News

Lord Tony Greaves (27 July 1942 – 23 March 2021)

by Michael Meadowcroft

Tony Greaves never seemed to age. He had a firm belief that politics was capable of transforming society, and his consistent advocacy of local campaigning, community politics and the necessity for both to be anchored in a radical Liberalism had hardly changed from his Young Liberal days. His election to the Lancashire County Council, in 1973, disqualified him legally from his job teaching geography and from then on to his sudden death almost fifty years later he became one of that committed band of Liberals who put the cause before comfort and struggled to find a succession of jobs that would enable him to keep politics as his first priority.

His life before politics captured him was that of a scholarship boy separated from his background by intelligence and an ability to pass exams. Born in Bradford into a family with no direct political involvement, he passed the extremely competitive examination for the direct-grant Bradford Grammar School, but an employment move by his police driving-instructor father took him instead to Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Wakefield. His successes at ‘O’, ‘A’ and ‘S’ levels enabled him to go to Hertford College, Oxford, and to gain a BA in geography. He followed this with a Diploma in Economic Development at Manchester University. By this time, he had discovered a passion for politics and particularly for political debate. By personality – and influenced by the non-statist radicalism of the then party leader, Jo Grimond – Greaves naturally gravitated to the Liberal cause. He never varied from this commitment except that he soon realised that it was necessary to link theory to activism and to local campaigning. His student Liberal and Young Liberal years were taken up by the burgeoning debates on radical issues of the day, and he was a founding force in the ‘Red Guards’ revival of the Young Liberals in the later 1960s. They became a force at the annual party assembly; in Brighton in 1966, they voted for the party’s commitment to NATO to be referred back and came within one vote of committing the party to putting the nationalised industries under worker control. At a quarterly party council meeting the following year, they were instrumental in committing the party to supporting political asylum in the UK for US citizens leaving their country to avoid being drafted to serve in the Vietnam War and to committing the party itself to aiding such asylum seekers. At this time, 1965–68, he was also agent for Geoff Tordoff in the Knutsford constituency. The Young Liberals were also prominent in the ‘Stop the Seventy Tour’ campaign of direct action to prevent the apartheid South African cricket team touring England in 1970.

In 1968 he married Heather Baxter, a schoolteacher and herself a committed Liberal who became a long-term councillor on the Barrowford Urban District Council and the Pendle Borough Council. Never previously a domesticated ‘new man’, with the birth of their daughters, Victoria (1978) and Helen (1982), Greaves moved from being baffled by others’ attachment to children to being a doting and committed father, including looking after daughter Victoria when Heather returned to teaching. Later, he became an even more smitten grandfather with the birth of Robin in January 2019. Typical of Tony was to start a second-hand bookshop in 1993, specialising in Liberal history, from his home and then, after five years, just to let it drift, though he still carried on some book-selling until the week before he died. It was also typical that he remained a lifelong supporter of Bradford Park Avenue Football Club despite it playing way down in the sixth tier of English football. He returned to regular attendances at Park Avenue in 2008, even becoming a season ticket holder shortly afterwards.

Despite being an exceptionally transparent individual, he was regularly misunderstood and misinterpreted by political opponents within and without the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats. He was a dogged adherent to principle rather than a malevolent opponent on any personal grounds. Attempts to pull rank on him, as Jeremy Thorpe attempted to do in 1970 as party leader over the Young Liberals’ public policy on Palestinian rights, were always going to be met by intransigence, whereas he was always amenable to discussing ways and means of finding acceptable solutions. 

In 1981 with a by-election in Croydon North West imminent, the then Liberal leader, David Steel, tried to bounce the party into replacing the adopted Liberal candidate, Bill Pitt, with the SDP president, Shirley Williams. The party took the lack of any consultation badly and responded by backing Pitt, who subsequently won the by-election. Thirty years later this still rankled with David Steel, who drew attention to it in his chapter in a book of essays in honour of Shirley Williams.1 At the time of its publication I consulted Tony Greaves as to whether he agreed that, had David Steel come to party officers and put the case for Shirley Williams standing, we could have delivered the party. He replied, ‘Of course.’ 

Tony also acted as conciliator at the Liberal Assembly in Southport in 1978. The long-term leader, Jeremy Thorpe, was the subject of hugely embarrassing press stories about his alleged homosexual relationship with Norman Scott and the alleged plot to murder Scott – of which he was subsequently acquitted in court. The party eventually succeeded in persuading Thorpe to resign and obtained an undertaking, which he subsequently broke, that he would not attend the party assembly. At the assembly, Dr James Walsh, Liberal candidate for Hove, tabled a motion censoring the party officers for their treatment of the party leader. The three key party officers at the time, Gruffydd Evans, party president,2 Geoff Tordoff, party chair,3 and myself as chair of the Assembly Committee, decided to take the motion head on and to tell the delegates what party officers had not been able to divulge of Thorpe’s behaviour in recent years. If the motion were carried all three of us would resign. Tony Greaves and a Radical Bulletin colleague, John Smithson, unaware that the trio wanted to force a vote, headed it off by successfully canvassing delegates to have the motion withdrawn.

Tony Greaves wrote a great deal but invariably it was either practical campaigning guides or short pithy commentaries on current political issues or on Liberal Democrat failings. Typically, his six entries in the British Library catalogue are all campaign guides for local elections.4 He was temperamentally more suited to being a skilful editor and an amenable and constructive joint author than the long haul of being a sole drafter of more formidable philosophical pieces. His long series of Liberal News short sharp commentaries would make a study in themselves. His views remained consistent throughout his long political career but he tended to become bored with a task that took too long. Opponents often believed that he was tough and thick-skinned, but this was a style he affected, usually when exasperated with them, and was a misjudgement of his real self, which was warm and sympathetic. I recall that Tony wrote to Jeremy Thorpe criticising his leader’s speech at the 1970 party assembly, just a couple of months after the death of Caroline, Jeremy’s wife, in a road accident. Tony showed me Jeremy’s reply which had upset him: he thanked Tony for his comments and then wrote, ‘there were times this year when I wondered whether there would be any speech.’ 

His first significant foray into publishing was his editorship of the Young Liberals’ Blackpool Essays produced for the party assembly of 1967.5 Tony’s introduction contains a typically forthright statement: ‘The Executives of NLYL6 and ULS7 meeting together informally … seemed to agree that the party lacked a political direction. It was, we arrogantly felt, our job to give it that direction.’ The rest of his introduction is much more self-effacing than he would become. He would not in later years have presented a publication with the comment, ‘Here, then, are the essays. Lambs to the slaughter.’

His next strategic initiative was more significant. Following the disastrous general election in June 1970, at which well over half the Liberal candidates lost their deposits and only six MPs were elected, Tony Greaves worked with Gordon Lishman to present the party assembly in Eastbourne, three months later, with a wholly new party strategy. In what became known as the ‘community politics amendment’, Greaves argued for a ‘dual approach’, working within and without parliament, empowering communities to take initiatives themselves, particularly on local issues, rather than waiting for their elected representatives to take action. It was a strategy that put the Young Liberals’ radical thinking into a political framework and also built on the early signs of Liberal success at local elections.

Accompanying the strategy was a programme of delivering local leaflets urging action and reporting on action taken. Despite the fact that the strategy was not to replace a parliamentary focus but to add to it, it was strenuously opposed by establishment figures in the party. Despite this opposition, the amendment was carried by 348 votes to 236.8 The strategy was taken up enthusiastically by younger and by urban Liberals and led to the burgeoning of the party’s local government base. Ironically, the dramatic increase in the party’s national vote, and its revival at the February 1974 general election, came more from a succession of five parliamentary by-election gains. 

Greaves fought his local Nelson & Colne constituency at the two elections in 1974. His three years on the district council, and being elected for the larger county division the year before, produced a respectable vote share of 23 per cent in the February general election but this slumped to 12.4 per cent and a lost deposit in October (the vote needed to retain a candidate’s deposit was then 12.5 per cent). Fast forwarding to his only other local parliamentary contest, in 1997 in the redrawn Pendle constituency, and following sixteen years of highly successful Liberal and Liberal Democrat local government successes and considerable personal popularity, he still only polled 11.6 per cent. It was another salutary lesson – in common with most other cities, and even more marked in the three most recent general elections – that community politics on its own did not produce a sufficiently entrenched core Liberal vote to bring wider success. 

After his enthusiasm for Jo Grimond’s leadership and in particular Grimond’s openness to ideas, he was disappointed with his very different successor, Jeremy Thorpe, who believed that it was necessary to be an autocratic leader and, therefore, to try to end the Young Liberals’ radical influence, which he found personally embarrassing. Greaves has stated that ‘Thorpe was a hopeless leader with no philosophical depth of any kind. … He thought he was an organisation man but his efforts there flopped too.’9

In 1976, after Jeremy Thorpe had been persuaded to resign the party leadership, Greaves – perversely, many thought, given his commitment to campaigning and activism – backed David Steel rather than John Pardoe, stating that ‘At first he thought Steel was a “man of the future”, Grimond-style Liberal.’10 But fairly soon he came to change his judgement, not least through Steel’s Lib-Lab Pact initiative in 1977. Greaves believed that, in keeping with Steel’s own perceptions of politics, it was ‘too Westminster’ and ‘was not translated into an effective ground-strategy’.11 He also commented, ‘There was nothing in it for the party. I am not against coalitions. For example, I am a great fan of the current, very successful coalition in Scotland, but in the Lib–Lab Pact we gave everything and got nothing.’12 Greaves’ opposition to Steel’s leadership grew steadily over its course, as Steel increasingly demonstrated his disdain for the party organisation and his predilection for running the party by diktat rather than by cooperation;13 and it eventually led to his call for Steel’s resignation when he bounced the party into immediate moves to merge with the SDP following the 1987 general election.14

Greaves was a consistent advocate for community-based campaigning throughout his political life. He wrote a somewhat romanticised chapter on how he saw it being applied in Pendle.15 Sometimes he was too forgiving of the later distortion of the principle into the incessant delivery of the ubiquitous Focus leaflet, which all too often boasted of the Liberal and Liberal Democrat councillors’ successes rather than providing communities with the ammunition to achieve their own successes. Allied to his visceral commitment to local campaigning was his complete absence of pomposity. Even after his appointment to the House of Lords on Charles Kennedy’s nomination in May 2000, he was just as happy to be at a Pendle Borough Council meeting as he was annoying the lordships on the red benches. He remained as loyal and supportive as ever of his long-term Liberal colleagues, but the one change over the years was that his exasperation threshold grew lower with those he felt were wasting his time. 

After four years surviving on council allowances and short-term agents’ jobs, he took on a key role as the newly created, and Rowntree Reform Trust funded, organising secretary for the Association of Liberal Councillors (ALC) from 1977 to 1985. A particular attraction of the job was that he could avoid being based at party headquarters in London, setting up a new office in the Birchcliffe Centre, a converted Baptist chapel in Hebden Bridge. Such was his success that, by the time he moved on in 1985, the staff had expanded from Greaves on his own to seven, and the number of Liberal councillors on principal authorities had grown from 750 to 2,500. It was his political skills, organisational drive and ability to produce effective practical guides that underpinned the successes. Following his eight years running ALC, Greaves remained at the Birchcliffe Centre to manage Hebden Royd Publications, which ran the national party’s publishing and marketing operation until the new post-merger party relocated it back to London. After this, Greaves survived by a series of agent and political organiser jobs, plus his bookseller role referred to above. 

Greaves’ time with ALC and with party publications spanned the whole fraught period of the Alliance with the SDP and the subsequent merger. His views at the time of the launch of the SDP, as set out in a highly analytical article,16 were a mixture of principle and pragmatism. He deplored the need for the creation of the SDP which he ascribed to the failure of Liberals adequately to define and promote radical Liberal values, particularly as he identified the policy positions of the SDP as to the right of the Liberal Party. He was not entirely negative on the potential for an alliance but went on to oppose an electoral pact that involved giving away swathes of Liberal-fought seats. At the 1983 general election it was noted that:

in a move which, after the election, was to lead to David Steel to call for his resignation, Tony Greaves of the Association of Liberal Councillors had already circulated to Liberal candidates a line-by-line briefing on the differences between the manifesto and Liberal policy designed to demonstrate how the SDP had watered it down.17

This ‘sabotage’, according to Steel,18 was tacitly acknowledged by the authors of the definitive history of the SDP: ‘leading ALC people – people like Tony Greaves and Michael Meadowcroft – saw themselves as being as distant from social democracy as from conservatism.’19 Greaves related later that the Alliance was initially stimulating and brought many more council seats but soon proved to be debilitating.20 In particular he stated, ‘it resulted in the intellectual energies on the Liberal side being devoted to promoting Liberal policy to the SDP and defending it (often against what we thought was a more right-wing or more centralising view from our SDP oppos.)’ He went on: 

Worse was to follow. The existential crisis that really did follow the merger, combined with a widespread view that the new party should not be plagued by the ‘old’ Liberal versus SDP arguments which had wasted too much energy for too long, meant that discussing policy in the new party was like treading on eggshells. The previously agreed, the non-controversial, and the blandest non-value-laden stuff was the order of the day.21

Immediately following the 1987 general election Greaves, jointly with Gordon Lishman, produced a comprehensive paper on the brief history of the SDP and the Alliance, the nature of liberalism and social democracy, coupled with an appeal to all those in the Liberal Party who were inevitably going to be drawn into the maelstrom of a debate on the existence of their party and the future of liberalism.22 Their appeal was not heeded and the party voted massively for what Greaves clearly saw as the chimera of an easy route to electoral success. 

When, following the disappointing set-back at the 1987 general election, David Steel pushed the parties into an early merger, Greaves was one of eight Liberals elected to the Liberal negotiating team in addition to the ex-officio members. Together with Rachael Pitchford, the chair of the Young Liberals, he produced a blow-by-blow account of the five months he and I spent closeted together with a number of like-minded colleagues in the vain endeavour to produce a merger document that would keep the Liberal Party together.23 I have written a short note on Tony’s role in the negotiations;24 suffice to say that Tony was one of the four members who resigned from the negotiating team, unable to accept the final report.25 He spoke against the pro-merger motion at the special Liberal Assembly in Blackpool in January 1988 but, despite his warnings, it was carried on a wave of emotion. His final judgement on the merger was ‘Merger has failed to achieve something better. The new party is universally labelled a “centre party” in a way the Liberal Party never was.’26 His lasting contribution to the new party is the preamble to its constitution, produced – as a third version – by him and Shirley Williams under great time constraints towards the end of the negotiation process and which has survived largely intact.27

Greaves’ personal position in the Liberal Democrats was succinctly summed up in his contribution to a 1996 book of testimonies:28

Fundamentally I am not a ‘Liberal Democrat’ for fundamentally I don’t know what it means!

