My Grandad – A tribute to Liberal Party president Lord Evans of Claughton

Growing up, the subject of politics was often on the agenda at family gatherings. However, it was not until I was older that I realised how important and influential my Grandad was within the political arena.

Gruff Evans was brought up in a Welsh-speaking family who resided in Birkenhead on the Wirral. Despite being offered a place at Oxford University, he chose to study law at Liverpool University where he graduated in 1948. After completing National Service as a pilot officer in the Royal Air Force, he established a solicitor’s practice in Liverpool.

Both Gruff’s parents supported the Liberal Party, however they were notoriously divided as his mother was an ‘Asquithian’ Liberal, while his father was a supporter of Lloyd-George. Gruff upheld this Liberal tradition, and to the surprise of the local Tory party, he successfully gained a seat on Birkenhead County Council in 1957 which he subsequently held for twelve years. He then went on to win a seat on Wirral Borough Council in 1973 and led the Liberal Group from 1977 to 1981. Unfortunately, Gruff was less successful in national politics, failing to win at seat in the House of Commons (see here, pg. 22, for more information).

My Grandfather was prominent in the Liberal Party from the 1950s through to the early 1990s. He worked his way up the party ranks, from Chair of the National League of Young Liberals 1960-61, to Chairman of the party’s National Executive, Assembly Committee, and General Election Committee, to attaining the Presidency of the Liberal Party in 1977. During his time as President, Gruff had to confront the controversy surrounding the former leader Jeremy Thorpe which unintentionally brought him into the media spotlight and he subsequently found himself being a familiar figure in the national news during the week of the Liberal Party annual conference.

Following Thorpe’s resignation, Gruff Evans eagerly supported John Pardoe in the leadership contest, however he became a strong supporter of the eventual leader David Steel (click here for more information). According to biographical sources, my Grandad ‘contributed to restoring the unity of the [Liberal] Party’ and that the Party ‘owed Evans a considerable debt for the great contribution he made in steering the party through a difficult period in the 1960s and 1970s’.

Despite initial hesitation, Gruff assisted in defining the details of an arrangement between the Liberals and the Labour Party in 1977-78. He chaired the meeting of the Liberal Assembly in Llandudno on 16th September 1981, and it was here that the official alliance between the Liberals and the Social Democrats was created which ultimately formed what is known today as the Liberal Democrat Party.

Whilst involvement in national Politics was important, my Grandfather’s loyalty was to his local community. He devoted his time to serving local councils on Merseyside and was an early advocate of the importance of community politics – ‘Liberalism on the doorsteps’ – which became crucial during the 1980s and 1990s.

Gruff Evans’s maiden speech on becoming a Peer, criticised the Labour Government for limiting the freedom of action of local authorities. As a result of his knowledge and experience in local government, Gruff was made a frontbench spokesman on housing and local government for the Liberals in the Lords. In 1981 he introduced the Leasehold Reform Bill to protect leasehold tenants. (Click here for an excerpt from one of Gruff’s speeches on Development in Merseyside in 1980). After being awarded his peerage, Gruff Evans was elected as the Welsh Liberal Party’s Vice-President 1979-86 and then President thereafter.

In addition to his political and professional work, my Grandad also held a number of voluntary positions within the local community, including governor of Birkenhead School, member of the court of Liverpool University, chairman of the Birkenhead Council of Voluntary Service, and as well as this, he founded the Friends of Birkenhead Park scheme in 1976. Gruff also held positions with Marcher Sound and Granada TV.

As my Grandfather passed away suddenly, just three years before I was born, I have no personal memory of him. Therefore, in order to understand his life and his role in the House of Lords better, I interviewed my Mum about some of her memories and experiences of growing up with my Grandad.

This article is in memory of my Granny (Lady Moira Evans) who passed away suddenly on 20th November 2017.

* Lucy Johnson is Co-Chair of the Wirral Young Liberals and is currently studying for an MA in Media and Politics at the University of Liverpool.

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11 Comments

  • Lucy, How wonderful to read your article. I have very fond memories of your Granddad from when I was employed at Party HQ as the party youth officer in 1963-65 and later when I was the Lib Candidate in Richmond Yorks and a Lib Councillor in Westmorland.

    Gruff was a delightful man with a great sense of humour and strong radical Liberalism – which was at that time the Party mainstream. He was always kind but forthright and had a great sense of humour and fun. When I think of him it is of the sound of his laughter. You have every reason to be very proud of him and I’m so sorry he didn’t live long enough for you to know him.

    That’s a lovely picture of him and that’s the smile that always comes to mind when I think of him. I just wish we had a few more Gruff Evans nowadays.

