The past can be useful

My wife, Ruth, has had a collection of boxes, originally some 30 strong, in which she stored both personal and political stuff, waiting for the opportune moment to open them and sort out the treasure trove within.

That job is now underway and there are minutes of both NLYL and ULS as well as a huge collection of newsletters produced by all manner of Liberal activists in the late sixties and seventies. Radical Bulletin, Gunfire, New Outlook, Liberator and a whole raft of local stuff from Young Liberal and Liberal Student groups from Scotland to Cornwall. It even included some copies of Clockwork Orange, a Manchester ULS publication that I started in 1971/2 and that was then carried on by Pat Coleman.

Political discourse in the 60s and 70s was carried out by meeting and pamphlet.

Ruth reminded me that Young Liberal branches often met weekly to discuss politics and campaigns, actually campaigned most weekends and met up socially as well.

There were frequent conferences on political issues and both the Young Liberals and the Liberal Party had council meetings on a regular basis (the ‘Council’ was the policymaking body between Conferences), primarily on political issues.

Liberal Party Constituency and branch meetings were at least monthly. In short, our politics centred on meeting together, talking about ideas and putting them down on paper for discussion in order to get out and campaign together.

What, I wondered, has happened to all that energy and commitment? The simple answer is of course the internet. Once it became possible to put stuff out on line, the need for using paper and chopping down trees greatly diminished. The typing and letrasetting of the sixties and seventies have been replaced by the desktop publishing, websites and blogging of today plus Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and more. It also took away the need to stand about in student unions or conferences or draughty streets handing out bulletins or selling magazines such as Gunfire (named after Jo Grimond’s famous speech when he talked about marching towards the sound of gunfire). We also stopped meeting together because we could debate and discuss on line.

In some ways the passing of the gestetnered pamphlet is sad, because it involved a group effort in writing, typing, setting and printing and then a group effort in getting the result to our supporters. (For the uninitiated a Gestetner is a crude printing machine operated by hand and utilising a skin typed or etched and placed on a drum). Printing, postage and distribution were cheap so the information gap was bridged. Radical Bulletin, in particular, gave an alternative view to much of what the party leadership was saying and had resonance with many party members.

During the 1974 general elections Tony Greaves provided much needed briefings for candidates that weren’t readily available from party HQ. Almost the only survivor of those heady times is Liberator and I wonder how long paper copies of that will survive, even if it continues on line.

So Ruth’s collection provides a tantalising look back into the Liberal past of 40 plus years ago, before the merger with the SDP and when the Liberal Party was a much more radical party with a thriving ‘Red Guard’ youth movement that pushed radical policies like nuclear disarmament, workers’ self-management, a cooperative economy, radical decentralisation of power and a proper system of social security.

Come to think of it many of those issues are still current.

Of course, looking back into the past can just be nostalgic, but we can surely learn from our younger selves that going forward and rebuilding the party again requires radical policies that tackle the real problems of today, policies that, just as in the sixties and seventies, Labour and Conservative simply cannot provide. Locally, there is an attempt to get people together regularly by means of LibDem Pint discussions in pubs and Liber Tea where we meet up for coffee and cakes and politics. I think that the camaraderie of the pre-internet days needs to be revived. If we miss out on discussion and debate and don’t meet up in a non-committee situation then we don’t really live our politics. Meeting and talking is an essential part of building trust and a sense of common purpose, as we get on with challenging the world.

This article was written following discussion and collaboration with Ruth Coleman-Taylor

The photo was taken in 1968 at the Liberal Assembly in Edinburgh

* Dr Michael Taylor has been a party member since 1964. He is currently active in the Calderdale Party.

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38 Comments

  • Bernard Aris 18th Jan '19 - 3:57pm

    I can recommend the biography of David Penhaligon (written by his widow, I believe) for a vivid portrait of the Young Liberals of the 1960 and ’70 when they invented community politics, the Focus, made Liberal Assembly’s (party conferences) very libvely affairs, and (somewhat later) actively supported the start of the Glee Club satires at party conferences. And if you can find it, the book “LIberal oarty Politics in Britain by Arthur Cyr (preface by Michael Steed) from 1977, with a small survey among party activists from that era.

