Last month, Lord ‘Paddy’ Ashdown died aged 77. Ashdown was a respected parliamentarian and diplomat across Britain and the rest of the world. Although I didn’t always agree with all of his politics, I respected him for the statesman he truly was.
Learning about his life before he became an MP makes fascinating reading. He was born in India to a family of soldiers, his father an Army officer during WW2 and his mother a nurse in the Queen Alexandria’s Army Nursing Corps. After the war the family moved to Northern Ireland. Ashdown joined the Royal Marines in 1959 during which he served in Borneo and the Persian Gulf. He passed selection to the elite Special Boat Service, the Navy’s equivalent of the SAS. He then went to Hong Kong to undertake a full-time interpreter’s course in Chinese, returning to the UK in 1970. After leaving the Military in 1972, Ashdown worked for MI6 and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at the UN in Geneva.
He became an MP in 1983 after defeating the long-time safe Conservative seat of Yeovil. He was made a Privy Councillor and elected leader of the Lib-Dems in 1989. He retired from frontline politics after accepting the post of High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2002.
A mere snapshot of his extensive, worldly-wise, CV is but enough to understand that part of Lord Ashdown’s ability as an MP was his extensive experience and knowledge of life before entering politics. That’s why he was able to display understanding and empathy when conversing with the poor, the privileged, entrepreneurs, foreign diplomats, heads of public services and ordinary folk in the street.
Contrast this with the, less than worldly-wise, likes of Laura Pidcock, MP for North West Durhaam. Pidcock, who presumably aspires to be as government minister one day, was quoted as saying she considers “all Tories as the enemy”. With such conceited, prejudiced and juvenile views, how on earth could she be expected to run a government department or help negotiate an international trade deal? But then juveniles are increasingly entering politics as a career rather than a vocation. At the 2017 election there were six candidates under 22, with three of of them still teenagers.
Given that politicians have to make very important and profound decisions that will impact people of all ages and walks of life, it’s not a normal job and, I believe, needs people whose knowledge and experience has been real and endured, as opposed to theoretical readings and degrees in politics. When the government considered going to war, the likes of Paddy Ashdown were deliberating, knowing exactly what they were asking our military to undertake and endure. Somehow, I can’t say the same for the juvenile MSP Mhairi Black, whose understanding of conflict is probably limited films and video games.
Regrettably, the situation is even worse in local politics where we have far too many career political wannabes, with next to zero knowledge or experience, overseeing the governance and delivery of local services. I’ve noticed that many councillors are becoming more interested in playing party politics and furthering their careers than effective delivery of essential services. There has been numerous examples of waste and inefficiency that simply cannot be perpetually blamed on austerity. Councillors, of all political persuasions, award themselves vast remuneration packages on the premise that they are exceptional people doing a difficult job, when in reality it’s mainly the opposite. A great number are simply devoid of any real skills, knowledge, leadership or accountability. There has been an abundance of pointless expenditure and vanity projects while we endure cuts to vital public services that, in many cases, can mean life or death. If there is insufficient money to fund community care, why did the council choose to spend thousands of pounds moving a set of traffic lights few yards to the left on the road to Gosforth past Brunton Park? The lights had been there over 40 years with no problem. Surely, given we have a shortfall in funds to care for the elderly and disabled, it would have been better to spend it on them than move the lights? Why, too, should millions of pounds be earmarked for refurbishing the Civic Centre while people are homeless on the streets? Surely, the right thing to do is make funds earmarked for less important projects available to fund any shortfall in those more vital? It’s not only common-sense, but the right thing to do humanitarianly.
The answer to this was given some time ago by long standing, career councillor, Jeremy Beecham. Seems, according to Lord Beecham, money earmarked for a particularly budget cannot be allocated to another as this would be against the rules. So there we have it, rules are rules and they must be adhered to regardless.
A principled councillor, whose first duty is to the residents who elected them, would be to challenge any bad rules and risk their position to ensure the right thing was done for the community they represent. Career politicians, on the other hand, will seldom do anything that impedes their advancement, will lay the blame with someone else and plead they can’t do anything as their hands are bureaucratically tied.
Time for this to end with councillors selected and elected on their experience and ability to deliver, rather than the colour of the party they allege to represent. But above all, they should be judged on their track records and ability to put the needs of the community above their own.
This article was first published in the Newcastle Journal on the 3rd January 2019