The uneven path of British Liberalism – from Jo Grimond to Brexit by Tudor Jones

Tudor Jones has updated his 2011 publication setting out and analysing Liberal thinking so that now his purview runs from 1956 to 2016. Everything in the review of the earlier volume applies to his extended work. There is no better single-volume reference work on sixty years of Liberal thought, and Tudor Jones’ analysis of the numerous and diverse publications during that period is both rigorous and reliable. 

The additional chapters in this new volume cover the years leading into the Coalition of 2010 and the disastrous electoral consequences of that Coalition. Tudor Jones deals with the policy issues raised by the Orange Book and its answering volume Reinventing the State. He points out that the reputation the Orange Book acquired for expounding a Liberal economic doctrine was exaggerated and was more tone than detail. He traces the development of a shift from the Ashdown ending of equidistance between Conservative and Labour, and his effort to achieve an arrangement with Tony Blair, with an almost imperceptible move towards being more friendly towards conservatism, a trend, he says, that was not unacceptable to Nick Clegg.

Tudor Jones’ analysis of the steps leading up to the tuition fee debacle is particularly valuable as is his commentary on the manifesto for the 2010 election, including a commitment to a referendum on the European Union which most of us would prefer to forget. He is very favourable to the listed achievements of the Coalition, and he states that the public antipathy towards it was more one of perception than of detail. He makes the point that the significant error for the Liberal Democrats was their effort to promote the Coalition as a good thing in itself and it was only in 2013 that Clegg and senior colleagues realised that this was not working and that it was necessary to bang the drum for Liberal Democrat initiatives and successes. By then it was too late, and the grave disaster of the 2015 election and the following local elections was inevitable. 

Tudor Jones’ final chapter points out the basic continuity of Liberal thinking throughout the period under consideration and, for instance, he sets the community politics strategy within the broader framework of devolution and the enabling state. In conclusion, he reverts to his starting point: that Jo Grimond was the critical factor in setting the content of the Liberal policy and the role and position of Liberal politics in the succeeding years. This is a book to keep close by one’s desk for ease of regular reference.

* Michael Meadowcroft joined the Liberal Party in 1958. He has served at every level of the party organisation. He was a Leeds City Councillor, West Yorkshire Met County Councillor and MP for Leeds West, 1983-87. For 25 years he led or was part of electoral missions to 35 new democracies on four continents.

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  • Phil Beesley 25th Mar '20 - 12:19pm

    In case anyone is as confused as I was, the book is called _The Uneven Path of British Liberalism: From Jo Grimond to Brexit_, published by Manchester University Press.

    I enjoyed this description of the book:

    Definitely on my reading list, but I’ll wait a while before ordering a copy.

  • Duncan Brack 25th Mar '20 - 2:26pm

    The Liberal Democrat History Group was selling copies of this excellent book from our exhibition stand at Bournemouth, and we had planned to do the same at York … so since we couldn’t, we’re making them available for sale via our website – 20% off for Journal of Liberal History subscribers.

  • Kevin Hawkins 25th Mar '20 - 4:25pm

    Nice to hear from Michael Meadowcroft again. It brings back memories of when I was campaigning for him in the first 1974 election. So he has been campaigning for Liberalism for 62 years – I notch up 50 years on June 18th this year – I joined on the day of the 1970 General Election. British Liberalism has had a lot of ups and downs since then – the important thing is we’re still here.

  • Just goes to show that leadership is gained by defined principles, not by conniving back room deals.

    We Lib Dems need, urgently, to re-iterate somw basic principles. Four bullet points can win the war.

  • I’m no historian, but surely the Lib Dems (I’ve voted for them since 1959, and my memory is now unreliable)) have for some years been loud advocates for Proportional Representation, and were known to be so at the time when the notorious coalition with Cameron’s party was formed? At that time I believe that under the pressure of events approaches were made also towards Gordon Brown’s Labour. Why did we never argue that the coalition was right , for the basic reason and sound, that the Conservatives had just won substantially more votes than Labour had?

  • Sue Sutherland 26th Mar '20 - 1:07pm

    Roger Lake. I can remember Nick Clegg arguing exactly that and agreeing with him. This shows what a problem our party has with getting its message across. Perhaps we should be taking steps to inform members about what we are doing and why we are doing it so they can also promulgate it. Ed Davey has sent various letters to members recently which is good, but maybe highlighting the main message and asking us to share it would be a good idea?

  • Sue Sutherland 26th Mar '20 - 1:38pm

    Michael Meadowcroft tells us that Tudor Jones ‘sets the community politics strategy within the broader framework of devolution and the enabling state’.
    I think most Lib Dems would agree with this, but, to me this places a straight jacket around the concept of community politics. It is because we instinctively view the nation as a community, composed of many different groups, that we believe in devolution and enabling members of smaller groups to make decisions for themselves. We see the state as enabling rather than dictatorial because our model of politics is based on the view of the family as nurturing rather than authoritarian.
    I also sometimes think that we should question the idea of the state itself. In a democracy the government has a civil service to implement the ideas the electorate have endorsed. We should be working on how to make this relationship more effective, just as we do at a local level. When we take up the idea of the nation as a community which needs various services to function properly, then how those services should be provided becomes more obvious. This is why we instinctively protest at the privatisation of prisons for example. What we haven’t done is to set out those instincts in a coherent way.
    The concept of the State really belongs to the parties who’s political theory is ultimately dictatorship, when the populace has little input into what the leadership of the nation does.

  • Phil Beesley 26th Mar '20 - 2:38pm

    Sue Sutherland: “I think most Lib Dems would agree with this, but, to me this places a straight jacket around the concept of community politics.”

    I’ll keep my comment brief because my thoughts may be more relevant on a different thread.

    Lib Dems have used community politics as an effective campaigning tool and for communicating liberal values about a smaller state, individualism versus mutuality. Sadly, Lib Dems have been less successful at simplicating the relationships between citizens and service providers.

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