Forgotten Liberal heroes: Desmond Banks

Listen to Liberal Democrats make speeches and there are frequent references to historical figures, but drawn from a small cast. Just the quartet of John Stuart Mill, William Gladstone, David Lloyd George, David Penhaligon corner almost all of the market, especially since Bob Maclennan stopped making speeches to party conference. Some of the forgotten figures deserve their obscurity but others do not. Charles James Fox’s defence of civil liberties against a dominating government during wartime or Earl Grey’s leading of the party back into power and major constitutional reform are good examples of mostly forgotten figures who could just as well be a regular source of reference, quotation and inspiration as the traditional quartet. So in this occasional series I am highlighting some of the other figures who have been unjustly forgotten.

Desmond, later Lord, Banks was one of the central figures in keeping the Liberal Party going after the Second World War and in laying the foundations for its subsequent revival under Jo Grimond. Not only was he one of the party’s main intellectual catalysts at the time, he also was a pioneer of campaign tactics that were to become widespread both in the Liberal Party and more widely.

Born on 23 October 1918, Desmond Banks had a private education before volunteering to serve in the army during the Second World War and then subsequently working in his father’s washing machine company. Later he became a life insurance broker and pensions advisor, but his main achievements were in politics.

As a Parliamentary candidate in Harrow, he started the constituency-wide delivery of a free newspaper in the run-up to the 1950 general election and also successfully persuaded the local party to concentrate its resources on a target ward for the next council elections. Both approaches were novel at the time but subsequently becomes widespread. He later stood in St Ives (1955) and Hertfordshire South West (1959) , a reflection of how the modern emphasis on a candidate consistently fighting the same seat had not yet taken hold in the same way.

Desmond Banks also became an important figure in the party nationally, both working at party HQ and editing Liberal News for a while and continuing to contribute regularly after his editorship ceased. Numerous pamphlets and policy papers bore his name. He served in many party roles, including twice chair of the Liberal Party Executive (1961-3 and 1969-70) and once President of the Liberal Party (1968-9), not to mention a period as speech writer for Jo Grimond.

His influence on the party’s policy direction was strengthened by his founding with others of the Radical Reform Group in 1952, designed to be a counter to those who wanted to take the party in a more right wing direction. Instead, he and others blamed the Conservatives for the poverty at home and rise of extremism abroad in the inter-war period. Similarly abhorring the class war outlook of Labour, they wanted a radical liberal approach in the mould of Keynes and Beveridge.

The Radical Reform Group had an unsuccessful period as an organisation outside the Liberal Party – a move aimed both to make it more attractive to defectors from Labour and to help hold on to those Liberals who were moving leftwards – and soon returned to being a pressure group within the party. Its calls for “social reform without socialism” struck many a chord however.

Desmond Banks became a life peer in 1974 and had a stint as Deputy Chief Whip in the Lords during some of the most difficult and unsettling times for the party (1977-1983). A supporter of merger, he continued to be a supporter of the Liberal Democrats until his death in 1997.

In 1948 he married Barbara Wells, who had a distinguished political career in her own right. She was a leading figure in the Women’s Liberal Federation, where her activities won her an OBE.

For the other posts in this series see our Forgotten Liberal Heroes page.

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3 Comments

  • A fine man indeed.

  • Desmond Bank’s and the Radical Reform Group do indeed deserve our thanks for ‘showing the door’ to Arthur Seldon, Oliver Smedley et al who wanted to take the party in a right wing direction. After leaving the party many of them went off to form the Institute of Economic Affairs and provided the intellectual basis for Thatcherism.

    Some people may find your choice of Banks as a Liberal hero at this hour particularly relevant as the signing of the coalition agreement could be seen as a belated triumph for the ideas of the IEA and a defeat for the vision of Keynes/Beveridge. Even more perplexing is the fact that a cabal took the momentous decision without advice as David Howarth points out in his recent review of the birth of the coalition:
    ‘………….the Liberal Democrat leadership took no external advice about the issue, or about the separate issue of accelerated deficit reduction. Both the Treasury and the Bank of England would have reinforced the acceleration view, given half a chance, but that view is built into their nature. Others took very different positions on the optimal path, from the NIESR’s moderate caution to David Blanchflower’s jeremiads. The puzzle is not that the party took one view or another, but that it did so on the fly without consulting specialists. Has the party of Keynes lost touch with economics as a discipline?
    Maybe the lesson the history has to teach us here is that the Liberal revival did not properly get underway until those advocating the right wing economic ideas like Seldon left the party….

  • Desmond and Barbara Banks were very much a duo. When I invited him to speak at a St Albans annual dinner in the 1980s, they insisted on coming and speaking as a pair – meant we had to fund two free meals… He wasn’t a particularly gifted speaker but he had a keen sense of classical rational liberalism, which he also voiced in his back page column in the then Liberal News now occupied by Tom McNally/Tony Greaves et al

    At a time when parliamentary staff were treated like so much chattel by MPs, the Liberal team of secretaries and researchers were the envy of the other parties because we had a proper pension scheme – insisted upon by Desmond based on his professional life.

    In Harrow he was the opponent of Ian Harvey and gets a mention in Ian Harvey’s memoir “To Fall Like Lucifer” about the experience of being unmasked as a gay politician in the 1950s.

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