ID: When did you first think about going into politics?
PA: When I was a young officer, one of my jobs was looking after the welfare of marines on board a ship. I found the pastoral care side of it immensely satisfying, slightly to my own surprise as I was quite a rumbustuous, physical kind of guy. I think I decided to go into politics at the age of 31, although my wife Jane tells me she thinks I had decided at the age of 27. Special Forces was a seminal experience and formed my politics. I was leading people in quite difficult situations, who were by any standards better than me at the job we were supposed to be doing. I was in charge of them because of the class structure, which I have always detested.
I started off as a socialist and was a declared socialist during my time in the Royal Marines - a very unpopular thing to do among fellow officers in those colonial days. I parted company with the Labour Party over In Place of Strife [Barbara Castle's 1969 white paper on curbing trade union power]. I was always worried that Labour couldn't be tough enough on the unions. I remember being attracted to Labour by Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Shirley Williams. By 1970 I had left the party. I looked at the Liberals but I thought no, too small, too zany, nothing to do with me. After 1970, when I was in the Foreign Office, I counted myself as one of the great disconnected. Indeed, in 1974 I was digging in the garden and a canvasser called. He was a funny little man. My mind has him in an anorak and with a squeaky voice. He possibly had a beard but my memory may be playing tricks.
So all he was missing were the sandals...
Maybe. He said: "Hello, I'm a Liberal." I said: "Don't be ridiculous. Go away." I was being very grumpy but I invited him in and we sat down and talked for about two hours. It was an unlikely epiphany but at the end of that conversation I discovered that I was indeed a Liberal and had been a Liberal all my life. I then went to Geneva, pretending to be a diplomat and doing things which I describe as "in the shadows". On my birthday, 27 February 1975, I went back and called in to see Yeovil Liberals and said some day I'd be happy to help.
Coincidentally, their candidate had resigned that day and gone to fight Newbury which he regarded as a better bet. I resigned my job and went off to Yeovil. It was the most irresponsible decision I have ever taken. The Tories had held Yeovil for more than 70 years. My party leader was about to be arraigned for murder at the Old Bailey. I had a wife and two children. It took me eight years to win Yeovil, but it was the best one I ever made. If I was being pompous I'd say that there was no point in living this sybaritic existence - a very nice house on the shores of Lake Geneva - if the country you were representing was going to hell in a handcart behind you. I suppose there was also a bit of egotism. I wanted to have the ball at my own feet. I didn't want to be kicking around other people's footballs.
So why did you join the Liberal Party? You've led people. You know what power means. Why did you pick a party which was never, in a month of Sundays, going to wield power?
Because I believed in it. I do believe it will wield power. This is the romantic in me. I knew I couldn't be a Tory. It's alien to my nature. That's not to say there aren't some very good people in the Tory Party. I love people like Ed Llewelyn [David Cameron's chief of staff] and Chris Patten, probably the best Prime Minister we've never had.But I couldn't look myself in the mirror if I became a Tory, I'm afraid. I am a Liberal. I am comfortable being a Liberal. It is the only answer to the conundrums of our age.
How can the word ‘Liberal' be used in the context of Chris Huhne's decision to cheerlead for the government over their decision to ban Geert Wilders from entering the country?
I am not in the business of criticising my parliamentary colleagues.
Why is it that the Lib Dems haven't made progress since the last election?
The other two parties have conceded that it is the ‘Liberal Age'. They are all Liberals now. They are all trying to be Liberals. David Cameron even proclaims himself to be a Liberal Conservative, so here's the conundrum. If this is a ‘Liberal Age', why the bloody hell aren't I Prime Minister? That's the real question! People see the ground, they occupy it and you are squeezed under those circumstances, but I remain completely convinced that the party'sday is coming.
I still think a likely outcome of the next election is a hung parliament. That presents the Lib Dems with a real problem, doesn't it?
You are dangling elegant temptation before me, but I shall resist it inelegantly. If a Lib Dem leader is successful, they always get dealt this hand of cards. Jeremy Thorpe, David Steel and I all had to play that hand. Every circumstance is different and presents diffi cult choices. I had to take the risk of working with Blair because it delivered things Liberals believed in, like devolution for Scotland and so on. How the party plays that hand is really up to the party. For example, in 1992 I absolutely didn't want a hung parliament because I thought that combining with Neil Kinnock would give a one-shot Labour government and we would suffer even more. Whichever choice the Lib Dems make before an election or after it is very difficult and I'm not intervening in it.
