As we have done in each of the last two Liberal Democrat leadership elections, in 1999 and 2006, the Liberal Democrat History Group has asked both candidates for the Liberal Democrat leadership to write a short article on their favourite historical figure or figures – the ones they felt had influenced their own political beliefs most, and why they had proved important and relevant. Their replies are being posted up here, and are also posted on our website. First off, here are Nick Clegg’s.
Nick Clegg MP – Harry Willcock and Vaclav Havel
In recent weeks I’ve made it clear that I’d be prepared to go to court rather than be forced to give personal information about myself to a compulsory Identity Cards database. So it’s probably no surprise that the first of my liberal heroes is a North London dry cleaner, Harry Willcock.
When stopped by police in 1950 and asked for his ID card he refused, with the now famous words: ‘I am a Liberal. I am against that sort of thing.’
Harry was an active Liberal, having been a councillor and parliamentary candidate. Thanks to his stand, which was supported by Liberal MPs and Lords at the time, the ID cards programme was first challenged in the courts and then finally scrapped. He showed that one man willing to take a stand can change the system.
The liberal argument put forward by Harry and others in opposition was a fundamental one; it was an argument about liberty and the relationship between the individual and the state. For them, the imposition of ID cards was intolerable because of the power it gave to the state, a power which was inevitably abused.
I was moved recently to see the plaque in the National Liberal Club in Harry’s honour. He died while participating in a debate at the Club, and it is said that ‘freedom’ was the last word to pass his lips.
The arguments of Willcock and the liberals of his day remain relevant. The Liberal Democrats continue to stand against an over-bearing state and are willing to take a stand for what we believe.
My second hero is Vaclav Havel – a man who married high art and high politics. His leadership of the Charter 77 manifesto group and then the Velvet Revolution was an inspiration to people of my generation who witnessed and admired his courage, and that of other freedom fighters behind the Iron Curtain such as Lech Walesa. He showed that men of principle and character truly can change the world.
Havel spent many years in prison and even when released was kept under surveillance and constantly harassed. Yet his determination to change the government of his country for the better did not falter. He put at the cornerstone of his activities a belief in the importance of non-violent resistance. Few politicians can ever hope to move people in the number of ways that Havel did with his words and deeds.
He is also a particular hero of mine because many years ago I met him in his presidential palace in Prague. At the time I was working on the Czech Republic’s application to join the European Union and he gave a small group of us a considerable amount of time. He is a small, quiet man, with a compelling intensity about him.
What Havel and Willcock share is a willingness to take a personal stand on issues of freedom and liberty. It is, quite simply, the essence of liberalism – and that is why they are my political heroes.