  • Steve Griffiths 18th Jan '19 - 4:28pm

    “…when the Liberal Party was a much more radical party with a thriving ‘Red Guard’ youth movement that pushed radical policies like nuclear disarmament, workers’ self-management, a cooperative economy, radical decentralisation of power and a proper system of social security.”

    Yes, we were so much more radical then and I wish we were once again. A few policies like those being adopted (and I’m still happy with all of those) and you may find the left of the party returns to tramp the streets again. How sad that the party has become tame, centrist in outlook and anything but radical.

  • I’m biased because I am a printer, but I have observed over the past fifteen years or so that if an organisation switches to on-line publication the quality of engagement of its members diminishes. Send out an emailed newsletter and you save the printing cost and (even more usually) the postage, but at the expense of your members skim reading it at best, and never returning to re-read an article. Of course, the internet allows you to have a discussion with people you probably don’t know and may never meet, which facilitates behaviour which is much less likely to occur if you are sitting in a room with them thrashing out ideas. I learned to think politically by sitting in rooms listening to people like Tony Greaves and Gordon Lishman, Louis Eaks and Bernard Greaves – and Mick Taylor and Pat Coleman! And by running fortnightly Young Liberal meetings and being a member of my Constituency Executive. Yes, it is good to have an outlet for one’s immediate thoughts like LibDem Voice, but the vast majority of it is metaphorical chip paper tomorrow, whereas I can still recall articles in “Gunfire”, “Radical Bulletin” and “New Outlook” from decades ago.

  • David Blake 18th Jan '19 - 6:13pm

    “How sad that the party has become tame, centrist in outlook and anything but radical.” Exactly. We knew what we stood for, which is not quite so easy to say today.

  • Katharine Pindar 18th Jan '19 - 7:00pm

    You were a bit late with your Manchester Clockwork Orange, Mick. In Leeds ULS we started Orange Peel in 1964/65. Long live print publications, especially good print Focuses! And you’re right, we need the same degree of energy, commitment and radical policies we had then. I don’t doubt we can supply them.

    PS you give me the chance to quote the most famous saying of one of our most active Leeds ULS members, commonly known as ‘Tigger’. He said, ” Students generally care about sex and chips. Liberal students care about politics, sex and chips.’ (Enjoy!)

  • I suspect tuition fees hasn’t helped recently.

  • Nonconformistradical 18th Jan '19 - 7:23pm

    @Joseph Bourke
    Independent bookshops – perhaps being helped by Hive – https://www.hive.co.uk/ so one can buy online via Hive and have them delivered to your home address or collect them from a local bookshop. I’ve used them a couple of times, collecting from a shop – on both occasions making an impulse purchase in the shop as well as picking up the books I had ordered.

  • Another famous saying from those (Red Guard and after) days – “Political power comes out of the barrel of a duplicator”!

  • Mick Taylor 18th Jan '19 - 8:18pm

    Bernard Aris: The Glee club was invented by Adrian Slade and the Welsh Liberals, not the young liberals. And Focus was started by Cllr Cyril Carr in Liverpool. Community politics – or at least the theoretical underpinning of it – was indeed pioneered by the Young Liberals especially Gordon Lishman with whom I shared a flat at the time.
    I think that leaving the party only in the hands of a small elected board between conferences rather than a larger representative council does make the central party more remote.
    Generally we need to create space to meet up and discuss politics. Far too many people out there dismiss it as trivial, but politics is the way we change our country.
    Radicals in the party need to make a bigger effort to set the party on a proper path to change the wrongs in society. I know it means hard work, but we did do it prior to the merger and can do it again.

  • Katharine Pindar 18th Jan '19 - 11:37pm

    To set the party on a proper path to change the wrongs in society, Mick, I trust the FCC is going to accept the motion proposed for York by my local party, Copeland and Workington, a motion entitled Alleviating poverty in Britain, and restoring British values. It arises from the damning report of November 2018 by the UN rapporteur Philip Alston on how the poor and unfortunate in Britain are being treated under this government. His report was discussed in three separate pieces here on LDV, and my colleagues and other friends believe his conclusions should be accepted by our party and urgent action be sought. It looks as if we are going to be landed with this appalling government for a while yet, so our campaigning must be loud and clear in defence of the 14 million people who exist in relative poverty in this country, and against the decline of British values which seems to underlie the welfare scandals and other mistreatment of vulnerable groups nowadays.

