29th July 1988: Ashdown becomes leader

Paddy Ashdown: "The real difficulty is not in finding
the policies, it's in persuading the public of their
central importance."
25 years ago today, Paddy Ashdown assumed the leadership of the Social & Liberal Democrats, taking over from the interim leadership of David Steel and Bob Maclennan.

It was a difficult time to take over as leader. The previous year, the Alliance had failed to make the hoped for electoral impact and had descended into undignified infighting and, later, a farcical merger.  The new party was lacking credibility and the opinion polls pointed to public support around the 7-8 per cent mark. David Owen's "continuing" SDP was out to make its mark and compete for the status of being the UK's third political party - it's easy to overlook with hindsight but, at the time (especially before the 1989 Richmond by-election), no-one knew which of the parties would emerge the stronger. Owen was an accomplished and experienced leader; Ashdown was relatively unknown. For a while there didn't appear to be much cause for optimism for the new party, and the election of Ashdown over Alan Beith was perceived by some commentators to be something of a risk.

There was of course one man who was optimistic - and that man was Paddy Ashdown. 

On the day he assumed the leadership, he wrote a piece for The Guardian. I do not wish to enter into a full appraisal of Paddy Ashdown's leadership or analyse the party's development during his years at the helm, but I would like to take the opportunity to repeat some of his forward looking rhetoric printed in the pages of The Guardian exactly a quarter of a century ago. Some of it, being bluntly realistic and pragmatic in nature,  must be interpreted in the political context of the time; some of it is idealistic and far-sighted and other sections remain timeless in their championing of an honest liberalism. Reading it now, there are parts which appear near-prophetic. Much of it is as relevant today as it was in 1988; indeed, I would suggest that in some respect it is more relevant than ever. 

On cause for optimism: "Hope, said Francis Bacon, is a good breakfast, but a poor supper. On my first morning as the new leader of a new party, standing at seven per cent in the opinion polls, I know what he meant! But at the end of a bruising and often damaging period in the fortunes of the Social and Liberal Democrats , there is more than just hope to sustain us. We have now completed, with the leadership and residential elections, all the difficult processes in the creation of our new party and can look forward to getting back to politics with more confidence than has been possible on any morning in the past year.

"Indeed, there are a number of positive reasons for optimism.

"Firstly, though the message from the opinion polls is bleak, the ballot boxes seem to be telling a more hopeful tale. Local election results consistently show us at around 20 per cent. Since March we have actually gained more seats than either of the other two parties. Kensington was the exception, but even there, under a vicious squeeze and the spoiling attack of the Owenites, our bedrock vote still held up. 

"Secondly, the opportunities for the first opposition party to start making sense and getting its act together are immense. Travelling the country these last eight weeks has given me a very clear idea of just how much people are praying for an effective opposition to Mrs Thatcher now and a real alternative to her at the next election - and how certain they are that it is not going to be Mr Kinnock or the Labour Party.

And thirdly, having met thousands of them in the last weeks, I have good reason to be optimistic about the kind of people we have in our party. There is confusion there, of course - even a sense of disorientation. But there is no doubt about their calibre. The party I have seen is young, intelligent, committed and anxious to get back to politics."

On poverty: "Tackling this requires a genuinely radical party committed to re-distribution to combat the problems of poverty in our nation...There is the problem of the future - or rather the fact that this Government doesn't appear to think there is going to be one. Where they have mortgaged the future to feed selfishness today, we have to make it clear that we would invest for tomorrow."

On "green" politics: "Real and justifiable fear for our natural heritage has given a new potency to 'green' ideas, not as a 'bolt on' to other policies, but as a new way of looking at politics as a whole. What is more there are powerful forces to be assembled on these issues which extend far beyond the narrow exclusive 'green fringe' - they range from the WI at one end to the new technologists at the other."

On internationalism and the EU: "[this] will be another key strain in our party's appeal - and one which clearly separates us from both Labour and the Tories. With 1992 approaching our unashamed European commitment could be turned from a political drag factor to a positive asset. Meanwhile global problems, especially ecological ones, point up that we will either find the will to co-operate internationally, or pay a heavy price for our insularity."

On liberty: "Our traditional commitment to constitutional reform will continue to be a main pillar of our appeal. We must popularise a new notion of citizenship and bring the Tories' subversion of democracy centre stage. Here, the real difficulty is not finding the policies, it is persuading the public of their central importance. All this will require a lot of new thinking and imagination. If we are serious about liberty, we cannot ignore the issue of choice which, albeit in its corrupted form, has proved to have such powerful appeal in Mrs Thatcher's hands. Nor can we dodge the issues which need to be tackled in recognising the role of women in the new politics. Nor ignore the opportunities which the new technologies offer to give either more power to the citizen, or more central control to government."

On the values of Liberal Democrats: "we have to create the 'feel' of our new party. It will, I hope, be different from both the old Liberals and the old SDP, whilst a clear inheritor of both traditions. A party committed to the human values and concerned with the human condition, of course. But forward looking, capable of taking the tough decision, technocratic and concerned with efficiency and enterprise as well. The kind of party you would entrust with your hope."

In the context of the current debate about what it means to be a "grown up" party, these wise words have particular resonance. Perhaps Liberal Democrats in 2013, in looking to the future, should also reflect on Paddy Ashdown's vision, philosophy, optimism and the lessons of his early challenges - and how he successfully overcame them. The call for thinking and imagination, and the recognition of the need to persuade the public, remain as pertinent as they were in 1988.