A tribute to Nigel Jones


From left: Nigel Jones, Max Wilkinson, Martin Horwood

Nigel Jones gave so much to Cheltenham.  To me and many others, he was a friend and a mentor.  As generous with his kindness as with his wisdom, he was a liberal to his core.

I did not know him as Nigel the MP, who achieved so much for his hometown.  I became his friend after he left the Commons.  But his legacy lives long in Cheltenham and it’s hard to knock more than a handful of doors without somebody mentioning his name.  After winning the seat in 1992, he lobbied successfully to keep GCHQ in Cheltenham and supported the trade unionists who worked there, alongside very many other local activities.  In parliament he was chair of the parliamentary beer group and was a true internationalist, serving in several party spokesperson’s roles.  Others will, I’m sure, pay much more expansive tributes to Nigel’s work as an MP than I can.  What I can do is tell the story of how he helped me.  It’s a story I know others in Cheltenham will recognise, such was the breadth of his generosity.

My friendship with Nigel started almost as soon as I joined the party.  He helped me so much in my earliest moments as a liberal activist.  For that I will be forever grateful.

Nigel was there to help when I was producing and delivering my first Focus leaflet.  After being introduced to the local office by Martin Horwood, Nigel’s successor as our MP, I received some important advice: “Nigel lives in Park ward.  He might deliver a round for you.”  That advice came from Andy Williams, our longstanding organiser well-known to many Lib Dem campaigners.  Andy had worked with his friend Nigel for many years.  Later that day, I phoned the number I was given by Andy to see if Lord Jones, our former MP and a busy working peer, was indeed interested in helping my longshot council election campaign in what was then the strongest Conservative part of town.  Soon after, I was in Nigel’s lounge, learning about how he had won the very same ward himself in 1989.  “It was by four votes and only because we called on a family of four at 9.50pm to get them to the polling station,” he advised.  “Remember that when it comes to election day”.  Nigel took three batches of leaflets and assured me he’d make time to deliver – an offer he repeated every time I asked.  What I didn’t know until long afterwards was that he was also helping out an old friend by delivering in an adjoining ward – typical of his self-effacing way of helping the liberal cause.

In the coming months we became friends.  As a good liberal and wise mentor, he would never tell me what to do, but he would listen, think about what I’d said and give gentle guidance.  That guidance often came with a joke, delivered with a twinkle in the eye.  When it came to the Borough Council election two years after I’d first met him, his endorsement letter included the phrase: “local people are already saying Max reminds them of me, when I was younger”.  It was a compliment I could barely believe.  I scraped a narrow victory in Park ward, just like Nigel had all those years before.  We celebrated together with the Liberal Democrat team in the pub.  I count that as one of the happiest days of my life.

As a councillor, I benefited further from Nigel’s support.  He would regularly invite me into his home to brief me on what I might do next, encouraging me to not lose sight of the community I served, while also taking on some bigger town-wide issues too.  And when the time came, he was there for me when I became the Parliamentary Candidate.  In good times and bad, he offered me his friendship and support – as he did for so many others.  After the general election defeat in 2019, his comforting words kept me going at a difficult time.

Years before we became friends, Nigel had suffered something nobody should ever have to endure in an attack that tragically claimed the life of his friend and aide, Andrew Pennington.  Many in his situation would have become tired of the world, resentful of authority, reluctant to engage with people in general or even embittered.  The Nigel I knew was none of those things.  He was generous, caring, nurturing and retained an endearing dryness of wit that made him excellent company.  His commitment to the liberal cause remained steadfast.

His death will leave a huge hole in our town, our liberal movement and in the lives of those who knew him.  I will miss him and I will always remember what I owe him.  Our thoughts are with his family.

* Max Wilkinson is the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Cheltenham. He’s also a local councillor and cabinet member for economic development, tourism, culture and wellbeing.

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One Comment

  • “As generous with his kindness as with his wisdom”. Having the same name, when I stood as a parliamentary candidate he took the trouble to communicate with me, giving me great encouragement with his helpful comments. By coincidence, I lived in Cheltenham but only for 12 months at the age of 13.

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