  • John Marriott 19th Jan '19 - 9:46am

    Oh, happy days! I’m finally fulfilling I’ve been making to my wife every new year for ages, namely finally trying to declutter our loft. In doing so I have finally started to part company with the boxes of old FOCUS leaflets, minutes, manifestos, posters etc, which date back to the early 1980s, some proudly sporting tge SDP logo, some with the Alliance diamond; but most with the ‘bird of paradise’.

    Leafing through some, I remembered the blue lined graph paper, the lettraset (?) sheets with the annoying number of zs and xs, with never enough as, es and os, which were replaced in the 90s with desk top published material, which certainly looked more professional. Then the delivery. How many pairs of shoes did I wear out, as well as my already dodgy ankle, caused by the fall off the roof in 1968 (don’t ask me to explain what I was doing there), which could easily have killed me and which put an end to my rugby playing ambitions with Leicester Tigers. If I had had a pound for every FOCUS I have produced and delivered, with the help of a loyal band of members and friends, I reckon I would now be asking Mr Redwood in which EU country I should be investing!

    And now, all most people seem to do is to type of few words and press the ‘Send’ key. You lot don’t know how lucky you are. Now in my day………………..

  • John Marriott 19th Jan '19 - 9:52am

    Apologies again. I missed out the words ‘the promise’ from the first line. By the way, in my current position of volunteer librarian – that’s how we’ve actually managed to INCREASE the number of libraries in Lincolnshire – I entirely agree with Messrs Raw and Bourke about the value of the printed page and also second hand bookshops. Hopefully, Mr Caxton will not be turning in his grave just yet!

  • Jayne Mansfield 19th Jan '19 - 10:43am

    A really touching article and thread.

    A reminder that sometimes age brings experience and wisdom.

    My eyes have deteriorated since the days referred to. Is that an image of Buddy Holly?

  • John Marriott 19th Jan '19 - 11:05am

    Not really, Jayne. Charles Hardin Holley (the correct spelling of his surname) died in a plane crash in February 1959, after an all too brief career in popland. That was around the time that your namesake was strutting her stuff in films like ‘The Girl can’t help it’ (oh, those exploding milk bottles), perhaps an appropriate signature tune for one Mrs T May. And we are still awaiting that breaking of the mould we thought we might be getting when I started out in the 1980s. Perhaps Buddy might have been thinking of that with one of his earliest hits with the Crickets, ‘That’ll be the Day’.

  • Richard Underhill 19th Jan '19 - 11:52am

    Lord Beaverbrook may have been frustrated that he could prevent stories occurring in the Mainstream press, such as about the health of the aging Prime Minister, but had no effect on young liberals, merely criticising them in a newspaper that they probably did not read (as now).

  • @John Marriott

    One thing I would urge you and other people to do is to keep some of their old leaflets etc. for archives and historical purposes. And indeed write up a history of their local parties etc. I wish that I had been more organised about keeping leaflets and writing up what had happened in election campaigns etc. just afterwards. I am not sure what archives exist but local history archives and to give to local parties. It would be nice/interesting if some central archive of local Liberal/SDP/Lib Dem party campaigning could be established. As unfortunately many “tales from the front” are being lost.

  • Richard Underhill 19th Jan '19 - 12:07pm

    Many people in politics advance arguments which show that they are victims of “the white swan fallacy”.
    https://www.bing.com/images/search?view=detailV2&ccid=OPfGKKXr&id=F2BBFA81F3E63D40046F6C88B910BBE5CBC5A518&thid=OIP.OPfGKKXr80FH-c0RpmZ7jwAAAA&mediaurl=http%3a%2f%2fwww.howtogetyourownway.com%2fimages%2fobfuscation_fallacy_swans.jpg&exph=242&expw=250&q=the+white+swan+fallacy&simid=608014548469223156&selectedIndex=6&qpvt=the+white+swan+fallacy&ajaxhist=0
    Former PM Winston Churchill had black swans and was unhappy when they escaped, until they were recaptured.
    At various times in his career Conservatives disliked him, possibly fearing him as a political rival, and denounced him for changing parties.

