Sheila Ritchie tells Scottish Lib Dems: Let’s reach out to the the internationalist, the iconoclast & the thrawn individualist

Back in the day, I learned how to campaign and how to be a liberal from Sheila Ritchie. She is a bit of a party legend but hasn’t been wildly active in recent years. However, she came back to run Christine Jardine’s campaign in Gordon and she was brilliant. She spoke to the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ members meeting last Sunday and I know that her words about liberalism, the future and the national campaign will interest you. She has given her permission for me to share her words with you. Sit down with a cup of tea and enjoy:


Many of you will know me of old, although I’ve not been much engaged for some time till this last campaign. You will know I’m more of a doer than a thinker.

So I’ve spent a few of my waking hours this weekend re-reading the words of those who were MY inspiration in my Liberalism, and trying to work out what they would think or do.

On Friday, I found a note of one of the things Russell Johnston said:-

“Liberalism can never be a spent force. Tomorrow or ever. As long as human kind retain their civilisation; as long as birds sing in unclouded skies, so long will endure the power of the compassionate spirit.”

And I needed that. I was as tired as I’ve ever been, and despondent. But over the next while, the spirit rose. The end of the same quote from Russell is

“But a Liberal society will be built only with the bricks of effort and the mortar of persistence. And it is to you that the challenge is made. It is upon you that responsibility rests. It is with you that hope resides.”

Can any of you look around you today, and feel that less true now, than then?

My guiding principles, because I’m old, are those I found in the Preamble to the Liberal Party Constitution.

“The Liberal Party exists to build a Liberal Commonwealth in which every citizen shall possess liberty, property and security, and none shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or unemployment. Its chief care shall be for the rights and opportunities of the individual, and in every sphere it sets freedom first.”

The “new” constitution is stupidly wordy, but still starts in the same place

“The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”

There have been bits of the last 5 years I have hated. Whether or not the Liberals of the future forgive us remains to be seen. I suspect we will be judged more generously in future than we are now judging ourselves. Did we “sell the great Liberal tradition or betray the years of toil of the faithful for a mish-mash of unsalted porridge”? But we should not forget the raft of Liberal legislation we have been instrumental in passing. Liberals did not, I think, discard their beliefs for office.

The functionality of the national campaign, and its delivery by Clifton Terrace to us troops has been exemplary. I’ve never seen anything like it. BUT, again to quote Russell

“Democracy cannot flourish on a diet of triviality”

I was abused by our wonderful young campaigners when I ridiculed the “stronger economy, fairer society” mantra. At the time, I thought they were ‘avin’ a laugh. It truly was a triumph of the banal. It was not improved by the last week’s equally banal “stability, unity, decency” where is the Liberalism in that?

Let me go back a generation in seeking inspiration. To Jo Grimond, whom I never knew. He said that the long-term objective of the Liberal Party was clear: “to replace the Labour Party as the progressive wing of politics in this country.” Whilst this election has been truly, truly awful for us, it has been cataclysmic for the Labour Party. We have, if we have the strength and courage to grasp it, a great opportunity to do just what Jo wanted- to replace it as the first choice for those with progressive views.

Frankly, I don’t want us to be reaching out to Labour and Tory voters. I want us to be reaching out to the embracing Liberal in the Scot- to the internationalist, to the iconoclast, to the thrawn individualists.

I don’t want us to compromise our identity and purpose further. I think that is what got us where we are. We need to shout our liberalism, aims, and intentions from the roof tops, and let those who want to, follow us.

Let us march towards the sound of gunfire.


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

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  • Bill le Breton 16th May '15 - 6:35pm

    My Scots Quair xxx

  • Jane Ann Liston 16th May '15 - 6:53pm

    Thanks, Caron.

  • Eddie Sammon 16th May '15 - 7:12pm

    Sheila talks about replacing the Labour Party as the progressive party of the country, but with the greatest respect I am very concerned about the direction the Liberal Democrats are heading.

    Not so long ago Tim was reaching out towards “economic liberals” and although I am not an economic liberal, what I have seen of his campaign and those supporting him is a doubling down on social liberalism and a rebuttal of economic and even standard liberalism.

    If we want to become a party of government and achieve the aims of the pre-amble then it cannot happen by taking up unrealistic policies.


  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 16th May '15 - 7:23pm

    @ Eddie,

    So where are the Liberal Democrats going? In a different direction to the Conservatives, true, but if we weren’t, what would be the point of us? It doesn’t mean that we are travelling with Labour either.

    The Leader, whoever he or she might be, does not determine policy. In government, they might have to compromise, but their baseline is the policy passed by Federal Conference.