Only very rarely is a new political ideology invented. Liberal democracy is a set of ideas underlying kinds of government, but it is not an ideology, and nothing has happened in the past eight years to turn it into one. 

But simply in order to survive, the Liberal Democrats need an ideology. Liberalism needs a party. And as a liberal who wishes to take an active and serious part in politics, I too need a party. There is only one choice on offer.

He went on to set out why socialism has now had its chance, why he opposes ‘all the malignant forces of corporatism and the greedy and intolerant right which are growing in strength throughout the world’, and sets out his definition of liberalism. He concludes:

So I do my best to encourage the Liberal Democrats to become truly liberal, and liberals to truly embrace the Party. And I produce Focus leaflets and try to help create a liberal local community. What else can I do?

What has happened to the Liberal Democrats since, particularly in its ongoing problem of establishing a clear, defined philosophic identity, able to withstand the chill winds of illiberalism, can in many respects be a vindication of his predictions. One strand that united many of those who opposed the merger, including Greaves, was an understanding that the Labour Party was not a radical reforming party but an autocratic and hegemonic party. Given his leading and often controversial role in national Liberal politics at this time and henceforth, it is surprising that he never appeared on the BBC’s Question Time and only once, on 3 March 1988, on its Any Questions? programme. 

Greaves was an admirer of Paddy Ashdown’s principled and consistent espousal of two unpopular causes: the right of all citizens of Hong Kong to acquire British citizenship if the Chinese Communist Party’s increasing dominance became intolerable; and the need for the UK government to intervene to protect the citizens of Bosnia from the military atrocities and war crimes of the Serbs. Ashdown’s continual questioning of the John Major government on Bosnia led a number of Conservative MPs to refer to him as the Member for Sarajevo. However, in a Journal of Liberal History review,29 Greaves was ‘stunned’ by the revelations on domestic policy in the first volume of Ashdown’s diaries.30 Greaves expresses amazement that Ashdown could conceivably believe that he would be able to carry the party with him if he had succeeded in forging some sort of secret political alliance, or even coalition, with Tony Blair’s Labour Party. He wrote in his review of Ashdown’s attempts to persuade Blair of the need for a Lib-Lab arrangement, ‘The result was that Liberal Democrats loved their leader but, insofar as they sensed his strategy, most wanted none of it.’

In 2000 Charles Kennedy, the then Liberal Democrat leader, had the imaginative idea of nominating Greaves as a life peer. He took to his role in the Lords as if it were an enlarged Pendle Borough Council with broader opportunities to achieve worthwhile policies. He had no qualms as to its undemocratic basis, comparing it to the manifest fact that the Commons was also undemocratic in that it did not represent the results of general elections, plus, of course, arguing for a democratic House of Lords elected by the Single Transferable Vote. In her contribution to Liberator magazine’s tribute to Greaves, fellow peer Liz Barker wrote: ‘We saw Tony arrive, harrumph loudly about the flummery of the place, and then settle down to use the Lords to campaign on the subjects about which he was knowledgeable and passionate.’31 In the same obituary, she wrote that: ‘People expected Tony to be sexist. He wasn’t.’ She may have had in mind an uncharacteristic and insensitive comment by Greaves in defence of fellow Liberal Democrat peer, Chris Rennard, who had been accused by a number of party women of harassment: 

Lib Dem peer Tony Greaves … made an astonishing attempt to defend Lord Rennard by describing the complaints as ‘mild sexual advances’ and saying ‘half of the House of Lords’ had probably behaved in a similar way. Lord Greaves wrote on an internal party message board: ‘We don’t know the details of anything that may have happened. But it is hardly an offence for one adult person to make fairly mild sexual advances to another. What matters is whether they are rebuffed.’32

It is interesting to note how often commentators who were not close friends or colleagues of Greaves got him wrong. They tended to see the one side of him – as described by a fellow Liberal Democrat peer, ‘uncompromising, argumentative, curmudgeonly, stubborn’33 – without seeing the other side of him: ‘He was our heart and sinew. I can’t begin to tell you how much we will all miss him.’34 The Daily Telegraph obituarist wrote that he ‘was a thorn in the side of party leaders from David Steel to Nick Clegg.’35 It also goes on to state that ‘Paddy Ashdown described one policy session in 1998 with Greaves at full throttle as “probably the worst meeting I have ever attended”.’ In fact the relevant Ashdown diary entry only mentions Greaves in passing and clearly it was David Howarth, the later MP for Cambridge and not a natural firebrand, who was the main protagonist.36 Crewe and King in their history of the SDP describe Greaves as ‘the heaviest cross … the modern Liberal leader has had to bear. … In the SDP team’s eyes, Greaves was the Liberals’ Tony Benn – just as fanatical, just as wild, just as committed to “participatory democracy” of a fundamentally undemocratic kind’.37 If this assessment is correct, it is curious that the SDP team turned to Greaves to work with Shirley Williams on the preamble to the constitution for the newly merged party that was accepted by both delegations. 

These one-dimensional views of Greaves are the result of lazy journalism or minimal research. It was necessary to know Greaves socially or to have worked with him on campaigns or other political initiatives over some time to know and appreciate him fully. Similarly, he had infinite time for constituents in Pendle who had a genuine problem that required his attention. Underneath the often-forbidding carapace was a warm and sensitive individual. He was the personal epitome of the application to politics of Newton’s Third Law of Thermodynamics, that ‘for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,’ and to approach him with a positive and constructive request or suggestion would elicit an equivalent response, but to attack or criticise negatively would be summarily dismissed. Certainly, he could be exasperating from time to time with all his friends and colleagues, but we knew and appreciated his loyalty and solidarity and that he never harboured any animosity towards those he regarded as ‘sound’. What exasperated his colleagues more than anything was the reality of his lack of commitment to a longer-term literary or philosophical project that required significant research and composition. Certainly, the concept of having to revise and rewrite anything was alien to him. The consequences of this trait of ‘moving on’ to another issue was that, although he had considerable influence on Liberal politics over more than fifty years, it could have been so much more.

He took his politics very seriously and, when he did take a break from it, he needed a very different environment. He found the means of escape and of recharging his batteries by taking to the solitude of open spaces. For many years, even after he was ill in 2011, he always spent some weeks climbing, including family holidays in Barèges in the French Pyrenees, and latterly he would holiday with his family on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. He was still hiking and cycling in late 2020. Allied to the geography, he was a long-time fan of the Scottish folk-rock band Runrig. Increasingly he became a rather unlikely family man. He was a patron of the Friends of the Lake District. He took great delight in helping to get the Countryside and Rights of Way Act into law and to be involved in supporting the Marine and Coastal Access Bill. He regarded his work on these latter issues as a way of repaying ‘a little of the huge amount I have got from the mountains and moorlands of this country over so many years as a climber, hill walker, geographer and botanist.’38

1. David Steel, ‘The Liberal View’, in Andrew Duff (ed.), Making the Difference: Essays in honour of Shirley Williams(Biteback, 2010).

2. Created Lord Evans of Claughton, March 1978. 

3. Created Lord Tordoff of Knutsford, May 1981.

4. See: https://tinyurl.com/rv2j4nru (consulted 18 April 2021)

5. Tony Greaves (ed.), Blackpool Essays: Towards a radical view of society (Gunfire Publications, 1967).

6. National League of Young Liberals.

7. University Liberal Students.

8. For a discussion of community politics, see chapter by Stuart Mole in Vernon Bogdanor (ed.) Liberal Politics (OUP, 1983), and Tudor Jones, The Uneven Path of British Liberalism (MUP, 2019).

9. Interview with Adrian Slade, 2004, published in Mark Pack blog, 4 June 2012, https://www.markpack.org.uk/32002/tony-greaves-from-angry-young-man-to-simmering-old-guru/

10. David Torrance, David Steel: Rising Hope to Elder Statesman (Biteback, 2012).

11. Jonathan Kirkup, The Lib-Lab Pact: A Parliamentary Agreement, 1977–78 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

12. Adrian Slade interview.

13. See: https://www.beemeadowcroft.uk/liberal/liberalismandpower1.html; and David Steel, Against Goliath: David Steel’s Story (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989).

14. Lancashire Evening Telegraph, 16 Jun. 1987.

15. Tony Greaves, ‘Principles of Self-Government in Pendle’, in Peter Hain (ed.), Community Politics (J Calder, 1976).

16. Tony Greaves, ‘The Alliance: Threat and Opportunity’, New Outlook, Sep. 1981.

17. David Walter, The Strange Rebirth of Liberal England (Politico’s, 2003).

18. The Independent, ‘Tony Greaves, archetypal activist, “Hairy man of grassroots Liberalism”’, 12 Sep. 1987.

19. Ivor Crewe and Anthony King, SDP: The Birth, Life and Death of the Social Democratic Party (OUP, 1995). See also, Michael Meadowcroft, Social Democracy: Barrier or Bridge? (Liberator Publications, 1981).

20. Tony Greaves, ‘A Lifetime in Liberalism: Where do we go now?’, 4th Viv Bingham Lecture, Journal of Liberal History 103, Summer 2019.

21. Ibid.

22 Tony Greaves and Gordon Lishman, Democrats or Drones? A party which belongs to its members, Hebden Royd Paper 5 (Hebden Royd Publications, Sep. 1987); see also Michael Meadowcroft, ‘Merger or Renewal? A Report to the Joint Liberal Assembly’, 23/24 Jan. 1988, Leeds.

23. Rachael Pitchford and Tony Greaves, Merger: The inside story (Liberal Renewal, 1989).

24. Michael Meadowcroft, ‘Tony and the Merger’, Liberator 406, April 2021. 

25. The others were Peter Knowlson, former head of policy for the Liberal Party, Michael Meadowcroft, former Liberal MP, Leeds West, and Rachael Pitchford, chair of National League of Young Liberals. All four were directly elected members.

26. Adrian Slade interview, Mark Pack blog.

27. Pitchford and Greaves, Merger, appendices 1–4; at a meeting in Leeds on 28 Nov. 2016 Tony Greaves revealed that Shirley Williams had said to him a few days earlier that it had ‘taken her forty years to realise that she was a Liberal’.

28. Duncan Brack (ed.), Why I am a Liberal Democrat (Liberal Democrat Publications, 1996).

29. Tony Greaves, ‘Audacious – but fundamentally flawed’, Journal of Liberal History 30, Spring 2001.

30. Paddy Ashdown, The Ashdown Diaries: Volume 1, 1988–1997 (Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 2000).

31. Liz Barker, ‘Tony in the Lords’, Liberator 406, Apr. 2021.

32. Daily Mail, 25 Feb. 2013.

33. Lady Angela Harris, Yorkshire and The Humber Region, Newsletter, 27 Mar. 2021.

34. Ibid.

35. Daily Telegraph, 24 Mar. 2021.

36. Paddy Ashdown, The Ashdown Diaries. Volume 2, 1997–1999 (Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 2001), entry for 17 Nov. 1998.

37 Crewe and King, SDP.

38. Quoted in https://www.ramblers.org.uk/news/latest-news/2021/march/lord-greaves.aspx

Remembering Shirley Williams

We were saddened to hear of the death of Shirley Williams on 12 April 2021. Shirley played a key role in the foundation of the SDP and of the Liberal Democrats, led the Liberal Democrats in the Lords from 2001 to 2004, and remained active in the Lords and the party until her retirement in 2016. Unusually amongst politicians, she was held in great affection by almost everyone she met.

She was a good friend to us in the Liberal Democrat History Group: she was a speaker at no less than four of our meetings. The last piece we carried about here was an interview on the SDP and Europe in issue 98 (spring 2018). We will publish a full appreciation of her life and career in the Journal of Liberal History in due course; in the mean time, we reproduce here her entry from our booklet Mothers of Liberty: Women who built British Liberalism, published in 2017.

Shirley Williams (1930–2021)

Shirley Williams has played a major political role for over sixty years, a remarkable achievement and almost unique for a woman. In her adolescence, her parents were among the senior echelons of the Labour Party and before she was twenty, she became Chairman of the Oxford University Labour Club. 

In the post-war years, Oxford student political clubs were large and lively. Her contemporaries included JeremyThorpe, William Rees-Mogg (later to become editor of The Times) and Robin Day (who became an outstanding television interviewer). At Oxford she also met Dick Taverneand Bill Rodgers, who were to share much of her political life. Women were denied membership of the Oxford Union, the seed-bed for rising young politicians, but despite this obstacle she was already competing with the brightest and the best. 

An actress as well as a politician – playing Cordelia in a production of ‘King Lear’ at home and in the United States – she was admired as an ‘Idol’ in the leading Oxford student magazine. Her friends saw her as having an unusual combination of ambition, intellectual ability, physical energy, friendliness and passion. Their only doubt was whether her qualities would shine as vividly in the tough, unsentimental world outside. 

Shirley Vivien Teresa Brittain Catlin was born on 27 July 1930. Her parents were George Catlin, a political scientist, and Vera Brittain, a feminist and pacifist who had written Testament of Youth, a highly successful inter-war autobiography (it was made into a film in 2014, in which Shirley assisted). They lived in a comfortable home at Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, and she was sent to the fee-paying school, St Paul’s. By her own account, Williams was devoted to her father, who was a major influence, while she found her mother conscientious but rather remote. It was her father’s commitment that led her to become and remain a practising Roman Catholic. In 2003, she set out her personal reflections on politics and religion in her book God and Caesar

After leaving Oxford, she spent most of a year in the United States and two years, not particularly happy, as a journalist on the Daily Mirror. But in 1954 she fought a Parliamentary by-election at Harwich and although it was an unwinnable Tory seat, she gained experience, was recognised as an able young woman and began to climb the greasy political pole. 

During the course of her career, she fought twelve Parliamentary elections – from 1955 as Shirley Williams, following her first marriage – losing six and winning six. She served as a minister for more than half of her seventeen years in the Commons. Until she was elected for Hitchin in 1964 (Hertford & Stevenage from February 1974), she was General Secretary of the Fabian Society, and by 1970 she had become a member of the Labour Party National Executive Committee. As a junior minister, she served in three different departments, and as a cabinet minister in two. She retained a close interest in education and home affairs and contributed on these matters in the Lords many years later. 

But her greatest and most consistent political involvement has been in Europe. Following the agony of two world wars and the tragic waste of lives, she wanted to help build a new relationship between Britain, Germany and France, and she spelt out the rational case for change in an early Fabian pamphlet. In 1971 she was one of sixty-nine Labour MPs who voted, against a three-line whip, for Britain to join the European Economic Community. She spoke freqently on European issues from the referendum in 1975 to the referendum in 2016.

She was of the post-war generation who were attached to the Atlantic Alliance as well as Europe. As a child, she spent three seminal years (1940–43) in Minnesota, taught at the Kennedy School in Harvard for eight years and maintains a close personal and political relationship with the United States. She also witnessed the brutal break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and, since her childhood, she has had a special attachment to India. 

