Birthday of two independent men, Stanley Atkinson & Paddy Ashdown

Stanley Atkinson
Paddy Ashdown
On 27th February every year, I always think of two special men, my father and Paddy Ashdown who shared the same birthday.

Then on 24th June every year, I always think of two special women with the same birthday, my mother and Jane Ashdown.

For her, yesterday, on what should have been his 78th birthday, it must have been  especially difficult to spend the first 27th February for 50+ years without his being there.

Of the many things Paddy and I used to talk about, one that might surprise people was pig-farming.

When his father retired from the Indian army, he went back to Northern Ireland to run a pig-farm. My father was a mixed farmer who took special pride in his pigs which were called the Burbridge pedigree Wessex saddlebacks - one of which won the supreme championship at the Great Yorkshire Show.

Danish Landrace sow
The only trouble with breeding what are now called 'traditional breeds' like Wessex saddlebacks was that, as he used to say, "Housewives are demanding leaner and leaner bacon which means that sooner or later we're going to have to abandon the pure saddleback in favour of crossing them with large whites or, better still get hold of some Danish Landraces, the Dachshunds of the pig world."

The Danes were so aware of their good luck in having a monopoly of ultra-lean bacon pigs that they did all they could to prevent the export of live Landraces.

But I digress, my father's realisation that he was going to have to go in for mass pig-production led him to Northern Ireland, where there were some pioneering pig-farmers. We went on a ferry to Belfast,  where my mother had a friend whose husband was a marine engineer working at Harland and Wolf in Belfast building the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle.

So in 1950, while he was inspecting pig-farms in Northern Ireland, my mother, brother and I stayed in Belfast as tourists, which included visits to Stormont and the shipyards.

It would be nice to think that my father had met Paddy's father on his tour of pig-farms, but the dates mean that we must have been there there before the Ashdown family came home from India.

Stanley Atkinson went to the King's School in Pontefract and would have dearly loved to have been allowed to stay on there a bit beyond than the then official school-leaving age of 14. But Grandpa Atkinson had other ideas, namely to make his own oldest child work on the farm for £0.00 a week. So, for the 16 years until he was 30 (when he married my mother in 1941), he worked six days a week for his keep + no wages. If he needed to go into a local town to buy new clothes (or anything else), he had to ask my grandmother to give him some cash.

By the time he reached his twenties, his frustrated brain had led him to become actively involved in attending local WEA (Worker's Education Association) lectures and, by the time my older brother and I were born, he'd amassed large numbers of non-fiction paperbacks and biographies and was genuinely self-educated.

He was also keen that his own sons would have a better education than he'd had, that they could stay at school as long as they liked and, if they passed the right exams, could go on to a university to study whatever they wanted - which is exactly what my brother and I both did.

At a time when so few youngsters went to university, our good fortune as 'sons of the soil' was itself quite exceptional. Years later, after I'd become a professional sociologist, I did a survey (from memory) of the other 50 sons of farmers I'd known as a child. Apart from my brother and me, the number of others who went to a university was one - who (surprise, surprise) was a younger son, whose older brother left school at 16 to work on and eventually take over the family farm (which is exactly what the other 94% also did).

For much of my childhood, Cllr. Stanley Atkinson represented Burton Salmon on the long since defunct Osgoldcross Rural District Council, of which he eventually became Chairman. Underneath our farmland were seams from a local coal mine, four miles away was a new Ferrybridge power station with chimneys and cooling towers, there was as canal and a navigable waterway (the River Aire), railways, potteries, factories and chemical works. It was, in other words, a rural district council of an area that was both urban/industrial (represented mainly by Labour trades unionists) and rural/agricultural (represented mainly by farmers). 

Although he knew that most voters assumed that all farmers were Tories, he always insisted on standing for the council as an Independent. If you asked him why, his answer was that tribal party politics had little or no relevance for the burning local issues on which members of the council made decisions. "If a Tory member backs a new bus-shelter for his village, Labour members will oppose it. If a Labour member wants street-lighting in theirs, the Conservatives will oppose it. But what really matters is what the local constituents actually want."

He was took special pride in the fact that, while he was the village's representative, they not only got both street-lighting and a new bus shelter, but new council houses as well. Because he really was  Independent Labour and Conservative councillors repeatedly elected him as their chairman. But his only attempt to graduate to the County Council was thwarted by corrupt practices elsewhere in our area where an infamous local architect with offices in Pontefract lived, namely John Poulson.

When I went canvassing for my father - knocking on local doors beyond the village, distributing leaflets (for which, as an Independent, my father had paid for himself) - the standard reply to my offer to tell them more about what a brilliant job he'd done for the Osgold Cross Rural Distract council was along the lines of: "Don't bother, son - I don't want to hear about another Poulson crony like him and never vote Tory anyway!"

