Lord Paddy Ashdown: ‘Challenging times lie ahead’

Published:  25 June, 2017

The final speaker of the BMF All-Industry Conference, former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Paddy Ashdown, gave his views of the difficult political and economic times that he believes lie ahead.

A former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Lord Ashdown now sits in the House of Lords as a Liberal Democrat peer whose experience extends far beyond the domestic political arena. Before entering Parliament in 1983, he served as a Special Forces Commando in the Royal Marines, then joined the Foreign Office where he was posted to the British Mission to the United Nations in Geneva.

Speaking just over a week after the General Election in which the Conservative Party lost its Parliamentary majority, Lord Ashdown gave the assembled delegates his take on the current political uncertainty facing the UK, as well as the future implications of Brexit and the state of the country’s economy.

Lord Ashdown started by drawing parallels between the United Kingdom and the Hungarian Parliament building, which is sited in Budapest not far from the hotel in which the Conference was held.

The magnificent Gothic building, built in 1904, is visually very similar to the UK’s parliament building, and was chosen as a symbol to suggest that Hungarian democracy was as strong as it was in Britain at the time.

“Our country was the world’s superpower then, deeply engaged in Europe [and] was known throughout Europe as the means by which the peace of Europe was enforced. They called it the ‘Pact Britannica’, in those days. We were unquestionably the most powerful nation on Earth, and the richest.

“We were famous because we had pretty well invented parliamentary democracy. And in buying that building, the Hungarians were saying ‘we declare ourselves to be a proud democracy, like Britain’. It tells you where we were in those extraordinary days 150 years ago. Now, I think we face terrible challenges.”

While Lord Ashdown believes that the UK has faced challenging times before, such as in the 1970s when the country went through two elections and three-day working weeks, he said the country pulled itself around because we “had a great leader”, despite him not personally agreeing with Mrs Thatcher’s politics. He described the country’s current condition today as “a most serious and difficult one”.

“We have done ourselves, I think history will say, terrible self-harm in deciding to leave the European Union. Self-harm that will affect our economy, and massively diminish our influence in the world. But, the people have spoken and now we must make the best of it, I accept that.”

Describing the current government as “weak and unstable”, Lord Ashdown believes having a government without a majority is not a good condition to be in when facing the challenges of Brexit, the complex negotiations that lie ahead and, in his words “a severe economic crisis coming towards the end of this year”.

“It is a matter of sadness to me that we have a government now without a clear majority. In my judgement if that economic crisis takes hold in the way that I think it might, and we have an election shortly after that, we’ll have Mr Corbyn as Prime Minister, I have no doubt about that whatsoever.”

Another issue of major concern to Lord Ashdown is the fact that the United Kingdom is now, in fact, deeply polarised, rather than being united, as was evident during the Brexit vote and the recent election.

“We are deeply polarised between a Conservative government that has adopted the politics of UKIP, and positions itself at Mrs May’s behest on the far right wing, and a far left wing socialist party who seeks to be the government of our country,” he said.

“That great centre ground of Britain, upon which the moderate voices of our country rest, the centre of gravity in Britain, the thing that makes us famous around the world – is almost voiceless in our present Parliamentary division,” he continued.

“I’m firmly of the belief that this is a moment when we ought to put aside our political differences and, whatever the cost to ourselves, find a way to work together so that we can reunite our country and give it an effective government at a time of profound challenge and change.

“Otherwise, ladies and gentlemen, we cannot have the opportunities that those of you in this room have striven so hard for. And, indeed, the opportunities that our children deserve. I think this is a crisis in our country at least equivalent to that which it faced when I entered politics in 1976, and in existential terms, probably a crisis that has been exceeded in recent years only by the challenges we faced in the second world war.”

Lord Ashdown laid the blame for this crisis not at the economy, or the Armed Forces, but firmly at the door of politicians and the UK’s political system.

“It’s politics which I think has let us down,” he explained. “This gap which has grown up between government and governed now threatens our very future.”

Lord Ashdown believes this gap must be put right immediately, and outlined five things that he believes could, and should, be done to begin to tackle the problem.

“First of all, politics has become far too much a profession, and far too little a calling. When I first came into politics it was about the clash of principles, now it’s about managerialism.

