Last week, Paddy Ashdown came to the Edinburgh Book Festival. He filled the main theatre twice over with two very different talks.
The first, Why the world will never be the same again, was chaired by the Today Programme’s James Naughtie.
“I wouldn’t trust the UN to run a Liberal Democrat jumble sale”
Speaking without notes and with compelling candour, Paddy told us that we were condemned to living in one of those turbulent times when the balance of power in the world shifts. He saw two such major shifts. The first was a vertical one. Individual nation states could not alone regulate global issues like the internet, satellite broadcasting and multinational corporations. He warned that “destroyers occupy lawless space.” Our survival, he argued, was dependent on the effectiveness of the global governance we build. He said that the UN would always be useful as a forum for debate and to legitimise international action, but governance should be done by treaty based organisations like NATO and the WTO or “regional coalitions of the willing”. He wouldn’t trust the UN to run a Liberal Democrat Jumble sale.
Ashdown’s Third Law
The second power shift was a lateral one, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Europe can no longer count on the US to be the defender of last resort and will have to work together. He railed against the current lack of leadership on the EU, describing it as a conspiracy to be obsessed by the petty. He talked about how in the future we will need to work together with countries that don’t share our values to deal with specific issues. We need to understand how we share our with others, how we suffer if they do. In our interconnected world, Swine Flu in Mexico one day is a problem in Aberdeen the next. This was the basis of Ashdown’s Third Law:
In the modern age, when everything is connected to everything, the most important thing about what you can do is what you can do with others.
Give women control over their own lives
He took questions on a wide variety of subjects. On overpopulation, he rejected draconian one child policies and said that giving women control over their own lives was the way to deal with it.
He decried the “sword waving” threats to Iran, saying that we need to accept that we can’t use military power to prevent them having a nuclear weapon.
On the US election, he said that if the Tea Party got their hands on power, the US decline would be bloody, destabilising and unpleasant.
Liberal Democrats have shown fantastic courage and support
Asked by Naughtie where he was on the scale between euphoria and despair on the Coalition, he said “I’m a Liberal, I’m a permanent optimist.” He went on to say that Nick Clegg had done the right thing in bringing the party into Government and the party had followed through with fantastic courage and support. He said we had to hold to the Coalition, making sure we drove through policy to get into a decent economic position and reminded the audience that while we have Greek debt levels, we enjoy German interest rates. He also went on to say that liberal values could be challenged by turbulent times, and things like increased web snooping power were completely wrong , but would be checked by the intervention of the Liberal Democrats.
“I had powers that ought to make any Liberal blush – I loved it!”
Looking back to his time in Bosnia as UN High Representative (a “ridiculous title”), the above observation made the audience laugh.
There were a few Liberal Democrats there, understandably, and when I spoke to them afterwards, they were all very impressed with the clarity in which he defined the challenges facing the world and proposed he solution. My predominant feeling was that I was scared stiff. He was right – but would the rest of the world listen?