    You are, I suggest, jumping the gun…

  • Eddie Sammon 16th May '15 - 7:43pm

    Hi Mark, I agree there needs to be a change from the Clegg strategy, but I don’t think a Jeremy Browne or a centre-left path is the one to go down.

    I won’t say much more on this topic this weekend, but from checking Twitter and reading articles my “antennas” are twitching. 🙂

    Have a good evening

  • Jane Ann Liston 16th May '15 - 8:07pm

    Incidentally, the first I knew of the meeting in Edinburgh was when another member mentioned on the Friday that he was going to it. No notification arrived in my in-box. Were all members supposed to be invited, or was it restricted to those and such-as-those?

  • @Caron “Frankly, I don’t want us to be reaching out to Labour and Tory voters. I want us to be reaching out to the embracing Liberal in the Scot- to the internationalist, to the iconoclast, to the thrawn individualists.”

    Sounds great doesn’t it? Being a liberal party, having a solid voter base made up of the millions of British voters who are genuine liberals? But I should have to ask you, how do you square these ambitions with your ‘squeeze, it’s a two horse race, y and z can’t win here so if you hate x then you have to vote for us because that is your only choice’ campaigning style? Those tactics are designed to try and take the votes of one of the other big parties other than have your own bases of voters committed to liberal ideas?

    Is this why the Lib Dems can’t support liberal ideas like legalising cannabis? Because it could collapse a voter base that is not made up of liberals? Anyway, with that in mind, now that you’ve managed to pretty much wipe out your voter base anyway I guess you have the chance to build something else.

    Does that now mean that the party will be asking people to vote for it based on it’s own merits and ideas and not because someone else who the prefer ‘can’t win here’?

  • One other thing, I can’t agree with this nonsense: “Whilst this election has been truly, truly awful for us, it has been cataclysmic for the Labour Party.”

    This election has been far worse for the Lib Dems than it has for the Labour Party. Labour still managed to hold their share of the vote and still returned over 200 MPs. The Lib Dems however have lost the vast majority of their MPs, saw their share of the vote fall by 2/3rds, are now down to 8 MPs and are fighting for their survival.

    And that’s your message? Bad for us but worse for Labour? Himmmm, I don’t think so. I don’t think that is anything like the reality of the situation at all.

  • Thanks to Sheila via Caron.
    The Party is not determined by the Leader or the MPs, though they are significant. The Party is us. And we are not going away, nor is the thinking behind the Liberal Preamble ( I too, prefer it but we are stuck with the changed one).
    We always knew we had to rebuild. It is just worse than we expected. And Sheila and CJ had a good result in a terrible year. Nice base for someone to work on – after a break. But keep an eye out for that extra budget

  • Tony Greaves 16th May '15 - 10:12pm

    Thank you, Sheila.

  • Sorry to be dense (or merely English), but what exactly is a ‘thrawn individualist’?

  • Its a good speech, and I agree with it. Especially the part about triteness and triviality. Too much effort went into seeming like a safe pair of hands and a reasonable coalition partner.

    I would say that the Scottish party needs to rethink a lot of its position and strategy though, as well. It seems to me that we made a strategic error when we chose to place the SNP beyond our willingness to cooperate, and that position from a party in coalition with the Tories was disastrous. Compromise is after all key in a democracy, and I have a sense that our approach to the SNP is rooted in what that party was 20 years ago and what it might be 10 years from now, rather than its current incarnation.

    We should uphold our century old commitment to home rule, support the case for taxation and spending powers for Holyrood, and be willing to lend what votes we can still muster to the cause of strengthening the devolved parliament, even if that means we’re voting for an SNP motion, even if it means we’re supporting full fiscal autonomy. Let the SNP continue talking about independence, and let the two main parties try to defend an inherently unstable status quo, we should be making the case for the best of both worlds and voting to deliver it.

  • Individualism is a funny one. Liberals should champion the rights of the individual,which is broadly speaking what we do in the West. However promoting individualism is another matter entirely. It’s fairly obvious that the concept has gone way beyond the promoting of individual rights and is now used to justify shrinking the welfare state, low taxation and government regulations. It is the agenda of Top Gear ( whether it’s supposed to be partially ironic or otherwise).

    The most successful societies would seem to be those where co-operation between peoples is most sophisticated. Status is earned rather than inherited, differences of race or religion, gender and sexuality are tolerated and compromises are reached on everything from who governs us to the planning system. Why are we turning our backs on co-operation? I’m a liberal and I believe people should have the right to live their life as a selfish anti-social individual if they so wish. But governments should not be actively promoting it.

  • Jane Ann Liston 17th May '15 - 1:28am

    Mary, ‘thrawn’ means awkward and contrary. Quite a few LibDems merit that description, probably including me.

