Book Review – Power to the People: Confessions of a Young Liberal Activist 1975 – 1987 by Felix Dodds

Felix Dodds, who was Chair of the National League of Young Liberal (NLYL) 1985-1987 and led the so-called Green Guard, inheritors of the late 60s/early 70s YLs Red Guard mantle, wrote this book to inspire and give hope to today’s young people at a time when politics seems a much more cynical and jaded business than the last time we had a Tory female Prime Minister and were arguing about Europe.

Dodds ‘confessions’ tell of his involvement with the YLs starting as a 6th former in Hertfordshire, having been inspired by the Kennedy brothers as encapsulated in JFK’s famous question “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”, and finish with him stepping down as NLYL Chair in 1987. In between, he races through remembrances and anecdotes about the life and times of the 1980’s Young Liberals with social justice, the environment and grassroots democracy as the core values of everything we did. (Yes, I was there!)

There are tales of Non-Violent Direct Action, some of which worked better than others, such as not getting arrested for flyposting in London’s Covent Garden by some about-to-go-off-duty policemen, but still having to un-flypost the offending items, to participating in the ultimately successful anti-apartheid campaign to free Nelson Mandela.

The journalistic skills of the late and still much missed Mike Harskin, who died in 1992 when he was a London Borough of Brent Councillor and editor of Liberal News, were often at the centre of some of the best (and worst) of the Green Guard’s activities, most famously the press release issued just before the 1983 General Election that started ‘Young people would do just as well at home on June 9th if they go by the Alliance Manifesto….’ Party Leader David Steel, who later refused to meet Felix Dodds when he became NLYL Chair in 1985, was not happy!

Stories are recalled of the YLs who jointly became a crack squad of activists and election, especially by-election, campaigners, campaigning for the first time on issues that are now totally mainstream, such as what was then called Gay Rights, the need for a political solution to The Troubles in Northern Ireland and a recognition that we are destroying our planet and must do something about it.

An Afterword details what became of some of the Green Guard members in the 35 years since those halcyon days, as award-winning journalists and working in the media (Stephen Grey, Andrew Harrison, Carina Trimingham), as Parliamentarians, (former MPs Adrian Sanders, Martin Horwood and Baroness Olly Grender), academics and prolific authors (Edward Lucas, Andrew Reynolds) and taking a leading role in local politics (Mike Cooper as Leader of Sutton Council & Louise Harris/Bloom as a GLA member and Cabinet member at Eastleigh Council). Felix himself had a long career around the United Nations and has also written many books. Current YLs be warned, you may not yet realise what you have got yourselves into!

* Louise Harris has been a party member since 1982, a GLA member, an Eastleigh Council Cabinet member (as Louise Bloom) and is currently an activist in South Gloucestershire.

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  • Richard Underhill 1st Mar '18 - 12:32pm

    “The journalistic skills of the late and still much missed Mike Harskin, who died in 1992 when he was a London Borough of Brent Councillor and editor of Liberal News”
    Mike was the editor of the Liberal News. The party had a referendum of conference delegates while Paddy Ashdown was leader. We chose ‘Liberal Democrats’ in preference to ‘Democrats’. The Liberal News “followed the party” and became the ‘Liberal Democrat News’.
    On behalf of the party Mike loyally accepted a bet from an angry psephologist (whose name I forget) that we would win four seats of his choosing in the upcoming general election of 1991-1992. These were not our target seats. The party did not win any of them, so Mike was out of pocket by £200.
    He came third in Brent South.

  • Louise Harris 1st Mar '18 - 1:22pm

    Richard wins the ‘Spot the Typo’ competition! Felix was of course NLYL Chair 1985 – 87, although as a fully fledged Whovian he might like a bit of time travel!

  • Kirsten johnson 1st Mar '18 - 3:07pm

    And it’s now fixed!

  • Louise Harris 1st Mar '18 - 3:30pm

    Thank you!

  • You also need to fix 1890s in the next paragraph. You do seem to have been determined to turn this into a tale of the late Gladstonian era!
    Looks like an interesting book though.

  • Gordon Lishman 1st Mar '18 - 10:13pm

    “campaigning for the first time on issues that are now totally mainstream, such as what was then called Gay Rights, the need for a political solution to The Troubles in Northern Ireland…..”. YL campaigning on both issues happened in the late 60s and early 70s. I proposed a policy motion and campaign on N Ireland (pre-Troubles) in 1966 and worked with Bernard Greaves and others on gay rights issues, including the Liberal Party gay rights campaign in the early 70s!

