A bit of Lib Dem history

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The sad passing of Jim Davidson recently brings back memories, as I write this here in Aboyne in  the heart of his former constituency.

“We can’t have another Welshman as leader of the Liberal Party” said Jo Grimond. When Jo resigned as leader in 1967, there were two contestants to replace him: Emlyn Hooson and Jeremy Thorpe. The electorate was the Parliamentary Party of twelve Liberal MPs. Initially, Hooson had the support of  six of them which, if he voted for himself, would make him the clear winner.

Jo took aside Jim Davidson, the pleasant and talented recently elected Member for Aberdeenshire West, who was a Hooson supporter. Jo’s wife Laura had not forgiven the Welsh wizard, David Lloyd George, for supplanting her grandfather, Herbert Asquith, as Prime Minister in 1916 and splitting the Party.  Another Welshman as Leader was unthinkable. Jim succumbed to Jo’s pressure and with misgivings, as a memoir of Jo and Laura revealed in 2000, promised his vote for Thorpe.

Peter Bessell, the MP for Bodmin, stepped into the fray. He approached Hooson and volunteered to act as his campaign manager. Emlyn was slightly nonplussed since he thought he had the majority anyway, but agreed. Bessell behind Emlyn’s back, then approached Eric Lubbock and told him that the Parliamentary Party was equally split between Thorpe and Hooson and needed a compromise candidate – Bessell would act as Eric’s campaign manager. When the voting took place, six voted for Thorpe, including Davidson and Bessell, and three each for Hooson and Lubbock. A second ballot was impossible.

So Thorpe became leader and that’s how history is made. Bessell did not contest Bodmin again in 1970 – he was replaced as candidate by the excellent Paul Tyler.  Bessell left the country for California, escaping arrest for fraud charges arising out of his business interests. He returned to Britain with a promise of immunity, to give evidence against Thorpe in his Old Bailey trial. His evidence was described by the trial judge as “a tissue of lies”.

As a postscript, I went to a rugby match at Murrayfield in October 1972 to celebrate the centenary of the Scottish Rugby Union when a Scots/Irish team played an English/Welsh combination. I had a letter published in the Times about my experiences as the wearer of a solitary daffodil on the crowded Scots fortress of the East terrace – another story!

Wales were playing Scotland the following February in Edinburgh – on the same day, fortuitously, as a meeting of the national Liberal Party Executive in the Liberal Club in  Princes Street. The previous  weekend, the News of the World published an article alleging that Emlyn Hooson was preparing a coup to overthrow Thorpe.

When I attended the Executive meeting on the morning before the match, Jeremy launched a bitter attack on me personally, as the organiser of the supposed putsch of which I knew absolutely nothing: apparently a Scots newspaper had contacted his office during the week to get my address.  Their real purpose was to ask whether, in the light of my comments in the Times five months earlier, I was planning to set foot in Murrayfield again to watch Scotland v Wales –  but Jeremy didn‘t know that. He thought it was a Welsh based plot and that Hooson, a latter day LL.G.,  was extending his supposed campaign to Scotland through me, the then chairman of Welsh Liberals!

I went to the game that afternoon in some bemusement.  Oh, and Wales lost 10 – 9!

* Martin Thomas is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords and the party's Shadow Attorney General

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This entry was posted in Liberal History.


  • Frankly the radicalism of Joseph Chamberlain (before Irish Home Rule) and Lloyd George made Asquith and Grey look like a Conservative.

    Also, another thing that set Lloyd George apart from Asquith is that the former was a strong politician and a man of conviction (like William Ewart Gladstone and Joe Chamberlain), unlike Asquith, who was only a fair weather leader who easily succumbed to hardships. I put Lloyd George to the same tier as Gladstone.

    I remember that Lloyd George willingly embraced Keynesian Economics, which totally frightened the Right-Wing Asquithean Liberals.

    The Liberal Party could have been saved if Asquith stepped down totally and Lloyd George was able to unite the party and lead it to the 1918 Khaki Election.

  • David Crichton 2nd Aug '17 - 3:28pm

    As someone who was inspired to join the Liberals by listening to Jo’s speech on inauguration as Rector of Edinburgh University in 1960, finally signed up in 1965 after leaving the right=wing hothouse of St Andrews University and then had the genuine pleasure of meeting Jeremy at the 1969 Swindon Byelection when as Chair I had to mmet and greet him, this is both a fascinating piece of history and a reminder of very interesting times. It also remoinded me of Peter Bessell’s speech to a YL conference a bit before he was outed as a likely CIA agent… Those were the days!

  • This Bessell fellow sounds more and more intriguing. Volunteered to act as Hooson’s campaign manager while secretly plotting against him. Left the country for California, escaping arrest for fraud charges arising out of his business interests. His evidence against Thorpe described by an Old Bailey judge as “a tissue of lies” and outed as a likely CIA agent. Was he acquainted with the Kray twins by any chance? The sixties were indeed the days.

  • David Warren 2nd Aug '17 - 5:04pm

    A really interesting insight into how Jeremy Thorpe became Liberal leader.

    He (Thorpe) was the first political figure I was really aware of, a man who suffered greatly in an era where prejudice was tolerated in a way that is unthinkable now.

    If only the February 1974 General Election had turned out a bit differently.

    As with this year a relatively small number of votes could have changed history.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 2nd Aug '17 - 6:21pm

    All very nice for sure, I don’t think , the disaster of Thorpe should have been obvious, it was another Eric, Lubbock, who deserved to be leader, as did the Eric here more than the absurd Thorpe, who knew he had more skeletons in unopened closets than a Hammer film !!!

