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Last Updated: Sunday, 15 July 2007, 10:20 GMT 11:20 UK
A liberal view
On Sunday 15 July Andrew Marr interviewed Lord Ashdown, former Lib Dem leader

Please note "The Andrew Marr Show" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Lord Ashdown
Lord Ashdown, former Lib Dem leader

ANDREW MARR: Welcome.

PADDY ASHDOWN: Nice to be with you Andrew.

ANDREW MARR: I hesitate to try and summarise what is a detailed report. But interestingly you all conclude that it is not the right time to as he said cut and run, to pull out quickly.

But that the British forces in the South of Iraq should be doing less and be, as they do less, be pulling out at a, presumably a fairly risk ...

PADDY ASHDOWN: I mean if you wanted a sort of headline for it I suppose you'd say "Creative withdrawal". But look there are three elements to this.

The first is you have to have a political aim and that's what we've lacked so far. There has not been a coherent, achievable political aim beyond the over ambitious aim that we went in with.

ANDREW MARR: Because, because the Iraqi government is not less sectarian...

PADDY ASHDOWN: No.

ANDREW MARR: ... than it was ...

PADDY ASHDOWN: No but I, I think because we committed the cardinal sin of these interventions which is to have ridiculously over ambitious aims, to recreate Washington in Bagdad, to recreate a fully functioning western style democracy in a Middle Eastern country.

So I think our aims were unrealistic. And we didn't go about achieving them very well. Didn't establish, do all the things you need to do straight after or establish security and so on. So we start off ...

ANDREW MARR: Where does that leave us now?

PADDY ASHDOWN: Well we start off by saying you have to have an aim and an aim which is achievable. And we say the most important aim is to maintain the territorial integrity of Iraq, to stop Iraq being dismembered into chaos.

And to give it a political structure based on its present constitution, highly federal structure within which to create a political solution. Having got that aim all other policy is directed to that. In terms of the military, second aspect of the report we should not now be, we should be progressively withdrawing from active manoeuvre patrolling on the street and we should now be concentrating on two things.

The first is training the Iraqi army. Actually that's going rather well. The police less well but the Iraqi army well. And that our withdrawal rate should be determined not by the security situation which allows the militias, the insurgents to determine our withdrawal but by the state of training of the Iraqi forces ...

ANDREW MARR: Can I just stop you ...

PADDY ASHDOWN: And then, and then ...

ANDREW MARR: Right.

PADDY ASHDOWN: ... we can begin to support the Iraqi structures and progressively hand over to the Iraqis.

ANDREW MARR: Can I just focus in particularly on the violence question that you raised there. What you are saying is that we're not going to be able to produce a peaceful non-violent Iraq and then leave. All we can do is hand the problem over?

PADDY ASHDOWN: I think that's one way of putting it. Another and a way that I think that is rather more accurate way of describing it - and I use the words here of Ali Allawi the Defence Minister who gave us evidence and it was very impressive and I think was accepted by most of the Commission.

Whether we like it or not the position we've now got ourselves into, no easy options, is that the coalition forces are unable to suppress the violence there but are suppressing the capacity of the Iraqis to be able to manage their own affairs. So yes we ...

ANDREW MARR: So, so could we ...

PADDY ASHDOWN: ... cannot suppress, we can no longer suppress the violence there. We are in a sense a target for the violence and therefore we need to hand this process over to the Iraqis. Will things get worse for a bit? They may. But they're probably going to anyway.

The outcome of the Commission's evidence was that if we can't suppress the violence we can't prevent it getting worse. So what we need to do now is train up a domestic capacity amongst the Iraqis to be able to cope with the situation themselves within the over all diplomatic and political structure that I've talked about.

ANDREW MARR: And, and you say no to time tables. No

PADDY ASHDOWN: Yeah.

ANDREW MARR: ... no to time lines. But - and I can completely understand why - but nonetheless this is the, this is the sort of plan that would get British troops mostly out within eighteen months or so?

PADDY ASHDOWN: Look I'm, as in no to timetables I mean no to time tables. And I'm not going to deal with time tables. The important thing is here that we have control ..

ANDREW MARR: With the rec...

PADDY ASHDOWN: .. over the exit strategy, not - the British government's present policy is we will withdraw as the security situation allows. We say we need to withdraw as the training capacity, the capability of the domestic security forces, becomes sufficient to be able to deal with the security situation. And that puts it in our control not the insurgents. And that's the key thing.

ANDREW MARR: We have the Foreign Secretary coming in a little bit later. Do you think that he and Gordon Brown have any autonomy vis--vis Washington in this? Or do the Americans in real terms control everything about how we get out?