  • Lucy Johnson 18th Jan '18 - 3:13pm

    Thank you David, that’s so lovely to hear! I love hearing everyone’s memories of him and to know that he helped so many people. Hopefully I can follow in his footsteps!!

  • Already said this Lucy, but wanted to say this on here. Fantastic piece! Lord Evans was a true Liberal and one of the then Birkenhead Parties best assets. Hopefully starting as my fellow Co-Chair, you can follow in his footsteps within the party.

  • There were so many aspects of Gruff’s work that is no surprise Lucy did not have room to mention her grandfather’s leadership of the Liberal group on Merseyside County Council until 1981 (when Ronnie Fearn took over that role).
    Gruff was an inspiration for Liberals in Birkenhead. 13 years after Gruff’s victory in Claughton, Gordon Lindsay finally took the neighbouring Oxton ward from the Conservatives, and for many years there was a friendly rivalry between the two wards.
    In recent years Claughton has become a Labour stronghold, but last May, Gruff’s grandson, David Evans, fought a by-election there, increasing the Lib Dem vote from 5% to 22%. When canvassing, it was touching that several residents spoke warmly of Gruff, 36 years after he stepped down as their councillor.

  • Chris Graham 19th Jan '18 - 11:47am

    Gruff Evans was a hero – and one of the reasons I landed up in Liverpool and in Liberal politics. As a schoolboy, I heard him speak at a Liberal rally at the Oxford Union, alongside Jo Grimond and Richard Wainwright. I got all three autographs. At Liverpool University a couple of years later, Gruff accompanied Tim Beaumont to our Lib Soc Freshers’ event. From Gruff, I learned about the Welsh influence in Merseyside politics. In particular, the tradition of fighting elections in blue. This came in handy when I started at the BBC and was working on the TV election results coverage. The live feed from Aberystwyth gave the Cardigan result in Welsh, to the despair of all at the Television Centre in London. I could see that the candidate with the big smile was wearing a blue rosette and I confidently entered ‘Lib Gain’ on the graphic. ‘How do you know? Do you speak Welsh?’ When I explained my reasoning I was met with a patronising explanation that Tories were the blue party, something that even a mere News Trainee should know. ‘Trust me. It’s different in Wales,’ I replied. Thanks, Gruff.

  • Lucy Johnson 19th Jan '18 - 11:51am

    Thank you Tom! And you’re right Allan, there was almost too much to include! Hopefully we can continue the good work in Birkenhead and on the Wirral in general!

  • Sandy Walkington 19th Jan '18 - 12:25pm

    Dear Lucy
    I loved this piece and remember your grandfather with great affection. He and Geoff Tordoff did great service is steadying a very wobbly ship. My favourite memory was when I was working in the Liberal Whips’ Office around 1980 and I needed witness signatures for my new passport application. Gruff and I were at a party south of the river and I asked him to do it. Of course only people with certain qualifications could counter-sign – member of Parliament tick, councillor tick, JP tick, solicitor tick, the list went on. I think I submitted the application with him having been able to tick everything!

  • What a lovely article Lucy, which brings back many fond memories of your grandfather. Gruff was a mentor to me as I worked my way up the Young Liberal hierarchy in the late 70s and early 80s. He continued to take a supportive interest in my political career after I moved to Southport in 1984. He would have made a brilliant Lord Chancellor in a Liberal Government. He is much missed.

  • Trevor Smith 19th Jan '18 - 5:07pm

    I knew Gruff well. We were all involved in the New Orbits Group in the late 1950s. He was a great Liberal who effectively helped the Liberals remain, and increase, as a political force around Merseyside and beyond. His all too premature death was a great loss which we all felt deeply at the time.

  • Duncan Brack 20th Jan '18 - 4:33pm

    Lucy, would you be interested in submitting an article on Gruff Evans to the Journal of Liberal History? It would need to be longer than this one, but several of the people who’ve commented have provided useful things to add. If you’d like to discuss this, email me on [email protected]. Looking forward to hearing from you …

  • Lucy Johnson 21st Jan '18 - 10:23pm

    Chris – that’s so great to hear! Thank you for the lovely words about him – his ‘Welshness’ continues in our family now!
    Sandy – thank you so much! I can imagine he would have been the perfect person to do that!
    Nigel – thank you! That is nice to hear; I’m sure he would have loved seeing Southport as a Lib Dem stronghold for so many years.
    Trevor – that’s lovely to hear, thank you for your comment!
    Duncan – I would love to, I will email you asap, thank you!

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