Independent 21 Apr 2014

Independent 21 Apr 2014

“On a huge hill,

Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will

Reach her, about must and about must go,

And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

Yet strive so that before age, death’s twilight,

Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.”

John Donne Satire 3


Since the age of sixteen, I have always had a copy of the complete poems of John Donne’s, somewhere close at hand.


For me, sixteen was a watershed year. I had not been a good student – at best strugglingly average, to the despair of my father. In truth the class-room interested me far less than the rugby pitch, the athletics field and the girls at the local Bedford High School. One evening a friend I admired, but thought quite weird persuaded me, against my strong disinclination, to go with him the School poetry society run by one of the masters, who I regarded as equally weird, John Eyre. The evening changed my life. For that night I walked through a door, opened by Donne to a world of poetry and literature I had never even known existed and have spent a life-time joyously exploring ever since.


The moment may have been life changing for me. But it was not for John Eyre.


I know this for many years later, with others among his more distinguished students, we gave him lunch at the Reform Club. Among those present were contemporaries of mine – Michael Brunson the ITV political journalist, Professor Quentin Skinner the renowned intellectual historian and many others ranging from Ambassadors, to captains of industry, to senior civil servants. He had words for them all, reminding them of the successes and faults and the major parts they had played under his direction in the School play (I had only been a wordless monk in Auden’s “The Ascent of F6” and a soldier in Macbeth entrusted with the single line “Sound the alarums without”). Finally he came to me (I was at the time the Leader of the Lib Dems). He said simply “Ashdown – ah yes. You surprised me.”


Later, when as a young Royal Marines officer, I was involved in the little war in Borneo, I carried a leather bound copy of Donne’s poems which my wife gave me everywhere I went, until the ravages of jungle damp and termites dismantled it into a collection of mouldy pages I had to abandon. It has been replaced many times since. My current copy – The Penguin edition, edited by A.J Smith – is on my iPhone and I Pad.


Of course Donne, though the greatest poet, is not the only one. But he is the one who opened the pages for me to all the others – and can still take my breath away when I least expect it.

Christmas 2007 Sunday Mirror


Unlike my admirable successor as leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, I do believe in God. But not much in churches. I heard too much hate from them in my Northern Ireland youth.


But Christmas is the exception and begins for me at midnight on Christmas eve in our village church known locally as the “the jewel of Somerset”. I love its honey stone light and its slender pillars and its perfect proportions and its cleanly latticed roof, just high enough to give the impression of something separated, almost celestial above us. And I love the company of my neighbours and friends lustily celebrating the magic, and gently steaming from the moisture of the night, like cattle in the manger.


“Peace on earth goodwill towards all men” we enthusiastically sing – even though there is little enough of it around at the moment. Perhaps we forget that this is not so much a carol as a commandment – and by the way it is the supreme commandment of all the great Abrahamic religions who have, for a thousand years and more slaughtered each other in the name of a common God – and are at it still. I once heard that great Arab, King Hussein speaking at the funeral of that great man of Israel, Yitzak Rabin, begin his speech, a single Muslim amongst ten thousand Jews, with the words “Our father, Abraham…”.


Our problems lie, not with Muslims – but with fanatics and they are not to be found just in the religions to our East. You can (or could until the recent miracle of Irish reconciliation) find them aplenty in the pulpits of Northern Ireland and in the little clapperboard churches of middle America, too. My old Dad used to say (quoting, he claimed, the Koran – though I have never found it) “There is one God, but many ways to him”. And it is true – we Christians have far, far more in common with Islam and Judaism, than separates us from them.


Here is another version of the nativity story. “When Mary withdrew from her family to an Easterly place, thus did she seclude herself from them, where upon we sent to her Our Spirit….that I may give you a pure son…Peace be the day I was born and the day I die and the day I am resurrected”. Recognise it ? well our Muslim readers will, for it is the story of the birth of Jesus as told in the Holy Koran, where you will also find all the great stories of the Old Testament, only one chapter dedicated to a woman – Mary the mother of Jesus and in which we are instructed that Jesus was the Messiah, was crucified and rose again. Not many Christians know that. Just as not many of my neighbours on Christmas eve would have recognised that the wonderful light lines of our quintessentially English church nave and the gothic arches which line it, were originally inspired by the Muslim architecture which the crusaders found in the great Mosques of the East and brought back home with them in the middle ages.