“Secondly, those who put themselves forward to be our political leaders have, almost without exception, never done any other job but politics. They’ve never done a real job. When I came in to do my job as an MP I’d been a soldier, a diplomat, a spy, I’ve been a businessman and I’ve been unemployed twice. I didn’t plan that, but all of those things gave me an apprenticeship to do my job effectively. The sadness of today is that far too many of our politicians, and none of our party leaders, have had anything like the life experience.

“The third thing I think we need to do is get rid of the lie that we in Westminster can solve everything and put everything right. We live in an international world where as much of the future and destiny of our people is decided outside Britain on the international scene as is decided by the institutions of our government. Unless we are prepared to work there as well as Westminster, we can’t solve this country’s problems.

“The next thing we need to do is to have an electoral system which does not encourage extremism as ours currently does. But encourages the growth of that moderate centre which is the true heart of our country and which gives them back a voice.

“And the last thing I think we need to do is begin to recognise that we in politics are one of the very few people who are paid to have opinions, but also to serve our country. There is a nobility in service. And unless we can recreate the kind of culture that puts the service to our people ahead of the service to ourselves, or our political parties, we cannot solve the problems that now confront us.

“We are a great nation, there is no question. Btu now we do face a real challenge. I believe we will rise to that challenge – but we in the political structures must put our house in order.”

Lord Ashdown concluded by quoting a line of poetry by GK Chesterton – himself an MP with Liberal beliefs, who once wrote: ‘Praise us, push us, pass us by, but do not quite forget that we are the people of Britain, who have not spoken yet’.

Lord Ashdown: Q&A session

Following his speech, Lord Ashdown took questions from the audience, who were keen to ask him more about his opinions of the current government.

Q: You’ve talked about potential leadership. Do you see a natural political leader now emerging out of this crisis?

A: No, I’m afraid I don’t. Mrs May has many qualities, but my own view is that she has terribly damaged herself in the election, and my own view is, how she has behaved in the face of the Grenfell Fire may well put the end to her. I think the Tories are desperately trying not to have an election, that’s just what they don’t want at the moment, but I suspect they’re going to get one whether they like it or not. I don’t see her as the kind of leader that we need.

One of the problems about our politics is, precisely because it’s a profession, those great giants that dominated politics when I first joined – the Healey’s, the Thatcher’s, the Macmillans – I don’t see them around now. Our leaders do seem to be, by comparison, rather puny.

I can tell you the politicians I admire. I admire Nick Clegg very much, I think he’s a politician who genuinely has put his country first, and I think it’s a terrible indictment of our political system that his reward for always putting his country before his party is to lose first his job and then his seat.

I admire David Milliband, I admire many of the proud members of the Conservative party who represent that internationalist view of politics – the Ken Clarke’s, the Chris Patten’s. It’s such a proud tradition of Conservatism that I think is now lost in this government. I’m sure if we can get those moderate voices together one will emerge and we have to give that the best opportunity we can.

But, at the moment I can’t see one who shines out. Certainly not Mr Corbyn by the way. He’s a nice man, a very decent man; a man of principle, it just happens to be that he wants to return us to the politics of 1950’s socialism – Hugo Chavez in terms of policy.

I think the tabloid press and the Tories were extremely unwise to attack him personally, because he is a genuinely decent man whose style of politics I like: relaxed, informal, straightforward, it’s his ideas that I can’t support.

Q: How do you think Jeremy Corbyn would deal with the economy?

A: Disastrously, in my opinion. Mr Corbyn does not believe in the free market system. He believes in a managed market and the politics of Hugo Chavez and many others who have wrecked their countries. The free market system is the way we run our economy, but we can all recognise that it can get out of control. The free market has to be our servant, not our master, and we have to be prepared to break monopolies, and act and intervene in ways that get investment going. But he would like to see it put aside altogether and to get us back to a government managing the economy, and politicians are not very good at that.

Secondly, he does not recognise the biggest problem facing our country now – the mountain of public and private debt we are now carrying. You’re not going to fix that by simply adding more debt.

It may well be that you could run the economy a little bit higher in terms of public expenditure. We’re at 37%, [while] the German’s run their economy on about 42%. If we were able to release that a bit, I think we can get some of the investment going that’s so important. But the idea that you don’t have to pay attention to the huge mountain of debt that’s carried in this country is for the birds, in my view. If you had Mr Corbyn in charge you would blow up the economy, with terrible consequences for business, employment and all the people he says he represents.

