Regarded by many contemporary Liberals as their spiritual leader and mentor, Jo Grimond was a figure of great magnetism and intellectual originality. He was once described as a politician on whom the gods smile, and inspired a rare degree of public affection. Within the Liberal Party, neither of his successors, Jeremy Thorpe nor David Steel enjoyed the same rapport with party members as he did. As former Liberal MP Russell Johnston said: ‘Liberals are not natural leader-worshippers, but we were captivated and proud’.
Grimond’s leadership of the Liberal Party from 1956-67 made a difference not just to the fortunes of his party but to British politics, helping to end the two-party mould into which Britain had seemed to settle. He made the most substantial contribution to Liberal Party politics of any post-war Liberal politician, taking over an ailing party and transforming it into a formidable force. His idealism, his imagination, his ability to communicate, his freshness, made him the personification and the hope of post-war Liberalism; it was quite impossible, from the early 1960s onwards, to think of the Liberal Party without thinking of him.
Joseph Grimond was born on 29 July 1913 in St Andrews, Fife, the son of Joseph Bowman Grimond, a jute manufacturer, and Helen Lydia Grimond (ne Richardson). The family could trace their connection with textiles back to the start of the nineteenth century. His father died in 1928, shortly after the family business was absorbed into Jute Industries – a transaction that left Grimond with a lasting bias in favour of small industrial units.
He was sent to a preparatory school near London and then to Eton. This played an important role in shaping the adolescent Grimond, for there he became both an intellectual leader and a social success. He fell under the influence of Robert Birley, an inspiring history teacher with a strong sense of idealism. Grimond was imbued with enthusiasm and curiosity about politics, reflected in his involvement in the schools Political Society, of which in 1932 he became President.
After Eton, Grimond elected to read Modern Greats (philosophy, politics and economics) at Balliol College, Oxford, where he took a first. He made his first political speech in the general election of 1935, in support of Arthur Irvine, the Liberal candidate for Kincardine & West Aberdeenshire. It was largely due to Irvine that his interest in politics flowered and blossomed. Three years later Grimond’s marriage to Laura, youngest daughter of Lady Violet Bonham Carter and granddaughter of H. H. Asquith helped to underline his potential. Lady Violet was the formidable high priestess of Liberalism. She took a proprietorial interest in the Liberal Party and the political hopes that she had once entertained for herself were transferred to Grimond. Lord Esher, a contemporary and close friend, felt that Grimond took a pretty relaxed view of politics until his marriage: Laura not only brought him into the Asquithian inheritance but also confronted him with her (and her mother’s) stronger feelings and more concentrated ambitions.
After Oxford, Grimond studied for a legal career as a barrister, being a pupil in the same chambers of which Quintin Hogg was a member. He was called to the bar (Middle Temple) in 1937. He joined the 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry three days before the outbreak of war and served in Northern Ireland and Europe, rising to the rank of major.
He first stood for Parliament in 1945; undoubtedly the patronage of the Liberal leader, Sir Archibald Sinclair, helped to secure him the candidacy of Orkney & Shetland. The seat had been Liberal-held until 1935 and was one of the few winnable ones in Scotland. Grimond, however, did not rate his chances of winning highly, and failed to attend the count. Later he was to kick himself when he discovered he was only 329 votes behind the successful Conservative candidate. Nevertheless, a life-long connection with this constituency, the most distant from Westminster, began. Its remoteness and sturdy sense of independence helped to fortify his Liberalism – though these characteristics also made it more difficult for him to understand the realities of life in industrial Britain. It would be impossible to exaggerate the importance of Orkney & Shetland to Grimond. Not only did he relish its inhabitants; he found in their small self-sufficient communities paradigms against which he measured the lunacies of central government and the welfare state.
