27 December 2018
Having worked alongside Paddy Ashdown when he was Liberal Democrat leader, I knew he commanded respect, but I was still taken aback by the scale and nature of the tributes paid after he died last week. Not bad for someone who said his job wasn’t to be popular. But perhaps that’s the whole point.
The lesson is that if you stick to your principles, work hard, get stuff done and don’t give a damn what anyone thinks of you, then you will end up being trusted, admired – and indeed, immensely popular.
That process highlights one of the aspects of Ashdown’s leadership style that are worth thinking about in today’s political context. And in Ashdown-esque fashion, I would pick out three key qualities: leading with humility; leading by example; and leading by principle.
One. Lead with humility. Look up to those you lead. Respect the team. Consult them. Ask their advice. Ashdown recognized that other people had skills he lacked, particularly as a latecomer to politics. So when big decisions were to be made, he gathered opinions from all directions, including the awkward squad who were likely to challenge him. The experience of the Royal Marines and Special Boat Squadron taught him that every member of the team matters and that they depend on the others for survival and success.
When I worked with him, we held regular Thursday breakfast meetings to hear views from all sorts of people – from scientists and trades unionists to environmentalists and entrepreneurs. More widely, Ashdown wanted to listen and learn from the British people. While other MPs focused on Westminster, he travelled around Britain, learning what life was like in Moss Side and Peckham, in a Scottish coal mine or aboard a Cornish trawler. And if you’d called that meeting ordinary people, he would counter that there was no such thing – that everyone was in fact extraordinary and the problem with politicians was they failed to understand the potential of the people they led.
So decisions were made having listened and learned: with the result that good calls were made, there was maximum buy-in and those who hadn’t bought in at least knew that the process had been fair. Contrast that with contemporary decisions such as Theresa May’s Chequers deal – conceived in near secrecy, presented as a fait accompli, doomed to failure.
Point two. Lead by example. Do some of the practical stuff. Ashdown’s military experience told him that if you’re going to ask someone else to do something, you should have done it yourself. He had some tough years trying to get elected in Yeovil, with redundancies and spells of unemployment, but the DIY attitude meant he learned to be a publisher, printer, case worker and campaigner. Later, he would personally write chunks of the party manifesto, draw up campaign plans and act as a role model for other MPs in taking up specific causes, from the rights of Hong Kong citizens to the plight of the Bosnians.
And point three. Lead by principle. Ashdown was intrigued by the way that advertisers categorise consumers as ‘inner-directed’ or ‘outer-directed’ – and extolled the importance of being the former. In other words, you shouldn’t set goals determined by what others think – which in personal terms might mean pursuing fame and fortune, or in political terms, promoting policies such as tax cuts or immigration crackdowns that win short-term admiration but do long-term damage. Instead, you should set goals dictated by your own principles, even if it makes life uncomfortable. For Ashdown and the Lib Dems, this included advocating a rise in income tax to fund education, and supporting the EU’s progress at Maastricht even though it meant forgoing the chance to bring down the Tory government.
Contrast that with Philip Hammond’s decision to lower taxes, including higher rate ones, even as public services continue to suffer – a classic outer-directed, short-term, unprincipled decision. Worse are outright untruths told for populist or ideological reasons – such as Boris Johnson’s claim that Brexit would help the NHS or Jeremy Corbyn’s that EU state aid rules prevent a country regenerating its economy.
The message of many of the tributes to Ashdown is that he possessed the integrity today’s leaders lack – which is generally true. But there are exceptions – Vince Cable, Nicola Sturgeon, Chuka Umunna, and Sarah Wollaston, to name just a few.
Perhaps Ashdown’s passing might provide the spur for such politicians of integrity to rise above the tribalists who have led their parties into dysfunction and to create a new force that revives the qualities of leadership needed to unleash the potential of Britain’s extraordinary people.