Q: In 2010, we experienced a similar situation to we have now and the Liberals joined the Conservatives to form, in my opinion, a very successful government for five years, and were unfairly judged. What is stopping the Liberals from stepping up now?

A: Twelve [MPs]. I remember saying at the time that the electorate had left us with an exquisite piece of torture. We are a centre-left party and our hearts might have gone more towards Labour, but the mathematics meant we could only combine with the Tories [to form a government] and that was very difficult for us. But I agree with you, I think we put the country’s interests first and then we were smashed out of sight. And so I can’t go back to my party and suggest that we do it again.

Personally, I believe in that kind of partnership politics. I believe when two parties work together in the national interest and they balance out each other’s worst aspects, that’s good for the country. I think that history will say the coalition was one of the best periods of government that this country had. But, in the end, the maths has to be there, and I’m afraid the last two elections have left the Lib Dems, the only real voice as a party for that internationalist, moderate grouping, has been left on the side of the road.

Q: Given what’s happened in France [Emmanual Macron being elected], is there any prospect of such a party emerging in the UK?

A: Oh for a Macron! If you look at what’s really astonished us in politics, puzzled us, bewildered us and frightened us to death these last two or three years, it’s not what’s happened inside these political parties. It’s the people’s movements that have occurred outside the political ring, which have either taken over political parties, like Jeremy Corbyn, or created their own like UKIP.

It’s those that have produced the revolt against the establishment. And I think that revolt is perfectly normal and perfectly proper – we politicians have behaved dreadfully. I think the political party is itself an institution on its way to dying.

Here’s a thought for you as you’re in business – in the modern age, if you ran a business model that does not take account of the new technologies, you have a business model that’s going to die. And that applies to politics, which remains stuck in the model of the 1870s.

You have to open up politics. And that means we have to take account of the internet age and that’s exactly what Macron has done. I think this is the future of political movements, and if only we had a Macron in this country then we could get one going, that could over time produce just the centre group that would bring together all those moderates – Labour and Conservative – around what you might call the progressive centre.

That would, like Macron, completely alter British politics and push aside the old parties – exactly what’s happened in France. He’s destroyed those old structures and brought on this new movement. Will it succeed? I don’t know, because it depends on the skill and willpower of Macron himself, but is it extraordinary that now we have a people’s movement in France which has not produced something that is ugly, divisive, or utterly bizarre [like many other such movements]. This could produce something interesting, and useful, and good, which depends on respect, tolerance and all those things that make our country so famous. The only problem is to get it launched we need a Macron, and at present we don’t have one. But I’d love to play my part.

Q: Do you see another General Election in the Spring next year?

A: I think the Tories want a general election like a hole in the head at the moment, but yes. I think looking at the present circumstances, if there isn’t a positive attitude to put the country’s interests first, then I think that is possible. I don’t think it’ll come in September, but it could easily come in the Spring. Frankly I don’t want it, and I don’t think you want it, as I think under the present circumstances it would be difficult not to deliver Mr Corbyn through the doors of Number 10.

Here’s what I think could happen, and maybe this will please some of you. I don’t think there is now a parliamentary majority across the parties for a hard Brexit.

Mrs May remains stuck on that, she wants to do it, but if you listen to what John Major and David Cameron said the other day…[and]… listening to pro-European Tory MPs, they’re prepared to vote a hard Brexit down in the Commons. If we can move her from a hard Brexit onto a soft Brexit, then I think Parliament has a role to play, and will begin to negotiate among ourselves the kind of mandate for a more sensible Brexit, one that re-associates us with the single market and the single customs union even if we’re not inside it. Then, I think we’re in a better place.

I do say to you, all of you are one of the great industries of this country. You make an immense contribution to our country, and if we are thinking about facing the housing crisis that we’ve got, and the consequences of the terrible Grenfell Tower fire, you’re going to have a major role to play.

You have a voice, collectively, to make sure that you get the right policies for this country to enable your industry and others to grow again. That is absolutely crucial. If the narrow collection of people in Downing Street, in the capital, all of them hard-Brexiteers pretty well exclusively, have less power and influence, and you, the voice of the people of Britain have more, it will only improve what will otherwise be a much worse result.

So please, I beg you, speak up.

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