The truth is that, in our increasingly interdependent world, our peace rests on us building on similarities, not exaggerating differences. What to that great poet and preacher John Donne was a moral precept “send not to ask for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee” is for us, a strategy for survival. The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore put it like this:


“We are all the more one, because we are many

For we have left an ample space for love in the gap where we were sundered

Our unlikeness shines with the radiance of a common creation

Like mountain peaks in the morning sun”


“Ah!” you may say “but that’s about morality. Which has nothing to do with the hard realities of the world and the tough choices of politics”.


Not so. My great Liberal predecessor, William Gladstone was elected Prime Minister in a General Election at a time of war – a British war in Afghanistan as it happens – with these words:


“…remember that the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eye of Almighty God as can ever be your own. Remember that He who has united you together as human beings in the same flesh and blood, has bound you by the law of mutual love, that that mutual love is not limited by the shores of this island, is not limited by the boundaries of Christian civilization, that it passes over the whole surface of the earth, and embraces the meanest along with the greatest in its wide scope.”



Letter Paddy Ashdown to Harriett Baldwin MP 16 Nov 2016

Harriett Baldwin MP
Minister for Defence Procurement
Ministry of Defence,

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Dear Harriett,

Thank you for finding time to meet with me yesterday to discuss the situation in Yeovil, following the GKN redundancies.

I was glad to hear of your work abroad to sell the AW159 Wildcat helicopter and to know that you believe this aircraft has wide market appeal in other countries.

But I am sure you will agree with me that it is vital that the benefit of the work and skill enhancement of these sales, if they are achieved, should benefit, not just Leonardo, but the Yeovil site and its workforce. You know my concerns on this matter, which I repeated to you in detail during our meeting. It seems to me that there is nothing in the Government’s Strategic Partnership Agreement with Leonardo which would in itself prevent Leonardo from effectively siphoning off technology assets and skills from Yeovil to Italy, while transferring Italian costs to the Yeovil site. I am, I should stress, NOT saying this is happening – only that the terms of the agreement as it stands means that it could happen – with very grave consequences for the Yeovil site as a whole. I accept, of course that any such “siphoning” strategy would be contrary to the spirit of the Strategic Agreement. But unhappily it is not, it appears, contrary to its letter. I asked you for an undertaking that the Government would keep a close oversight on the conduct of the Strategic Partnership in order to ensure that the Yeovil site is not disadvantaged. I hope you will be able to provide this in your response to this letter.

I also pressed you, as I have in my letters to the Secretary of State, for a clear undertaking that the forthcoming Government Green Paper on the national industrial strategy, due to appear you said before the end of the year, would include a clear statement that the Government regards Britain’s stand-alone ability to design, manufacture and assemble helicopters as an essential part of our national aero-space industrial base which should be preserved. I was, I confess, surprised to learn that, even at this late stage you were unable to provide this assurance, on the grounds that the Green Paper is being drafted by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. But surely it cannot be the case that, as Minister for Defence Procurement whose decisions have a profound impact on the country’s aero-space industry, that you have not had – and do not intend to seek – input into the Green Paper? I hope you will be able to re-assure me on this matter. If it were to be the case that there was no such statement in the Green Paper, then people would be bound to conclude that this Government, unlike its predecessors, was not fully committed to maintaining the full range of skills, integrated assembly and technology, which only the Yeovil can provide for the nation.

Finally, there is the matter of the GKN tooling for the AW 159 Wildcat work currently being carried out in Yeovil. This tooling is, as you know, essential for the production of the AW159. I pointed out to you the fact that the MoD owns this tooling gives the Government very substantial leverage over what happens next. It is open to the MoD, as owners of this tooling, to insist that it will not be shipped abroad, but maintained on the Yeovil site. This will, of course ensure that much the work involved will stay in Yeovil, rather than being allowed to leach away elsewhere, along with the technology and skills involved, We both agreed that the Government’s intention is to ensure that the Leonardo relationship should enable “the Yeovil group to continue to be a centre for the design and development of the AW159 and other aircraft”. I cannot see how this commitment could be fulfilled if the Government fails to use its ownership of the 159 tooling to ensure that the lost GKN work stays on the Yeovil site, instead of being shipped abroad, along with the jobs involved. I hope that you will be able to give me this undertaking in the near future.

Thank you again for your time. I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours etc




Paddy Ashdown