Opinion: Reflection on half a century of Liberal life

What follows is all, I admit, very self-indulgent.  It is just that when I was delivering leaflets the other day – from one of our councillors protesting against the potential closure of local rail stations – my thoughts went back to my first time out on the stump. This was well over fifty years ago and for a council election in Esher, Surrey. To my shame, I cannot remember who was standing or the result (perhaps someone out there will be able to tell me?). I have a suspicion we took the seat – if so, that was no mean feat with only six Liberal MPs at the time – but, whether or not, what really impressed me was that our candidate seemed to be acquainted with almost everyone we met.  This personal touch was one I tried to emulate (not always successfully, having a fickle memory for names) in my own later political activity.

That took me through student days in Dundee and on to electioneering in my home base of Glasgow Maryhill, with the occasional foray to by-elections around the UK. Two of these were successful (Liverpool, Edgehill and Kincardine & Deeside) unlike personal attempts to get elected at any and every available level. One of the worst moments was forgetting the imprint on a handout and spending hours stamping it with a John Bull Printing Kit. One of the best was when the Labour Party got rattled enough to put out an eve of poll attacking us. Then, of course, there was that first saved deposit!

Meantime, we weathered the Alliance and the merger and, despite initial scepticism about the latter, in Glasgow, Liberals and Social Democrats blended seamlessly together. There were stints on the Party Executiveas well, a role in redrafting the Federal Constitution and in chairing our local Party from time to time. I’ve just stood down from another go at the last of these and am currently relishing my status an ordinary member.

Of course, in between, I did finally manage to get elected and to the European Parliament no less. That was a fascinating and highly fulfilling ten years – even if specialising in fisheries did not seem the obvious choice for someone whose previous day job had been teaching legal theory and comparative law.

It was not, however, the Liberal commitment to engaging with Europe that took me into the Party in the first place – although I rapidly became committed to that cause. Home Rule for Scotland, proportional representation and co-operatives were the key. Things have moved on considerably in relation to the first two – though not without some hitches en route! And a recent pronouncement from the Deputy Prime Minister suggests that the last has not been quite as forgotten as I had thought.

Like many others of a social liberal persuasion, though, I have concerns that we have begun to lose touch with some of the principles underlying these policies. So, foot soldiering from now on shall be confined to delivering my own leafleting walk. The question is whether I can recall enough of my old philosophical training to start putting useful words on paper rather than just through people’s doors.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Foregone Conclusion 1st Feb '12 - 3:38pm

    @ Tom Miller,

    I always find it amusing when people invoke Lloyd George as a great progressive hero. Did he not go into coalition with the Conservatives and presided over harsh cuts in public expenditure?

  • Tony Greaves 1st Feb '12 - 4:13pm

    I agree with a lot of this, Elspeth, though my first doorstep campaigning was not quite as long ago – 1962 at the Orpington by-election, fifty years ago next month! It’s interesting that one of the continuing Liberal voices in the Lords (and an occasional rebel) is Eric Avebury, né Lubbock.

    I don’t think our party has begun to work out how it’s going to explain the coalition to people – nor how it is going to work in the latter stages of this parliament when it will be vital to set a proper swocial Liberal agenda again. The 3 weeks of the election will be far too late.

    But not Lloyd George whose beliefs, though probably genuine, were easily locked up for years at a time. And Jeremy Thorpe? Now, when he is very frail and, I understand, in long-term hospital care, is not the best time to discuss his leadership, but Grimond would be a better reference for the years of post-war Liberal survival (though even Jo went a bit off the rails in his old age).

    What worries me most is the way the party is being asked to churn out straight government propaganda which inevitably is more Tory than Liberal. How many of our members will start to believe this stuff?

    Tony Greaves

  • Andrew Suffield 1st Feb '12 - 5:15pm

    They are willing to take a far worse election result than those offered under Charles Kennedy or Ming to do this.

    No. They simply realise that there were two or three awful options available and no good ones, and with much complaint and dissatisfaction, selected the one which appears to be the least destructive in the long run.

    The result in terms of outcomes looks something close to the opposite of the desired outcomes of the social liberal tradition, too. So what’s the gain, and to whom?

    There was no prospect of a net gain in this parliament. There are a few gains to specific sectors, but that’s all. Overall, “harm minimisation” is the most you can hope for when the economy has taken such a massive hit.

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