The only political connection he ever had with Poulson were in his official capacity as a member of the Osgoldcross Rural District Council which had to deal with a planning permission application from him to build an extremely expensive and ultra-modern house in Darrington which ORDC had granted it (*see below line for reminder about the Poulson Affair - with thanks to Professor Robert Williams, University of Durham

I realise now that I was still in my teens when I first saw that being an enlightened, rational and sensible politician is no guarantee of success.

At a time when some Labour and Tory M.P.s have left their parties to join a new independent group (see previous blogs), I found myself wondering on their birthday how Stanley Atkinson and Paddy Ashdown would have reacted to these defections.

I'm fairly certain my Stanley Atkinson, as a long-committed Independent would have thoroughly approved of recent events, whereas Paddy Ashdown would have rather they'd joined the LibDems.

My own view, for what it's worth, is that the new Independents and the LibDems should definitely get together about getting tgdghd, who are far from what they used to be during the Ashdown leadership. But it is still a fairly efficient party with a lot of members in every part of the UK willing and able to canvas for a party that isn't Labour or Conservative.

And, without a Poulson scandal lurking in the background, it's unlikely they'd get the kind of unhelpful response that greeted me on the doorsteps when canvassing for an excellent candidate in the early 1960s.

*The Poulson affair revealed a web of corrupt transactions which took place in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s and embraced dozens of councillors in numerous local authorities across the country as well as several MPs. The ensuing scandal exposed aspects of the conduct of public life which shocked and surprised many British citizens. This conduct had largely escaped the attention of both the police and the mainstream media. The Poulson Affair, if it did nothing else, helped to make claims of British assertions of superiority regarding corruption seem rather hollow.

The main figures in this drama were John Poulson, an unqualified architect from Pontefract, Yorkshire, and a key associate of his, T. Dan Smith, the leader of Newcastle City Council , and although many others were involved, these two were the ones who attracted the most public and media notoriety. 

What Anna Soubry said about Theresa May on Newsnight

I used to be a BBC TV Newsnightoholic, but hardly ever watch it these days - except when there's something interesting happening in the news - like the defection of some rather sensible MPs from both the Labour and Conservative parties.

One of three MPs to quit the Conservative Party says she's "really worried" the prime minister has a "problem with immigration".

Anna Soubry, who now sits with the Independent Group, told Newsnight's Kirsty Wark: "The only reason why she will not agree to [continued membership of] the single market is because of free movement of people."

Gang of 4 grows in in interesting way

7 becomes 11 - including 3 Tories

Overnight we heard that another Labour MP, Joan Ryan had had enough of Corbyn's leadership of  her party and his feeble response to anti-Semitism - and that she's has the group of 7 independents who quit the party on Monday.

Heidi Allen,  Sarah Wollaston Anna Soubry
As a side-show, we also had to watch Derek Hatton, former 'Militant' (i.e. Labour PartyTrotskyist infiltrator who was expelled from Kinnock's party 30 years ago) being welcomed back into today's new model Labour party.

Today's Tory Gang of Three

The decision of three extremely articulate and effective women MPs to leave the Conservative Party is rather more interesting than the departures from Labour - because the SDP gang of four's escape from the Labour Party's left-wing extremism was not accompanied by any Tory defections.

And though the gender balance of the new Independent grouping is looking quite impressive, viewed through the eyes of an OAP, it could do with someone closer to a certain age. So who better than Soubry's neighbouring Nottinghamshire MP, than the ultra pro-European Ken Clarke???

But I suppose the big question now is whether any of the younger anti-Corbyn MPs will risk their own chances of succeeding him by resigning from the party? Andy Burnham had presumably already given up on the Corbyn-McDonnell Labour party when he resigned as Shadow Home Secretary in 2016 with intent to go back home to the North as Mayor of Greater Manchester.

As I've said before, a leadership contest between David Lammy and Yvette Cooper could restore a confidence in an erstwhile credible party. Under the current regime, however, the chances of that ever happening are - er - NIL!!!

Gangs of 4 and 7: history repeating itself???

Gang of Four, 1981

Bill Rodgers, David Owen,
Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams
The original 'gang of four', Jiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Kenyan and Wang Hongwenan were prominent in orchestrating Chairman Mao's cultural revolution, 1966-76. So when four leading figures in the Labour Party set up the SDP in 1981, it was hardly surprising that the media dubbed them the 'gang of four'.

The reason they did so was that the January 1981 Wembley conference had committed the Labour Party to unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the European Economic Community.

