The last time I saw Paddy Ashdown he was having lunch with Nick Clegg in a restaurant in Covent Garden. He was his usual bonhomous self, all creased smiles and hearty greeting. Now that he is gone, I wish I had said more, communicated my admiration. But the two ex-leaders of the Liberal Democrats were evidently in the middle of an intense political conversation, and I did not want to intrude.
In his 10 years in charge, from 1989, Ashdown essentially saved the party from oblivion. Clegg, meanwhile, achieved what his mentor had longed to do: entered government – the twist being that he did so with the Conservatives rather than, as Ashdown had planned with Tony Blair before 1997, with Labour.
In 2015 both Clegg and the Lib Dems paid a hefty price for this decision in general and their broken promise on tuition fees in particular. In his last general election as leader, Ashdown scooped 46 seats in the Commons. Today the Lib Dems have only 11. Now that Vince Cable has pre-announced his retirement, the party needs to find another leader who has Ashdown’s kinetic vigour, strength of character and progressive charisma.
It was Ashdown’s greatest hope that the centre-left would realign itself into an electoral alliance or even a fully amalgamated movement: TFM, or the full monty, as he and Blair nicknamed the idea. Instead, Labour has embraced the full Jeremy, and the Lib Dems hover once more on the brink of irrelevance. Increasingly, the word centrist has become a term of abuse, denoting complicity in the excesses of global capitalism, crypto-Blairism, membership of the metropolitan elite, a privileged background, insufficient doctrinal purity, or all of the above.
Ashdown’s death should be a sharp reminder that true centrism is none of these things, and that robust social democracy – the belief that decency and economic competence march together – betrays needy people much less than the narcissism of ideological fixity does. Ashdown understood that compromise was a sign of strength, and usually a precondition of meaningful action.
This was one of many reasons he was so effective as high representative of the international community in Bosnia-Herzegovina between 2002 and 2006. Again, humanitarian intervention and nation-building are spectacularly unfashionable in contemporary politics: the legacy of Iraq, the left’s hatred of “US imperialism” and Donald Trump’s isolationism are all deadly threats to the responsibility to protect embraced by the United Nations in 2005. We now confuse military inaction with peace, troop withdrawal with victory. Ashdown understood that the most important task facing those engaged in most modern conflicts would be reconstruction. In 2006 he told me of a conversation with one of the architects of the Iraq war: “I went to see [Donald] Rumsfeld, I think, two weeks after Saddam Hussein’s statue fell, and he said to me: “What do you think we should do now, Paddy?” And I said: ‘Mr Secretary, it’s a bit late.’”
Too true. While most of the lingering controversy over Iraq concerns weapons of mass destruction and the dossiers, the much greater failure was the absence of a meaningful plan to rebuild the nation. Ashdown grasped this immediately – but also understood that the worst possible response by the west would be to retreat from the world stage into a state of nervous introspection. Naturally, the prospect of Brexit was appalling to him. In a Guardian interview with Zoe Williams in September 2016, he recalled: “We drove back to London over Salisbury Plain, it was one of those lovely June mornings. I turned to [his wife] Jane, and I think there were probably tears in my eyes, and said: ‘It’s not our country any more.’”
And yet it is – at least in the sense that the spirit animating his tears is still very much alive. Even in Ashdown’s final days, the opinion polls showed that support for Brexit is falling steadily, and that millions of leave voters are losing confidence in the bill of goods they were sold. The most compelling champions of a people’s vote are the young, who (rightly) see Brexit as a generational affront and a betrayal of the future.
The energy lies, once more, with those who wish to stay in the EU. Jeremy Corbyn has made a spectacular strategic error in standing athwart this fast-growing movement. There is a great opportunity for the politician, or party or alliance, that wishes to marshal this sudden collective urgency and turn it into something new. For inspiration, they need only look at the extraordinary life of Paddy Ashdown. It was, to quote one of his favourite poets, no end of a lesson.
• Matthew d’Ancona is a Guardian columnist