Nick Clegg is a risk taker, you were a risk taker. I get the impression that he may well lay his cards on the table in advance of the election.
Yes, I was a risk taker, and I laid my cards on the table in 1997 very clearly when I abandoned equidistance. That was always an uncomfortable position for us but it gave us cover in '92. I am not going to say whether Nick should make his hand clear. Nick is a remarkable political talent and I think the more people see of him the more they will like him in the context of a general election. He is a risk taker and you have to be as a Liberal Democrat. One thing you can't do is play for safety.
Have you found the role of ex-leader rather trying? You have generally resisted temptation to make any intervention.
There are three kinds of ex-leaders. Those who say ‘I've been a brilliant general and to prove as much I will wreck things before I go and throw in hand grenades afterwards'. They think what they are doing is improving their standing as leader but they almost always diminish it. I fear that happened to Margaret [Thatcher]. The second type is ‘Thanks very much, I had a great time, I'm off to do my garden, please don't trouble me again'. The third is ‘I'm off to do my garden, call me when you need me'. That's what I have tried to be. I have tried to be for Charles, Ming and Nick the same kind of leader as David Steel was for me. He was always available when I needed him. I could always ring him up and say, "David, I need a comment from you; I really need to win this battle". He would always come out and do it and that's what I do too. Being a model exleader is also part of being a leader.
How do you think the Lib Dem membership views Paddy Ashdown ten years on?
Probably more kindly than they once did. People often asked me why I stood down. The truth is I was getting grumpy with them, they were getting grumpy with me. Perhaps the party has been lucky in that it gets the leaders it needs at the time it needs them. It would not have been a good thing if I had stayed on. I would have almost certainly tried to persuade them that the position they took on the Iraq War was wrong, and I would have found myself at loggerheads with the party and have had to resign. I wrote Blair a private letter a week before the invasion and said "I think you're right". With the benefi t of hindsight that looks like a mistake. The war was not the problem. I personally think the war was probably justified - still. It was over quickly. It was a success. It was what happened afterwards that was the problem. That does not excuse me very much because the truth is that I, of all people, should have known the war wasn't the problem but our complete failure to prepare for what happened afterwards was. I should have spotted that and made more of it at the time. I believed the weapons of mass destruction stuff and maybe I shouldn't have. History will bless this with a slightly different view from the one we see at present.
I guess like me, you believed a Prime Minister who told his people he had intelligence.
I remember being at a meeting with Blair in 1998 when he said he had seen intelligence reports on Saddam Hussein and he said "We're going to have to deal with this guy, there are weapons hidden under his palaces". I accuse Blair of misjudgment, I accuse him of fatally misunderstanding it. It was hubris. He believed he could do with Bush what he had done with Clinton over Kosovo. But I don't accuse him of lying or deliberately deceiving us.
Do you think he misled you on the issue of including Lib Dems in his government?
That's for people with a little more distance than me to judge.
Reading your diaries, it read like a seduction routine and you were seduced with your legs akimbo!
I remember saying to Richard Holme [Lib Dem Peer] towards the end of this process, do you think he means it? Richard said, "ah, the best seducers always do!" [roars with laughter]. If you believe that, and it is tempting, and we all prefer conspiracy theories to the truth, I think you have to explain a number of things. As a new Prime Minister, with a huge amount on his plate, why did he devote so much time to this? Hours, and hours with me and Roy Jenkins. Why did he do that? If this was all part of a seduction routine, how come Gordon Brown and John Prescott really believed it and went out of their way to try and stop it? I remain of the view that he was intending to do it and the problem was far more that it was the big thing he wanted to do, but it was never the next thing. I think I was too close to give you a judgment, but I am very clear on one thing. As the Lib Dem leader, inheriting a party who had believed in partnership government, and with the prospect of many of the things we had stood for for 100 years being delivered, it would have been derelict of me not to pursue the greatest opportunity we had to achieve those things.
I think the greatest achievement was that it didn't leak.
It was indeed extraordinary. [Chuckles]. I love taking the media by surprise. I did it on my resignation as well. But I remain of the belief that the realignment will happen. The big event is for the centre left to realign. Then the Conservatives are in real trouble.
What were your relations like with Margaret Thatcher? I got the impression when you first became leader you were in awe of her.