The peak of her political career and her most demanding years was marked by her decision, in 1981, to leave the Labour Party and to launch, with Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Bill Rodgers – the ‘Gang of Four’ – the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The decline of the Labour Party in the 1970s, eroded by the hard left and the shortcomings of the trade unions, led to the 1979 general election when the Labour vote fell to 36.9 per cent, its lowest ebb since 1931. At Hertford & Stevenage, her constituency, she was one of some fifty Labour MPs who lost their seats. There was little evidence that the party would acknowledge the crisis and seek to recover. 

The SDP made an immediate dramatic impact on the political scene and in November 1981, she agreed to fight a by-election at Crosby, despite a previous Tory lead of 19,272. When she won a majority of 5,289 the success carried over into the opinion polls; Gallup recorded that 51 per cent of the electorate would vote for the SDP and the Liberals in a general election. Earlier in the year, she had participated in the first discussions with the Liberal Party that led to the formal establishment of the Alliance, and in July published, with the Liberal leader David Steel, the first joint document, A Fresh Start for Britain

However, the 1983 election proved a disappointment. The SDP/Liberal Alliance won 25.4 per cent of the vote (only just below Labour’s 27.6 per cent) and the new 23-strong group of Alliance MPs was the biggest third-party grouping since the 1930s. But the SDP won only six seats and one of those MPs who lost was Shirley Williams. 

No longer in the House of Commons, she worked hard as President of the SDP but found herself increasingly at odds with the style and substance of David Owen’s leadership. She fought Cambridge at the 1987 election, unsuccessfully, and committed herself to the merger between the SDP and the Liberals. She was strong in the difficult and unpleasant circumstances when David Owen declined to accept the result when a clear majority of SDP members voted ‘yes’ to merger. So it was a relief for her when she handed over her Presidential responsibilities to the new party. 

From 1988 to 1996 she taught at Harvard, but kept in touch with political life at Westminster and became, in 1993, Baroness Williams of Crosby. By the late 1990s, she had returned to her busy Parliamentary work and in 2001 was elected leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Lords, serving until 2004. But in 2016, in her eighty-seventh year, she decided enough was enough and took formal retirement from the Lords. Shortly afterwards she was shocked and dismayed by the outcome of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.

Shirley Williams remains formidable in television programmes like BBC’s ‘Question Time’ and brilliant on the public platform. She never really enjoyed the House of Commons and seems uncomfortable in the collegiate atmosphere of the House of Lords. But she is persuasive in debate and peers greatly respect her across all parties and none.

Shirley Williams was a social democrat during her years in the Labour Party and is a social democrat now within the eclectic Liberal Democrats. She regarded the 2010–15 coalition government as the best available option but was uneasy about many of its policies. The qualities that were recognised by her student contemporaries have been wholly fulfilled. In addition, she has shown great resilience over the bumpy ground of politics and her personal life. 

In her autobiography, Climbing the Bookshelves (2009), she describes the painful divorce from her first husband, Bernard Williams, the Oxford philosopher, her long period of being unattached and then the happy sixteen years with her second husband, Dick Neustadt, Professor of Government at Harvard, until his death in 2003. She has one daughter, Rebecca, from her first marriage. Amongst her other books are Politics is for People (1981), A Job to Live (1985) and Snakes and Ladders (1996). 

Bill Rodgers

Tony Greaves: Why I am A Liberal Democrat

Tony Greaves (Lord Greaves) died on 23 March 2021. He was a Liberal legend. The Liberal Party, and the Liberal Democrats, owe an enormous amount to his commitment and drive, in local campaigning, in the House of Lords, and in the development of the party’s policy and ideology. We will publish a full appreciation of his life and career on this website, and in the Journal of Liberal History, as soon as we can, but in the mean time we reprint here his contribution to Why I Am A Liberal Democrat, a set of short essays collected and edited by Duncan Brack and published in 1996.

Why I am (possibly) a Liberal Democrat

Fundamentally I am not a ‘Liberal Democrat’ for fundamentally I don’t know what it means!

Only very rarely is a new political ideology invented. Liberal democracy is a set of ideas underlying kinds of government, but it is not an ideology and nothing has happened in the past eight years to turn it into one.

But simply in order to survive, the Liberal Democrats need an ideology. Liberalism needs a party. And as a liberal who wishes to take an active and serious part in politics, I too need a party. There is really only one choice on offer.

At the end of the last century a myriad forms of socialism were blossoming as ‘new’ ideologies. A hundred years on they are all wilting. People in the future may see socialism as the great heresy of the 20th century. So perhaps liberalism now has its chance?

But why such an unfashionable thing as ideology?

Politics is about the relationship of people to each other within the totality of humankind, and about their relationship with their environment. It is about people. That is inevitable since we are people and none of us can view anything at all except as people. We may wish we were gods or frogs or cybermen but we are not.

Ideologies are simply different views of the way people should relate to each other within society; different sets of principles on which to base political action.

This is so even for proponents of the latest ideology – an extreme ‘green’ view of the world. They are simply redefining the position and role of people in relation to the whole ecological system and therefore to each other.

Some ideologies are essentially authoritarian, some egalitarian; some based on religious beliefs, others on rationalism. Some are centred upon the primacy of leaders, national or other groups, class or gender or position.

Liberalism is fundamentally libertarian, tolerant and generous. It starts with people as individuals, with equal fundamental rights and the equal right to regard by others, not with categories or groups, whether inherited, imposed or chosen. It emphasises the equal inherent value and importance of each one and seeks ways in which they can enjoy the freedom to develop their talents and their lives to the full.

In order to fulfil their potential, people have to live in society and relate to each other. Relationships between people should therefore be based on openness, consent and voluntary involvement; not on decisions made by elites in secret and imposed by authority, whether arbitrary or according to rules laid down from on high, or even imposed by a majority if they deny basic individual rights.

It means tolerance in personal relationships; economic and political systems based on democracy; and freedom in all spheres, personal, social and economic, to the maximum extent that it does not impose unreasonably upon others.

Perhaps we can dream that, with the end of socialism, liberalism may flourish in the 21st century as the genuine libertarian left, in active opposition to all the malignant forces of corporatism and the greedy and intolerant right which are growing in strength throughout the world?

So I do my best to encourage the Liberal Democrats to become truly liberal, and liberals to truly embrace the Party. And I produce Focus leaflets and try to help create a liberal local community. What else can I do?

Tony Greaves is a councillor on Lancashire County Council and Pendle Borough Council, and a dealer in out-of-print political bookers and pamphlets.

Liberal Democrat History Group AGM 2021

The Annual General Meeting of the Liberal Democrat History Group will take place at 6.30pm on Monday 1 February. All subscribers to the Journal of Liberal History are welcome to participate.

The meeting will take via Zoom, and you will need to register in advance: click here to register. This is the same link we’re using to register for our speaker meeting, which will take place after the AGM, starting at 7.00pm. If you register for either one of these meetings, you are automatically registered for both; there’s no need to register twice.

The agenda and other papers for the AGM were included with the winter issue of the Journal of Liberal History, and are also available to download here.

Old heroes for a new leader

Liberal Democrat leadership candidates choose their historical heroes

As we have in each of the Liberal Democrat leadership elections other than the first one (which took place in 1988, before the History Group had been formed), in July the Liberal Democrat History Group asked the two candidates for the Liberal Democrat leadership to write a short article on their favourite historical figure or figures – those that they felt had influenced their own political beliefs most, and why they had proved important and relevant. We placed no restrictions on their choices: they could choose anyone they wanted, whether a Liberal or not. 

The article will be reprinted in the summer 2020 issue of the Journal of Liberal History (out in early August). The candidates also presented their heroes to our interview panel, and answered questions about Liberal Democrat leadership, in the first-ever Liberal history hustings.

Ed Davey – Paddy Ashdown

Liberals are not meant to have heroes, but I can’t help it. I don’t genuflect before grand or celebrity figures, but re-reading speeches or learning of the noble deeds of Liberals can move me the way opera or acts of military valour can have others dabbing a misty eye. 

I love Gladstone for his insistence that: ‘the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan among the winter snows is as inviolable in the eye of Almighty God as can be your own’. Or Asquith for, in the midst of unimaginable wartime stress, ignoring press opprobrium to visit German prisoners of war to demand their good treatment. That instinctive determination to defend the vulnerable is what, I believe, makes us Liberals. 

Hard choice though this is, my Liberal hero is more recent: Paddy Ashdown, for whom I still grieve. 

As a new member of staff in 1989, what surprised me was how wonderfully Paddy treated youngsters like me. He had a reputation for being brisk – even brusque – but I discovered that was a front. 

I perched, as the party’s chief economics adviser, in what felt like a tiny garret atop the old Whips’ Office. Here I would receive hand-written notes thanking me for a piece of work, and I’ve kept them all. Whether eating, chatting or indeed drinking with junior staff at conference, Paddy was like the dedicated officer with his troops. He inspired loyalty and hard work in equal measure. 

Paddy’s stories only added to his mystique and magnetism. A young colleague was startled to find a note on his desk from Paddy one morning: ‘Call me on my car phone at 5.57am.’ It wasn’t so much the earliness as the preciseness of the hour that startled. Another note, upon Paddy assuming the party’s leadership, read simply: ‘Please remove David Steel’s dead animal from my office.’ It was a buffalo skin presented by Chief Buthelezi. 

Sure, Paddy could be a task master, but even then I found him immense fun. Many a Monday morning my phone would bark into life: ‘Edward, come to my office now, please.’ From Paddy’s mouth ‘please’ became a command. Once before him I’d find he’d read some article over the weekend extolling a new economic policy that he wanted to adopt. And I’d spend a good thirty minutes dissuading him of some crazy, ill-thought-through fancy. 

My biggest disagreement with him came after I’d been elected in 1997, when he was determined to cling on to his pre-election plan with Tony Blair for close working relations with Labour – despite that strategy having been devised for a balanced parliament, not for a Labour majority of 167. Brilliant as he was, he couldn’t persuade parliamentary colleagues or the wider party that Lib-Labbery worked in this context, for it would have hitched us to policies we disagreed with without influence to change them. 

Ironically, during the five days of coalition negotiations in 2010, it was Paddy and me who tried to convince Nick Clegg and co not to rule out coalition with Labour, despite the numbers being difficult to make work. 

It was Paddy who first drew me to the party. All politicians have their causes, and for me it was the environment and education. Paddy made the green agenda a core strand of our identity when most MPs thought this a peripheral, even cranky, cause. I was hooked, and would like to think that my recently announced plan to decarbonise capitalism is one Paddy would have embraced with vim and verve. 

I’m an economist by training and so I appreciated deeply that Paddy was, fundamentally, so economically literate. He took over a party that had been a little corporatist in its thinking but Paddy reconnected the party to its liberal roots, asking what a policy meant for the individual. He emphasised Mill’s idea of the power of education to unlock human potential. Without Paddy I’m not sure we would have had such ground-breaking Lib Dem achievements in government as the pupil premium, a development of his policy of a penny on income tax to improve education. 

Finally, though a Liberal to his core, he sought to bring others into the Liberal tent. I took inspiration from Paddy when I called for a national government to deliver a people’s vote. How he made the Liberal Democrats a big enough tent for MPs of other parties to join us should be our inspiration. 

If elected leader, I will build on his legacy. Paddy, I miss you terribly. 

Layla Moran – Shirley Williams and Richard Feynman

Being asked to pick just one of the huge number of people I have found inspirational is almost impossible. From Charles Kennedy to Marie Curie and, more recently, Greta Thunberg, there is a plethora of activists through the ages that have inspired movements, challenged the status quo and effected change and progress. 

That said, I’ve whittled it down to two people who have most affected me and my work and personal life.

Shirley Williams is an outstanding role model. Once described as potentially the first female Prime Minister, she would have been a much better one than the women we actually had! A Labour MP for fifteen years and a minister for most of that, she was one of the Gang of Four who founded the Social Democratic Party in 1981 – a year before I was born. She was the first person elected to Parliament under the SDP label, in the Crosby by-election later that year. 

She served as President of the SDP throughout its lifetime, and in 1987 was one of the foremost campaigners for merger with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats. Later, she led the party in the House of Lords.

Throughout her career she stood for social justice and liberal values. She persevered in an environment dominated by men. In an interview in 1975, she mentioned that: ‘the great day will come where no one in television ever asks you about women in politics, and then we will really have got equality’. Although we still have some way to go, at least the 2019 election saw the highest number of woman MPs elected – and our own parliamentary party, for the first time ever, has a majority of women.

She was an internationalist to her core. Her greatest and most consistent political involvement was over Europe. In 1971 she was one of the sixty-nine Labour MPs who voted, against a three-line whip, for Britain to join the European Economic Community, and Labour’s hostility to Europe – which we saw again under Corbyn – was one of the main reasons for the SDP break-away.

But it is her style as much as her beliefs that led me to nominate her as my hero. She is one of the very small number of politicians who ordinary voters addressed by her first name. She combined intellect with passion and personal warmth, and showed that all three can change minds. Of all the members of the Gang of Four, she was the one that Labour moderates who stayed behind most missed, and the one who most attracted recruits to her new party.

My second inspirational hero is Richard Feynman, an American physicist whose lectures were one of the reasons I decided to study physics at university. He worked on quantum mechanics and particle physics; he pioneered the field of quantum computing and introduced the concept of nanotechnology. In 1965, along with two others, he won the Nobel Prize in Physics. 

He wasn’t overtly political, though he held liberal views, and very progressive ones at that. But he is not without controversy. He was often seen as a bit of a maverick in his approach and his humour could be cutting and sometimes offensive. He said some controversial things about women that I’d have enjoyed debating with him – though he also conceded that women do suffer discrimination and prejudice in physics, so I think I’d have won that debate. He also worked on the Manhattan Project – the development of the atomic bomb – during World War Two.

But his real inspiration to me was the way in which he viewed the world. He famously said: ‘I am smart enough to know I am dumb’. His appetite for knowledge was driven by an insatiable curiosity. He was known for his creativity and humour, and his ability to explain complex problems in a way which anyone could understand.

I’ve taken learnings from Feynman’s approach with me into my political career. In an age when everyone strives for absolute certainty, I try to challenge my own assumptions by seeking opposing views – which helps with both creativity and grounded decision-making. I’m not afraid to try new approaches and embrace change. And the art of taking a complex problem, explaining it and genuinely engaging people in solving it, is as valuable to politics as it is to science.

Both of these inspiring people have shaped who I am today and my values. The boldness of Shirley Williams in standing up for what she believed, winning people over through both keen intellect and emotional intelligence, and the creative thinking and charisma of Richard Feynman: these qualities are missing from the party right now, but they are desperately needed for us to cut through the noise and win back voters. I believe that’s what I can offer.

