Post-war Liberal leaders in perspective

There have been ten leaders of the Liberal Party and its successor the Liberal Democrats since 1945 as follows. I have resisted the temptation to rank them 1 – 10, but my top three are revealed later. The roll of honour is as follows;

Clement Davies 1945 -56

A reluctant leader who led a depleted parliamentary party in a chamber dominated by Labour.  He was credited with keeping organised Liberalism alive during one of our darkest periods.

Jo Grimond 1956 -67

A youthful breath of fresh air who oversaw a mini-revival with famous by-election victories at Torrington and Orpington. Ultimately his vision of a non-socialist progressive alternative to the Conservatives would falter with the return to power of Labour under Harold Wilson.

Jeremy Thorpe 1967 -76

Flamboyant and energetic. At the February 1974, General Election with the country polarised and the powerful miners on strike led the party to an amazing 20% of the vote but only 14 seats due to FPTP. Eventually, scandal affecting his personal life would force his resignation.

David Steel 1976 -88

Pitched into battle very quickly when the struggling Labour government sought a deal to stay in office through the Lib/Lab pact. David went on to play a leading role in forming the alliance with the SDP and stepped down when the two parties merged.

Paddy Ashdown 1988 -99

The first leader of the Liberal Democrats revived fortunes after merger dramas and grew the parliamentary party by rigid targeting. The party got close to New Labour but was unable to achieve the coveted electoral reform from a treacherous Tony Blair.

Charles Kennedy 1999-06

Built on Ashdown’s targeting strategy and led the opposition to the Iraq War. Charles achieved a post-war record of 63 MPs in the 2005 General Election but had to step down soon after due to a serious health problem.

Ming Campbell 2006 -07

Steadied the ship (as it were), stepping up from the deputy leadership. Ultimately, he was a victim of ageism in a period when the leaders of the Tories and Labour parties were considerably younger.

Nick Clegg 2007-15

The original ‘Orange Booker’ who won the 2010 General Election debates and took the party into government. Pledge on university tuition fees came back to bite him with the electorate punishing us at the polls. Nick stepped down after a heavy defeat in 2015.

Tim Farron 2015-17

Promised to ‘March his troops toward the sound of gunfire’ and succeeded in overseeing a minor recovery in the 2017 General Election. Dogged by questions over his attitude to gay sex which eventually led him to step down.

Vince Cable 2017 to date

Stepped into the breach having been at the top of the party for a number of years. Vince is a safe pair of hands who has plans to open up our ranks to registered supporters and widen the franchise for future leadership elections. An elder statesman who is widely respected across the political spectrum.

Whatever you think of them as individuals all of these men were or are conviction politicians who chose Liberalism over careerism. My top three and it was a difficult choice are:

Charles Kennedy, Jo Grimmond and Clement Davies.

Who are yours?

* David is a member of Horsham and Crawley Liberal Democrats

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24 Comments

  • Robert Brown 26th Dec '18 - 7:11pm

    My top 3 are 1. David Steel 2. Jo Grimond 3. Charles Kennedy

    David Steel took over after Thorpe scandal, moved the Party into relevance, steered the difficult challenge of the Alliance, and had a further career as Presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament, a major player in Liberal Internatiobal and distinguished elder statesman who is still spot on in his political analysis

    The Grimond revival is underrated these days – jo gave political stature and intellectual fizz back to the Party which was at the time headed for extinction.

    Charles Kennedy helped to re-burnish our centre left credentials over the Iraq war in particular and gave, as all successful Liberal leaders have done, a edible, trustworthy and human onsge to the Party.

    I have been privileged to know them to a degree all except Clement Davies.

  • I don’t think you can exclude Paddy from the top 3. Remember we were seen as a cross between a joke and an irrelevance in 1988. His oft-quoted line about us being an asterisk in the opinion polls was true. Yet within a decade we had 47 MPs, 19% of the vote and were the second party of local government. He can’t take all the credit for that – and I don’t think he would want to. But his leadership was crucial.
    So my top three would be Paddy, Charles and Jo. But I have a great respect for all of them. As a party we have always been very lucky with our leaders.

  • A pedant writes – surely on Liberal DEMOCRAT Voice you should include the three leaders of the SDP – Roy Jenkins, David Owen and (briefly) Robert Maclennan (who was also briefly acting leader of the Liberal Democrats with David Steel).

    Jenkins and Owen formed a key part in the history of our predecessor parties and thus for the Lib Dems.