  • Of course Gordon’s right, and I remember Bernard and Gordon campaigning on this in the 1960’s.

    It’s also odd that a Chairman of the National League of Young Liberals in 1987 could remember hearing a JFK speech in 1961. No wonder Gordon was involved in Help the Aged.

  • Martin Pierce 2nd Mar '18 - 8:39am

    I always enjoyed working with Felix – he always made you think. He also importantly (though not now a much needed skill) taught me how to use the litho machine in the attic if the NLC where I happily passed several days in the summer of 1987 churning out ULS handbooks and listening to Radio 1. I didn’t join the Liberal Party because of people like Felix, but I stayed because of people like him. There were way too few of them in the coalition and although seen as on the fringes back in the 80s, would not have made the strategic and tactical errors of those years. I like that he chose ‘Power to the People’ – there was also something of the Wolfie Smith about Felix (I mean it affectionately) and one of the photos on the cover looks like an homage to the Tooting Popular Front as well!

  • Gordon Lishman 2nd Mar '18 - 9:16am

    Grrrrrrrr. Age Concern! From 1974 until retirement in 2009.

  • One of the glorious failures of 1970s campaigning was Rotherham Liberals pressing the Council to replace the Library copy of The Lady with Gay News. This campaign resulted in members being intimidated by the National Front. However the threats evaporated somewhat when they discovered that the Secretary was married to a police officer!

  • @ Gordon Apologies from an increasingly aged but still concerned person.

  • Chris Rennard 2nd Mar '18 - 2:04pm

    I very much enjoyed this book and the reviews. I posted my own on the Amazon website:

    The 1980s is a fascinating period in British politics and Felix Dodds played a fascinating role in that period and which he writes extremely well about. The group of people who were close to him then have stuck together and have mostly used their political and campaigning skills to great effect ever since. It took courage for Young Liberals to support a Labour candidate because he was openly gay and the SDP’s sitting MP appeared to be homophobic, but I think that they were right even though it caused ructions internally. They pushed the Liberal Party and then the Liberal Democrats to adopt the green agenda well in advance of other parties. I did not agree with all the activities and statements made by this group (for example the one suggesting that the Alliance Manifesto of 1983 was ‘not worth voting for’). But they were inspired and inspirational and Felix’s account deserves to be read widely.

  • Duncan Brack 3rd Mar '18 - 6:31pm

    Just to correct a minor point in Richard Underhill’s first comment – the referendum of conference delegates was organised by LINk (the Liberal Information Network), not the party centrally, and took place at the 1987 Liberal Assembly, before Paddy became leader. I helped organise it, and it’s certainly true that ‘Liberal Democrats’ won by a mile. We provided a space for write-in names, which were announced, along with the rest of the results, in true returning officer style, by Andy Ellis (shortly to become the Lib Dems’ first chief executive) at the Glee Club. I can still remember the roar of applause which greeted the announcement of one vote for the ‘Sod Off Gavin Grant Party’.

  • David Alton 4th Mar '18 - 4:59pm

    “In his racy, well-written and thought-provoking memoir, Power To The People – Confessions of a Young Liberal activist 1975-1987, Felix Dodds provides an insightful sketch of the politics of those years and how the Young Liberals interacted among themselves, with the Party leadership, and how they responded to events.

    We also learn a lot about Felix himself – not least his sometimes mischievous sense of humour – and about the clever band of young men and women who brought an untarnished, refreshing, idealism and energy into the heart of political life. Some of them, like the late Mike Harskin, became an indispensable part of the Chief Whip’s engine room. Others have gone on to make remarkable contributions in many walks of life.

    Having cut my own teeth as a schoolboy chairman of the local branch of Young Liberals; as a student Liberal activist; a Federation Chair during Peter Hain’s time as National Chair; a Liverpool City Councillor at 21; National President of the Young Liberals in the 70s and MP and Chief Whip in the 80s, Felix’s narrative inevitably stirs many memories – but you don’t have to have been intimately involved in those times and events to learn something useful from this account.

    In paraphrasing Samuel Ullman, Robert Kennedy once remarked that “youth is not a time of life, it’s a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination”. Perhaps this memoir is also meant to remind us never to stop trying to see things through younger eyes nor to dismiss people or their ideas because they are young.

    And ultimately, this memoir is all about passing on the baton – and a belief in the extraordinary privilege of living in a democratic and free society.”

    – David Alton
    Lord Alton of Liverpool
    Professor the Lord Alton of Liverpool
    Independent Crossbench Member of the House of Lords

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