An earlier Letter from the Leader

Liberal Democrat members now receive a weekly letter by email from the party leader, Nick Clegg. I found a 32-year-old example of a “Letter From the Leader” to party members – one from David Steel on 27 February 1981. (Click to enlarge photo)
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Without email, Steel asked for Local Association Chairmen (sic) to “take an early opportunity to read and discuss [his letter to members] at appropriate constituency executives and other meetings.”

He noted that the party was campaigning on “unemployment and cuts” (today it is “jobs and growth”). Presumably, this observation was really a polite reminder as to what people should have been campaigning on. The letter also noted that English and Welsh local parties were busy preparing for the county council elections (as we are now). The main subject of the letter was the imminent creation of the Social Democratic Party and their split from Labour.

Steel’s letter informed party member they were “on the verge of a major breakthrough to the realignment of politics”. The main instruction of the letter was not to make “ad hoc arrangements” with local Social Democrats but wait for a “policy agreement nationally to be agreed by the Liberal Assembly.”

The letter finished with reference to 20% opinion ratings and encouragement to keep up local activity.

Today this Letter from the Leader from 1981 sounds top-down. The key message could be interpreted as “keep delivering leaflets and let the Leader make the strategic decisions.” However, Steel clearly gave commitment to the Assembly (now Conference) having the final decision. His message may not have been “do as I will decide” but “let’s be consistent and not do totally different things in different places.”

A 2013 equivalent of Steel’s letter would, I think, emphasise Conference much less but say more about “listening to party members”.

This letter by Steel is reproduced with other 70s and 80s original documents from Frank Goulding’s book, “Could We Have Stopped Margaret Thatcher?” which is mostly about events in Lincoln. Lincoln is significant in the creation of the Liberal Democrats. As early as 1972, a significant group left the local Labour Party, became known as “Lincoln Democrats” and formed an alliance close to effective merger with the local Liberal Party. Lincoln MP, Dick Taverne left Labour and was re-elected at a by-election as the Lincoln Democrats’ candidate.

Lincoln made a precedent for a national Social Democratic Party, which quickly allied and then merged with the Liberal Party.

I recall that when I joined Dover & Deal Liberal Democrats in 1998 a lot of members would tell you whether they were former SDP or former Liberal Party (in roughly equal numbers). My agent in the 2001 General Election, Cynthia Terry, was from the SDP side and gave me sound advice: absolutely never shorten “Liberal Democrat” to “Liberal”, as people who did so greatly displeased the former SDP members locally.

With the passage of a further 15 years there are more people who have no pre-merger party identity, but it is well worth remembering that our full name “Liberal Democrats” represents a broad heritage.

* Antony Hook was a Liberal Democrat MEP for South East England (2019) and has practised as a barrister since 2003. He is currently Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on Kent County Council.

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