  • David Warren 26th Dec '18 - 10:18pm

    Good point Michael.

    I didn’t think about the SDP leaders when writing the article but as you say they are part of the recent history of the Liberal family.

    Roy Jenkins in particular played an important role.

  • Sorry to say it, but Clem Davies was far from being a conviction politician and was all over the place in the 1930’s.

    He presided over a parliamentary group whittled away with defections to other parties and was frequently absent because of his predilection for the strong stuff. It took a conspiracy led by Thorpe to prise him out to be replaced by Jo Grimond.

  • Maybe I could mention the best leader we never had – Shirley Williams

  • Tony Greaves 26th Dec '18 - 11:27pm

    We had Shirley as our Leader in the Lords. Of the party leaders I’m not going to try to rank them since several are still parliamentary colleagues. But without Jo, there would never have been a modern Liberal Party as we knew it and everything that followed.

  • Tony Greaves 26th Dec '18 - 11:28pm

    But if The Doctor is also in the list he is very firmly at the bottom!

  • David Evershed 27th Dec '18 - 1:22am

    1. David Owen (who was Foreign Sec)
    2. Jo Grimmond
    3. Vince Cable (who was Business Sec for 5 years)

  • David Owen was Foreign Secretary in a Labour government, not an Alliance one, so I’m not sure how that’s relevant.

  • Steve Comer 27th Dec '18 - 7:58am

    I would have to put them in the following order:
    1) Paddy Ashdown
    2) Jo Grimond
    3) Charles Kennedy

    Paddy Ashdown was the first Liberal /Lib DemLeader who not only understood, but practised Community Politics. (Read his chapter on the winning of Yeovil in his autobiography).
    In 1989 the party was at rock bottom following the merger and the poor 4th place in the European elections, yet within just two years we were winning local elections and Parliamentary by-elections again, and had a creditable result in 1992 which was the foundation of the 1997 breakthrough.

    Jo Grimond was a bit before my time, but as like Paddy Ashdown took over a party on the verge of extinction. He presided over a huge intellectual and ideological input into the party, and I feel we lived off that intellectual capital until well into the 1990s. He also positioned the party clearly as a centre-left internationalist force that accepted the post Imperial world and supported the UK being part of the European Community.

    Charles Kennedy had the difficult job of sustaining the breakthrough of 1997/2001.
    e doesn’t get the credit he deserves because the party reached a bit of a plateau in 2005 (although from where we are now it seems like a mountain top!) .
    He was leader at a time the party was presenting a more radical alternative to the ‘triangulation formula’ promoted not only by Blair, but Clinton and Schroeder too.
    I didn’t vote for him as Leader, but when you were with him on the streets it was obvious how popular he was with ordinary voters.

  • Steve Comer 27th Dec '18 - 8:05am

    David Warren:
    Had Robert MacLennan been a Leader for longer he might have been a contender. I think he is much underrated figure. He won his seat from the Liberal Party in 1966, but in the 1970s found himself at odds with the direction of the Labour party, and was an early convert to the SDP. He was a reluctant Leader, but ‘steadied the ship’ after merger and the breakaway of the Owen fans. I believe his Leadership ensured the majority of the SDP joined the new party on merger.
    He built alliances outside the Party, and worked very well with the (also sadly underrated) Robin Cook on constitutional matters. Without him I doubt the 1999 Euro elections would have been fought on a PR system.

  • Rita Giannini 27th Dec '18 - 11:54am

    My number one is certainly David Steel. As a young liberal in Italy in the 70s he was our hero and role model: his legislation on abortion was a dream in a country kept behind by the catholic church.

  • Duncan Brack 27th Dec '18 - 12:36pm

    Anyone interested in exploring this question further might be interested in the Liberal Democrat History Group’s book British Liberal Leaders (https://liberalhistory.org.uk/product/british-liberal-leaders-leaders-of-the-liberal-party-sdp-and-liberal-democrats-since-1828/). Published in 2015, it obviously doesn’t cover Tim Farron or Vince Cable, but it includes chapters on every Liberal, SDP and Liberal Democrat leader since Earl Grey in the early nineteenth century, plus extended interviews with David Steel, Paddy Ashdown and Nick Clegg.

    We also rated all the leaders against a series of characteristics: communication and campaigning skills; ability to develop and articulate a vision; party management; extent to which they achieved the objectives of Liberalism; and the extent to which they left the party in a better or worse shape than they found it. Looking at the overall rating based on those elements, and just sticking, for these purposes, to post-war leaders, these were our top three places (in order), Ashdown, Grimond, Jenkins/Steel/Kennedy (tied). Obviously this is hardly scientific, but you might be interested to see our reasoning in the book!