After the election he was only too happy to be seconded to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) set up by the Allies to help countries devastated by the war and their refugees. Although Grimond was able to do little for them, the experience served to intensify his distrust of bureaucracy and large organisations. He left UNRRA on demobilisation in 1947 and became Secretary of the National Trust for Scotland. He stood again for Orkney & Shetland at the 1950 general election, and captured it with a majority of 2,956. Despite the occasional fluctuation in his vote thereafter, his hold on the seat was never seriously threatened.
Within two days of his election, Grimond became Liberal Chief Whip. His standing was further enhanced in the 1951 election when he doubled his majority even though the Liberal vote in the country collapsed. He realised that the Liberal Party had to change, needing to discard its shibboleths and becoming relevant to modern politics – in other words, it needed modernising. Grimond was able to put this into practice when Clement Davies resigned the leadership in 1956. His resignation was not unwelcome; there was a mood for change amongst many leading activists, who had lost faith in Clement Davies’ increasingly emotional and rambling oratory.
Grimond became leader of a party close to extinction, commanding the support of little more than two per cent of the electorate and securing the return of only three MPs to Westminster without the benefit of local pacts. In only fifteen constituencies at the 1955 general election did Labour and Conservative candidates not finish first and second. The parliamentary party was rumoured to hold its meetings in a telephone kiosk, and Conservative MP Sir Gerald Nabarro dubbed them the shadow of a splinter.
Grimond, however, rejected any thought that the Liberal Party should be satisfied with a role as a brains trust standing on the sidelines of politics shouting advice to Tories and Socialists alike. He gave it a long-term aim, power, and first halted and then reversed the seemingly remorseless process of electoral decline. At his first assembly as Leader, Grimond proclaimed, in the next ten years it is a question of get on or get out. Under his leadership the first Liberal revival since 1929 occurred, giving early indications that the hegemonic two-party system was showing signs of strain.
Grimond could do what no Liberal had done for many years: appeal to the younger generation of voters, who, as the first products of the Butler Education Act and of post-war universities and polytechnics, were not necessarily committed to the apparently class-dominated major parties. This was his first achievement and it was made possible largely by his enthusiasm and charm. He made the party a respectable political organisation to join, and attracted experts who contributed to a real renaissance in Liberal thinking. In his books, The Liberal Future (1959), and The Liberal Challenge (1963), and in numerous pamphlets, he gave political liberalism a new direction and purpose, based on a reassertion of the traditional liberal insistence that ideas and principles were more important than interests.
He set about making the party a pacemaker for such ideas as entry into the Common Market and non-socialist planning. It was due to his leadership that the party supported the abolition of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent. He deserves credit for placing on the political agenda issues such as how Britain should handle her relative decline in the world and how government should be brought closer to the people; he was a long-term supporter of Scottish home rule (by which he meant self-government within the confines of a federal system). Celebrating his tenth anniversary as leader of the Liberal Democrats in 1998, Paddy Ashdown paid tribute: Jo Grimond has always been my guiding star. He established the Liberals as the radicals and thinkers of British politics. The ideas he proposed are now the agenda of government.
Grimond was a long-term opponent of statism, the view that social advance could only be brought about through the action of the state. He joined fellow Liberals who agreed with his views in the Unservile State Group and contributed a chapter on the reform of Parliament to that body’s key publication, The Unservile State (1957). His opposition to state action was partly based on the belief that this enhanced the power of bureaucracies, transforming those who received state services into the passive recipients of handouts, devaluing their humanity by depriving them of the ability to take decisions which affected their everyday lives. His firm belief in the importance of participation and the need for individuals to possess freedom of choice resulted in him viewing communities as the key social unit in which individuals could intellectually develop their full potential by sharing in the pursuit of common goals.
Grimond also gave the Liberal Party a sense of political direction which it had previously lacked. Realignment of the left, the uniting of Britain’s progressive forces around the nucleus provided by the Liberal Party, was a central theme of his leadership. In this he was percipient but premature, anticipating the split in the Labour Party which was not to become open for another twenty-five years. Nonetheless, he sowed the seeds of realignment, the fruits of which were reaped at the 1983 general election. Roy Jenkins generously paid tribute to Grimond, claiming that he was the father of the Alliance.
