When the young Paddy Ashdown surprised himself by the power of his own rhetoric

Last night I went to an enjoyable and nostalgic event hosted by Total Politics magazine, at which Paddy Ashdown was in conversation with Iain Dale about his autobiography A Fortunate Life (April, 2009).

Hearing him in ‘elder statesman’ mode reminded me of the earliest clip from an Ashdown speech in my collection -which may well have been the first time any of his speeches had ever appeared on television (see below).

It’s from the debate on cruise missiles at the Liberal Party Assembly in 1981, two years before he became an M.P.

If the then prospective parliamentary candidate for Yeovil possessed a suit, he certainly wasn’t wearing it that day, preferring to appear in a sweater and open necked shirt – though the podium unfortunately prevents us from seeing whether or not he was also wearing sandals.

This was Ashdown in post-military mode, barking out his lines to the troops at high speed and with a serious shortage of pauses. I’ve often used it as an example of how an inexperienced speaker can sometimes be surprised by the power of his own rhetoric. The audience (predictably) applauds after the third item in a three-part list, at which point he breaks off, looking vaguely surprised by what's just happened.

Paddy subsequently changed his position on cruise missiles, for which he was rewarded with the nickname ‘Paddy Backdown’.

This continued to haunt him during the Ashdown v. Beith campaign for the leadership of the new party formed by the Liberal-SDP merger in 1988. According to his opponents, this change of heart was evidence of inconsistency and indecisiveness, therefore making him unsuitable for leadership.

The response from some of his supporters, which you won't be able to find in his autobiography, came in the form of a very neat contrast along the lines of:

"It’s a damn sight easier to knock sense into a charismatic person than it is to knock charisma into a sensible person."


pintosal said...

Paddy does appear surprised at the applause he generated. But in another blog entry you praise experienced speakers who 'surf' the applause. Is this not a case in point?

pintosal said...

And, talking of early videos, I think that in your Granada TV World In Action programme one glimpses a very young Charles Kennedy in the audience for Anne Brennan's speech.