Another glimpse of Liberal history

Martin Thomas and Jo Grimond, 1964

Once upon a time, just about when Vince was leaving school, the then Liberal prospective candidate for West Flint, Maldwyn Thomas, (later Sir Maldwyn), resigned to go into business only six weeks before the 1964 general election. So much had been spent in promoting “M Thomas”, that it seemed a good idea to the local executive to ask me to step into his shoes.

Last week, Rhys Lewis who had pushed out leaflets for me as a boy, contacted me out of the blue after 53 years, and caused me to turn up my mum’s scrapbook where she had pasted the cuttings of my adoption speech from the Rhyl Journal. It was the 4th September 1964. I was 27, married with a six week old daughter.

We had a hereditary peer as Prime Minister. My Tory opponent, Nigel Birch, told me how much he detested visiting old people’s homes: “I have a sensitive nose, you see”, he said. The telly was black and white and a third channel, BBC 2, had started up only months before. Homosexual conduct was a crime – all our hearts were young and gay. England had yet to win the World Cup.

When I harangued the voters in Rhuddlan, lengthy speeches were acceptable. Every sentence had a real live verb in it, and, more significantly, the press reported every word.   Jo Grimond was the inspiration and the by-election successes of Mark Bonham Carter, Emlyn Hooson and Eric Lubbock the incentive.

Liberalism had taken many knocks. There were only six MPs. But Liberalism was alive. I was articulating Jo’s vision in his book “The Liberal Future”, and we were at the beginning of a long journey, marching towards the sound of gunfire. The foot soldiers were  the YLs. It would be seventeen years before we were told to go back to our constituencies and prepare for government, nearly fifty years before we actually got there.

But remember how Vince and Nick and Ed, Jo and Lynne and Jenny, and others of our Party fought within the coalition for the values and aims which had inspired us on the long march. Of course there were mistakes, but whatever the backlash, let us be proud of what we achieved and proud that the vision has remained intact.

What strikes me when I re-read this speech, is the consistency with which we have maintained our goals and the continuing relevance of our policies in a much changed world.

And now for the future! Take up the banner and tally ho site value rating!

* 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.


  • Interesting to remember those days fifty three years ago, Martin, and the 1964 General Election – my first – employed at Party HQ in Victoria Street as a very junior Assistant Press Officer with the duty to report back the other Parties’ HQ press conferences in Central Office and Smith Square to Frank Byers, the Party Chair(man) (a very grumpy bad tempered so and so).

    To be fair to Douglas-Home (who did his economics counting match sticks) he did renounce his peerage and fight a by-election and Harold Wilson was campaigning on the white heat of the technological revolution etc.,.

    The themes of your speech still have relevance – particularly raising the status of workers with proper employment contracts, co-ownership and industrial partnership. John Lewis is one of the few modern exponents. What has evolved since those days – the neo-liberal jungle of multinational capitalism could do with a good dose of it. Consider the affairs of Sports Direct and BHS for example. Yet we hear nothing about it – it is a theme Vince could usefully exploit today.

    Incidentally, I still treasure receiving a phone call from Lady Violet Bonham-Carter (Asquith’s daughter) very late on the last Sunday evening of the campaign when I was manning the only phone at HQ. Everybody else had gone home and I was there to take messages. She harangued me eloquently for twenty minutes about the iniquities of the Daily Express. All I could say in response was, “Yes, Lady Violet, I’ll pass it on in the morning”. When I told Frank Byers he just harumphed. Happy days.

  • Liberal Maverick 8th Aug '17 - 5:04pm

    The policy of industrial partnership needs reviving as a matter of urgency.

    It was a good idea back in the 1950s and 60s when arguably the lot of the workers was much better than it is now.

    The Tories don’t care about it and Labour have always been against anything that they see as posing a threat to union power.

  • Martin,

    things were not so bad then – “a pensioner got £3 a week and the Beatles got £3,000 a week” only a thousand fold difference, Paul McCartney has turned that £3k a week into an £800 million fortune now – not bad for a working class troubador from Liverpool. Ringo Starr had to move to Monaco in the seventies to escape the ravages of Harold Wilson/Jim Callaghans 98% tax rate on investment income.

    “The present system of rating based on rental values was unjust” said Mr. Thomas. “The Liberals proposed an entirely different system based on the site value of land.” Unfortunately what we got was Thatcher’s poll tax and the patched up system of council work when the poll tax collapsed. This aspiration is still a work-in-progress for the party.