Lloyd George and Spanish Flu: In Sickness and in Health

By James Moore

The most treasured possessions inherited from my grandfather are undoubtedly two blue volumes that have been with me for most of my life, The War Memoirs of David Lloyd George. Lloyd George was my grandfather’s political hero and so he became mine too. As a teenager I read the Memoirs avidly and they were probably the reason that I became a historian. They were, of course, very much a personal view and not necessarily to be relied upon as an accurate account of all events. But they were the words of Lloyd George.

One of the remarkable things about the Memoirs is that, while dealing with grave matters and costly military campaigns, they are largely silent on Lloyd George’s own brush with death. The recent illness of Boris Johnson has inevitably drawn comparisons with Lloyd George’s contraction of ‘Spanish flu’ in September 1918. Lloyd George was the same age as our current Prime Minister and, like Johnson, had taken over the premiership at a time of a national crisis. Lloyd George’s illness was particularly poignant. Just as the Liberal premier was on the verge of a great victory at the end of a brutal war, his own life was in serious danger. At the time, few knew how seriously matters had become.

Even today, the details are somewhat vague and some recent media articles have relied on quite a lot of conjecture. What we do know is that when Lloyd George went to Manchester on 11th September 1918 to receive the Freedom of the City, it soon became clear he was very ill. Rather than stay in a Manchester hospital, he was cared for by doctors in a committee room at Manchester Town Hall. Equipment was brought in from outside and he was placed on a respiratory aid. Although these aids were crude by today’s standards, doctors of the period had considerable experience of dealing with respiratory illnesses, as these were extremely common during these times. Lloyd George was confined to his committee room bed for over a week. His wife and close colleagues feared for his life.

The newspapers were given only a few details; reports indicated that the Prime Minister had a ‘chill’. Although the war was coming to an end, the long-term incapacity or death of Lloyd George could have changed the political dynamics of armistice negotiations. Germans read The Times too.

Britain was fortunate in having contingency plans. In 1916 Lloyd George had established a small war cabinet to take more effective control of the war effort. In September 1918 it included the political heavyweights Lord Curzon, Andrew Bonar Law, Austen Chamberlain and Jan Smuts. 

Later anecdotes suggest that Lloyd George was not a good patient. He was apparently frustrated and irritable and desperate to return. In the end, determined to get back to Downing Street, he travelled back to London by train, with medical teams in attendance at his side. Some reports suggest he was still on a respiratory aid. His return was short-lived, however, and he was soon forced to take his doctor’s advice and spend more time to recuperate in the country. In due course he came back to head the momentous armistice negotiations and lead the ‘Lloyd George coalition’ into the general election that split the Liberal Party.

Had Lloyd George died tragically in September 1918, his national reputation would have been secure and unquestionable. He would have been the man who had introduced national insurance and old age pensions and who had ‘won the war’. However, subsequent events somewhat clouded his reputation, at least amongst rival Liberals. His decision to fight the rushed 1918 general election in coalition with the Conservatives split the Liberal Party for a generation and hastened is decline. The twentieth century became, to borrow the words of historian Stuart Ball, a ‘Conservative century’.

Inevitably, a somewhat dark thought emerges. Had Lloyd George succumbed to Spanish flu in 1918, it is not too fanciful to believe that a new leader – possibly even Churchill – could have reunited the Liberal Party. Perhaps the party would have resisted the rise of Labour – a party that still only polled 20 per cent of the vote in 1918. My grandfather may have spent his life supporting a party of government, rather than living through a series of Liberal false dawns from 1929 to 1983.

But for all his flaws, Lloyd George was still our hero. Few men had a greater impact on twentieth century Britain and fewer still could articulate Liberal values as trenchantly and passionately as the great man. The War Memoirs are still treated with reverence. My grandfather was fortunate to live in an age of heroes, in the age of Asquith, the last Liberal leader to win a general election, in the age of Lloyd George.

Dr James Moore is a Lecturer in Modern Social History at the University of Leicester. His books include The Transformation of Urban Liberalism (2006). He was formerly a Liberal Democrat councillor and parliamentary candidate.

How Liberal Democrats secured legislation for equal marriage

To mark LGBT+ History month – February – we remember one of the Liberal Democrat achievements in the coalition government of 2010-15: equal marriage.

We reprint here our review (by Baroness Liz Barker) of Liberal Democrat minister Lynne Featherstone’s book, Equal Ever After: The Fight for Same Sex Marriage – and How I Made it Happen, from Journal of Liberal History 93 (winter 2016-17).

The full issue, which also contained articles on Richard Livsey and the politics of Brecon and Radnor; a commemoration of the 1866 petition for women’s suffrage; the Distributists and the Liberal Party; the legacy of Roy Jenkins; and press, politics and culture in Victorian Britain, is available for download here.

Lynne Featherstone, Equal Ever After: The Fight for Same Sex Marriage – and How I Made it Happen (Biteback Publishing, 2016) 

Review by Baroness Liz Barker 

Books written by former ministers shortly after they leave office are often dissatisfying. The proximity of recent events and internal party score-settling often render them short on detail, or downright tedious. This is an exception, on both counts. 

The subtitle tells you that this is Lynne’s documentation of her personal crusade to get this Liberal Democrat policy through the coalition government in the Commons. It is not a detailed explanation of the campaign for LGBT equality, led for decades by Liberals and Liberal Democrats, which moved social and electoral opinion to the point where Tories would agree to do the right thing. It is not even a full account of the Liberal Democrat campaign for same-sex marriage. That remains a PhD thesis in the making. This is a snapshot of one Liberal Democrat minister’s time in government, produced with alacrity in order to stop blatant attempts by the Tories to steal the glory. 

The first question to be addressed is the most obvious: why did Lynne choose to make this her crusade? The answer is intriguing. Early in the coalition the Institute for Government put on an event for new ministers. At this event Michael Heseltine advised them to find an issue on which they wanted to make a difference, and to do so before the red boxes ground them down. Like any Liberal Democrat she has loads of LGBT friends whom she wanted to support, but she also realised that she was a Liberal Democrat minister with responsibility for equalities and there might not be many of those. So she seized the opportunity to do something big. 

Lynne was helped considerably by Pink News acting as catalyst by questioning party leaders during the 2010 election about their commitment to same-sex marriage. Nick Clegg responded positively without hesitation. The Liberal Democrats were first to adopt this commitment as policy. We did so in our open, democratic fashion and that is to our great credit. Stonewall, a charity founded to campaign for LGB equality, actively opposed same-sex marriage until the Labour Party reluctantly changed its stance. Try as they do to hide it, that fact stands.

Same-sex marriage was not in the coalition agreement yet, remarkably, Lynne secured government support and time. Why? The answer lies not in this book but in the Liberal Democrat review of the 2015 election. From 2010 we had no money to do polls. The Tories did and must have known that supporting same-sex marriage would not only continue to detoxify their brand but help them win their target seats – ours. When the full and objective history of the coalition government is written it will show in detail how strategists like Cameron and Osborne used us as human shields to position the Tories as social liberals. In stark contrast even Lynne Featherstone, whose loyalty to Nick Clegg is evident throughout the book, cannot hide how ineffectual and unstrategic the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister was. Tuition fees, the AV referendum, boundary reviews … The list of profound misjudgements which did serious damage to the party is depressingly long. But to learn from this book that on our strongest ground – social justice – the deputy prime minister was skewered by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, no Machiavelli even by CofE standards, is shocking. 

The most interesting aspect of the book is the one which details the tortuous negotiations with faith organisations. Evangelical Christians, some members of the Anglican Church and some Sikhs condemned the legalisation of same-sex marriage as an assault on religious freedom. There were wild suggestions that churches would be taken to court if they refused to carry out same-sex marriages. The former Archbishop of Canterbury made some particularly distasteful remarks about Christians being persecuted by proponents of same-sex marriage. The government was so anxious not to antagonise faith communities that the default setting on the bill was to concede as much as possible to them. 

Previous legislation, also introduced by Lynne, had permitted civil partnerships to take place in religious premises when the religious organisation had freely decided that it wished to do so. It was assumed that this would suffice and that no religion would want to conduct same-sex marriages; and the Tories had agreed to same-sex marriage on the basis that it would go nowhere near the churches. However, liberal Jews, Unitarians and Quakers, argued strongly that marriage is different from civil partnership and that for them inclusion of same-sex marriage would be an acceptable profession of their faith. When the government’s legal advisers made it clear that the consultation on same-sex marriage must include such a permissive provision, the Tories nearly pulled the plug on the whole thing. 

They didn’t because Lynne managed to convince Theresa May that religious organisations are largely exempt from obligations under the Equality Act. They could not be compelled to conduct same-sex marriages against their belief. Moreover the legislation which permitted civil partnerships in religious premises was not the thin end of a wedge, and no religious organisation had been forced into holding ceremonies of which it disapproved. 

Lynne pays tribute to people within religious organisations who supported same-sex marriage as far as they could. It was evident that once this legislation was passed, religious organisations would be free to discuss this as a matter of theology at their own pace. That is starting to happen and it is a vindication of Lynne’s approach, but one thing which the book does not capture is the extent to which LGBT members of faith groups feel abandoned. 

Lynne devotes a chapter to excerpts from her postbag. She omits the most disgusting stuff so as not to dignify it, but, as an out parliamentarian who is on the receiving end of this I can confirm that it is all true. Today, witnessing the outpouring of xenophobia after the Brexit vote, one wonders whether hatred of LGBT people in the UK has diminished or whether it was simply in abeyance for the duration of the coalition until now. 

This book is on one level a campaign manual. A classic text which sets out how issues emerge, campaigns arise and government responds. In one chapter Lynne sets out the main lines of attack and the rebuttals she deployed. That is immensely valuable to the party which urgently needs to recapture the messaging skills which helped us build support prior to the coalition. If the failure of the Liberal Democrat 2015 general election campaign and the success of the Brexit campaign has taught us anything it is that clear, accurately targeted messaging is critical. 

The book is short and inevitably there are some omissions. There is little about the bill’s passage through the Lords. The bill could have been hijacked in the Lords, as the civil partnership legislation was in 2003. The fact that it made it safely through, despite opposition from the bishops and many leading Tories, was due to hard work by a small group of peers across the House who patiently talked to colleagues who had concerns and doubts. Some could not see the need for marriage because of the existence of civil partnerships, others worried that this form of marriage was not equivalent to heterosexual marriage. Success was due to the painstaking process of explaining that, whatever its flaws, this legislation would above all else enable LGBT people and their families to live with dignity and be celebrated as equals within their communities. 

The style of the book is crisp, witty and direct. It was produced quickly for an important reason, to ensure that Liberal Democrats get due credit for our work. Since the day the Act was passed, Stonewall and Cameron have tried to airbrush us out of the picture. However this legislation is as closely linked to Lynne as the 1967 Abortion Act is to David Steel. Liberal Democrats have a rightful place at the forefront of social change. It is a place which we keep by standing up for the legal rights of minority groups and never letting up on human rights. To do so, at a time when liberalism is under constant attack, will be hard. Others may waver, but Liberal Democrats must not. When we need inspiration we can turn to this book, and I hope that other former Liberal Democrat former ministers will add to the canon.

Liz Barker became a Liberal Democrat life peer in 1999. In 2015 she was appointed as the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for the voluntary sector and social enterprise. 

New Year 2020 sale!

PEACE, REFORM AND LIBERATION: NEW PRICE CUT FOR 2020! £15 off original price (£25)

Written by academics and experts, drawing on the most recent research, Peace, Reform and Liberation is the most comprehensive and most up-to-date guide to the story of those who called themselves Liberals, what inspired them and what they achieved over the last 300 years and more. An essential source for anyone interested in the contribution of Liberals and Liberalism to British politics.

‘This new volume, taking a long view from the later seventeenth century to the Cameron-Clegg coalition of today, is a collective enterprise by many hands … This is an excellent book.’ Kenneth O. Morgan, Cercles

‘I had not expected to enjoy this book as much as I did, or to learn as much from it.’ William Wallace, Lib Dem Voice

‘The editors and their fourteen authors deserve congratulation for producing a readable one-volume history of Liberal politics in Britain that is both erudite but perfectly accessible to any reader interested in the subject.’ Mark Smulian, Liberator

Full price £10; 20% discount for Journal of Liberal History subscribers, see page 3 of the most recent issue of the Journal for the discount code to apply when ordering this item.

To order, see here.

Old Heroes for a New Leader: Lib Dem leadership candidates’ historical heroes


As we have in each of the Liberal Democrat leadership elections other than the first one (which took place in 1988, before the History Group had been formed), in June the Liberal Democrat History Group asked the two candidates for the Liberal Democrat leadership to write a short article on their favourite historical figure or figures – those that they felt had influenced their own political beliefs most, and why they had proved important and relevant. We placed no restrictions on their choices: they could choose anyone they wanted, whether a Liberal or not. 

The article below will be included in the summer issue of the Journal of Liberal History, due out in mid July. See elsewhere on this website for the full range of the History Group’s activities, including our meetings (the next one is coming up on 16 July), our short introduction to Liberal history and our wider range of publications.

Ed Davey – Paddy Ashdown

Liberals are not meant to have heroes, but I can’t help it. I don’t genuflect before grand or celebrity figures, but re-reading speeches or learning of the noble deeds of Liberals can move me the way opera or acts of military valour can have others dabbing a misty eye. 

I love Gladstone for his insistence that: ’the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan among the winter snows is as inviolable in the eye of Almighty God as can be your own’. Or Asquith for, in the midst of unimaginable wartime stress, ignoring press opprobrium to visit German prisoners of war to demand their good treatment. That instinctive determination to defend the vulnerable is what, I believe, makes us Liberals.

Hard choice though this is, my Liberal hero is more recent: Paddy Ashdown, for whom I still grieve. 

As a new member of staff in 1989, what surprised me was how wonderfully Paddy treated youngsters like me. He had a reputation for being brisk – even brusque – but I discovered that was a front. 

I perched, as the party’s chief economics adviser, in what felt like a tiny garret atop the old Whips’ Office. Here I would receive handwritten notes thanking me for a piece of work, and I’ve kept them all. Whether eating, chatting or indeed drinking with junior staff at conference, Paddy was like the dedicated officer with his troops. He inspired loyalty and hard work in equal measure.

Paddy’s stories only added to his mystique and magnetism. A young colleague was startled to find a note on his desk from Paddy one morning: ‘Call me on my car phone at 5.57am.’ It wasn’t so much the earliness as the preciseness of the hour that startled. Another note, upon Paddy assuming the party’s leadership, read simply: ‘Please remove David Steel’s dead animal from my office.’ It was a buffalo skin presented by Chief Buthelezi. 

Sure, Paddy could be a task master, but even then I found him immense fun. Many a Monday morning my phone would bark into life: ‘Edward, come to my office now, please.’ From Paddy’s mouth ‘please’ became a command. Once before him I’d find he’d read some article over the weekend extolling a new economic policy that he wanted to adopt. And I’d spend a good thirty minutes dissuading him of some crazy, ill-thought-through fancy. 

