is deeply uncomfortable with being associated in any way with this donation and the donor himself.
Ashdown understand the Balkans as well as any modern historian or political commentator and, referring to Vitol's protests that any dealings with Arkan had been honest and legal, commented that "anybody who did business in the Balkans who didn’t realise there were networks of corruption that extended into any and all governments was naive."
Indeed. Ridiculously naive. Criminally naive, even.
Which raises the questions: are Ian Taylor and his company simply stupidly naive? Or were they aware of the nature of "business" in Serbia? Either way, Taylor doesn't emerge with much credit and I continue to maintain that the Liberal Democrats should wish to associate with neither incompetent fools who "innocently" supply money to murderous criminals nor corrupt chiefs of unethical multi-nationals.
There is no question that Ashdown supports the Union and therefore, by implication, the cause of Better Together. But clearly he believes that criticism of this donation must be voiced: "wherever you are coming from, it’s a perfectly legitimate line to pursue" he insisted. He's absolutely right. Why should such criticism be confined to the SNP and Yes Scotland? Why should the kind of criticism Lib Dem activists would freely be expressing had Nick Clegg received a gift from Vitol not also be voiced when such a gift is made to Better Together? (Quite why the success of Better Together is of apparent greater concern to some Lib Dems than that of their own party is a difficult question to answer adequately and one reserved for a separate blogpost).
So thank you Paddy for showing that it is possible to be critical of the Taylor donation and have difficulties in accepting his money without supporting independence (or indeed holding any other particular views at all). Now, how many more Lib Dems will join him?