Philip Vince RIP. A life time of discreet service.

philip vinceIf you have been a member of the Liberal Democrats, at any level, then the likelihood is you will have met Philip Vince or maybe you will have had a handwritten note from Philip in immaculate spider-small handwriting; if you attended any Federal Party Conference and before that Liberal Assemblies since at least 1957 then chances are you saw or met Philip Vince. For someone who never stood for public office his impact and commitment were unrivalled.

Despite that, constructing this biography has been a work of many conversations, tiny snippets of information, leads, contacts, shared insights – Philip was known by many people across the organisations that he involved himself with, but it is also true to say that very few people really knew him well.

Where we all seem to agree and have shared knowledge is that Philip was a creature of habit, discreet, someone who enjoyed his own company, but was also sociable and very loyal to his friends and associations. His quiet manner was determined and clear, if often quietly spoken. This biography is just highlights, because the true scale of what Philip did and involved only he knew.

Philp Henry Vince was born in 1933, attended Dr Challoners School, Amersham, and joined local South Buckinghamshire Liberal Association 1949. At the age of 16 (having attended his first branch meeting) he found himself ‘elected’ as Treasurer (it was only later he confessed that he was the only person under 50 and indeed he only person who agreed to do the role). South Bucks was one of 475 seats the Liberal Party contested, achieving 16% of the vote –considering the share of the vote nationally was below 10% was quite respectable.

To place the timing of his decision in context and to give the scale of his involvement the Liberal Leader was Clement Davies, Deputy Leader was the MP for Anglesey Megan Lloyd George and Leader of the Liberals in the House of Lords was Herbert Samuel, 1st Viscount Samuel, and his Deputy leader. In the ensuing General Election in 1950 the Liberal won just 9 seats in the House of Commons.

Philip went up to Cambridge University matriculating on 3rd November 1953 having been admitted to Pembroke College where he read Mathematics Tripos; He graduated with a BA on 22 June 1955 and MA on 19 March 1960. Philip maintained his link with Pembroke attending the Annual Dinner consistently throughout his life. National Service followed University and he entered the RAF as an Officer.

As National Service ended, Philip picked up his politics again and is thought to have attended his first Liberal Assembly in 1959. He is thought to have attended EVERY Liberal Assembly and subsequently Liberal Democrat Conference since that date.

He also became a regular at meetings of the Young Liberals and by the early 1960’s he was Vice-Chairman – Tony Greaves, now Lord Greaves, remembers Philip from then and chuckled “Philip was by then already something of an elder statesman”.

To many Philip always seemed adult, even when young. Late at night after one of the legendary Camden Liberal Democrat supper parties there were a handful of folks still there at the end of the evening and an idle discussion about childish ambitions ( train driver, ballerina etc). Flick Rea turned to Philip who was sitting quietly by and said: “Now, Philip, tell us, when you were a little boy, what did you want to be?” And Philip replied instantly:” grown up”!

Never one for the spotlight Philip preferred to make his strong held views known quietly, determinedly and consistently. His work with the Young Liberals moved into the New Orbits Group, very much a precursor to the revival under Joe Grimond. Lord William Wallace well remembers Philip’s expert and considered contribution to a number of New Orbits Group publications. Many of them were printed by a current Camden Lib Dem Vice-President, Bert Newbrook, on the printer in his front room in Hackney, they are now preserved in archives at Bristol University.

Celia Thomas, now Baroness Thomas of Winchester writes: “Originally I got him on to the Liberal Summer School Committee where he was Treasurer. I first met Philip through Lord (Desmond) Banks, who was Deputy Whip when I started in the Lords Whips Office in 1977. Desmond was the party’s policy officer for some years, and Philip was very involved with that.”

Indeed in 1979 Philip wrote a booklet on Liberal Tax Credit Proposals: “to each according….” With the introduction written by Lord Banks. This interest in policy was reflected in his engagement with Party HQ over tax policy amongst many other areas. Lord William Wallace, who first met Philip in the early 1960’s, remembers him as someone who was actively interested in the science and technology dimension of politics and policy development. Philip was for many years a regular attendee at the Gresham College lectures in the City of London on politics and public policy.

Baroness Winchester continued: “In those days the annual Liberal Summer School, which Desmond helped organise, was a Friday evening through till Sunday lunchtime (even earlier it was a week long) in different locations all over the country, but people gradually stopped coming – often because they were becoming councillors and even MPs! Paddy used to come in the old days!

“In the end the Liberal Summer School joined up with CentreForum (when it was called the Centre for Reform), changed the name to the Keynes Forum, and turned it into a one-day conference based in London. Then even that fizzled out and we put some money into the party’s last one-day conference in London. Philip offered significant amounts of his own money to ensure that strong and effective policy discussion took place.”

In Camden’s Liberal and Liberal Democrat story Philip was a constant presence – Flick Rea remembers that Philip was there at the first meeting she attended in 1975; 1979 General Election Liberal candidate David Radford remembers Philip as the effective and efficient local election agent for the Liberal Party. It was the 1979 election in Hampstead that saw Ken Livingstone defeated to be by Geoffrey Finsberg who became the new MP.

Philip was to be the agent for hundreds of Liberal and Liberal Democrat local election candidates right up to 2010. Indeed the Camden elections office staff remember well Philip correcting the numbers, electoral register, notifying them of changes, deaths, people who had moved and being ever on the ball – it often brought up the question as to whether Philip was himself more effective than a computer. His own financial generosity to the Local Party is reflected in the fact that the stuffing machine in the current constituency office is named after him!