  • John Marriott 27th Dec '18 - 1:10pm

    My three? 1.Paddy Ashdown 2. Paddy Ashdown 3. Paddy Ashdown

  • I think Roy Jenkins is not to be overlooked. As a liberal Home Secretary (even if then in a different party) helping to see through the legalisation of homosexuality and abortion (with Steel) – even if they were private members bill, people think without him they wouldn’t have been passed.

    And being a key force in the formation of the SDP and the Alliance – arguably without
    him it would never have been formed.

    Arguably his actual leadership of the SDP and the 1983 General Election might be seen as something of a disappointment given the high hopes a few years earlier and despite being the son of a miner he perhaps lacked the “common touch.” Nevertheless (with Steel) he got the highest ever vote for a liberal “third party” force and almost overtook the Labour party.

    See his obituary in the Guardian at https://www.theguardian.com/news/2003/jan/06/guardianobituaries.obituaries

    For me I would put Paddy top – may be because I became a Lib Dem activist at that time. He inherited a very demoralised party if not quite within the margin of error of zero in the polls as Paddy would like to relate then close to it. (And we think we have it bad today!). And transformed it within ten years to the biggest Lib Dem Parliamentary force in modern times. Now of course he built on Grimmond and the Alliance. The Tories played their part in helping. And there were also talented people working in the party. Chris Rennard in the campaigns department and all those at ALDC at the time as well as thousands of councillors and activists. But Paddy deserves much credit for mobilising and encouraging that force with his energy and enthusiasm.

    A trivia fact about David Steel, @Rita Giannini, he stood for election to the European Parliament in Italy in 1989 – https://liberalhistory.org.uk/history/steel-david-lord-steel/

  • David Warren 27th Dec '18 - 4:22pm

    Appreciate all the comments.

    I was hoping the article would generate a good debate and it has which pleases me greatly.

    @duncanbrack your book is available from my local library so I will definitely be checking out as I continue my hunger for reading anything liberal.

    My top three?

    Well plenty of you agree with my choice of Grimond and Kennedy but not Davies.

    I included the latter because having read his biography by Alun Wyburn-Powell and researched his career I believe he saved the party from extinction.

    This is a theme I intend to develop in a future article which I hope Lib Dem Voice will publish.

  • Richard Underhill 29th Dec '18 - 8:13am

    The 1951 general election produced a Conservative government led by Sir Winston Churchill with a small overall majority. He offered a coalition to Clement Davies with a Cabinet post. According to a family member, speaking at a dinner at the NLC, Clement Davies refused, believing that to accept would imply the end of the Liberal Party as an independent force.

  • Neil Sandison 29th Dec '18 - 1:01pm

    My stand outs are Charles Kennedy and David Steel but there is one fault line throughout the list .They are all male despite the fact we have had some very talented and gifted women in our ranks from Shirley Williams to Sal Brinton .Perhaps the time is right for a real step change to lead a new liberal movement in the Liberal Democrats .

  • Tahir Maher Tahir Maher 29th Dec '18 - 7:14pm

    For me, it has to be Charles Kennedy (that’s why I joined the party), Jo Grimond than Paddy. But if we include Liberals and SDP – I would drop Paddy and replace him with Roy Jenkins

  • I would say Grimond, Thorpe (before his difficulties) and Ashdown (before his secret dalliance with Tony). They all achieved significant advances and laid the foundations for the pre-Clegg successes. The party needs someone similar right now; the poster who put Vince in the list made me laugh out loud.

  • David Warren 30th Dec '18 - 11:03am

    @NeilSandison

    There are no women on the list because there has never been a female leader of the Liberal Party, SDP or the Liberal Democrats.

    Something I hope will change in the future.

    You mention Shirley Williams, if she had become leader of the SDP then things could have been very different.

    A Steel/Williams ticket in the 1983 General Election might well have led to a real breakthrough.

  • Richard Underhill 30th Dec '18 - 9:58pm

    Former MP David Marquand wanted Shirley Williams to be leader of the SDP.
    He went back to the Labour party (under Blair-Brown).
    We all know that David Owen MP used the Mail on Sunday in the 1992 general election to urge his supporters to vote conservative. Tory electioneers were begging for his 2% of the vote. Someone more conciliatory might have kept the SDP together, Shirley Williams for instance.

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