  • Mark Smulian 19th Jan '19 - 12:24pm

    The National Liberal Club library, run by Seth Thevoz, now collects historical Liberal publications and has, for example, a complete run of Liberators from 1970 onwards and DVDs of the Liberal Revue. They might well be interested in old leaflets and publications that anyone wishes to offload.

  • Simon Hebditch 19th Jan '19 - 3:01pm

    Ahhh, the old days. My memories are of a radical and active youth movement in the 1960s and early 70s – the anti-Vietnam war protests, issues concerning the plight of the Palestinians, the Stop the Seventy Tour campaign on South Africa. Where has the cutting edge of radical politics gone? The party is now a very pale imitation of all that frenetic campaigning. Or am I wrong?

  • Mick Taylor 19th Jan '19 - 5:46pm

    Jayne MANSFIELD: Flattering as it is to be compared to Buddy Holly, the image is of me, aged 18, speaking at the 1968 Liberal Assembly in Edinburgh, just over 50 years ago.

  • Richard O'Neill 19th Jan '19 - 6:58pm

    Just out of curiosity (as someone born several decades after the era you are discussing) what was it that specifically attracted you to the Liberal Party rather than the Labour Party? It feels like an infusion of young left-wing activists might have pulled Labour more towards the left in the 1960s/70s.

  • Steve Comer 19th Jan '19 - 9:54pm

    Richard: You could ask that question of many of us who joined in the 1960s and 1970s.
    I joined the Liberal Party in the early ’70s because it seemed to be the only mainstream party that was really challenging the smug status quo. It was demanding real political and constitutional reform, decentralisation, and was pro-European.
    By contrast Labour back then seemed to be dominated by old white men, and many of the members I met were quite bigoted, racist, and backward looking. They also did not the music of the time and blokes with long hair and/or beards!

    Sometimes politics is a bit like football, you pick your team at a young age, and stick with it in good times and bad!

  • Joseph Bourke 20th Jan '19 - 12:44am

    It’s an interesting comment David Raw makes about the Labour party of the 1960s being seen as “right wing (yes, right wing) and class based.”
    Keir Hardie was an extraordinary man of his time. He had a vision of a Labour Party which was based ultimately on the unions fusing political and industrial militancy.
    Although begiining Life as a Gladstonian Liberal, he came to the view that the working-class needed a party of its own. He denounced the Liberals as being content to be “sitting at the gate of a rich man’s party humbly begging crumbs from his table.”
    He wanted the Labour Party to be “an uprising of the working class that would mould Britain into a “socialist commonwealth founded upon the common ownership of land, capital, production for use and not for profit, and equality for every citizen.”

    After WW1 the Labour party was transformed by an infusion of Liberal radicals and middle-class intelligentia that began to draw it away from its pure socliast and militant roots. The Bennite left and the (Roy) Jenkinsite right, were heirs to this political divide.

    When Harold Wilson came to power in 1964 after the unexpected death of a leader in waiting (Hugh Gaitskill), he was taking the reins in what would prove to be a dificult economic climate. The fear of devaluation and its accompaning inflation led Wilson to abandon his agenda of wresting power from the Treasury to impose central planning across the economy.
    On the Europen Economic Community, like Jeremy Corbyn, he tried to face both ways embittering the pro-Europe Labour right, without mollifying the anti-Europe left who scorned him as a traitor. He described his administration as “ running a Bolshevik revolution with a tsarist shadow cabinet,”
    Wilson held together a fractious Labour party in the 1960s and deserves more credit than he is often given for a reforming government in a time of rapid cultural change and fierce in-fighting within his party.
    Liberal Democrats have never been about the kind of socialist commonwealth that Keir Hardie strived for. We can nonetheless understand how and why he came to his view and share his desire for many of the ends he sought, if not the means of achieving them. The Libdem way would be much closer to the (Roy) Jenkinsite right of the 1960s/1970s labour party.