  • The 1964 election
    I remember walking in the door at home and my mother telling me, “The Liberals got 3 million votes.”
    Stephen Terrell stood in Eastbourne.

  • Richard Underhill 8th Aug '17 - 6:43pm

    I was turned away for being under 21, probably in 1966. We should reduce the voting age to 18, as David Cameron agreed for the Scottish referendum. There is a chance of support from SNP, Green(s) and Labour (?). Might carry.

  • Richard Underhill – did you mean to write 16?

  • Nick Collins 8th Aug '17 - 8:55pm

    I was 22 in 1964 and a student at the London School of Economics, not that i spent much time on my studies in the run up to the general election: my first, having joined the Young Liberals in 1962.

    But I do not share Lord Thomas’ pride in the “achievements” of the coalition. I left the Liberal Democrats in 2011 when I found that i was as opposed to the Cameron Government as I had been to every other Tory government since 1962 and concluded, therefore, that it would be illogical to remain a member of a party which was supporting that government.

  • Lee Thacker 8th Aug '17 - 10:14pm

    Maldwyn Thomas resigned to go in to business. What was he doing before and why did he need to resign?

  • He went to run Rank Xerox as managing director and chairman.

  • Gosh, we used to have a world government as part of our programme!

  • David Evans 9th Aug '17 - 9:28am

    Martin, What coalition achieved was the destruction of 50 years hard work building trust in Liberalism by generations of Liberals and Liberal Democrats. It was a five year squandering of progress when so many simply looked at the few good things in their particular areas of interest, and ignored the huge damage being done to the party as a whole by the what the government was doing in our name.

    Until people come to terms with that lesson, we will not recover.

  • @ David Evans. Absolutely right, David, and salt was rubbed into the wound by a flurry of appointments to the unelected House of Lords for a group who were either large donors, MP’s who had lost their seats or were pals of the then leadership.

    Vinegar was added to by a flurry of knighthoods providing nothing more than a pandering to personal vanity. If anyone doubts me on this then look at the research conducted by Seth Tevoz.

    This sort of stuff does not appeal to folk in the north of England where there is a very down to earth view of pretentiousness.

  • Apologies to Dr Thevoz – dropped an ,h, ……. not too surprising given I’m a Yorkie.

  • It is no good trying to justify the Coalition. I initially supported it BUT It has ruined and decimated this party which many of spent a lifetime trying to build. It will take years to replace the stigma left in peiople minds. Please let us move on and try to see what we can extract from this mess, reminding people of it is the worst thing we can do. Consign it to history and forget it.

  • Nick Collins 9th Aug '17 - 11:25am

    @ Theakes: Decimate, literally, means to put to death one in ten. I don’t think that anyone was actually put to death by the coalition but it reduced the number of Liberal Democrat MPs, councillors and MEPs; every level of representation except the unelected House of Lords; by far more than a tenth.

  • Co-ownership used to be a prime Liberal policy, but was dropped at some stage. John Lewis is a successful example of co-ownership in practice, but unfortunately ICI, at one time held up as an outstanding co-ownership company later ran into losses and failed.

    One successful outcome of the Lib/Lab pact, no doubt the result of Liberal thinking, was a change in the way profit sharing was taxed, which meant that it was introduced by many companies.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 9th Aug '17 - 1:29pm

    The two David comments, Evans and Raw, if so, mean we need to deal with the issue.

    I know thee is a real desire by me to make it clear that I am neither on the left or right of this party. I say it because it means I have the ability to see both sides on this more than those both on the one side gung ho against, the other, for the period this party was in government.

    I ask the two who post here these questions.

    Why do you support Sir Vince Cable as leader as he was senior in that coalition and is one of those decried here as mps who lost their seats and got a knighthood?

    Why do you not support the re-orientation of the centre left, a new grouping .What you regularly say means this party is being finished off by a constant drip drip of criticism.

    If you are correct why or how can we , at a time when Labour is a left wing party, hope to compete?

    Is it not the case , the coalition was lousy because it went with the four fifths , the Tories, not the one fifth , the Liberal Democrats, and should not have had a Liberal Democrat stamp on it as deputy anything as this party was a junior partner?

    As the party cannot compete for the left vote, as it is constantly reviled even from within for aligning with that rightward drift in government, why not a new party ?

    Or why do the left leaning here, like me who am basically centre to centre left, not favour an alliance with Labour , to move them to the area politically they can win, rather than the farther left or the New Labour , or coalition, discredited stance decried?

