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Beyond Westminster.

Adur, Peckham, Wapping, Northern Ireland and Bosnia have one thing in common. They are all places visited by Paddy Ashdown and described in his book Beyond Westminster. For once, a politician took time off from the artificial world of Westminster to spend half his time touring various parts of the United Kingdom as well as visiting the troops in Bosnia. His visits are both urban and rural and I discovered that he shares one of my own long standing views that a politician has to listen and learn and that a variety of working experiences are invaluable, once one is elected to that chamber. Personally, I believe that politicians should all have to spend periods away from being professionals. Otherwise one becomes a word monger, a cynic or a time server.

I myself gave up at the age of forty-three after fifteen years in the Commons. Perhaps if like Paddy Ashdown I had refreshed myself after ten years in the way that he has done, the optimism and pride in what people and communities can do would have replenished my batteries.

Paddy Ashdown has always talked straightforward common sense. He is a practical man. What I did not expect was the extent to which I was emotionally moved by his descriptions of quite ordinary people facing up to the problems of their lives, whether environmental or educational or personal. He is clearly quite passionate about the squalor, crime and danger of the inner cities, the waste of talent and the horror of war.

Elsewhere in reviews I have written of Michael Foot. They are two totally different men in their style but essentially they share similar values common to a section of people which was produced by an accident of history and which sought to serve as Paddy Ashdown's forebears did in India and he did in the Royal Marines. They share that compassion, tolerance and a sense of what can be achieved when people get together that represents the finer side of our past.

Paddy Ashdown is particularly excited by the way in which people can themselves act to produce better living conditions, whether it be through common gardens, recycling, helping to design their own estates, improving the quality of their children's education or keeping civilians alive in the precarious snow-capped ridges of Bosnia. As Paddy Ashdown talked to a Ghanian family with a highly gifted child wrongly dubbed backward, I recalled an experience in what was then my own constituency where just such a child was thought to be delinquent because he was so gifted that he kicked down walls because he was bored at the low level of work that he was forced to do at school.

This down to earth former military man naturally takes a pride in the role of British troops in Bosnia. I myself have always been impressed by the professionalism and commitment of the troops that I have met in Germany and of those whom I saw interviewed, horrified at the ethnic cleansing that occurred in Bosnia. Paddy Ashdown does not have the intellectual pretensions that many politicians share. He possesses something quite different and that is an ability to communicate directly with people and to see the value of ordinary producers, consumers or even unemployed, acting in a way reminiscent of the Rochdale Pioneers by pooling their talents. His is a practical and often local approach typical of many long standing Liberal councillors and their supporters. However, he recognises the need for a Parliamentary framework and what emerges from this book is a man whose talents dare not be shut out by the serried ranks of the two major parties that have combined to produce many of the worst ills which we face today.

He offers a perspective, not least in education, without which this nation will make little contribution to the world. One feels that it is Paddy Ashdown's wish to see such a contribution whether in Europe or elsewhere. This is not born of a blind nationalism but a belief that this country and its people have a capacity for a special kind of service which the world community so badly needs. He was clearly much affected by the squalor and waste of human resources in the inner cities and he communicates that feeling directly to the reader.

In his conclusions on the state of Britain he reflects upon various aspects of life without which its quality will deteriorate. He is not a social engineer but rather a man who believes that people must take their destiny in their own hands, He wants architects to listen to those who actually live on the estates which are often designed in a vacuum. He wants fathers to fight against the drug pushers. He wants parents to help produce better schools. He wants those out of work to be assisted in creating new enterprises. He is a great believer in people acting for themselves with the Government acting as a catalyst. He worked for a day in a mining co-operative.

In the very best sense of the word the impression I received from reading his book was that Paddy Ashdown is a patriot. He trusts the British people and those who have chosen to live in this country to face the many problems and overcome the obstacles that waste so much talent. One feels in particular his zest for education and training because of the sense of loss that occurs when people's potential is not tapped. Perhaps that is the officer in him speaking.

More certainly it is a man who is capable of great compassion, not merely a word spinner or a time server, who genuinely wishes to tackle the problems of which he writes and who has gained inspiration by getting away from the artificial world of Westminster and breathing that fresh air generated by ordinary people which I myself once shared when I lived among, and worked with, my own constituents in Manchester, unhappily too many years ago. Unusually, this book projects optimism in a world which seems all too often to be irredeemable. Only an optimist could have written this and an optimist who believed that there were many like him willing to take up the cudgels within their own communities. Perhaps that was what was lacking in the overwhelming collectivism of Labour's great reforms and the appeal to selfishness implicit in the Thatcherite era.

Those who consider themselves to be radicals, socialists or on the Left could perhaps take a leaf out of Paddy Ashdown's book and remove themselves from Westminster to talk to the ordinary people whom they purport to represent.

PAUL B. ROSE
COPYRIGHT 1994 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.
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Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Rose, Paul B.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1994
Words:1108
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