Remembering a wonderful, zero-hoots giving, wise Liberal

Alex Wilcock has put up a marvellous thread on Twitter tonight marking 106 years since Baroness Nancy Seear’s birth.

I was lucky enough to hear her forthright views in person at a couple of conferences back in the 1990s and I remember how sad I was when she died in the middle of the General Election campaign in 1997. Her lifetime of putting all she had into advancing the liberal cause and she never saw our big breakthrough.

Read the whole thread:

There are some brilliant stories – her take-down of Paddy at a Federal Policy Committee meeting when he was leader – and her vigorous defence of him when he needed it.

i always really admired her. She said what she thought in the most direct way imaginable.

You can see the BBC News report of her death from around 19:15 here.

Her obituary from the Independent by fellow peer Geoff Tordoff is here. 

Not only did she spend a considerable amount of time on the front bench listening to and intervening with devastating logic at Questions and in Committee, but when she rose to speak in debates her contributions were among the most listened to in all parts of the House. Her ability to deal with the most complex subjects with total clarity was made even more impressive by the fact that she was never ever known to use a single note. It was this picture that impressed the audiences when television was introduced into the Lords in 1985.

Do you have any Nancy Seear stories to share? I can only imagine what she would have to say about the mess we find ourselves in today.


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Margaret Joachim 7th Aug '19 - 10:44pm

    Nancy was a long-time President of the Fawcett Society, including the period (approx. 1988) when I was Chair. I was having some serious difficulties (and was much younger and less experienced than I am now) and decided that it would be appropriate to ask the President for some advice. She duly invited me to meet her in her office in the House of Lords (which would be the first time I had ever been there). I was solemnly passed from flunky to flunky until I arrived at the office to find her seated at the far end of a very long table (she was Lords’ Whip at the time). ‘Come up here’, she said, extracting a bottle of whisky and two glasses from a sideboard and pouring a seriously substantial slug into each glass. ‘Get yourself outside that and then tell me what the problem is!’

    Somehow it stopped seeming quite so serious.

  • Dear Nancy came up to speak for me when I stood in Richmond, N.Yorks back in 1983. A wonderful courageous woman who was a delight to be with and who always caused a stir when she spoke at Conference. Much missed, a proper Liberal.

  • I joined the party because of Baroness Seear. It was over 30 years ago, I was 15. It was the merger era, we were on 3% in the opinion polls, our lowest ever recorded poll. She was on Question Time and destroyed a Tory Cabinet minister, I think a hapless Kenneth Baker, with straightforward, no nonsense, common sense and I was converted on the spot. I had first come across her on The Week in the Lords on BBC2 (no such proper TV coverage these days) and I got to meet her in the 1992 General Election campaign at Hereford. Her camel coat had worn so many rosettes the lapel was badly frayed! She was a wonderful person of utter integrity, she’d have made mincemeat of most of today’s politicians.

  • John Marriott 8th Aug '19 - 8:37am

    I had the pleasure of introducing Baroness Seear, when she came to an election rally in North Hykeham to support our candidate, Keith Melton, in the 1994 European Parliamentary Elections, before the days of PR.

    I had seen her on programmes like ‘Question Time’ and remember saying in my introduction that she “was even more formidable in the flesh” – I’m still not sure whether that was the right thing to say. Judging by the look she gave me, perhaps I should have chosen different words! Needless to say, she gave a rousing speech in support of Keith, who, I think, finished third behind the winner, Labour’s Veronica Hardstaff, and the then Tory incumbent, one Bill Newton Dunn!

    Didn’t I read somewhere that she had once tackled burglars in her home? A formidable lady indeed!