I was a disaster when I first became leader. I see some of the criticism of Nick Clegg and think, just go back and look at my first year. Of all the experiences in my life, which have included some quite hairy ones, the one I would prefer not to repeat before any other is standing up on a weekly basis and being regularly handbagged by Mrs Thatcher at Prime Minister's Question Time. She said to somebody: "Who is this Ashdown fellow? Glittering military career, why isn't he in the Conservative Party?" [Laughs loudly]. She always used to treat me with a slight air of incomprehension. In the mid-1980s she had all those qualities of leadership which second lieutenants are taught in the army. When the House was sitting late at night she'd be in the tearooms geeing up the troops at three or four o'clock in the morning. David Steel would be nicely tucked up in bed in Dolphin Square and Maggie would come out. That's worth a million dollars to her troops. She was an impossible person not to admire, even though I opposed her.
In that first year as leader, did you ever think ‘this really isn't for me; I don't want to do this anymore'?
[Chuckles] I had only been in the House for four years. I wasn't good in the chamber. I had a tendency to be hectoring and I found PMQs very difficult until I got to learn the technique of it. We had to fight the battle with David Owen, then we came behind the Greens [in the 1989 Euro elections]. There were occasions when I thought, is the party of Gladstone going to end with Ashdown? Am I really good enough to do this? It was very tough.
Do you think most politicians suffer from self doubt at some point?
Sure. I think you have to be a slightly misshapen personality to go into politics anyway. Why would you want to have your name plastered on posters? There is a certain strange quality which sustains politicians. It's probably related to ego, I suppose. Every politician suffers from this.
Do you think it's a coincidence that a lot of quite flawed personalities become great leaders?
That's an interesting thought. Great political leaders and probably great military leaders too, have some bit of them that is magnificently mis-shapen, which enables them to do it.
But nowadays, if you have some character defect or you are away from the norm, it means it is unlikely you will get to the top.
Is Gordon Brown a normal human being? No he's not. Everybody can see that. He is a very abnormal human being. That doesn't make him a bad Prime Minister.
Do you think he is a bad Prime Minister?
[Pauses]. I think I have to say that the answer to that is that history will probably say so. It's a combination of the hand he has been dealt...
Come on, he dealt the cards himself, mostly...
Well, yeah, he did. But part of that hand is coming in after ten years of government. He will go down as an unsuccessful Prime Minister. But it is not irrecoverable for him. It's unlikely, but not irrecoverable. He has open to him what I call the Captain Ahab strategy, which is that he lashes himself to the wheel, he faces, granite-faced into the storm, he should never smile, and just stick there until a light appears on the horizon and he can convince people he can see them through the storm. That is his only hope.
Why did you decide to write an autobiography? I am sure you told me once that you wouldn't.
You're right. I thought the diaries would be enough. But my wife Jane and my friend Ian Patrick, who worked for me in the leader's office, persuaded me it would be worth doing. I have enjoyed writing it and it represents a certain act of closure. It's quite an anti-climax when it's over. I've tried not to be too serious about it. You need to be a bit light hearted and not take yourself too seriously.
I hope it's not one of those autobiographies which someone once defined as a work of fiction about oneself!
I hope not! But it's a real danger. Inevitably you are tempted into that but I know there's an element of self-criticism too. There are plenty of things I have done wrong. This is my sixth book and writing a book is the nearest a man can get to giving birth. I love writing. I adore it. I do it on trains and planes and I waiting rooms. I don't do it in a disciplined fashion.
You'd be a great blogger.
[Laughs]. I love the process of putting a book to bed - choosing the photos, and then you have to go out and sell it. I've already started the next book. I hate having nothing to do. That's the greatest fear I have.
What's the next book?
I'm going to see if I can do a thriller. There will be a bit of spying in it! [Laughs conspiratorially]. I am not sure it will work. It may never happen!
Why do you think some people view you as a bit holier than thou? I know you're great company, yet before I met you I had this image of you as being very sanctimonious.
It's fear. A combination of fear and passion. I talk about it in the book and I admit that it really damaged me. It comes out in the House of Commons. If I get quite frightened, and the chamber does frighten you, my voice has a habit of going shrill, and I have a habit of over-painting the clarity. It comes from Bosnia. I was passionate about the immorality of Bosnia and people interpreted it that way. Quite a lot of people took a lot of satisfaction over the Tricia Howard affair - the famous Paddy Pantsdown headline. The joke going round was that my answering machine said ‘please leave a message after the sanctimonious moral tone'. By the way, I had never made any comment, and nor would I, about the morality of public fi gures, but even so, I think it's a fair criticism.