  • Good to have your recollections after all these years, Martin. As Vice-Chair of the NLYL in 1966/67 I remember it (and them- and you) well. Jo was exhausted and took a terrible blow with the death of his son during the 1966 election.

    The best I can say is Thorpe and Bessell were highly plausible rascals who could make a good speech (Jeremy’s wit and mimicry was piercing). But, what happened to the interior of the National Liberal Club and banking connections in the Channel Islands are best not discussed in polite society.

    Emlyn was a decent able lawyer (on the right of the party) – but he was no Lloyd George. In the North we wanted Richard Wainwright to stand – but he was unwilling having been so recently elected – but it was Richard who finally confronted Thorpe and forced his resignation.

    It was in many ways a tragedy (see You tube for a brilliant Thorpe speech on Europe at the Oxford Union), but I can’t find any excuses for some of the things that went on.

    @ Lorenzo Thorpe was flawed – but he was not absurd.

    @ Thomas Sorry, Thomas, that’s too superficial.

    Joe Chamberlain lost all vestiges of radicalism long before the Boer War in 1899 and Asquith was dead before LLG finally embraced Keynesian economics. Look up the ‘Geddes Axe’ when LLG was PM. I’ve no doubt Thorpe and LLG would have understood one another’s methodology.

    To get a more balanced view you should read George H. Cassar’s two books on ‘Asquith as War Leader’, and ‘Lloyd George at War, 1916-1918’ – and you’ve missed out Haldane, the third member of Asquith/Grey/Haldane triumvirate who eventually served in the first Labour Government.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 2nd Aug '17 - 7:35pm


    I mean it was absurd of him to imagine rather than believe he could get away with the behaviour that at that time was discreet at best , a non starter at worst.

    It was not his sexuality that was even the issue, it was his hubris or arrogance about his lifestyle.

    I liked his personality and thought he was impressive at times, as a small boy he seemed a presence.

    The more I read by him the more I liked him.

    The more about him the less I did.

  • David Raw – after Asquith’s death, his faction was led by John Simon and Walter Runciman, and these Right-wingers eventually became Liberal Nationals because they opposed Keynes.

    Also, Lloyd George was the first to endorse Keynes when he wrote “The end of laissez faire”, called for public works and opposed the Gold Standard in 1924.

    Next, Asquith also had no problem with the Axe. Liberal manifesto in 1922 even called for “drastic economy” (well, economy here means austerity). Actually, only Labour truly opposed the Geddes Axe.
    You mentioned the Axe, which was actually forced by the Tories, while totally forgot a series of far-sighted reforms (greater than prewar reforms) introduced by Coalition Liberals like Fisher Education Act in 1918 and Addison Act in 1919.

    Lloyd George was on the left of the war hawk triumvirate, who repeatedly tried to overthrow Campbell Bannerman by pushing him to the Lords. The Liberals before 1914 had two wings, the Radicals on the left (most of whom defected to Labour later) and the Imperialists on the right.

    Another thing about him that I especially like is that unlike Asquith, he was actually among the Anti-war Radicals/Pro-Boer before Belgium was attacked, as he demonstrated this during Boer War, but then he proved to be a far more capable war leader than the so-called war hawks like Asquith.

  • @ Thomas I’m afraid Asquith had little time for Sir John Simon……………… and yes, the party moved to the right post 1918 when many radical Liberals who had opposed the war (and some who didn’t) moved towards the Labour Party.

    I do agree Asquith should have retired after winning Paisley for the last time, Unfortunately LLG’s maneuvers in 1916 and 1918 left much bitterness and split the party. It left him as the prisoner of the Tories until 1922.

  • Neil Sandison 3rd Aug '17 - 1:28pm

    Interesting article and probable a good warning as to why you shouldnt leave the election or selection of a leader to a small group of MPs. Perhaps the time has come to consider widening that franchise to a wider group of elected representatives both inside and outside Westminster .

  • Gordon Lishman 3rd Aug '17 - 1:57pm

    The decision to go for one member, one vote post Thorpe was right and many of us fought for it over some years – particular congratulations to Michael Steed. It doesn’t follow that it always produces the right answer.
    Like David Raw, I tried to persuade Richard to stand after helping him to get elected in 1966. He would have been a very different Leader.

  • @ Gordon Good to hear from you again, Gordon. Yes, Michael was (and still is, I hope) spot on about the one member one vote issue.

    Richard as leader would have brought a lot of good down to earth Yorkshire common sense to the party and he understood the economy better than J.J.T. He was also a man of fierce high principle who I respected because of his service in Normandy in the Friends Ambulance Unit. He was very generous financially and helped to build up the party in many quiet but effective ways locally in West Yorks and nationally – quite a contrast with J.J.T.’s odd and varied financial escapades.

  • adrian sanders 4th Aug '17 - 9:36am

    Joe Bourke, there are many tales to tell about this character that may or may not be true and happened too long ago to prove or deny, but the tales live on locally. I’ll just stick to the facts: Bessell first stood for Parliament in the Liberal interest at the 1955 General Election in the Torquay constituency, that unlike the Torbay constituency covered the whole of Torbay and some of its hinterland as well. He stood again in the 1955 by-election in Torquay before moving across the Tamar to fight in Cornwall.

  • David Blake 4th Aug '17 - 12:07pm

    There’s a report on a recent meeting on Thorpe in the latest issue of the Journal of Liberal History.

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