  • David Hughes 8th Aug '19 - 9:31am

    Shortly after leaving Southampton University in 1978 I was employed by Nancy Seear to be her agent, campaign organiser, researcher and general factotum in the run-up to the first directly-elected euro elections for which she had been selected to be the candidate for East Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. The working week would start in her flat in Little Venice, where we would be joined by her housekeeper cum secretary/assistant who was, in fact, identical to Nancy in style, manner and appearance. After planning the week ahead, one would be despatched to various parts of Hampshire to check that trains were running, Liberals existed and ‘literature’ was available for distribution — but not before Nancy had reached over to an ornately-designed oriental jewellery box and liberated the £50 which was one’s princely payment for the previous week’s endeavours. The only part of the constituency where there were in fact large numbers of both Liberals and literature was the Isle of Wight, then represented by Stephen Ross MP by increasingly narrow margins, but ably supported by the great Peter Chegwyn as his agent and organiser for Hants and IoW. As the election approached, the Callaghan government lost a vote of confidence and a General Election was called. At this point Nancy’s travels had to be reorganised to encompass trips to Berwick, Ely, mid-Wales and Truro, a seat she had fought in the 60s. Integrating these trips by public transport at the tail-end of the ‘Winter of Discontent’ with campaigning in a constituency divided by the Solent certainly merited the £50! In the event Nancy came second to a youthful Stanley Johnson but only 300 votes ahead of Labour out of 200,000 votes cast. At this point the Labour candidate requested a recount for second place to which the Tory agent — one Commander Norman Slipper (truly!) — objected, deferentially pronouncing that “The BARONESS has clearly come second”. The intimidated Returning Officer fortunately agreed. Working with Nancy was a great experience — she was a woman of massive intellect who nonetheless treated those around her as equals. On a journey she would pass one a cutting from the FT or the Times, written by a cabinet minister or a captain of industry, exclaiming: ‘I think this is absolute rot — don’t you agree?’

  • David Hughes 8th Aug '19 - 9:39am

    Finally, I would add that we kept in touch over the years and I last saw her a few months before her death, sadly just a few weeks before the party’s great advance under Paddy at the 1997 election. No one would have been more deserving of witnessing this progress than this brilliant woman who had laboured so relentlessly for the party during its darkest days.

  • Richard Underhill 8th Aug '19 - 10:08am

    Whenever the Gladstone Club met in the Lady Violet Room at the National Liberal Club we would look at the picture of Nancy Seear. Would our various contributions be up to standard?
    She was inclined to include “I am not a piece of furniture!!!”
    There was a Special Assembly of the Liberal Party in Blackpool to decide on the merger with the SDP.
    Jo Grimond spoke on the Friday evening for David Steel, who was delayed by Commons business.
    In the formal session on the Saturday speakers were called alternately For and Against.
    An angry woman spoke against, at length and with passion, but somewhat incoherently. Was the decision in balance?
    Nancy Seear spoke next, also with passion, but coherently and persuasively. After she had spoken I asked her whether there was any arrangement about the timing of her speech. She said, twice, “They did not tell me that they were going to do that, but I could have made a strong argument the other way.”
    Liberal Leader David Steel spoke last and said “The new party will be a liberal party, or I would be voting against merger.” He held up his voting card to vote in favour, but his overlong soundbite had caused some confusion. The motion was carried.
    Shirley Williams was interviewed on tv. What would be the effect on the SDP special conference? She was delighted and brushed such criticisms aside

  • Richard Underhill 8th Aug '19 - 10:09am

    The Liberal Party had a lot of associate organisations which the SDP did not. I had met Nancy Seear in the British Group of the Liberal International, meeting near Helsinki and offering a warm welcome to the Finnish Centre Party about Finland joining what is now the EU. Stalin had invaded Finland in 1939 and annexed the north coast.
    I asked Nancy Seear whether she would speak at our AGM. She did, impressing even our ex-Labour, ex-SDP chairman and Enid Lakeman. She said she was of a generation affected by World War One, which caused a shortage of potential husbands. Our then PPC spoke next, saying that Nancy had said most of what he had planned to say.
    At a fringe meeting at federal conference David Marquand had been invited to give a keynote speech. The new party needed a philosophical basis (despite the preamble to the constitution !!). Firstly we debated the proposed name. Nancy said ” I knew him, he was a lifelong socialist!)
    Sitting on the floor behind Nancy I said that we should not use the word “New” because it would change over time and the word has associations with the New Party, while not objecting to the word “The”.
    Liberator commented.
    David Marquand said that he could not shorten his speech and preferred not to give it.
    He has since rejoined the Labour Party and co-founded DEMOS.
    Other names, such as the Harrogate Society, were tried, but there already was one.
    Subsequently it was called the Beveridge Society, named after an important Liberal, but politically acceptable to former members of the SDP. The chairman of the Gladstone Club expostulated “He was a socialist.”
    Nancy Seear was leader of the Liberal Party in the Lords when an experiment with broadcasting of Parliament began. Former PM Harold MacMillan, married to an aristocrat, came out of retirement, well dressed, to speak against Mrs. Thatcher’s privatisations “They are selling off the family silver”. Nancy was realistic about the broadcasters who really wanted to televise the Commons.