His aversion to home computing technology, more and more visible in recent years, was also at odds with someone who had worked for his lifetime for IBM – he was said to have been one of the very first to have had his own personal computer on his desk at work. But he had a clear view that what he did at work he was not going to take home. With the exception that was of old IBM headed notepaper that he used and re-used for years after his retirement.

It has a certain irony that in 1972 Philip was a co-author of “Computers and the year 2000”, writing the chapters: Manpower and management in a compuer-based society, and joinly writing Computers in everyday life with Brian Meek.

In 1972, the Heath Government proposed a tax credit scheme for the UK (real tax credits, not the means-tested benefits that are currently called tax credits); and in 1979 Philip put together a similar scheme for the Liberal Party which in 1983 was received as evidence by a parliamentary enquiry into the structure of personal income taxation and income support, and was treated to detailed analysis at the London School of Economics. When in 1988 the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party combined to form the Liberal Democrats, Philip was one of the group of party members who worked on the Citizen’s Income scheme that became party policy for several years during the early 1990s.

In 1984 Philip was one of the earliest participants in the Basic Income Research Group, which later became the Citizen’s Income Trust, and since then he has been central to the debate on the desirability and feasibility of a Citizen’s Income: an unconditional, nonwithdrawable income for every individual as a right of citizenship. He was a trustee of the Trust for twenty five years, and the treasurer for almost as long; and was always been the person they’ve gone to for verification of the costings of Citizen’s Income schemes. There have been few people as knowledgeable about the national accounts.

But despite this strong, impressive and highly political pedigree, Philip maintained a busy and wide-ranging social life. He never cooked for himself at home – just a minimal breakfast, but otherwise ate out usually and often at the same places (apparently eating the same dishes).

Philip’s brother Geoffrey was an accomplished pianist and Philip himself was a great lover of the opera – when his friend Janet Grauberg confessed she didn’t get on with opera Philip quipped “we all have our faults”. For over 23 years Philip was a supporter of the Wexford Festival Opera in Ireland. He was unable to attend after 2012 but continued, in his typical style to be a very generous supporter, even in his own absence.

His love of astronomy had been developed by an early telescope in his parents’ garden, indeed his Father had been the treasurer of the British Astonomical Association.

A liberal in his politics but also in his life, he joined the Hampstead Humanists in 1965 and was a member ever since; his commitment to his community meant he had been a long standing member of Belsize Residents Association; there was also the National Trust, the United Nations Association, Citizen’s Income Trust, Camden Rating Tribunal: indeed in many organisations that Philip chose to join he often ended up as treasurer, membership secretary or auditor.

When I first became involved in Camden politics Philip was the source of much advice – sitting in his flat in Eton Avenue in one of the old, faded, sunken chairs, we talked a lot: Philip filling me in on how things worked, me suggesting what he clearly thought were flamboyant ideas. But he listened and responded to those ideas that he considerd had any merit. He was a wise counsel and a good reliable source of advice whether the issue was personal or political.

Glancing back over some papers I found my list of nominators for the 2005 General Election in Hampstead and Highgate to be the Liberal Democrat candidate – it’s a list of people of whom I am very fond, I’m proud to see that Philip was one of those people.

Philip maintained good health throughout his life and hid any discomfort well. He was increasingly bent over in much later life – something that shaded his bright eyes and flashing smile. Ever in his same suit and tie – with his proudly worn IBM tie pin – Philip was always present, but often fashionably late.

Reflection the priorities and contradictions in his life two of his last conversations, when in the hospice were if his visitor had a iPhone so they could help pay his gas bill and if he had a postal vote arranged. He will be much missed.

Philip Henry Vince born 19th February 1933, passed away at 7am on 4th February 2015 in the Marie Curie Hospice, Belsize, London, NW3. His Humanist funeral will be held on Tuesday 24th February 2015 at West Chapel, Golders Green at 11am.

* Ed Fordham is a party member and activist in Chesterfield, Derbyshire.

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7 Comments

  • Excellent tribute to Phlip Vince.
    Lifetime of service to Liberalism.

  • roger billins 24th Feb '15 - 4:46pm

    Sad to hear this news. I remember Philip with affection from the days of my association with Hampstead Liberals from 1978 to 2006 and, in particular, the support he gave to Flick and me upon our election as the first Liberal Councillors on Camden in 1986.

  • Chris Rennard 24th Feb '15 - 11:09pm

    Philip was a great bloke, consistently true to Liberal and Liberal Democrat principles and you could never have doubted his unwavering commitment to them and to those seeking to advance them – even if difficult times. Our party’s survival owes everything to people such as him and I am proud to have known him.

  • Sandy Walkington 25th Feb '15 - 9:52am

    Such a brilliant biography. I also recall him doing a lot of thinking on industrial democracy. He was so self-effacing but it was people like him who gave the old Liberal party intellectual bottom so that it was more than a folding, stuffing and delivery machine. Sorry to have missed his funeral.

  • Jeremy Hargreaves 25th Feb '15 - 5:55pm

    Thanks for writing this. I don’t think I ever spoke to him, but I have seen him at conferences for (only) a couple of decades, and remember particularly well seeing him walking through York to conference last spring, literally bent double, and wondering at the extraordinary commitment which obviously lay behind that.

    One of the dreadful things about English social mores is that we only find out stories such as this once the person concerned has gone. Couldn’t someone produce a collection of the stories of the half-century-long stories within the party, of those who are still with us?

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