My biggest disagreement with him came after I’d been elected in 1997, when he was determined to cling on to his pre-election plan with Tony Blair for close working relations with Labour – despite that strategy having been devised for a balanced Parliament, not for a Labour majority of 167. Brilliant as he was, he couldn’t persuade Parliamentary colleagues or the wider party that Lib-Labbery worked in this context, for it would have hitched us to policies we disagreed with without influence to change them.

Ironically, during the five days of coalition negotiations in 2010, it was Paddy and me who tried to convince Nick Clegg and co not to rule out coalition with Labour, despite the numbers being difficult to make work. 

It had been Paddy who first drew me to the party. All politicians have their causes, and for me it was the environment and education. Paddy made the green agenda a core strand of our identity when most MPs thought this a peripheral, even cranky, cause. I was hooked, and would like to think that my recently announced plan to decarbonise capitalism is one Paddy would have embraced with vim and verve. 

I’m an economist by training and so appreciated deeply that Paddy was, fundamentally, so economically literate. He took over a party that had been a little corporatist in its thinking but Paddy reconnected the party to its liberal roots, asking what a policy meant for the individual. He emphasised Mill’s idea of the power of education to unlock human potential. Without Paddy I’m not sure we would have had such ground-breaking Lib Dem achievements in government as the pupil premium, a development of his policy of a penny on income tax to improve education.

Finally, though a Liberal to his core, he sought to bring others into the Liberal tent. I took inspiration from Paddy when I called for a national government to deliver a people’s vote. How he made the Liberal Democrats a big enough tent for MPs of other parties to join us should be our inspiration. 

If elected leader, I will build on his legacy; Paddy, I miss you terribly.

Jo Swinson – Anita Roddick

It was through Anita Roddick that I first discovered what it was to be a campaigner. 

The Body Shop in the 1980s was ahead of its time: sourcing their ingredients ethically; promoting recycling; taking on its own industry on issues like body image in advertising. As a girl, I would go to the Body Shop to buy my strawberry or banana-shaped soap and sign the petitions at the till. That was how I discovered a whole range of causes: fair trade, cosmetic testing on animals, or another worthy cause. 

It fuelled my early environmentalism – something that has stayed with me ever since. I even tried to persuade my Dad – a Focus-delivering Lib Dem – to vote Green at the European elections in 1989. He didn’t, as he rightly argued that the Lib Dems were better placed to deliver green policies. One of the best gifts he ever gave me was a signed copy of Anita Roddick’s book, Business as Unusual, which I keep in my parliamentary office to this day. By that time I was 16 or 17, and the book reinforced in me a passion for how business can be a force for good. 

Unfortunately, I never got to meet Anita Roddick before she died in 2007. I have been lucky enough to meet people who knew her and worked with her, and the picture they painted to me was of a remarkable woman. She was a different kind of businessperson running a different kind of business. At a time when modern business was being defined by the Big Bang and the ‘greed is good’ culture of the Thatcher years, she defined an approach that declared that there was more to running a company than simply generating profits for shareholders. Her company was profitable, but it was also about social justice, about making the world a better place one recycled plastic bottle or hemp bag at a time.

In many ways, her approach had more in common with the socially conscious capitalists of the Victorian era – social reformers like Robert Owen and the pioneers of the Co-op movement, or the Quaker-run businesses, like Cadbury, who built homes for their workers. They may have taken a more paternalistic approach but they shared an understanding of capitalism as an agent for social justice.

And it wasn’t just her business philosophy that stood out like a sore thumb in the 1980s, it was who she was and how she conducted herself. She said what she thought; she dressed the way she wanted; she stood up for things she believed in. She was a determined, uncompromising, outspoken woman in an era of testosterone-fuelled alpha-male machismo – a great role model for an ambitious young woman like me. 

Her example has stayed with me throughout my life and has undoubtedly shaped many of my views on policy, both explicitly and implicitly. Not only have I remained an avid environmentalist, but her vision of responsible business has shaped my thinking on business and the economy too. As an MP and a minister I have championed many of the causes I first discovered through the Body Shop – from excess plastic packaging to taking on unrealistic body image depictions in advertising. And it’s why I have put creating an economy that puts people and planet first at the heart of my leadership campaign. I want to reward dynamic, innovative companies that focus on the long-term challenges our society faces – such as the climate emergency, health inequality and the challenges of an ageing population – and that empower individuals and prize the productivity that comes when workers are treated as human beings and not numbers on a spreadsheet. 

But as important as policies and political philosophy are, Anita Roddick also ingrained in me something more practical. She was, first and foremost, a doer. She was an activist who used her career and her business as a platform to make change happen. Her example taught me that it is not enough to simply believe things, or to criticise things, but to get out there and do things to make the world better. 

That spirit will be familiar to Liberal Democrats. We are a party of doers. We pound pavements in the rain. We campaign relentlessly for causes we believe in. We put in the hard work all year round because we are determined to make a difference. If I am fortunate enough to become Leader of the Liberal Democrats, above all else it is in that spirit that I want to lead.

Liberal History: A concise history of the Liberal Party, SDP and Liberal Democrats – New! Ebook and audio versions now available

350 years of party history in 32 pages

The Liberal Democrat History Group’s booklet, Liberal History: A concise history of the Liberal Party, SDP and Liberal Democrats, is the essential introduction to Liberal history. Now available in print, Kindle and audio versions.

Starting with the earliest stirrings of Liberal thought during the civil wars of the seventeenth century, the booklet takes the reader through the emergence of the Whigs; the growth of radical thought; the coming together of Whigs, radicals and free-trade Peelites in 1859 to form the Liberal Party; the ascendancy of the Victorian Liberals under Gladstone; the New Liberalism of Asquith and Lloyd George and the party’s landslide election victory in 1906; dissension during the First World War and the party’s eclipse by Labour afterwards; the long decades of decline until nadir in the 1950s; successive waves of Liberal revival under Grimond, Thorpe and Steel; the alliance with the SDP and merger in 1988; and the roller-coaster ride of the Liberal Democrats, from near-obliteration in 1989 to entry into government in 2010 to electoral disaster in 2015 and the road to recovery thereafter. Up to date as of summer 2017.

Print version. Full price £3; 20% discount for Journal of Liberal History subscribers; see page 3 of the most recent issue of the Journal for the discount code to apply when ordering this item. To order, click here.

The booklet makes an ideal gift from local parties to their new party members; we can offer a 50 per cent discount for bulk orders of 40 or more copies. To order, click here.

Kindle version. Price £3. Order direct from Amazon. This version up to date as of summer 2018.

Audio version. Order direct from Amazon or Audible or Audiobooks or Apple Books. This version up to date as of summer 2018.

Liberal Democrat History Group AGM, 28 January 2019

The Annual General Meeting of the Liberal Democrat History Group will take place at 6.30pm on Monday 28 January 2019, in the Lady Violet Room, National Liberal Club, 1 Whitehall Place, London, SW1A 2HE.

The agenda, minutes of the 2018 meeting and chair’s report for the year 2018 are attached here. Print copies will be included with the mailing of the winter 2018–19 issue of the Journal of Liberal History, which will arrive during the week beginning 21 January.

Paddy Ashdown 1941–2018

Paddy Ashdown, Leader of the Liberal Democrats 1988–99, passed away on 22 December 2018. As a tribute to his memory, we reprint here in full the chapter on his time as leader from our 2015 book, British Liberal Leaders. We hope this may help to explain to those readers who did not know him why he is remembered with such respect and affection. Rest in peace, Paddy.

 

British Liberal Leaders (2015): Chapter on Paddy Ashdown by Duncan Brack

Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats from 1988 to 1999, ranks as one of the most effective and successful Liberal leaders since the collapse of the Liberal Party in the 1920s. Although the Liberal Democrats won more seats under Charles Kennedy and entered government under Nick Clegg, Ashdown inherited the party in much worse shape than Kennedy and left it in better shape than he found it, unlike Clegg. He created, out of the wreckage of the Liberal–SDP Alliance, a professional, modernised and effective political force. He took it through the wrangles over its name and collapsing support in the opinion polls to a new respectability, stunning local election and by-election victories and a higher number of Commons seats than at any time since 1929. And yet, his grand strategy of working together with the Labour Party, based on a common progressive agenda, to change the face of British politics forever – ‘the project’ – ultimately ended in failure.

  • Jeremy John Durham Ashdown (b. 27 February 1941), born in India to a family of soldiers and colonial administrators.
  • Grew up in Northern Ireland (hence his schoolboy nickname ‘Paddy’); educated at Bedford School.
  • Served in the Royal Marines (including Special Boat Section), 1959–72; diplomat and spy, 1972–76.
  • Married Jane Courtenay in 1962; one son, one daughter.
  • Fought Yeovil in 1979; elected in 1983, held seat until stood down in 2001.
  • Leader of the Liberal Democrats 1988–99, high representative and EU special representative for Bosnia & Herzegovina 2002–06.
  • Awarded KBE 2000, GCMG 2006, CH 2015.
  • Ennobled as Baron Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, 2001.
  • Chair of Liberal Democrat 2015 election campaign.

Ashdown came into the Liberal Party as an outsider, with no long record of political activism. Nevertheless, his upbringing and early experiences clearly helped to generate strong political views. His father, ex-Indian Army, argumentative, politically radical and never afraid to hold a minority opinion, was a key figure, and his upbringing in Northern Ireland left him with a dislike of sectarianism (reinforced by a period of soldiering in the province in 1970–71). His years at boarding school in Bedford gave him self-confidence and self-discipline, together with an enquiring mind and a drive to learn and to compete; also self-sufficiency and a dislike of clubbishness. His years in the army, and the social structure behind its officer class, reinforced his progressive beliefs.

Initially a Labour supporter, Ashdown lost his sympathies for the party at the time of Barbara Castle’s abortive attempt to reform industrial relations law in the late 1960s and Britain’s drift towards industrial conflict under the Wilson and Callaghan governments. He only joined the Liberal Party by a lucky chance. In January 1974, while digging in the garden of his cottage in Yeovil, he was interrupted by a Liberal canvasser, who ‘wore an orange anorak, looked rather unprepossessing and had a squeaky voice to match’.[1] Despite Ashdown’s scepticism, he invited him in, and ‘two hours later, having discussed liberalism at length in our front room, I discovered that this was what I had really always been. That Liberalism was an old coat that had been hanging in my cupboard, overlooked all these years, just waiting to be taken down and put on.’[2]

Two years later he gave up his diplomatic career and set about contesting the apparently hopeless constituency of Yeovil – a decision he described as ‘naive to the point of irresponsibility. It just happens also to be the best decision I have made in my life.’[3] Displaying characteristic energy and drive, he built up his local electoral base, recruiting a formidable team of campaigners and applying the community politics approach promoted by the Association of Liberal Councillors. In 1979, he achieved his immediate objective of taking second place from Labour, and the party also won all the council seats it contested the same day. Although his plan had been to win the seat at the third election, he actually succeeded at the second attempt, in 1983.

His campaigning background helped him to build a reputation among the grassroots of the party and he proved an effective spokesman, first on trade and industry and then on education, during the 1983–87 parliament. He once observed that he never felt happy in the chamber of the House of Commons unless both the other two parties were attacking him. Having largely stayed clear of the bitter arguments over merger in the winter of 1987–88, he stood for the leadership of the new Social & Liberal Democrats (SLD). He based his appeal on the need to rethink the party’s approach, with the underlying theme that choice and individual freedoms were the entitlement of every citizen, but that with that came rights and responsibilities. Specific areas for new thinking included looking at the social security system, putting green politics at the top of the agenda, and using the market wherever possible to promote prosperity. On 28 July 1988, after a highly professional campaign in which he always seemed ahead, Ashdown was elected leader over Alan Beith, with over 70 per cent of the vote.

The characteristics he displayed during his early political career were to become ever more clear in his leadership. First, his self-belief and love of a challenge, perhaps fuelled by not thinking about it too clearly ahead of time – exemplified by deciding to fight Yeovil in the first place; as he put it later, quoting David Penhaligon, he won because ‘he was too naive to know it was impossible’.[4] Second, his penchant for plans – as in his three-election strategy for the constituency. Third, his political courage, including a number of instances where he took principled positions which were unpopular locally; although this caused some difficulty, they did not appear to damage his prospects in the long term, and he concluded that in general voters preferred MPs to do what they believed to be right, and respected them for it, even while disagreeing with them. He was to follow this instinct later, in supporting the Conservative government over the Maastricht Treaty of European Union. Finally, his evident love for the party and respect for its activists – which is not a universal characteristic of leaders.

It was clear even before his election to Parliament that he was a naturally gifted speaker; his first-ever speech to the Liberal assembly, in 1981, successfully opposing the deployment of US cruise missiles in the UK, won him a standing ovation. As leader he worked hard on his delivery and style, receiving assistance from, among others, Max Atkinson, author of the classic study of political speech-making, Our Masters’ Voices.[5] Although his conference speeches could occasionally suffer from being over-rehearsed, at his best he was a powerful and inspiring speaker, with a compelling voice and distinctive turn of phrase. He was probably even better at talks with small groups of party members or ordinary citizens, taking his jacket off and turning his chair round in an easy, familiar way. He dealt effectively with the media and although at times could sound sanctimonious (something of an occupational hazard for politicians from third parties, used to criticising both government and opposition), he came over well to the public, and frequently featured in opinion polls as the most popular party leader.

His career as leader of the Liberal Democrats can be divided into three phases, following the plan he himself had mapped out on becoming leader: ‘The first was survival from a point of near extinction; the second was to build a political force with the strength, policy and positions to matter again in British politics; and the third was to get on to the field and play in what I believed would become a very fluid period of politics.’[6] Strategic planning of this sort was absolutely typical of Ashdown, one of the characteristics almost everyone who worked with him remembered – he always had a plan, and a position paper, and when he achieved one objective he was often already looking ahead to the next. Other personal qualities included an apparently inexhaustible supply of energy, helped by his obvious physical fitness, and hyperactivity. He thought – and worried – about everything, ringing up party spokesmen, for example, to get them to respond to an obscure proposal in a local party’s conference resolution. He was fascinated by ideas, and published a series of books and pamphlets, including Citizen’s Britain in 1989, and Beyond Westminster in 1994;[7] his conference speeches often challenged party orthodoxies, particularly in the early years.