  • GaryE – I’m with you. I found Nancy’s TV appearances quite influential in the 1980s when I too was in my teens and just getting interested in politics.
    Richard Underhill – I remember that Liberal party special conference on merger (I wasn’t there but watched it on TV, and even recorded it on a sadly-lost VHS tape). The anti-merger speaker you mention was Clare Brooks – herself a formidable doyen of the party – who spoke brilliantly about how the Asquith/Lloyd George split was somehow a reason not to merge; I can’t remember the detail but it was glorious stuff and she got a huge ovation. It must’ve been a hard speech to follow, but Nancy stepped up: “After that somewhat selective view of history…” [you have to imagine the withering glance, amid much laughter] “…I think it is time we return to the present, and even more important, the future!” Huge roar of applause and I remember the cameras caught even Clare Brooks enjoying it in the audience.

  • For newer/younger members who don’t remember Nancy and are wondering why we are all gushing about her, this is the only decent clip I can find of her online. It’s from BBC election night coverage 1987, alongside Robin Day, Norman Tebbit and Michael Meacher.

  • Gwyn Williams 8th Aug '19 - 12:22pm

    At a Federal Policy Committee, a member who is now in the H of L was giving an extremely complicated explanation of the personal savings v expenditure inverted curve. After several minutes of this increasingly convoluted explanation Nancy said “Does she mean thrift?”
    We were having tea in one of the Harrogate tea rooms during a Federal Conference. Alex Carlile had announced that he was not going to stand again in Montgomeryshire. There had been mounting speculation as to the reason including several articles in the national press. Nancy’s explanation was “ a man can do 2 jobs well but 3 badly”.
    If she were alive today there would be so many opportunities for her unique sense of the absurd.

  • Richard Underhill 8th Aug '19 - 5:56pm

    Gwyn Williams “a man can do 2 jobs well but 3 badly”.
    It is also possible for one man to do 2 jobs badly: what do you think about the UK PM?
    Naomi Long (APNI) campaigned against double-jobbing and defeated the DUP leader Peter Robinson in East Belfast.
    Alex Carlile told us that he had persuaded his constituents that he needed the income from legal work and therefore was a part time MP.

  • Richard Underhill 9th Aug '19 - 9:37am

    TonyH 8th Aug ’19 – 11:38am Thank you for reminding me I did not know Clare Brooks, but we no longer had the problem of two former Prime Ministers. Other parties seem to cope somehow.
    There had been a campaign entitled MERGER NOW! which was simply about the timing “Merger Now, if not now, WHEN?” Clare Brooks did not deal with that. I agreed with Nancy.
    “I think it is time we return to the present, and even more important, the future!”
    I had rung round my local party offering a lift to Blackpool. One person said Yes.
    She made up her mind after hearing Jo Grimond speak during the Friday evening. “If Jo Grimond thinks it is all right, then it is all right”
    I later learned that she was the mother of a Surrey County Councillor, (PPC for Mole Valley) but had focussed entirely on the task in hand.

  • Gordon Lishman 18th Aug '19 - 9:18pm

    I remember Nancy with great affection and respect.

    I see her frequently nowadays looking at me from the extremely good portrait in the National Liberal Club with warmth, good humour and utter clarity of gaze.

    I remember meeting her in the bedroom of a colleague in The Hague to which we had both been summoned to see we could deal with an insistent mouse. And I remember with awe and delight the contribution she made to that European Liberal meeting about employment rights.

    I remember the arguments in the late 60s about whether worker participation should derive from a system of shareholder rights (much more effective than John McDonnell’s recent tepid proposals) or from rights directly arising from the fact of employment. (I’m pleased to report that on this debate at least, she was on the losing side).

    Shortly before her peerage was awarded (the word “ennobled” stimulated a snort of disgust), I drove her in my little orange Liberal minivan from York to Scarborough to speak at a meeting. We didn’t communicate much; the noise of the engine was too great for her diminishing hearing. Nancy’s later life was then transformed both by membership of the Lords and new hearing technology – with her other friends, I was delighted.

    And somebody above should have mentioned the twinkle in her eye. I was never quite clear what that phrase meant until I had worked for a bit with Nancy. I still can’t define it, but the phrase will always lead to a vision of Nancy in my mind.

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