That affair could have ruined you, but you emerged from it with your reputation enhanced because of the way you handled it, didn't you?
I don't think my reputation was enhanced! I was the first politician to hold my hands up. What people dislike is the lying.
I think people felt you were honest and even your opponents saw a side of you they hadn't seen before.
That's very kind of you, but I wouldn't recommend it as a way forward in politics - or with your family, for that matter!
How would Afghanistan be different now if you were there?
I am not sure it would be yet. When they asked me to go there I really didn't want to. I didn't think it could be done. My worry is that we've passed the tipping point. I hope we haven't and we have to keep on trying but it is difficult to pull it back from where we are. Either I'd have gone in there and thrown the furniture about a bit and then become intolerable to the international community because they didn't want it to be like that or we would have succeeded in bringing some focus to it. The real scandal about Afghanistan, which is far worse than the lack of equipment for our troops, is that young men and women are losing their lives because politicians can't gettheir act together.
The British government is completely failing to have a comprehensive strategy. Once our soldiers take a town, DFID should be in there the next moment, taking advantage of what they have won. It's taking six weeks for DFID to get in, because they can't go in until it's safe. We are completely failing to connect the political with the military. We love to blame Karzai and everybody else, but the reality is that if you provide more troops but no co-ordination, unity, priorities or a plan we are going to lose. It's a scandal. How do you explain to a mother of a young marine that her son died for ‘containment'?
Why did Karzai veto your appointment?
He knew perfectly well that one of my priorities was to establish the rule of law. The powerful are always the corrupt. You embed corruption in your society instead of taking the longer, tougher road, which is to construct the rule of law. Karzai knew I would launch an attack on those structures because his people told him that's exactly what I had done in Bosnia.
What gave you most satisfaction - bringing the Lib Dems back as a serious political force, or what you did in Bosnia?
The pinnacle of my career was getting elected as an MP and being leader of the party I love. Bosnia was a tremendous experience too, but doesn't compare.
But in Bosnia you were doing things, running things, as opposed to saying things and talking.
Yes, I was, but I was doing them in someone else's country. What I loved about Bosnia was taking decisions every day which genuinely changed the nature of people's lives on a day-to- day basis, in a way which isn't given even to a cabinet minister. And I was gradually winning people's support for that, but it was in someone else's country. I have had a wonderful life but I am pretty pissed off at not being Prime Minister! I really would like to have been Prime Minister. Whatever you do, that's the measure of a life.
You're a bit of a dichotomy. Quite strategic and calculating, but also emotional. That's not necessarily a good thing in a Prime Minister.
I never said I would have been a good Prime Minister! [Laughs]. I would have liked to have been Prime Minister but I also think it would have been quite useful for the country to have a government genuinely informed by the Liberal ideal as it is, rather than for it to be imitated.
I have a Sony e-Reader. It's completely fabulous. I don't just read books on it. I also convert all my papers to PDFs and dump them on it.
Favourite & least favourite interviewers?
Most formidable political opponent?
Most trusted political ally?
I have friends rather than allies. I am not very clubbable. Archy Kirkwood. We are as different as you can get. I used to call him Chicken Lickin'. He would often persuade me not to do something and he was usually right.
Classical music is a great source of solace. Strauss's four last songs, especially the third.
Most romantic thing you've ever done?
Stand as a Liberal candidate for Yeovil in 1976! I'm not very big on romance to be honest.
Sarajevo Youth Orchestra in 2006.
I bought a chalet in the Savoie in France with my kids, where we go twice a year with my grandchildren. It gives me great pleasure.
Looking out of the window of the chalet in the Savoie.
What are you reading?
Obama, Dreams from my Father. I'd like to think I was a writer. This man makes me feel inadequate.
Are you superstitious?
I like to think I am not but I discover in small ways that I am. I find myself avoiding cracks in pavements.
What food do you hate?
Tripe and bread & butter pudding.
Jack Bauer or James Bond?
Who is Jack Bauer?Never heard of him.I have never seen an FA Cup Final. I have never seen an episode of Coronation Street and I don't know who Jack Bauer is.
Last time you cried?
It is one of my afflictions. I do it far too easily. When I saw La Boheme in January. I cry whenever I see a refugee camp because I see my own family there.
A Fortunate Life by Paddy Ashdown, is published on 28 April, £20, by Aurum Press. His previous books include two volumes of The Ashdown Diaries