They also believed that Labour had become too left-wing and had been infiltrated at constituency party level by Trotskyist factions whose views and behaviour they considered to be at odds with the Parliamentary Labour Party and Labour voters.

If Militant and the far left made Labour unelectable for 17 years, Momentum looks like doing much the same to today's Corbyn-McDonnell left-wing Labour Party.

Paddy Ashdown: the man who never slept in

The Atkinson-Kenny-Levick families have been close friends with the Ashdown family for many years and have been devastated by yesterday's sad news. Knowing that he was seriously ill was bad enough, but when someone as tough and resilient as Paddy is defeated by cancer it's depressing to the point of being almost unbelievable.

The only consolations for him, but of no comfort to Jane, Kate and Simon and their families, are that he avoided being a hospital patient for too long and he avoided ever having to make the impossible (for him) decision to stop working so hard at so many different things.

On a ski-holidays we always had to get up to the sound of his early-morning trumpet-call to be ready to catch the first lifts as soon as they opened at 9 a.m. sharp. One  night, one of our children asked him if he always got up so early and didn't he ever sleep in and if not, why not? 

When pressed by the young, and to everyone's amazement, he said that he could only remember ever sleeping that late once!

Eventually I hope to write more about him. But, for now, let me just  share this piece from the Independent by Sean O’Grady, his former secretary - paying tribute to the politician who revived the Lib Dems and had a ‘rip roaring career’

Life after Paddy Ashdown: Liberalism needs a new torchbearer

Paddy Ashdown says he joined the Lib Dems because "people should be empowered citizens, not subjects of a patronising state"

 Ashdown's career makes you wonder if you're doing enough with your life.
Born in New Delhi during the British Raj, he was at various points an MP, party leader, peer, marine, youth worker, EU High Representative in Bosnia and even a spy.
He was instrumental in remaking British politics into, at the least, a two-and-a-half party system.

Those involved with the short lived Social Democratic Party (SDP) had dreamed of "breaking the mould of British politics" but won only a slender number of parliamentary seats.
Lord Ashdown's death is being mourned by politicians from all corners of the political stage
Lord Ashdown's death is being mourned by politicians from across the board
Lord Ashdown celebrates wit his wife Jane after becoming Lib Dem leader in July 1988
Lord Ashdown celebrating with his wife Jane after becoming Lib Dem leader in July 1988
It was Lord Ashdown's force of personality and dynamism, bringing the old Liberals and SDP together into the Liberal Democrats, which made that remoulding a reality - winning a slew of new MPs at the 1997 general election.

Affable, real, always with a story up his sleeve, he connected with the British electorate. At a time where the public were to rail against "machine politicians", he stood out.
Although a Liberal to his fingertips, it's no surprise that his death is being mourned by politicians from all corners of the political stage. His was an un-tribal politics, pluralist and open.

He worked closely with Tony Blair in the late 1990s; had the 1997 general election produced a hung parliament or small Labour majority, there's little doubt he would have entered the cabinet.
Paddy Ashdown shakes hands at a 1992 campaign rally
'Patriot, statesman and visionary' at 1992 rally
Later, Gordon Brown offered him the post of Northern Ireland Secretary in his administration. Conversely, in 2010 he would become one of the fiercest defenders of Sir Nick Clegg's decision to enter into coalition with the Conservatives.

Lord Ashdown's ballast and stature within the Liberal Democrats gave Sir Nick the shield he needed to take such a momentous decision and sustain it in office.

Lord Ashdown defended Sir Nick Clegg's decision to enter into coalition with the Conservatives
Lord Ashdown defended Nick Clegg's decision to enter into coalition with the Tories
But despite all his achievements, the vim and the verve, it's hard not to conclude that the sort of politics Lord Ashdown embodied and fought for is waning. His brand of pluralism seems ill at ease in our own age of anger and hyper-tribalism.

The Liberal Democrats, which he worked so hard to build, are now a rump, unable to shake the shackles of the coalition years. Liberalism itself, both in Britain and the West, is on the retreat, rocked by the advance of populism and mainstream parties morphing into more extreme echoes of themselves.
Chair of the General Election Campaign and former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Paddy Ashdown, speaks at the party's spring conference in Brighton, southern England March 9, 2013
Gordon Brown offered Lord Ashdown the post of Northern Ireland Secretary
And of course, Britain's place in Europe, at the centre of his politics, as an avowed pro-European, has rarely looked more uncertain. He ended his life publicly mourning what he saw as Britain's retreat from her internationalist role, her place in the post-war order in which he so fervently believed.

None of that can be blamed on Lord Ashdown. Few can say they held the torch of liberalism aloft with greater force than he.Liberalism though, clearly needs a new torchbearer, one with at least some of Lord Ashdown's qualities. At present, few seem available.