  • Sue Sutherland 9th Aug '17 - 2:02pm

    Lorenzo, I just don’t see how we can have an alliance with Labour at the moment now Momentum have the upper hand. They are positioning themselves to deselect MPs who oppose Corbyn because I believe they want our country to be reduced to such a mess that it will accept an ultimate socialist/ communist state being imposed on it. Less extreme MPs will either have to go along with this or be pushed out.
    All we can do at present is work on our own policies to provide a better solution to people’s woes than either Labour or the Tories. This will have to involve a merge of our economic policies with our social ones and I don’t want to carry on with our Coalition stance. I don’t think Vince does either and he’s the only person we’ve got with the ability to unite economic liberalism with social liberalism by moving the former so that we can afford to implement the latter.

  • Sadie Smith 9th Aug '17 - 2:40pm

    I have enjoyed Martin’s real live verbs and his story.
    Industrial co-partnership seemed so logical. Recall a weekend at Cambridge run by the much missed Viv Bingham, and even spent time canvassing in Ely. Subject really ought to be revived properly.

  • Bernard Aris 9th Aug '17 - 2:44pm

    When reading the flinty, sparking speech from our candidate for West Flint, I’m very much reminded of the rhetoric of the founding fathers and mothers of my own party, D66 (Democrats’66), founded in 1966.
    If you speak to those founders today, you see that spark returning and old people transform into ardent reformers (D66 also wanted to improve Dutch democracy, both political and in pension funds and suchlike; in fact we still do) .
    We entered parliament in 1967 with 7 out of 150 seats, in an age where big parties like PvdA (Labour) and the three Christian Democrat parties still had a solid grip on their trade unions and suchlike. It caused a sensation, we helped break open Dutch politics to newcomers.
    Good to see Devolution mentioned in the newspaper account; and the condemnation of negative campaigning still holds, se our Brexit Referendum campaign…

  • Sue Sutherland 9th Aug ’17 – 2:02pm…………Lorenzo, I just don’t see how we can have an alliance with Labour at the moment now Momentum have the upper hand. They are positioning themselves to deselect MPs who oppose Corbyn because I believe they want our country to be reduced to such a mess that it will accept an ultimate socialist/ communist state being imposed on it. Less extreme MPs will either have to go along with this or be pushed out…….

    Nonsense…Such de-selection stories are fuelled by the Sun/Mail/Express…

    Even the Telegraph (hardly noted for being sympathetic to Momentum) admitted that such reports are exaggerated and have come from individuals or small groups within Momentum…

    What is wrong with the following aims…Just replace the word ‘Labour’ with ‘LibDem’

    ● Provide support, training and mentoring to help and encourage potential Labour candidates, ensuring there are more suitable candidates with a wide range of life experiences, especially working class, black, Asian, ethnic minority, LGBT, disabled and women candidates.

    ● Facilitate and coordinate the building and support of organisations that can make concrete improvements to people’s lives, thereby demonstrating how collective action and Labour values can transform our society for the better.

    ● Organise inclusive events, rallies, meet ups and policy consultations for political education and mass mobilisation for a more democratic, equal and decent society.

    BTW…. I’ve lost count of the number of times those, like me, who have left wing Liberal views have been ‘invited’, by some posters on LDV, to leave the party…

  • David Evans 9th Aug '17 - 3:58pm

    Lorenzo, Answers to your questions in order
    1) Why do I support Vince – He is our leader. But supporting him, won’t stop me telling him that he and other senior figures made a total mess of being in coalition and lost us the trust of most of the people who supported us. That is more important to the future of our party, our country and our values than any of the gains they think they made at that time.
    2) Why do I not support the re-orientation of the centre left – The naively optimistic have been talking about another centre left reorganisation for many years. It happened between 1981 and in 1988, and I supported it then, but its benefits were squandered between 2010 and 2015, and the behaviour of our leaders in coalition means that those liberal leaning Labour supporters will not touch us with a barge pole.
    3) How can we … hope to compete? Because we are liberal, we do believe in evidence based policy making and eventually a majority of us will realise that we have to change to put things right.
    4) Is it not the case, the coalition was lousy because it went with the four fifths , the Tories, not the one fifth, the Liberal Democrats. Yes, because our leader wsa prepared to sacrifice the Liberal Democrats to save the coalition – time and again and again.
    5) As the party cannot compete for the left vote – wrong. We have to compete and we can compete. But to start doing it, we have to accept we got it wrong.
    6) Why not a new party? Because that is the surest and quickest route to finally destroying what is left of Liberal Democracy in the UK.
    7) Because the vast majority of the Labour party is authoritarian and anti liberal, and would use any such coalition as David Cameron did – to destroy us.

