Former Liberal Democrat leader

Born: February 27, 1941;

Died: December 22, 2018

PADDY Ashdown, who has died aged 77, led the Liberal Democrats for more than a decade, from 1988 to 1999; he was their first leader after the merger between the Liberal Party and the Social Democrats when national support was at just three per cent, but greatly increased their standing and became one of the UK’s best-known and well-regarded political figures during the 1990s.

His military and diplomatic background led him into a number of high-profile roles after he stood down as Lib Dem leader, notably in dealing with the fallout from the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, latterly as the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina (2002-2006); he also chaired the Lib Dem Election Committee for the 2015 General Election and had in recent months been an outspoken critic of Brexit.

Ashdown’s period in charge of the Lib Dems eventually saw the party, after a slight fall in the 1992 election, greatly increase their parliamentary representation (though their overall share of the UK vote stayed more or less static). He represented, and helped to bring about, the ascendency of the social democratic tendency within the party.

His political views – outlined in Citizens’ Britain: A Radical Agenda for the 1990s (1989); Beyond Westminster (1992) and Making Change Our Ally (1994) – favoured Scandinavian-style social democracy, the EU, and open markets with a hefty dose of government regulation, as well as the perennial cry from his party for a reform of the voting system; he was mildly sceptical and critical of the US, and scathing about the British establishment, though he himself could have been seen as a textbook example of its products.

After his selection as a candidate in 1976, he favoured the Lib-Lab pact of 1977, campaigned against Cruise missiles in the early ’80s, and condemned Mrs Thatcher’s decision to allow American planes to use UK bases for assaults on Libya in 1986.

As leader, he was energetic, charismatic and, with a string of by-election victories in the early 1990s, personally successful – at the time, he regularly emerged from polling as the most popular of leaders of the principal UK parties. Bizarrely, this endorsement actually increased in 1992 (by 13 per cent) after stolen documents became known to the press, and led to his pre-emptively admitting that he had conducted a five-month affair with his secretary five years before, which produced The Sun’s memorable headline: “It’s Paddy Pantsdown!”

The party’s centrist position, though it served them ill because of the first-past-the-post system and the historical dominance of safe Conservative and Labour seats, enabled Ashdown to appear a moderate, conciliatory voice of reason. But he was misled by his own assessment of himself in that role into believing that it might translate into genuine political power. During the Major government, Ashdown devoted much of his energy to negotiations with the Labour Party, in the expectation that a centre-Left coalition could form a government.

The reality of the huge shift to New Labour, and the electorate’s disenchantment with the Conservatives after 18 years in office, the disaster of Major’s inept economic management and the emerging rifts over Europe, meant that, despite having engaged in talks with the Lib Dems, Tony Blair’s party had no need to accommodate Ashdown. With the landslide majority it acquired in 1997, it was quickly able to neutralise what remained of the hard Left, and the Lib Dems, though they had increased their parliamentary representation from 18 seats to 46, had little to offer the ruling party.

Ashdown was, however, reportedly approached to be part of the government ten years later, when Gordon Brown was said to have asked him to become Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (though Sir Menzies Campbell, by then the leader, had already ruled out the idea that Lib Dems would serve in a Labour Government). If the offer were made, it was refused.

Jeremy John Durham Ashdown was born on February 27 1941 in New Dehli, then part of the British Raj, the eldest of the seven children of Lieutenant-Colonel John Ashdown of the 14h Punjab Regiment and his wife Lois (née Hudson), of Queen Alexandra’s Royal Nursing Corps. The year before his birth, John Ashdown had faced a court-martial for refusing to abandon his men at Dunkirk (all of whom he eventually saw safely aboard one of the last ships out), but was exonerated; after the war, he took his young family to live on a farm near Donaghadee in County Down, where Jeremy spent his early years.

He was educated at the local primary, and then as a boarder at Garth House Prep in Bangor, before going on to secondary schooling at Bedford School, where his accent led the other boys to call him “Paddy”. The accent disappeared, but the nickname persisted.

He had won a naval scholarship to cover the fees at school (where his father, grandfather and great-grandfather had all gone) after the financial failure of the farm in Northern Ireland. In his late teens, he ducked A-Levels altogether, and signed up with the Royal Marines, with whom he served from 1959 until 1972. He was in Borneo during the Indonesian-Malayan confrontation in the mid-1960s, and saw action in the Persian Gulf before training as a Swimming Canoeist in 1965 and joining the Special Boat Service.

Ashdown was their youngest-ever commander (of Number 2, in the Far East). Already competent in Malay, he was sent to Hong Kong to learn Chinese in 1967, and, with the usual logic of the British administration of the time, once he had acquired a qualification as a First Class Interpreter in Chinese, was redeployed to Belfast in 1970, just after the beginning of The Troubles.

In 1972, he left the Marines in the rank of Captain, and went to work for the Foreign and Commonwealth Service as First Secretary of the UK Mission to the UN in Geneva. That, of course, was nonsense. He was in fact working for the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, as he later admitted – though only when calling out his then-colleague Sir Richard Dearlove (later head of SIS) on a radio programme; in his memoirs (A Fortunate Life, 2009), he glided over his secret work.

Ashdown, bizarrely, liked living in Geneva, one of the most boring places in the world, where he and his wife Jane, and their young children, Simon and Katherine, sailed, skied and climbed. He later said that it was the news from Britain of the three-day week and the twin elections of 1974 which caused him to return to Britain, resign from his official posts, and take up arms as a Liberal.

He went to work, at first, for Westland Helicopters (1976-78) and then Morlands (1978-81). But soon the military gave way to the political, as he grew his support in his potential constituency in Yeovil, a Tory stronghold since its creation. After leaving Westland, he joined Tescan, then was unemployed (he later claimed that at one point he and his wife had been down to their last £15). He contested, but lost, the seat in 1979, when the Tories had a majority of over 11,000 – but he had overtaken the Labour candidate.

From 1981-3 he was employed by Dorset County Council as (rather improbably) a Youth Outreach Officer; but in 1983, he took Yeovil for the Lib Dems with a majority of 3,000, a constituency swing of almost 12 per cent, when the national swing was four per cent to the Tories.

Ashdown’s election as leader of the Lib Dems, after David Steel and Robert Maclennan, who had been operating as interim leaders, stood down, came when the party was at a low ebb. He bested Alan Beith comprehensively (about 70 per cent to 30 per cent), and the party went on to thrive under his leadership.

After standing down as Lib Dem leader, Ashdown was knighted (2001), ennobled as Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon (later that year) and appointed a Companion of Honour (2015). He was much involved in the negotiations following the collapse of Yugoslavia, where he had been a strong voice calling for military action during the Blair government. He was also, during the period since the referendum, a vociferous advocate of a second vote on Brexit. In October, he let it be known that he was being treated for aggressive bladder cancer.

He married, in 1961, (Mary) Jane Courtenay, with whom he had a son and a daughter, all of whom survive him, with three grandchildren.