  • david walker 17th May '15 - 8:05am

    If I was in charge I would just simple re-emphasise liberalism with an added twist of patriotism. We should be the true defenders of liberal values and the union. The other parties have walked away from union. There is an opportunity to argue that a liberal Britain will make Britain Great again.

  • Mary

    When Sheila says “thrawn” she may have in mind people like me. 🙂

  • Mary, as no one from Scotland has answered your query I would venture that it means twisted/bent/perverse, -at least that what it seemed to mean when my mother used it

  • Jane Ann Liston 17th May '15 - 12:50pm

    @IainBB ‘Mary, as no one from Scotland has answered your query I would venture that it means twisted/bent/perverse, -at least that what it seemed to mean when my mother used it.’

    Oh yes they have! See 3 posts up, nearly 12 hours before.

  • Paul in Wokingham 17th May '15 - 1:01pm

    When I was growing up in Derry in Ireland my mother was forever telling me that I was “thran”. This was clearly a bad thing and it meant “consciously obstinate or stubborn”, or to use a wonderful word invented by Mrs. Slocombe: “obstropulous”.

  • @jedibeeftrix
    “1. To keep the Pure liberal flame alive, and over the course of the next twenty years to build the party back to 50 MP’s
    2. Adapt liberalism to the needs to the ~50% of the pop that has a positive liberty bent and harry labour into the grave”

    What about option 3, carry on as you always have done?

    Option 3. Step 1: Attempt to steal the the Labour or Conservative voter based (doesn’t matter which, any will do) by putting out leaflets saying that candidates Y and Z can’t win here (regardless of what the voters want) and that the voter must therefore pick the Lib Dem or candidate X or else they’re just wasting their time voting and voting for a loser which also kinda makes them one too.

    Option 3. Step 2: Rely on the individual, not the party. Once a Lib Dem MP is elected that way they may very well have been chosen by a very different group of voters than the ones who picked their other MPs attempt to hide this by sticking to local issues only. Good local issues are regular leaflets containing angry looking Lib Dems next a proposed housing development site if the MPs voters are upper middle class old NIMBYs out in the shires. Of, if the MPs constituency is an urban one with slightly younger voters (such as middle class parents parents for example) then an issue can be made out of ones local headshop, a campaign to close it down and put everyone who works there on the dole might work well for example. When national issues do arise be as wishy washy as possible and avoid saying anything that actually means anything because whatever position you take it’s going to grossly offend some Lib Dem MPs voters some where.

    Option 3. Step 3: When the chance of a coalition presents it’s self take it. National government will surely destroy any party build on very different local issues with very different types of voters depending on where the MP lives but hey, it can be rebuilt again.

  • @ Jane Ann Liston, oops, sorry missed that

  • Thanks everyone for the translation. Perhaps Lib Dems have a duty to be thrawn

  • Joyce Yendole 17th May '15 - 4:57pm

    Thank you Shiela. I have found a new word, and, yes, I’m a thrawn individualist – as my friends will no doubt testify!

  • Jedibeeftrix. You know what the real problem with trying to steal another party’s base is? After you have taken it you have to please those people who gave you power in the first place or you lose it.

    Having taken various groups of voters with the utterly unprincipled infamous “two horse race leaflets” with very different issues in very different parts of the country national government was always going to alienate a large section of liberal democrat voters, although why nick and the party choose to alienate the largest section of the lib dem base (the centre left and the young) is beyond me.

    But the past is the past and the party must try to rebuild. However if they’re going to be successful they will need to take a real hard look at what they did that was so wrong in the past and I see no signs that any attempt to do this is being done. I never heard any lib dems question the implications of appealing to voters to vote tactically, or pledging house building nationally whilst applauding councillor so getting re-elected by pleding to block housing developments, or talking about ending the criminalisation of cannabis users whilst an MP leads a campaign against a local headshop etc.

  • jedibeeftrix 17th May '15 - 8:13pm

    @ David – yes, you do indeed have to please the crowd you draw with your promises.

    A question I have been asking for five years:

    Are the lib-dems a political party seeking to win power within our adversarial political society, or merely a protest movement seeking to nudge policy in what it imagines is a consensual PR democracy?

  • Well jedibeeftrix, I think it was largely neither. I think it was a group of people at a by-election who wanted to win a seat because they believed that them having it was automatically better than any of the others having it. The problem is that if you have to steal someone else’s voter base to get it then that base will ensure that the MP dance to their tune or lose their seat. I remember Chris huhne talking about the country needing “tougher” “targeted” stop and search, I’m guessing this is because after getting a certain type of voter they couldn’t not do this? Anyway, winning a seat because they believed them having it was automatically better than anyone else having it was all this was about. And if that means blocking sorely needed social housing locally to please a bunch of nimbys or launching a crusade against ones local headshop to do it then so be it. Getting a seat is what it was about.

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