    Lorenzo, one question for you. You say have been around for a good while. So why haven’t you realised this?

  • theakes 10:48 am
    Financial crises and the economic and political fallout resulting from them have not been consigned to history.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 10th Aug '17 - 2:26am

    Sue Sutherland

    I do not think at present we can have such a re-grouping, but it is what I sometimes think I would like , in many ways. I think, an Andy Burnham led party would have made common cause with us under Tim, just as an example. The Labour party has changed massively since I was in it, I know from the few members who have joined us from it, some of whom I have chatted to about it, such as in Nottingham or London.Though Corbyn has admirers here , he s to the centre compared to some there now !

    David Evans

    I thank you for this excellent reply.

    I agree with much of what you say in that .

    I do realise it, but as someone of the Tim, Nick, generation, who was as a younger fellow ,in the Labour party , I try to not be too influenced by my preferences , and am seeking the views of those centre left Liberals, some to the left of me even though they were not in that party, and , who have views to the left of the right wing of Labour,as I came to feel by the time I left that party, but who could slot in to that party as a liberal portion between the Blairites and Corbynites .I was too right wing social democrat for the old Labour,of once , or current left of that party, too left wing liberal for the new Labour of once, or current ex Blairites. This party has divisions but it is nothing compared to a party that goes from TonyBenn to TonyBlair !!

    But I think in the USA we would all be Democrats.Because the two broad groups there survive, even the traditionally independent Democratic socialist Sanders only emerged on the scene as a candidate with the eyes of the world set on him, through the Democratic party.

    One view is the Co-operative movement, with usually twenty five mps or thereabouts, have more clout with Labour than we do in opposition with a dozen.The Fabians were once more influential than us similarly. When we tried for influence , in the 2010 to 2015 period, we lost support to get little influence , in many ways.

    In parts of Europe with pr we would be as we are , but win more !

    I feel though that to regularly talk down those years only, rather than see what was attempted as more positive in it proved the party was not a protest movement, could see us win the argument as seeking a mandate to govern unconstrained by a bigger party, facing them in an election. The only alliances that work are pre election agreements , that last and prosper. See Gibraltar.

  • jayne Mansfield 10th Aug '17 - 9:21am

    My opinion is that all a re-grouping will do is split the left of centre vote and ensure a Tory government in perpetuity.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 10th Aug '17 - 1:00pm


    I think it is those who argue for us to be a left alternative to Labour , who seem content to split the left of centre vote, and thus so with Labour , who do not like alliance at all.

    I think what I would like is Labour as a centre left rather than left party, us as that and a radical centre party, the combination providing a centre left movement.

    But Sue shows as they are and have been this is unlikely so I agree with some of those here including the David Evans contribution, we must be a more radical party.

    That need not mean only statist traditional left , it could be looking at the state as facilitator and not for profit and community and of course empowerment of each of us.

  • jayne
    So endless class warfare then.
    “And if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.”
    Where is your preferred emigration destination?

  • Nick Collins 10th Aug '17 - 7:41pm

    @ Manfarang

    I don’t think Jayne said that she was happy with her predicted outcome; just that it was probable. I fear that she is probably correct.

  • Nick
    With a bad Brexit. Expect the unexpected.

  • Nick Collins 11th Aug '17 - 11:55am

    @ Manfarang
    I expected the coalition to end in electoral disaster for the LibDems, and I was right.

    I do not expect any good to come from brexit, but I accept that its outcomes may be even worse than I expect.

    “Oh gods! Who is’t can say ‘I am at the worst’?

    The worst is not
    So long as we can say ‘This is the worst’.”

    King Lear Act 4, Scene 1, lines 26-29

  • Nick
    th’ crack of doom

  • nvelope2003 11th Aug '17 - 8:29pm

    I think the Conservatives cooked their goose in June 2017. They may not recover for a while if at all.

  • nvelope2003 11th Aug '17 - 8:32pm

    Interesting that according to YOUGOV Liberal Democrat supporters do not want their party to win a general election……. what can one say ?

  • Nick Collins 12th Aug '17 - 12:17pm

    “th’ crack of doom”

    That sounds like the last Trump

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