paddy ashdown

Former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown has died at the age of 77 after a short illness, the party has announced on the evening of 22 December, 2018. Photo by Adrian DENNIS / AFP

Paddy Ashdown: British marine who led Bosnia with an iron fist

Paddy Ashdown, who died on Saturday aged 77, was a former marine and British opposition politician who served as the top international envoy in Bosnia following the Yugoslav Wars.

paddy ashdown

Former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown has died at the age of 77 after a short illness, the party has announced on the evening of 22 December, 2018. Photo by Adrian DENNIS / AFP

Paddy Ashdown, the former leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats who served as the international high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, died Saturday at the age of 77, his party announced.

He made an “immeasurable contribution to furthering the cause of liberalism” and will be “desperately missed”, the Lib Dems said in a statement.

Ashdown, a former special forces officer, led the centrist Liberal Democrats in opposition from 1988 until 1999, reviving their fortunes after years in the wilderness. He served as the international high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2002 to 2006.

He revealed in November that he was being treated for bladder cancer.

“I have the best of people and the best of friends to fight this with, which makes me, as so often in my life, very lucky,” Ashdown said.

Current Lib Dem leader Vince Cable said it was a “hugely sad day” in British politics and paid tribute to Ashdown’s talents beyond the political arena, including as an author, a marine and in the diplomatic service.

Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May said she learned of his death with “great sadness” and praised his service to Britain and the international community.

“He dedicated his life to public service and he will be sorely missed,” she said.

Former Labour prime minister Tony Blair said Ashdown was a “political visionary” who was “motivated by values of compassion, decency and a profound commitment to make the world a better place”. 

“He was one of the most talented politicians never to hold high office, but as leader of the Liberal Democrats he nonetheless had a major impact on British political life,” said Blair, who was in power from 1997 to 2007.

“He had courage, personal and political, unafraid to speak his mind yet always open to the views of others.”

Blair’s successor Gordon Brown said Ashdown was “one of the towering political figures of our generation who spoke always as a strong European, a committed internationalist and a dedicated constitutional reformer”.

‘I will miss him terribly’

Conservative former prime minister John Major, in office from 1990 to 1997, hailed Ashdown as “a man of duty, passion, and devotion to the country he loved”.

“In government, Paddy Ashdown was my opponent. In life, he was a much-valued friend,” said Major.

“Even when he knew he was gravely ill, Paddy’s concern for the future of our country continued to dominate his thinking.”

Former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who led the Lib Dems into a coalition government with PM David Cameron’s Conservatives in 2010, said Ashdown was the reason he became a liberal and entered politics, and had been a “lifelong mentor, friend and guide”.

“He was the most heartfelt person I have known — loyal and generous to a fault. Like so many others, I will miss him terribly,” said Clegg.

Cameron said Ashdown was brimming with dynamism and whose passion, charisma and ability to communicate helped governments focus on solving the Balkans crisis in the 1990s.

“The UK, liberal democracy and rational, moderate, cross-party debate have lost a great advocate,” he said.

At Ashdown’s final general election as leader in 1997, the Lib Dems won 19 percent of the vote, securing the party 46 seats, then a record showing for a third party in Britain.

Tim Farron, who headed the party from 2015 to 2017, said: “Paddy Ashdown was a hero to me, he saved and revived the Liberal Democrats at our lowest ebb, and then led us to our best result for 70 years.

“As a movement, we owe him our very existence.”

‘Agent of reconciliation’

For nearly four years Ashdown served as the de facto leader of Bosnia, earning a reputation as a no-nonsense implementor of tough measures to help the country recover from its 1992-1995 war.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, leader of the world’s Anglicans, said Ashdown was “an advocate for those others forgot.

“He served the people of the Balkans with passion and inspiration, an agent of reconciliation.”

Ashdown also campaigned for Britain to stay in the European Union in the 2016 referendum and, after losing, founded a cross-party centrist movement called “More United”.

He was knighted under his real name of Jeremy in 2000 and was made a member of parliament’s upper House of Lords.

He was married with two children and lived in Yeovil, southwest England, which he represented in the lower House of Commons.

© Agence France-Presse