Ashdown needed all these qualities in his first phase (1988–92), that of survival. The party he inherited was demoralised, shedding members and almost bankrupt after the long-drawn-out process of merger; on the day he was elected leader, the Inland Revenue sent officials into party HQ to seize assets in lieu of unpaid national insurance contributions. Furthermore, the SLD faced challenges to its role as Britain’s third party, initially from the ‘continuing SDP’, those followers of David Owen who had refused to join the merged party, whose high-water mark was beating the SLD, in February 1989, into third place in the Richmond by-election. Four months later the SLD ended up in a humiliating fourth place in the European parliamentary elections, scoring just 6.2 per cent and falling well behind the Green Party. It sank even further in the opinion polls thereafter and had to sack more than half its staff in response to the membership and financial crisis. As Ashdown put it, he was ‘plagued by the nightmare that the party that started with Gladstone will end with Ashdown’.[8]

The financial and electoral crises of summer 1989 were bad enough, but they helped to bring to a head the third challenge faced by the party: confusion over its identity. Was the new party to be Liberal, Social Democratic or something else entirely? In practice, the argument was conducted over what the party was to be called. The decision, which Ashdown backed at his first party conference, to opt for the new name of ‘Democrats’ to replace the clumsy merger compromise of ‘Social & Liberal Democrats’, proved disastrous, undermining the sense of identity and self-image that party members need, particularly in difficult times. ‘Being a relative outsider compared to the older MPs,’ as he put it later: ‘I had, in my rush to create the new party, failed to understand that a political party is about more than plans and priorities and policies and a chromium-plated organisation. It also has a heart and a history and a soul – especially a very old party like the Liberals … I had nearly wrecked the party by becoming too attached to my own vision and ignoring the fact that political parties are, at root, human organisations and not machines.’[9]

An all-member ballot in the autumn chose ‘Liberal Democrats’ by a clear majority. In retrospect this marked the beginnings of recovery. Party finances and membership both stabilised, and the local strength and campaigning tenacity of the core of activists who stayed true to the party ensured that it saw off the other competitors for the centre-left ground; the Greens had clearly faded by early 1990 and after humiliating by-election results the Owenites wound themselves up in May 1990. The shock Liberal Democrat by-election victory of Eastbourne, in October 1990, underlined the fact that the party had survived – and also helped signal the beginning of the end for Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. The party won two further by-elections in 1991 (the victory in Ribble Valley heralding the end of the hated poll tax) and achieved 22 per cent in that year’s local elections. Further local election and by-election gains, some with record swings, were to follow in the 1992–97 parliament, and in 1994 the party won its first ever seats in the European Parliament.

The fact that the party survived at all was very much due to Ashdown; it seems unlikely that had his leadership opponent Alan Beith been elected, he would have displayed the energy, drive and charisma the party needed. Ashdown also succeeded in finding positions for his party which were principled and distinctive, the constant quest for third-party leaders; as Ashdown himself said, ‘I would sell my grandmother for some distinctiveness for the party’.[10] The first of these was his championing, after the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989, of the right of Hong Kong citizens to be given British passports in advance of the colony’s incorporation into China. Later on it included support for the Maastricht Treaty of European Union in Parliament, which included voting with John Major’s government after it lost its majority following internal rebellions, and pressing for western action on Bosnia and Kosovo; his repeated visits to the Balkan war zones helped to build public support in Britain for the NATO-led action that ended the Serbian attempt to destroy the Bosnian state.

Ashdown’s interest in policy ideas led him to take the chairmanship of the party’s Federal Policy Committee and to use it to establish a series of key policy positions, including a more market-oriented economic policy than the Liberal–SDP Alliance had possessed (including the proposal for independence for the Bank of England, later implemented by Labour), a strong environmental platform and a pledge to invest in public services, including, most memorably, a penny on income tax for education. By 1993, the party was coming top in opinion polls asking which party was the best on environmental issues; it also scored relatively well on education. Both the election manifestos produced under Ashdown’s leadership were well regarded by the media. ‘The Liberal Democrat essay far outdistances its competitors with a fizz of ideas and an absence of fudge,’ stated The Guardian in 1992.[11] In 1997, The Independent called the party’s manifesto the most challenging of the three, saying that politics without the Liberal Democrats would be ‘intolerable’; Peter Riddell in The Times enjoyed its ‘refreshing candour’ and admired Ashdown’s willingness to leap where Tony Blair feared to tread.[12] Ashdown was able to stamp his ideas firmly on the party largely because of the respect and admiration he came to enjoy among its members; as The Economist commented in 1991, ‘Ordinary party members will take things from him for which they would have lynched David Owen.’[13]

This all meant that in the 1992 election the party was able to run an effective campaign with an attractive policy platform. The build-up to the election was nearly thrown off course, however, by the revelation of a brief affair between Ashdown and his former secretary five years earlier. The support of his wife Jane, his own willingness to face a Westminster press conference and some deft public relations saw him through this painful experience, though it cast a shadow over the campaign. Overall, however, the 1992 election was a personal success for Ashdown, establishing him as a significant voice in British politics. He was consistently described in opinion polls as the most popular party leader, and the party’s policies, especially its pledge to raise income tax to spend more on education, were widely praised. The result – 17.8 per cent of the vote and twenty seats – proved that the Liberal Democrats were not going to disappear, as had seemed possible in 1989.

The second phase of the Ashdown leadership, from 1992 to 1997, centred around his attempts at realignment of the left, a common theme of previous Liberal leaders and an objective of Ashdown’s since the very early days of his leadership. Although there had been some contacts with Labour politicians and sympathisers before 1992, it was Labour’s fourth successive election defeat that provided the main opportunity for action. Exactly a month after the election, Ashdown delivered the ‘Chard speech’, given to an audience of only forty or fifty in a small town in his constituency, arguing that the party needed to ‘work with others to assemble the ideas around which a non-socialist alternative to the Conservatives can be constructed’.[14] Although the speech was deeply unpopular within the parliamentary party (one hostile MP took to referring to it as a ‘burnt offering’), it was to prove the opening scene of more than five years of delicate negotiations with Labour, particularly after Tony Blair took over as leader in 1994. In due course Ashdown and Blair reached an agreement to focus their attacks on the Conservatives rather than each other. This included a formal abandonment of ‘equidistance’ by the Liberal Democrat conference in 1995, a decision reached after extensive consultation within the party by Ashdown; but since Liberal Democrat policy positions were generally much closer to Labour’s than to the Tories, and since the Conservative government was deeply unpopular by 1995, this seemed mainly simple common sense. In fact, cooperation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats extended further than most realised at the time. In the run-up to the 1997 election the two parties agreed a (secret) list of Tory seats in which one party had little chance of winning and would therefore not invest resources, so as to give the other a clear run. Also as a result of joint discussions, during the election the Daily Mirror published a list of twenty-two seats where, if Labour voters backed the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives would be defeated; in the event the party won twenty of them.

Blair and Ashdown also agreed to collaborate on policy areas where they hoped to work together. The key outcome was a series of talks on constitutional reform led by Robin Cook, for Labour, and Robert Maclennan, for the Liberal Democrats. In March 1997 the group reached agreement on a package of proposals including incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law, freedom of information legislation, devolution to Scotland and Wales (and elections by proportional representation to their parliaments), an elected authority for London, removal of the hereditary peers from the House of Lords, proportional representation for the European elections, and a referendum on voting reform for Westminster elections. Most of this had been Liberal Democrat policy for years (or was a watered-down version of it), but much was new for Labour.

The Cook–Maclennan process was public, and in general was cautiously welcomed by Liberal Democrats. What was discussed in secret, however – and which would have alarmed many party members – was something much more dramatic, what Ashdown called ‘the big thing’: an agreement to fight the election on a common platform on at least two or three major issues. ‘If, as it appears,’ Ashdown confided to his diary in April 1996, ‘I have more in common with Blair than he has with his left wing, surely the logical thing is for us to create a new, more powerful alternative force which would be unified around a broadly liberal agenda.’[15] Ashdown went so far as to draft successive versions of a ‘Partnership for Britain’s Future’, covering constitutional reform, cleaning up politics (after several examples of corruption and dishonest conduct among MPs), the reform of welfare systems and economic policy reform, including investing in education, awarding independence to the Bank of England, and adherence to the criteria for entry into the single European currency. From July 1996, Blair and Ashdown started to talk about Liberal Democrat participation in a Labour government; Peter Mandelson later claimed that this would have involved including two Liberal Democrat MPs, Alan Beith and Menzies Campbell, in Blair’s first Cabinet.[16] Blair even sprang on a surprised Ashdown the idea of merger between the parties; Ashdown responded by saying ‘that may be a long-term destination … that may happen, say, ten years from now, probably under someone else’s leadership’.[17]

In the end, the ‘big thing’ was too big a step. What worried Ashdown and his colleagues was Blair’s refusal to commit firmly to the introduction of proportional representation for Westminster elections – the absolute bottom line for the Liberal Democrats, who could not be expected to tie themselves to a much bigger partner without being able to survive its eventual fall. Ashdown’s diaries record in painstaking detail a long series of meetings in which Blair was first educated about what PR meant and the different systems through which it could be introduced, and then prevaricated, hinting at his own possible conversion to it but stressing the opposition he would face in the Parliamentary Labour Party. By January 1997, the very small number of Liberal Democrat colleagues who were kept in the loop by Ashdown were unanimously urging him to drop the project, but he persevered, despite his advisor Richard Holme’s warning that: ‘You must not get carried away with the film script you have written in your head – two strong people standing up and shaping history.’[18]

As late as election day in May 1997, Blair and Ashdown were still talking about whether they could entertain any form of cooperation; Blair declared that he was ‘absolutely determined to mend the schism that occurred in the progressive forces in British politics at the start of this century’.[19] By the next day, however, Blair had changed his tone, talking merely of a ‘framework for cooperation’. Robin Cook later confirmed that Gordon Brown (Labour’s shadow Chancellor) and John Prescott (its deputy leader) had both made clear to Blair overnight their virulent opposition to any role for Ashdown or his colleagues in government. In any case, the size of Labour’s majority destroyed any argument for it.

The second phase of Ashdown’s leadership, like his first, must be accounted a success. He successfully rode the rising tide of support for centre-left sentiment and the rejection of the Conservative government that not only swept Labour into power in 1997 but delivered the highest number of seats for a third party for seventy years. Under a less skilled leader, the Liberal Democrats could easily have been squeezed out by Blair’s New Labour. Indeed, Ashdown feared this at the time, referring to the months after Blair’s election as Labour leader as the most difficult period of his own leadership; the party’s standing in the opinion polls sank from 25 per cent in 1993 to 12 per cent in 1996. It might have fallen further had the party not benefited from the defection of two Conservative MPs in 1996–97, helping to thrust it back into the limelight and suggesting that some at least of the departing Tory vote might prefer the Liberal Democrats to Labour. The abandonment of equidistance can thus be seen as an – ultimately successful – attempt to become part of the movement for change rather than being swept aside by it, and the party was able to benefit from the high level of anti-Tory tactical voting in the 1997 election, winning forty-six seats on a slightly lower share of the vote (16.8 per cent) than in 1992. Without this cooperation between the voters of both parties – and, to a certain extent, between the party organisations themselves – the Conservative defeat would probably not have been so overwhelming. The election campaign itself, focused tightly around the need to improve public services, was a success, and seen as a credit to Ashdown personally; it added five points to the party’s standing. And ‘the project’ with Labour had a direct impact in the shape of the constitutional reforms Blair implemented after 1997: probably Labour would have brought in Scottish devolution without any prompting from the Liberal Democrats, but their attachment to Welsh devolution and to proportional representation for the European elections was much weaker and may not have borne fruit in the absence of the Cook–Maclennan agreement.

In contrast, the third phase of the Ashdown leadership, 1997–99, was a failure, as the leader and his party increasingly came to differ over its future direction. Ashdown was determined to adopt a stance of ‘constructive opposition’ – opposing the new government where the Liberal Democrats disagreed with them, but working with Labour where they agreed, especially over constitutional reform. In place of a coalition, a Joint Cabinet Committee was established between the two parties to discuss issues where there was already agreement in principle, such as devolution or first-stage reform of the House of Lords. The announcement of the Committee came as a shock to the party, most of whom were not aware of the close relationship Blair and Ashdown had built up over the preceding three years. Ashdown freely admits that he bounced his party into accepting it – ‘I am absolutely convinced that we would never have got the party into the Joint Cabinet Committee … if I had gone through a consensual process’[20] – but this was a calculated part of his strategy. As he put it later:‘I quite deliberately went round building up my popularity in the party, both by delivering results and also by being very consensual, conscious of the fact that when I started to play on the field in Stage 3, I was really going to have to [use up this political capital and] … make myself unpopular with the party.’[21]

Being friendly to Labour was not too difficult to accept when both parties were in opposition; but maintaining this closeness when Labour was in government increasingly seemed less sensible to a growing portion of the party membership. Not only did this risk the Liberal Democrats being tarred with government unpopularity, when it came, but it seemed to achieve less and less in policy outcomes. The two big unfulfilled promises of Cook–Maclennan were reform of the House of Lords, where Blair showed no likelihood of accepting the principle of an elected chamber, and proportional representation for Westminster elections. Ashdown, increasingly frustrated with Blair’s prevarication, suggested a deal by which Liberal Democrats would agree to a coalition with Labour on the basis of an agreed policy programme, including PR. But Blair would never commit firmly, and the greater the delay in forming a coalition, the less possible it became, as the government steadily became less palatable to Liberal Democrat sensibilities. The government’s centralising approach to politics, its determination to stick to the Tories’ previous spending plans, thus putting public services under pressure, and the lack of any announcements on PR or British entry into the European single currency were not what the Liberal Democrats had fought the election for.

In December, the government finally announced the establishment of an independent commission on voting reform, to be chaired by Roy Jenkins. In practice this further weakened Ashdown’s chances of getting a coalition through his own party; if the government was doing what Liberal Democrats wanted on constitutional reform anyway, why tie the party in to the rest of its agenda, with an increasing proportion of which it disagreed? It was against this background that the Liberal Democrat conference in March 1998 agreed the ‘triple lock’ procedure for agreeing to ‘any substantial proposal which could affect the party’s independence of political action’. The support of the parliamentary party and federal executive would be needed for any such proposal; failing a three-quarters majority in each body, a special conference would be held; and failing a two-thirds majority there, an all-member ballot would need to be organised. The system was deliberately designed to tie Ashdown’s hands, though in fact it was not to be put to the test until 2010.

Throughout the summer of 1998 Ashdown attempted to nail Blair down to a commitment to a PR referendum, and other aspects of the Cook–Maclennan agreement. But despite a long series of meetings Blair seemed ever less likely to reach a final decision. Richard Holme described the process as like ‘being condemned to attend endless repeats of Hamlet’; Ashdown noted in his diary that ‘waiting for Blair is like waiting for Godot’.[22] In September Blair agreed with Ashdown to hold a referendum on PR before the next election, but six weeks later changed his mind yet again, feeling that he could not overcome opposition in the Cabinet and did not want to risk splitting the government. When, on 29 October, the Jenkins Report was published, advocating an additional member system of PR, Blair’s response was entirely neutral, with no commitment to a referendum; later that day Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, rubbished it publicly, and did so again in a Commons debate on the report the following week.

