Jane Ashdown talks to Seth Dellow
In a wide-ranging audio interview—available in full on the Marshwood Vale Magazine website—Lady Jane Ashdown talks candidly and emotionally about her life in and around the world of politics.
A little over two years since the untimely death of her husband, former leader of the Liberal Democrat Party, Paddy Ashdown, she opens up about her experiences in places as diverse as Northern Ireland, Geneva and Bosnia, as well as talking about her life as a wife, mother and supporter of her husband. She also discusses some of the more painful episodes of her husband’s career, and offers her observations on what lies ahead after the impact of Brexit and a worldwide pandemic.
Those who decide to enter the political arena are usually well aware that this means intrusive public scrutiny and for many the constant glare of a media spotlight. But to inherit the role of the supposedly ‘silent’ partner is another prospect altogether. To be ‘married’ to politics takes enormous courage, fortitude, determination and a level of loyalty found in very few.
In Seth’s interview, Jane explains how enormously different she and her husband were. ‘As people we were very, very different’ she says. ‘I’m a slow West Country woman, born and bred in Somerset. Slow to rise; perhaps slightly slow to make decisions—feet of clay that sort of thing. But Paddy was entirely opposite. He had a very ready temper, but it used to go.’ She explained how ‘he would say something frightfully harsh or rude to somebody and then forget all about it and wonder what he’d said.’ She describes him as ‘the greatest fun and slightly hair-brained.’
With remarkable poise and a deeply entrenched sense of justice Jane talks to Seth about the ups and downs of a life with someone she lovingly refers to as a ‘crazy bloke’. ‘He was one of these people who was very curious about all sorts of things’ she says. She talks about how he once stood up after he had thrown a hand grenade to see how it burst—‘well it’s not an advisable thing to do really.’
She describes how Paddy always used to push himself to the nth degree. ‘He parachuted a lot which he hated’ she says. He joked with her that pulling a drawstring on a parachute might end with his dirty laundry coming out rather than a parachute.
Long before their days in politics, Jane and Paddy struggled like any other couple starting a new life together. After leaving the services, Paddy had spent periods of time unemployed. His parents and siblings had emigrated to Australia as ‘ten pound poms’ after the failure of the pork market in Ireland—a result of the successful marketing of Danish bacon.
Paddy’s fledgling efforts to enter political life took time. ‘Yeovil had been Tory for 72 years’ Jane says ‘and it took us eight years to win it back. And I tell you those eight years were very hard. They were very happy, but they were very hard.’ Jane remembers fruit picking to help put food on the table. She tells Seth how difficult it was but at the same time says there was no point in worrying, regardless of what obstacles presented themselves. ‘Well you just got on with it didn’t you? I knew 75 ways to make mince go around but unfortunately by that time both the kids were vegetarians. It pushed your imagination quite a bit.’
And yes, she also talks about the media frenzy around her husband’s affair and how the ‘rat pack’ hounded them. With enormous dignity she says ‘I’m going to talk about something that’s very personal’ explaining that in the end, despite the obvious pain and public humiliation, “Paddy Pantsdown” became a subject of laughter to them. ‘Thank God for a sense of humour, that’s what I always say.’
She also talks about some of the many other emotional highs and lows in her life. For example, her irritation when people didn’t take her husband’s politics seriously because he wasn’t in one of the main parties. ‘It was that, that really hurt me’ she explained. ‘People didn’t take him seriously. He was very serious about his politics but he was written off because he was a Liberal. If he’d been a Tory or a member of the Labour party then people would have taken him more seriously.’
But Paddy wasn’t one to give up easily and although the odds were not in his favour, his achievements, including becoming leader of the party were immense. However, for Jane and the children, their support and occasional foot on the brakes were a vital part of holding it all together. ‘We told him when he was wrong’ she says. ‘But we also supported him when he was right.’ She travelled around the country with him when he was leading the party. ‘Which was eleven years. My God that went very quickly indeed.’
‘The eleven years that he was leader I must say aged us hugely. We were very lucky we came through those eleven years as a couple fairly unscathed. But it was a heartbreak when he did give up the leadership of the party.’ She remembers a very emotional speech he made saying goodbye using an Irish blessing. With tears streaming down her face she had to walk out ‘because where was the party going to go?’
And indeed where were they going to got? The next chapter may have been the most harrowing of all. They move to Sarajevo after Paddy became High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina. The war there had been horrific. Jane describes it as a ‘most brutal’ war. She was appalled by ‘the raping of women and the starvation of men in concentration camps.’ Women who had been raped would come to talk to her rather than to a man. She tells how Paddy used to bring ‘medication, sanitary towels and stupid things you’d never think of as presents’ when he went through the tunnel into the city. ‘But they helped sustain life because the people of Sarajevo couldn’t get them’ she says. ‘People were begging on the streets and you gave them what you could, because they did it to sustain themselves and their families. They were a very hurt nation.’ The experience was life changing for Jane. ‘It was a very emotional time… Please, dear God there’s never another place like that.’
Today Jane lives with the memory of an extraordinary life. She misses her husband and there are some things that make the pain more acute. ‘I find it sometimes difficult’ she says. ‘Particularly listening to classical music. The place used to resound because Paddy adored his music. I can’t listen to classical music anymore. I’m afraid I’ve lost that luxury because it makes me cry and that’s stupid—maybe one day I shall.’
In the meantime, she lives with the same disquiet that has beset many whose lives have been changed by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. She talks about her concern for those that may not want a return to the life they had before, although she worries mostly for the young who ‘are going to suffer in the long run.’ With her son a teacher she is well aware of the damage caused to education and the challenges ahead.
Jane’s political fears echo the thoughts of many. ‘I can see that before long Scotland will be independent’ she says. ‘Northern Ireland will go probably back within Ireland as a whole and we’ll be left with Wales. I don’t know if Wales will want to be independent but the Union will cease to exist. I was a passionate European, I still am and so was Paddy. In fact when he died he didn’t have a British passport. He had an Irish passport—like John Le Carré, who was a friend. I can’t tell you how much that saddens me.’
After a life with and around power she sees a great hill to climb on the political landscape. A voice with experience and extraordinary wisdom she is open with her fears: ‘The future will be very difficult to deal with and I don’t envy anybody in power quite frankly.’
Seth Dellow’s interview with Jane Ashdown offers an insight into her life unlike any before. Seth said afterwards that it had been a ‘privilege’ to spend time with her, especially as it fills a void frequently created in the narrative of political history. One that Seth explains focusses all too often upon statesmen and women, and sidelines those in the background.
The full interview with Seth Dellow is available to listen to on the Marshwood Vale Magazine website. Visit www.marshwoodvale.com.