The byelection capture of Orpington in 1962 seemed to prove his strategy right. Anticipating the outcome of the next election, he made probably his most famous speech to the 1963 assembly: ‘In bygone days, commanders were taught that when in doubt, they should march their troops towards the sound of gunfire. I intend to march my troops towards the sound of gunfire’. The 1964 general election indeed saw the Liberal vote rise above the three million mark for the first time since before the war. The Liberal Party took over eleven per cent of the votes cast and won nine seats; the size of the Liberal support in English county and suburban seats showed that the party had re-established itself as a vital force in British politics.
Paradoxically, however, this election also dashed Grimond’s hopes, for the narrow Labour victory rendered the essential element in his strategy inoperative. Instead of the Labour Party splitting to allow the hoped-for realignment of the left, it was to hold office for eleven of the next fifteen years. Moreover, Grimond received little support and much misunderstanding for his overtures to the Wilson government in 1965.
The 1966 general election spelt the end of Grimond’s hopes of achieving realignment. It gave, as Liberal MP Emlyn Hooson put it, ‘Lib/Labbery the axe once and for all’. Labour’s substantially increased majority meant that that Grimond’s dramatic 1965 assembly speech about the Liberal teeth being in the real meat of power seemed remote. Grimond, believing that he had run out of ideas and exhausted his potential, resigned the leadership in January 1967. A new era dawned, where ideas were subordinated to tactics.
Grimond made a brief come-back as leader in May 1976 for several months after the party was wracked by the Thorpe scandal. In his brief period in charge, he settled the party’s nerves and oversaw a clean and confidence-restoring leadership election that culminated in the election of David Steel as leader. When Steel took the Liberals into a formal pact with Labour in 1977, ironically, Grimond was the only dissentient among Liberal MPs, believing on principle, that Labour was undeserving of support, and that in any case the Liberals would not profit from such an agreement.
After thirty-three years service as MP, Grimond stood down at the 1983 general election. Later that year, in defiance of earlier pronouncements, he was created a life peer as Baron Grimond of Firth in the County of Orkney. He had been made a Privy Councillor in 1961. Throughout his career he was an enthusiastic lecturer abroad and travelled widely. He became a director of the Manchester Guardian and Evening News Ltd. in 1967. He was actively involved in higher education, serving as rector of the Universities of Edinburgh (1960-63) and Aberdeen (1970) and as Chancellor of Kent University (1970-82). He also chaired a committee to look into the constitution and workings of Birmingham University (1971).
Grimond died, aged eighty, on 24 October 1993 in Orkney following a stroke. He left a widow, two sons and a daughter. One son had predeceased him.
He was the author of a number of key works, the most important being The Liberal Future (1959), The Liberal Challenge (1963), The Common Welfare (1978), Personal Manifesto (1983) and The St Andrews of Jo Grimond (1992). He wrote his own autobiography, Memoirs (1979), and collaborated with Brian Neve on The Referendum (1976). He wrote a large number of pamphlets; key works include The New Liberalism (1957) and A Roar For the Lion (1976) (in which he put forward his solution to the then current West Lothian question). A brief assessment of his political career is provided in Peter Joyce, Giving Politics a Good Name (1995). There is also a unpublished PhD thesis, Liberal Revival: Jo Grimond and the Politics of British Liberalism 1956-1967 by Geoffrey Sell (University of London, 1996). The Grimond papers are in the National Library of Scotland.
Peter Joyce was teaching in the Politics and Philosophy Department of Manchester Metropoloitan University at the time of writing this piece. Geoffrey Sell is a college lecturer and member of the Liberal Democrat History Group executive. He completed a PhD thesis entitled: Liberal revival: British Liberalism and Jo Grimond 1956-67 in 1996 (see above)