Jo Grimond: Towards the sound of gunfire

A better understanding of Jo Grimond’s life is always a healthy corrective to some of the cartoon caricatures about right-wing lurches and Thatcherite policies that sometimes get thrown around over the views of contemporary Liberal Democrats.

Grimond was, after all, a man who talked of himself as being on the centre-left and who pushed for a progressive realignment of politics that would see a new centre-left party supplant Labour. Off and on feelers went out to those in Labour ranks during his career. And yet, he was often sceptical of central government spending, keen to see taxes cut and hostile to the state drawing up endless rules about how people should behave. He called for smaller government, warning that, “A great deal of government expenditure today is not helping the poor or anyone – it is positively harmful”.

Hence I have recently been finally reading Michael McManus’s biography of the former Liberal Party leader. Despite Jo Grimond’s role in the Liberal Party’s revival and in inspiring future generations of the party, his life has not attracted that much in the way of written studies, which meant many were looking forward to the appearance of McManus’s book when it first came out in 2007. Its reception was somewhat mixed: praise for the research and its comprehensive nature mixed with criticism for the number of errors and the number of historical questions not really addressed.

What it does provide is a lengthy study of Grimond’s political thought, with as a result much more attention given to those parts of his life which featured policy writings and speeches heavily than to those where it played a lesser role. Thus the reader finds out plenty about the details of policies but gets little in the way of examples of how particular individuals were attracted to the party by Grimond’s charisma. The book also plays up those elements of Grimond’s thought that fit most with the author’s own One Nation Toryism.

The writing style is rather disjointed at times, with successive paragraphs jumping from one topic to another, sometimes even with (unintentional?) comedic effect as when talk of Grimond’s belief in the free market as a key party of liberal freedoms gets immediately followed by the fallout from the mating habits of grey seals.

Some of Grimond’s policies very much show their age – such as the push for a five-year economic plan – but others still contain lessons for today, as with his complaint that Liberal Policy was often “advocacy of large expenditure on every sort of thing from social services to Highland Development while at the same time saying that we were living beyond our means”. That helps make the book well worth a read despite its limitations.

Buy Jo Grimond: Towards the sound of gunfire by Michael McManus from Amazon here.

* Mark Pack has written 101 Ways To Win An Election and produces a monthly newsletter about the Liberal Democrats.

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  • you have managed to spell his name wrong twice in the first few lines!

  • Tony Greaves 26th Jun '12 - 4:24pm

    Two things. Jo’s views veered quite wildly at different times of his life (and sometimes over short periods) – he was first and foremost fascinated by ideas and sometimes seduced by them.

    In his time as leader his views were largely on the left (and he and his closest colleagues were influential in moving the party to the left from its rather soggy centre-right free-trade (free market) stances of the late 40s and early 50s. In his later life as a brooding peer they were more on the right. so just picking up quotes at random is fairly pointless.

    Second, McManus is not an unbiased observer.

    Tony Greaves

  • Tony Dawson 26th Jun '12 - 5:55pm

    @Tony Greaves :

    “McManus is not an unbiased observer.”

    You mean:

  • Having read his books, as a general free-marketeer, I found a great deal to agree with. I also found a Times article inside one (I bought the books second hand). It was from the mid-late seventies, and talked about his friendship with Keith Joseph. Very interesting.

  • Tony Greaves 27th Jun '12 - 1:21pm

    One of Jo’s later books.

    Tony Greaves

  • Galen Milne 17th Mar '13 - 8:31pm

    Jo Grimond first and foremost was an inspiration.
    My own interest in the man started in the ’60s when my father used to argue with a visiting uncle (who was a cooncil hoose Tory) and the name of this guy Jo Grimond was frequently mentioned in comparison to
    I owe a debt of gratitude to both mt father and to Jo Grimond, and so should YOU!

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