Lib Dem Camden Council Leader Flick Rea shares her thoughts after attending Paddy Ashdown's memorial service.
With many other friends and colleagues (rubbing shoulders with the great and the good) I attended the Memorial Service at Westminster Abbey today for Lord (Paddy) Ashdown. There were many moving tributes to Paddy who was, quite simply, a political Colossus - towering head and shoulders over most of his political contemporaries. Celebrated ( because of his past career in the forces, ) as “the only man in Parliament who could strangle a man with his own hands”, he was, in fact, a man of peace and internationalism. A man of incredible charm, he made friends everywhere he went - many people joined the Liberals, and later the Liberal Democrats, simply because of Paddy.
He stunned you with his conviction, his energy and his confidence and brought the new party from one of its lowest ebbs to a cohesive fighting force in Parliament and beyond.
We all have our favourite memories of Paddy - whether telling one of his special jokes, leading singing at the Conference Glee club, teaching us Mandarin at the Chinese Lib Dems dinner (he was a fluent speaker himself), or recounting how he joined the Liberals. A former Labour supporter, (his lovely wife Jane was a lifelong Liberal), Paddy said he was gardening when he was approached by a bearded Liberal canvasser in anorak and sandals, invited him in for a cup of tea, and an hour later was so convinced that he joined on the spot!
He later said it was like finding an old coat in a cupboard and it was so comfortable that he realised he’d been looking for it all his life! Not that he didn’t try to change things - he did. He brought us technology, new ideas (not always popular) and a real sense of purpose.
My personal memories are many. I chased him down (literally) after I’d first heard him speak at a Liberal Assembly, to try and get him to speak in Camden, and he was very friendly and charming - although I can’t remember now if I succeeded! I remember him in Blackpool, shortly after he’d become Leader, walking into a bar where there were about 40 councillors (about half our country-wide total), taking off his jacket, straddling a chair he’d turned round and telling us we were the lifeblood of the party, his shock troops and he relied on us. At which point we were all ready to leap, bayonets fixed, over the top, screaming “ yes, Paddy, we’ll follow you to hell and back!” (and occasionally it was!).
At one point, he took a few months off politics and travelled the whole country, finding out about people’s lives. He wrote a book about this and inscribed my copy “to Flis (which was his name for me) and thanks for the fags!” I have to admit that, even after he’d been told to stop, I did from time to time share a sneaky fag with him outside conference - once even with Charles Kennedy as well!
I counted him as a friend (he and Jane, like me have a daughter called Kate, and one son so we latterly swapped updates and pictures of our grandchildren!) to me he was also an inspiration and a guiding star.
I am proud and grateful to have known him.