Ashdown was forced to conclude that ‘the project’ had failed and that his time as leader should end. (He had already decided, before the 1997 election, that he would stand down at some point in the next parliament.) He made one final, and predictably futile, attempt to extract a promise from Blair to state publicly that he would hold a referendum on the Jenkins proposals, and in November he and Blair announced the extension of the remit of the Joint Cabinet Committee, following a review of its work and effectiveness; the remit was eventually extended to cover a number of specific European policy issues. The move roused predictable opposition within the Liberal Democrats, but Ashdown won support for it from the parliamentary party and, narrowly, from the party’s committees. After this had been agreed, he announced, on 20 January 1999, his own intention to step down as leader.

Ashdown’s resignation was to take effect in August, with the leadership election due to take place after the European elections in June. He therefore had the satisfaction of seeing the party do well in the first elections to the new Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly in May, forming a coalition with Labour in Scotland; the party also performed well in the local elections held on the same day. A month later the introduction of PR helped the party increase its representation in the European Parliament from two to ten MEPs, the largest national contingent in the European Liberal group. When the leadership election concluded with Charles Kennedy’s victory on 11 August, Ashdown recorded in his diary: ‘I left the celebrations quietly and walked back to the House feeling just a tinge of sadness that I am no longer a leader of one of the great British political parties. But this was more than offset by the feeling of having cast off a very heavy burden … I felt very contented.’[23]

Why did the third phase of Ashdown’s leadership end in failure? He himself later blamed Blair’s overriding objective in his first term, which was to get elected for a second, rather than achieve anything as fundamental as reforming the political system; Blair’s overestimation of his ability to charm away opposition in his own party; and his underestimation of the strength of that opposition to any deal with the Liberal Democrats.[24] Ashdown felt that that was due in part to the fact that Blair was an outsider in Labour politics, not someone who had grown up in the tribal traditions of the party – a characteristic that Ashdown shared in relation to the Liberal Democrats, and which arguably led him to make the same error, to underestimate the strength of his own party’s opposition to a deal with Labour. Ashdown believed that Blair was serious about the attempt to reach a deal, but: ‘although I think he spoke the truth when he said that partnership with the Lib Dems was the big thing he wanted to do to reshape British politics, it never was the next thing he wanted to do. Hence the delays, which in the end killed us.’[25]

The result of the last phase of Ashdown’s leadership, as Tony Greaves has observed, was that: ‘Liberal Democrats loved their leader but, in so far as they sensed his strategy, most wanted none of it. The “what if?” question must be how much more could have been achieved if all that time at the top and personal energy had been spent on something other than “the project”.’[26] But was there a realistic alternative? Like Grimond and Steel before him, Ashdown was driven inexorably by the logic of the realignment/cooperation strategy. However well the Liberal Democrats performed in elections – and Ashdown hardly neglected that aspect of party strategy – it never seemed remotely feasible that the party would leap straight to majority government from third position, or even replace one of the two bigger parties as the main opposition. Sooner or later the party would hold the balance of power, and in the political circumstances of the 1990s, it was inconceivable that the Liberal Democrats could have reached an arrangement with anyone other than the Labour Party. Indeed, Ashdown was not particularly aiming for a hung parliament, in which, he thought, any attempt to bring in PR would be seen as weakness on the part of the bigger coalition partner; he wanted to introduce it from a position of strength, with both parties of the left genuinely behind it. His problem was that most of the Labour Party was never committed to PR at all, and saw no point in making any concessions to Ashdown’s party once they commanded a 179-seat majority in the House of Commons. But Ashdown was always going to try; he possessed neither the temperament nor the patience to sit quietly on the sidelines, snatching what chances he could to advance incrementally.

No comprehensive and objective assessment of the ‘project’ with Labour has yet been carried out. It is not clear what, if anything, the JCC ever achieved, but it can certainly be argued that the Cook–Maclennan agreement had a direct impact in the shape of the constitutional reforms Blair implemented after 1997. Thus, Ashdown and the Liberal Democrats contributed to permanent and profound changes in the way in which Britain is governed. And in the final analysis, if Ashdown had delivered on proportional representation, the third phase of his leadership would have been seen as a triumphant success. It was a calculated strategy, but in that respect it failed.

Ashdown stood down from the Commons at the 2001 election. From 2002 to 2006 he occupied the post of high representative and EU special representative for Bosnia & Herzegovina, reflecting his long-term advocacy of international intervention in the region. Back in British politics, he supported Nick Clegg for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats in 2007, and played a full part in the 2010 general election campaign. With some reluctance, he supported the decision to join the coalition government with the Conservatives. In 2012 he was appointed chair of the Liberal Democrats’ general election campaign for the 2015 election. The characteristic energy and drive with which he took on the task could not save the party, however, from electoral catastrophe; probably, the party’s fate was effectively sealed after the first year of its coalition with the Conservatives.

Paddy Ashdown is held in enormous affection in the party he once led. His leader’s speeches to party conference – visionary, challenging, displaying a fascination with new ideas – have seldom been bettered, and he was just as at ease with small groups of activists. He coped well with the media and in general was an excellent party manager. He retained his energy, drive and enthusiasm, and his belief in the party and what it stood for, in the most trying circumstances. And above all, having rescued his party from near-collapse, he built it into an effective political force and did something with it. He left it with a distinctive and rigorous policy programme and, through the Cook–Maclennan constitutional reforms, he changed for good the structure of government within the UK. And whatever his disagreements with members over policy and strategy, he obviously always genuinely loved his party – which is rare among party leaders. And – which is even rarer – most of the time, they loved him too.

Duncan Brack is the editor of the Journal of Liberal History, and has co-edited and contributed to all the Liberal Democrat History Group’s previous books. He has been director of policy for the Liberal Democrats, chair of the party’s conference committee, and special advisor to Chris Huhne MP, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. He is currently vice-chair of the party’s Federal Policy Committee.

Endnotes

1 Paddy Ashdown, A Fortunate Life: The Autobiography of Paddy Ashdown, London, Aurum Press, 2009, p. 156.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., p. 162.

4 Ibid., p. 166.

5 Max Atkinson, Our Masters’ Voices: The language and body language of politics, London, Methuen, 1984.

6 Paddy Ashdown, The Ashdown Diaries: Volume Two, 1997–1999, Harmondsworth, Allen Lane / The Penguin Press, 2001, p. 494.

7 Paddy Ashdown, Citizen’s Britain: A Radical Agenda for the 1990s, London, Fourth Estate, 1989, and Paddy Ashdown, Beyond Westminster: Finding Hope in Britain, London, Simon & Schuster, 1994.

8 Ashdown, op. cit., 2000, p. 50 (entry for 15 June 1988).

9 Ashdown, op. cit., 2009, p. 246.

10 Ashdown, op. cit., 2001, p. 495.

11 The Guardian, 19 March 1992.

12 David Butler and Denis Kavanagh, The British General Election of 1997, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1997, p. 178.

13 ‘Paddy’s people’, The Economist, 14 September 1991.

14 Paddy Ashdown, ‘A broader movement dedicated to winning the battle of ideas’, 9 May 1992, in Brack and Little, op. cit., p. 427.

15 Ashdown, op. cit., 2000, p. 419.

16 Peter Mandelson, The Third Man, London, Harper Press, 2011, p. 256.

17 Ashdown, op. cit., 2000, p. 452.

18 Ibid., p. 449.

19 Ibid., p. 555.

20 Interview with Paddy Ashdown, Journal of Liberal History, Vol. 30, spring 2001, p. 13.

21 Ibid.

22 Ashdown, op. cit., 2001, pp. 254–5.

23 Ibid., pp. 489–90.

24 Ashdown, op. cit., 2009, pp. 323–5.

25 Ibid.

26 Journal of Liberal History 30 (spring 2001), p. 28.

Meeting report: The 1918 Coupon Election and its consequences

Evening meeting, 2 July 2018, with Alistair Cooke and Kenneth O. Morgan; chair: Claire Tyler


Report by David Cloke

Baroness Tyler opened the meeting by noting ironically that the period featured two ingredients that attendees had come to know and love: snap elections and Liberal–Conservative coalitions. Indeed, the parallels with and significance for our own time were features throughout the meeting. The evening’s two speakers, Alistair Cooke (Lord Lexden) and Kenneth O. Morgan (Lord Morgan), whilst providing different perspectives on
the election both broadly divided their remarks into four main areas: the run- up to and context of the election; the election itself and its significance; the immediate consequences of the election in terms of the government that was formed; and lastly the longer-term consequences for British politics.

The immediate political backdrop to the election was the Representation of the People Act 1918, the Speaker’s Conference of 1916 that preceded it and the putsch against Asquith in December 1916 as a result of which Lloyd George emerged as prime minister but without a party. The Fourth Reform Act,
as Lexden described it, was larger in its sweep than any of its nineteenth-century predecessors, extending the franchise further than all the other Acts put together. The Act extended the vote
to all men over 21 regardless of wealth, class or housing tenure (matters over which reformers and their opponents had long haggled) and to most women over 30. The electorate numbered 21.4 million compared with 7.7 million in 1910. It was also noted in response to a question that the extent of the reform seemed to shut down any talk of further changes to the electoral system, such as the use of the Alternative Vote.

Morgan noted that the Lloyd George coalition had an ‘unreal nature’, dependent as he was on the votes of Unionist MPs. He needed
to ensure a future for himself and
his party. Morgan noted that Lloyd George recognised that the old party system was changing with the issues of disestablishment, land reform and even free trade diminishing in significance. He expected a fight between himself and Henderson, the Labour leader. Lexden reported that the Unionists had turned from the vacillating Asquith to the dynamic Lloyd George ‘with intense satisfaction’. Whilst they did not share Lloyd George’s deep distrust of Haig’s conduct of the war in Flanders, and accepted high casualty figures with a shocking equanimity, they admired Lloyd George’s vigour and virtuosity as a strategist.

Lexden spoke at some length on the reasons for the Unionists continuing to work with Lloyd George, noting that they had both low and high motives. Among the latter was patriotism, which, Lexden noted, Unionists like to claim as their special characteristic. After 1915 that meant positive enthusiasm for working with other parties to win the war and ensure that Britain remained a great power. With the latter in mind, Unionists were conscious of the spectacular victories in Mesopotamia and Palestine since 1916. Under the Lloyd George coalition the map had turned redder than ever before.

Nonetheless, Unionists recognised that the nation was deeply troubled, with acute industrial unrest and scenes of violence in Clydeside, Sheffield and elsewhere. This made it seem necessary to keep Lloyd George, and what was believed to be his special rapport with the working classes, at the helm in order to prevent a socialist revolution. The success of Labour in the 1918 election in obtaining a quarter of the vote whilst standing on an avowedly socialist programme bolstered this position.

Base party considerations also pointed in the same direction. Nothing was so obviously in the Unionist interest than a divided Liberal Party, and the deeper the division the better. There was ‘no surer way of Unionist ascendancy in British politics than through a broken Liberal Party.’ In Unionist minds, Lloyd George was a second Joe Chamberlain, a man who had been firmly captured by them. It was, nonetheless, an alliance sealed by great mutual admiration. Bonar Law and his main Unionist cabinet colleagues (Curzon, Balfour, Austen Chamberlain and F. E. Smith) greatly enjoyed working with Lloyd George and some of his principal lieutenants, Winston Churchill above all.

Lexden reported that the election had been conceived in the spring of 1918 as a khaki election to provide the coalition government with a mandate to see the war through to its conclusion. At that point few expected the war to be concluded before 1919 and Lloyd George himself thought that it could continue till 1920. By the July
of 1918, almost a hundred years to the day of the meeting as Morgan noted, the whip for Lloyd George’s Liberals, Freddie Guest, was negotiating a deal with the Unionists to ensure that the members of the coalition did not oppose each other in the forthcoming election: hence the coupon, a letter jointly signed by Lloyd George and Unionist leader Bonar Law.

One hundred and fifty-eight Liberal candidates received the coupon
at the election, ‘100 of whom are our old guard’, which Morgan argued was more than the Liberals deserved, indicating that they did pretty well out of the deal. He was interested in learning why the Unionists put up with such a generous arrangement. Morgan also argued that out of the negotiations a kind of new party came into being: the Coalition Liberals. Practically, this was necessary as the supporters of Asquith, who had generally opposed the government in the later stages of the war, retained the party machine and the Liberal Publications Department. Meanwhile another 253 Liberals stood without the coupon. According to Lexden, this represented a breach
so deep that a fully and enthusiastic united Liberal Party was an impossibility in the near future. Morgan agreed that it was a very painful schism and appeared to show Lloyd George breaking with his own party.

Morgan also noted that the choice
of candidates to receive the coupon was very haphazard and itself caused a lot of bitterness. It had been said that whether someone received the coupon depended on whether they had supported the government in the Maurice debate in May 1918. However, Morgan noted that Trevor Wilson had demonstrated some time ago that this had not been the case. Of the 159 pro-government Liberal candidates, only 54 had supported the government in the debate and some had actually opposed it. One candidate even received the coupon even though he had said that he didn’t want it! Conversely some Liberal candidates who did not receive the coupon supported Lloyd George as prime minister, as did some Labour candidates. Indeed, Morgan argued that it was a bit rash to be an opponent of the government in the atmosphere of the election.

In the event, the sudden change in the tide of the war in the autumn of 1918 converted the contest into a victory election. The focus of the election itself turned from war to peace. Keynes reported it as a jingoistic and chauvinistic election, whereas Morgan argued that this misrepresented what was a quiet, even dull, election. Nonetheless, Lloyd George stressed the importance of maintaining into the peace the unity of command that had ensured that the war had been won. He argued during the campaign that ‘only unity can save Britain, can save Europe, can save the world.’ As a consequence, a kind of presidential election emerged which Morgan felt let Lloyd George down.

In the run-up to the election, Morgan argued that Lloyd George’s main task was to win over his fellow Liberals. This he did through a ringing speech
at the Reform Club on 12 November, the day after the armistice, declaring that ‘it is not revolution that I am afraid of; it is reaction that I am afraid of.’
He called for a government of social reform and international leadership.

A joint manifesto was produced for the election, which, according to Morgan, had a strong Liberal tinge to it with much on social reform and reconstruction, reflecting the influence of Christopher Addison, the Minister of Reconstruction. Lexden described it as a ‘substantial programme of post-war reconstruction’. There was also a special Liberal manifesto for the election produced by the historian and Minister for Education H. A. L. Fisher. Morgan added that, in his six major campaign speeches, Lloyd George spoke overwhelmingly about social reform: about a ‘land fit for heroes’. He said little about ‘hanging the Kaiser’ or emphasising Germany’s war guilt. Only in the ‘off the cuff’ peroration of his final speech in the Colston Hall did he call for Germany to pay the uttermost cost of the war. Morgan suggested that it highlighted the risk of straying too far from one’s notes!