PADDY ASHDOWN: No I think we have real autonomy. In fact I suspect that one of Mr Blair's mistakes was that he did not use the leverage he had to influence American policy. I mean we have to pursue what are British interests here.

One of British interests is to make sure that we don't damage the Atlantic relationship which is very important to us but that's only one of the factors. So yes we do have a degree of manoeuvrability here, agree, a degree of autonomy. But I think there's a limit to that. And that limit is defined by, A, not damaging the relationship. Making sure that we do continue to fulfil the duties of partnership with the United States which we're into in Iraq. B, our moral responsibility to the Iraqis.

And C I think the desire to leave behind a stable situation. Now the only circumstances in which you can leave behind a stable situation is to preserve the territorial integrity of Iraq. I understand why ...

ANDREW MARR: Which we might not be able to do once we've left of course.

PADDY ASHDOWN: Well we might not be able to. Look there's, there ain't no risk free options. There are no good options left. What we've had to choose is the least worst one. Does this carry risks with it? Yes. But in our calculation it carries less risks than any other policy. You have naturally Andrew - and I understand that because that's what the headlines are - followed the military option.

But the really important thing about our report was that we would have what you might call a Dayton style international agreement into which the neighbours - Iran, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia - would also be co-signatories with the P5 which would bulwark and underpin the territorial integrity of Iran. Why? Because that gives us the best circumstances in which we can withdraw without leaving behind total chaos. And that's an essential part of the ingredients of this report.

ANDREW MARR: Now I could have been speaking to you today and asking you about your new job in the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

PADDY ASHDOWN: I doubt you could have been Andrew but let's pursue the argument.

ANDREW MARR: Well you were offered the job by Gordon Brown. Was there any moment at which you thought well actually this is quite an interesting offer. I am tempted?

PADDY ASHDOWN: No. Look let me dispose of one or two thoughts about this. The first is, was Gordon serious? Yes he was. Was he sincere? Yes he was. Had he thought through what actually partnership politics, which I've been committed to all my life, actually means in practice? I don't think he had.

He may have spent ten years next door scratching at the plaster to get through to number ten and thinking what he would be doing but I don't think he'd worked this out.

ANDREW MARR: Why do you say he hasn't thought it through?

PADDY ASHDOWN: Well because you can't create partnership government by simply building a Liberal Democrat bungalow annexe in the gardens of number ten Downing Street.

ANDREW MARR: So what would he have had to do to convince you that this was, he had thought it through?

PADDY ASHDOWN: What Tony, what Tony Blair and I did which was put together a policy programme which could enable the two parties to work together. You could not - I mean I'm a Liberal Democrat. I'm a Liberal Democrat for good reasons.

I have opposed some of the things this government has done. And I suspect Tony Brown, Gordon Brown is going to do as well which is to continue, which is to mount a sustained attack on our civil liberties. I can't oppose that. And I diminish my party's capacity to oppose that if I am subject to the collect ..

ANDREW MARR: If you're inside the tent?

PADDY ASHDOWN: Exactly. If I'm subject to the collective disciplines of being inside the Cabinet. If this had been, assemble a programme which we can work together on, that's the real new politics which Tony and I did leaving aside only PR. And by the way Gordon opposed ...

ANDREW MARR: Yes he was the blocker at that point.

PADDY ASHDOWN: He was the block. Then that would have been something different. But I'm not prepared to betray my principles and my party's capacity to oppose this government on some things which we fundamentally disagree with them about, above all the attack on civil liberties, by being inside the Cabinet. And it might be good for Paddy but it's not very good for British politics.

ANDREW MARR: So looking, looking at the pattern of, of the polls and British politics at the moment do you think that's it? Do you think the last chance for this much touted progressive realignment and the Lib Dems and the Labour Party, is it all over now?

PADDY ASHDOWN: No I think its time will come again because it's the big piece of unfinished business on the left in British politics and the need to realign the left, the grand rassemblement de gauche as, as Mitterrand might have called it. But I think is the event that is yet to happen. But my guess is ..

ANDREW MARR: And do you look at the polls and you think it could happen next time?

PADDY ASHDOWN: No I'm not saying next time. My guess is that if this happens and happens in the terms that I've described, you know a coalition that brings together and fuses the two ideas, without merging or destroying the Liberal Democrats, I think it only happens when Labour needs us again. So that's somewhere down the track.

I think the moment that was there in ninety seven, that Blair defined as one of the big items that would create the, the prime minister he wanted to be, he lost the opportunity. I don't think that opportunity comes back in those terms until

ANDREW MARR: They need you.

PADDY ASHDOWN: they need us.

ANDREW MARR: All right. Paddy Ashdown thank you very much indeed for joining us.

INTERVIEW ENDS


NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy


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