  • David Raw 19th Jan ’19 – 10:51pm……………..We’d had thirteen years of Tory Government – seen as an incompetent, tired party of the grouse moor establishment and racked with scandal. Labour was seen as right wing (yes, right wing) and class based. We thought Liberals would replace Labour………….Liberals, under Jo Grimond, were seen as lively, class free and radical with a plethora of new ideas. It was the era of Kennedy,Martin Luther King, the launch of Private eye, the satire boom and the swinging sixties. Many of us were the first generation of our families to get a university education and thought at the time the Labour Party would wither away……………

    Almost the same for me. My family were staunch Labour; my father had been gassed in WW1 and came home to the ‘con trick’ that was ‘A land fit for heroes’.
    I never thought Labour ‘right wing’; more establishment and ‘stick in the mud’. Liberals offered a ‘different’ way forward in a world that was changing faster than ever before.

    Labour, however, did wither away; the removal of the ‘reds’ was a step forward but under Blair (instead of Smith) Labour lost any sense of radical direction (Council house sales, re-nationalisation, tax, big business, etc.).

    It is a sad reflection on this party that, like the Tories, they (the leadership) saw the way forward as a smiling Blair look-a-like. Our chance to make a real difference was ‘blown’ in the ‘rose garden aside’ and the NHS ‘re-organisation’…

    I make no apology for being on the left of politics (and of this party) but when I read contributions from ‘Stimson’, and many others, I wonder if I’ve stayed too long.

  • expats – No you haven’t stayed too long, but some others (assuming they are members which is not certain) should never have joined in the first place. Their siren voices must be opposed by those with the experience and wisdom to oppose their easy rhetoric with facts. That is why it is essential that people like you, David Raw, John Marriott and several others continue to speak clearly and be heard so that the next generation of Lib Dems do not make the same mistakes as the previous one.

  • Joseph Bourke 20th Jan '19 - 12:48pm

    David Raw,

    I wouldn’t put Harold Wilson in the category of Lenin, but his development years during the war were spent as a research assistant to William Beveridge working on issues around unemployment and the foreign trade/balance of payments. He served in the Attlee administration after the war. All of the post-war politicians had the idea that wartime central planning could be applied to address entrenched social issues. Tony Benn used to say that when he was a 17 year old the government provided him with accommodation, food, clothing and transport to go and kill Germans. He argued that if it can be done for war it can be done in peacetime.
    I think in many ways that kind of thinking in the area of commerce led to the demise of much of the industrial base of Britain , where there had been a comparative advantage. Cpmpetitiveness in Industry after industry was lost as Europe and Japan invested and retooled with moderm equipment and working practices based on cooperation between management and labour. It was this demise that ultimately necessited joining the EEC and the arguments for maintaining and improving producyivity in the UK are arguably even stronger today than they were in the early 1970s.

  • To me Harold Wilson is the man who, despite right wing pressure at home, kept the young men of the UK out of Vietnam.
    As has been said he was a very clever man and an astute politician. I well remember the Cuban crisis of 1962 and how close we came to the end of civilisation as we know it (Jim). Between 1964 (at the height of the cold war) and 1970 (with US/USSR detente) there was a rocky road with Vietnam and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia among others.
    He was never really trusted by either Labour’s left or right which was how he managed to ‘knot fog’ and keep both factions from each others’ throats. He was a master of put downs although the one that to me defines him was the remark from a disgruntled union leader regarding his deviousness, “if he swallowed a sixpence he’d sh1t a corkscrew”.

  • Tony Greaves 20th Jan '19 - 7:52pm

    Wow, what a thread! It was good to call at Mick and Ruth’s last weekend to look at some of their stuff and talk about where it might best end up. LESSON NUMBER ONE: Never throw anything away, someone will like to have it, for posterity or for now.
    We all had Buddy Holly glasses in those days. I for one am thrilled they have come round again!
    DAVID RAW: I first met you in the Youth Office at the Liberal Party’s 58 Victoria Street HQ. I was going past in a taxi a couple of days ago and thinking we must be getting old. The new concrete horror they built when they pulled down the splendid red-brick Victorian terrace has itself now been pulled down and replaced by another steel and glass horror. (I also met Heather in the same place, possibly on the same day!)
    SIMON HEBDITCH: Hello!
    KATHARINE PINDAR : Good to meet you at Brighton this year!
    And whatever happened to Brian Wright??? He did me a favour once…(I think it was a favour) – organised the campaign for my election as ULS Chairman (as we said in those days) at the ULS Conference at Manchester in 1965.
    Which reminds me…TREVOR SMITH – I owe you a letter to tell you what I think of your book. I am looking at it now and haven’t forgotten!

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