Lexden, meanwhile, felt that it had to be said that the prospect of punishing the Kaiser and his defeated country did seem to have been uppermost in the minds of some of the electorate, encouraged by a lurid and irresponsible press campaign.

By any standards, Lexden argued, the election itself was a landmark one. The transition from a terrible war to peace was itself momentous. So too was the scale of change in the electoral system since the previous election eight years earlier. More than three-quarters of the electorate had never cast a vote for any party in a national election. In addition to women being able to vote, a handful stood as candidates for the first time, one of whom, representing Sinn Fein, was elected.

Overall, the result was an overwhelming victory for the coalition. Bonar Law declared that Lloyd George could ‘be Prime Minister for life if he likes’. The Liberal part of the coalition polled 1,400,000 votes and won between 127 and 130 seats almost entirely without any Conservative or Unionist opposition. The Unionists gained 332 seats, enough for a clear majority in the House of Commons. The alternatives were, according to Morgan, not very distinguished. The opposition Liberals were almost annihilated, with only thirty seats and with their leader Asquith having been defeated. Labour meanwhile polled 2,245,000 votes and gained fifty- seven seats, becoming a national party.

Morgan also noted that the character of the Unionist party in the Commons changed, with many businessmen among their number who were not as reactionary as might have been expected. They had often dealt with trades unions during the war and had developed a sense of industrial partnership. The real diehards were in the constituency parties who emerged later in the parliament in the anti-waste campaign.

Morgan then went on to consider the record of the government that had been elected. He had initially reported the classic description by Keynes that it was of ‘a group of hard-faced men who looked as if they had done well out
of the war’. Morgan noted, however, that it was a dangerous and difficult time for any government: the collapse of great empires; a time of impending class war; turmoil in Ireland with the rise of the IRA. Overall there was a general feeling that everything was different, in part brought about by
the extension of the franchise and the empowerment of the working class and of women.

Morgan argued that there was a serious attempt at social reform under the coalition government, with Addison and Fisher especially active. There was an important Education Bill, a Ministry for Health and a programme of subsidised housing. Some of these proposals proved to be the target of the later anti-waste campaign and the Geddes Axe, which, in turn, led to the sense of a betrayal of promises. Nonetheless, Morgan suggested that the reforms represented the last hurrah of New Liberalism and were an important and underappreciated phase of the party’s history.

Lloyd George also sought to be relatively conciliatory towards labour and, in Morgan’s view, handled the Triple Alliance’s threat of a general strike better than the Baldwin government did later in the decade. He suggested that it was a result of Lloyd George’s open methods of diplomacy – the beginning of ‘beer and sandwiches’ at Number 10.

In Ireland, meanwhile, the government pursued a dreadful policy of retaliation through the ‘Black and Tans’. Despite that, in the end Lloyd George got what he wanted: a settlement that others had failed to achieve and which has survived.

Lloyd George also wanted to be a great conciliator on the international stage. He sought to reduce the reparations on Germany and to bring Russia back into the comity of nations. Ironically, the cause of his downfall was
the pursuit of a much more aggressive foreign policy in support of Greece against Turkey. In Morgan’s view the opposition from the Unionists came from an appeasement perspective, noting that Bonar Law wrote to The Times that ‘we cannot alone act as policeman of the world.’

Overall, Morgan argued, it was a defensible record in government, especially bearing in mind that other countries lapsed into dictatorship. That Britain was relatively peaceful was down to the coalition. However, it came at the cost of the destruction
of Lloyd George’s own party – something, Morgan later noted, he had always been rather careless about even in his earliest days in Welsh politics.

The Coalition Liberals lost ground steadily to Labour from 1919. Meanwhile the independent Liberals were uncertain of their policy and had little to say in response to Labour. Despite by-election gains in Hull in 1919 and the return of Asquith at Paisley in 1920, they struggled to find a theme. According to Morgan they gave the impression of being elitist, high-minded and patrician, highlighted by the attempt to promote Edward Grey as a leader of an alternative Asquithian movement. Both wings had high hopes of reunion, but hints by Lloyd George in early 1920 that there would be fusion between the government Liberals and the Unionists terminated that prospect. Essentially, Lloyd George did not have much interest in his own party. Morgan described Lloyd George’s efforts as an attempt to leapfrog the party system. Even in October 1922, when he was ejected by the rebellion of Conservative back-benchers, he was a strong coalitionist.

In his talk Lexden noted that, whilst critics of Lloyd George had always been present (he had been the Liberal the Unionists hated the most before 1914), it would take four more years of the coalition to convince a majority of Unionists that the party should face the future on its own. Among the leadership of the party the positive feelings they derived from working with Lloyd George did not lessen with the passing of the years, despite growing criticism of Lloyd George by junior ministers, backbench MPs and the party at large. Coalition became a way of life for the Unionist leadership, bringing together the best of Liberal and Unionist talent in government – they ‘never wanted coalition to end’. When asked why the leadership had not been aware of the growing rebellion, Lexden stated that it was down to the extraordinary obstinacy of Austen Chamberlain who simply would not accept advice. Morgan agreed that there was a feeling of complacency, perhaps exacerbated by the Tory whips themselves undermining the coalition.

For those Unionists who did not believe in permanent coalition with Lloyd George (who were increasingly a majority), the implications of the election were obvious. Their party was ideally placed to build a new political dispensation by attracting the votes of demoralised and bewildered Liberals through a genuine and deliberate promise of broad social reform and by treating Labour as a parliamentary rival rather than as a threat to the established order. Baldwin, Lexden argued, knew how to make Toryism attractive to Liberals.

Though few would have predicted it, Lexden noted that the future belonged to the Tories. In the years between the wars they won five large parliamentary majorities – no other party achieved a majority at all. The 1918 election was the first of these and a crucial staging post on the road to inter-war Conservative Party hegemony. With 335 seats they could have governed alone in a parliament that Sinn Fein refused to attend. Furthermore, it was impractical to imagine the combined forces of the opposition bringing themselves to work together. Thus, the consequences of the 1918 election were profound.

When asked what Lloyd George could have done differently morally or politically to avoid splitting the Liberal Party, Morgan replied – almost anything other than what he did.
He should have recalled the remark
he made on the death of Theodore Roosevelt: ‘he should never have quarrelled with the machine.’ Morgan did note, however, that it took two sides to make a quarrel.

David Cloke is the Secretary of the Liberal Democrat History Group

Europe: the Liberal Commitment – special issue of the Journal of Liberal History

Opposition to Brexit has become of the defining characteristics of today’s Liberal Democrats. And probably everyone knows that the Liberal Democrats’ predecessors in the Liberal Party supported British entry to the European Community in the 1970s and before. But where does this commitment derive from? The latest Journal of Liberal History(issue 98, spring 2018) explores the historical origins of the Liberal commitment to Europe.

As Anthony Howe discusses in the first article, one of the foundations of Victorian Liberalism in the nineteenth century was support for free trade, the removal of tariffs (import and export duties) on trade in goods. Normally discussed today in terms of the economic benefits, Liberal support in fact drew much more strongly from a belief in free trade as an engine of peace, building links between nations and promoting a cooperative rather than a military interventionist approach to international problems.

Eugenio Biagini analyses the different approaches to Europe adopted by the Liberal leaders W. E. Gladstone and Joseph Chamberlain. Gladstone, a committed internationalist, was a fervent supporter of free trade and an opponent of jingoistic nationalism; he was not opposed to the principle of pan-national empires, as long as their rule rested on consent and the protection of basic liberties. Chamberlain, the radical who broke with the Liberal Party over Irish Home Rule, followed a different, ‘social imperialist’ path, arguing for the need for states to be powerful, democratic and reformist in social policy – strong enough to survive in the brutal world of international relations while also fending off the rising threat of socialism. His proposals for tariffs against imports from outside the British Empire, with the aim of binding the colonies more closely together, helped heal the divisions in the Liberal Party and underlay the Liberal landslide election victory of 1906.

The First World War posed a major challenge to the belief in economic progress as an engine of peace, and led to growing support for some form of world government. David Grace tells the story of Philip Kerr, a government adviser during the war and the peace conference at its end and later a Liberal peer (as Lord Lothian) and junior minister in the National Government of the 1930s. Kerr argued first for a federal structure for the Empire and then for a world federal union of the democracies; he helped establish the Federal Union organisation, which still exists today.

Robert Ingham’s article looks at the Liberal contribution to the Council of Europe, the body set up in 1949 to help bring European nations closer together; its main achievement is the creation of the European Convention on, and Court of, Human Rights. William Wallace traces the history of the Liberal commitment to UK membership of the EU. Now an article of faith in the modern Liberal Democrats, Liberal support was not inevitable. Right up until the 1960s, a significant minority within the party saw European integration as incompatible with free trade, rather than a step towards economic and political cooperation. After the Liberal leader Jo Grimond committed the party firmly to British membership, some of these small-state economic liberals left to form the Institute of Economic Affairs, which later became instrumental in supporting the Thatcherite revolution within the Conservative Party.

The debates in Parliament over the Heath government’s application to join the European Community saw a major split within the Labour Party; in 1971 69 Labour MPs defied a three-line whip to vote with the government in support of membership. Ten years later many of those MPs joined the Social Democratic Party, which fought elections in alliance with the Liberal Party and ultimately merged with them to form today’s Liberal Democrats. Shirley Williams, interviewed specially for this issue, recalls her role in the rebellion, discusses the history of Labour’s long confusion over EU membership and reflects on the importance of the European issue to the SDP and the Liberal Democrats.

Julie Smith provides an overview of Liberal parties in Europe and the development of European Liberal organisations. Although support for EU membership is a common theme amongst Liberal parties, the European Liberal family sees a wide divergence of views on economic and social policy. Liberal parties can be broadly divided into economic liberal (in general small-state anti-interventionists) and social liberal (more comfortable with government action) camps; in some countries, including Denmark and the Netherlands, two liberal parties exist, one of each tendency. By 2018, leaders of Liberal parties were the second most numerous group within the European Council meeting of prime ministers, with eight compared to nine from the EPP (mainly Christian Democrats).

The issue concludes with reviews of books by Guy Verhofstadt and Andrew Duff. Subscribers to the Journal of Liberal History should already have received their issue; for others, it’s available for £10 here – or if you take out an annual subscription (£25, or £15 unwaged) you’ll receive this issue and three others. We hope the issue provides readers with an understanding of the roots – political and cultural as much as (if not more than) economic – of the long Liberal commitment to Europe.

New booklet on Liberal Thinkers

New from the Liberal Democrat History Group

Liberalism has been built on more than three centuries’ work of political thinkers and writers and the aspirations of countless human beings who have fought for freedom, democracy, the rule of law and open and tolerant societies.

Liberal Thinkers, the History Group’s new booklet, is an accessible guide to the key thinkers associated with British Liberalism, including John Locke, Adam Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Richard Cobden, John Stuart Mill, L. T. Hobhouse, John Maynard Keynes, William Beveridge and many more. This second edition updates some of the entries in the first (2014) edition, and adds one new entry in place of one of the previous ones.

See ordering details here.

New booklets from the Liberal Democrat History Group

Just published:

Mothers of Liberty: women who built British Liberalism. The new edition contains the stories of the women who shaped British Liberalism – including Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Taylor Mill, the suffragist leader Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the first woman Liberal MP Margaret Wintringham, Violet Bonham Carter, Megan Lloyd George, Nancy Seear, Shirley Williams and many more. This second edition updates some of the earlier entries and adds two entirely new ones and a table of all Liberal, SDP and Liberal Democrat women elected as MPs. With a foreword by Jo Swinson MP.

Liberal History: A concise history of the Liberal Party, SDP and Liberal Democrats. Now revised and updated to include the 2015 and 2017 elections and their aftermath, including the election of Vince Cable as leader. Now up to date as of July 2017. The essential introduction to Liberal history.

Sale prices cuts on our two Liberal leaders booklets: Liberal Leaders of the Nineteenth Century and Liberal Leaders since 1900. 50% off each until stocks run out (not many left!).

Concise history booklet updated to spring 2017

Just out from the Liberal Democrat History Group: Liberal History: A concise history of the Liberal Party, SDP and Liberal Democrats – 350 years of party history in 32 pages.

Revised and updated to include the coalition and its impact and the 2015 election and its aftermath. The essential introduction to Liberal history, now updated to March 2017.

Special discounted price for Journal of Liberal History subscribers. To order, see here.

The booklet also makes an ideal gift for new party members; we can offer a 50 per cent discount for bulk orders of 40 or more copies. Contact the Editor.

Directory of election candidates 1945–2015 now available

The Liberal Democrat History Group’s website now features a major new resource for students of post-war Liberal history: a comprehensive directory of all election candidates at every Westminster election from 1945 to 2015.

This is the first comprehensive biographical index to appear of the individuals who have contested a UK parliamentary election under the designation Liberal, Liberal Democrat and Social Democrat, over the years 1945–2015. Separate files cover eleven English regions (Devon and Cornwall, East of England, East Midlands, Greater London, North East, North West, South Central, South East, South West, Yorkshire, West Midlands), and Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales (Westminster elections only, including Alliance Party of Northern Ireland candidates).

A typical entry includes details of birth and death, where known, education (school/college/university), career(s), elected local government offices held (though periods of service are often imprecise), party offices held, noteworthy distinctions/achievements, honours, publications etc, etc. Information on previous (or subsequent) activities with respect to other political parties is often included. Spouses and family often receive notice. Entries vary in length and presentation, reflecting the scale of the contribution which an individual made to the party and political life in the region or nationally, to parliament or his/her achievements in wider spheres of activity. Opinions expressed with regard to some of the more colourful personalities listed are those generally held.

The directory can be found here.

Liberal leaders booklets clearance sale

For a limited period, we are cutting the price of the two booklets below by 50 per cent – with a further 20 per cent reduction for subscribers to the Journal of Liberal History.

Liberal Leaders of the Nineteenth Century

This forty-page booklet contains concise biographies of every Liberal leader from the Great Reform Act to the end of the nineteenth century – the heyday of the Liberal Party. The total of eleven biographies stretches from Lord Grey to Sir William Harcourt, including such towering figures as Viscount Melbourne, Lord John Russell, Lord Palmerston and William Ewart Gladstone.

Normal price £4; special offer price £2 (plus postage). 20% discount for Journal of Liberal History subscribers.

Liberal Leaders since 1900

The sixty-page booklet contains concise biographies of every Liberal, Social Democrat and Liberal Democrat leader since 1900. The total of sixteen biographies stretches from Henry Campbell-Bannerman to Nick Clegg, including such figures as H. H. Asquith, David Lloyd George, Jo Grimond, David Steel, David Owen and Paddy Ashdown. (Up to date as of 2013.)

Normal price £6; special offer price £3 (plus postage). 20% discount for Journal of Liberal History subscribers.