John Roberts – a tribute

John Roberts with Judith Trefor Thomas had the idea, and with the great support of Emlyn Hooson, founded the Welsh Liberal Summer School meeting first in Llangollen. It developed ultimately into the Lloyd George Society of which he was an executive member for many years. His purpose was to have a meeting place where we could discuss Liberal policies and exchange ideas, with a Welsh flavour.

Having broken away from the central Liberal organisation, the LPO, in 1967, the new Welsh Liberal Party needed its own distinctive policies. John was foremost in engaging academics and journalists who threw us ideas. I remember in particular how we worked on economic policies with the theme that bribing industry with cash subsidies to open branch projects in Wales was ultimately fruitless. What was needed was investment in infrastructure which would make Wales a desirable place for investment – roads, rail electrification, airlinks, trading estates, a new Severn crossing and upgrading the A55. Free Ports in Cardiff, Newport and Swansea was one of the policies we developed, a concept which this Tory government fifty years later seems now to have latched onto.

John was in the beginning the tall and dashing bachelor in the midst of a group with young families. He was not troubled as I was, by a little figure joining us for dinner in his baby grow at the Llanwrtyd Wells hotel – my middle son is now a journalist in his fifties, which gives you some idea of the time scale. Somehow we family men felt he was getting away with it. We were delighted when after a number of years he introduced us to Liz who joined him as a regular attender. They were together splendid company.

But of course, there was the singing round the piano which became such a feature of our Saturday evenings with John, Winston Roddick and Carol Phillips in particular to the fore. This was extended into Welsh evenings at Liberal Party conferences into which Geraint Howells once imported a whole Welsh Male Voice Choir. John knew the words – no need for books.

A number of us have particular recollections. Celia Thomas recalls that John liked nothing more than political gossip with Griff Evans and Geoff Tordoff who had as President and Chairman of the party to deal with the Thorpe fall out. Nev Phillips, an Everton season ticket holder since 16, shared his strange obsession with John. He recalls John asking him if he had a spare ticket to the Cup Final at Wembley in 1995 when Everton were playing Man United. Neville told him he had as much chance of getting one as we had of forming a government!!. John said he would continue to ask round. Everton won 1-0. Neville when he got home, saw on Match of the Day the team celebration in a hotel. There was John with the Chairman and the Manager actually holding the Cup!

John was a long time Lib Dem supporter in Richmond and became the senior partner in the highly prestigious legal firm, Goodman Derrick, which had long political connections from the days when Lord Goodman acted as Harold Wilson’s emissary.

John was an enthusiast – for Liberalism, for the organisation of our schools and the Lloyd George Society, but above all for Wales and the Welsh language which he spoke with great proficiency. Celia recalls he had the usual North Wales disdain for Welsh speakers from other parts. He was as I was, involved in the carve up for seats with the SDP in the late eighties, although he took to the field as a candidate only once.

Above all, we will remember him for his immense sociability and kindness. We owe him a lot for his contribution in keeping the spirit of liberalism and the memory of Lloyd George alive in Wales. I shall miss him very much indeed.

* Martin Thomas is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords and the party's Shadow Attorney General

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3 Comments

  • Sandy Walkington 24th Nov '20 - 9:04am

    Sorry to read this – I liked John but then I liked all of that Welsh Liberal gang whom I met while working for Emlyn, I don’t know if the Welsh summer school survives, I miss its English equivalent.

  • Tony Greaves 5th Dec '20 - 5:47pm

    Thanks for this Martin. Just one quibble – the Welsh party did not “break away” from LPO, it was set up as an autonomous body within the LPO constitution – in a sense it had the best of both worlds., representation within LPO and the ability to do much of what it wanted. A sort of proto-federalism really!

  • Very sorry to hear this. John and Liz also lived for a while in Winchester – and were much appreciated and active supporters of the party here too.

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