Time for some Liberal Herstory

British Liberal LeadersTraditional Mothers’ Day treats do not really appeal to me. My gift on Sunday was the new(ish) book British Liberal Leaders (Brack, Ingham, Little et al) and the free time to finish reading it. I love tales of Lloyd George’s derring-do and of Steel’s “going back to your constituencies” as much as the next Liberal. All human life is there in the chapters on each party leader: Asquith’s failings, Ashdown’s verve, Clegg’s self-pity.

Well I say all human life is there but is it? In many ways it is an admirable book, John Campbell’s chapter on Roy Jenkins is a particular treat. There is a catch though. Where on earth are the women?

There are 24 chapters on each of the 24 Liberal, SDP or Lib Dem leaders. All the leaders analysed are men of course. Fair enough. We cannot go back in time and insert Nancy Seear or Shirley Williams as party leaders in a retrospective All Women Shortlist!

But all 24 chapters are also written by men. As someone who grew up following and studying politics in the 70s and 80s I am used to the world being dominated by Crewes and Kings, Butlers and Kavanaghs. My first strong political memories are of the 1975 referendum and the voting night coverage consisted largely of beige blokes in beige suits chatting to one another in a beige set. Like other women of my generation I was brought up with it. I am used to it.

But, really, in 2015/2016 could not a single woman have been found to write a chapter on a Liberal Leader? Women appear to have suffered an informal ban on being allowed to comment on our Liberal past. Even the bibliography mentions eighty plus male subjects, historians and political scientists and only a single female commentator.

Perhaps it is time for some Liberal Herstory. Top down histories often ignore women’s role and in a party of community politics this is a painful omission. Are you or do you know an amazing woman in your local party who has been an activist for ages? Why not write up her story and preserve it for Liberal Democrat posterity?

We all know that Jo Grimond told his troops to march towards the sound of gunfire. He did not say we should leave half our army behind in the barracks just because they are female.

* Ruth Bright has been a councillor in Southwark and Parliamentary Candidate for Hampshire East

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  • Catherine Jane Crosland 9th Mar '16 - 1:11pm

    Surely if Roy Jenkins was included, presumably because he was one of the SDP “Gang of Four, then Shirley Williams should have been included for the same reason

  • Roy Jenkins led the SDP!

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 9th Mar '16 - 1:27pm

    But initially weren’t the four of them supposed to be joint leaders?

  • Paul Murray 9th Mar '16 - 1:38pm

    Can I nominate Ann Crumbie from Leicester?

    Ann was elected to Leicester City Council in 1985 as the first Liberal to be elected there since 1962. She raised over £250,000 for the Liberal Party as organizer of the Cheltenham Gold Cup draw. And her house is known to every serious Liberal activist: it’s “The Thatched Cottage” which features so heavily in ALC’s “Winning Local Elections”.

  • Paul Murray 9th Mar '16 - 1:46pm

    Sorry, that should be Anne, not Ann.

  • For heaven’s sake……Now even a book entitled “History of Liberal Leaders” can be turned into yet another dig for AWS… Those who control LDV are determined to push for AWS and woe betide anyone who believes otherwise…

  • Expats – actually, the only mention of all-women shortlists was ironic. This post is about the fact that all the chapters were written by men – please discuss.

  • Duncan Brack 9th Mar '16 - 3:26pm

    I’m glad Ruth enjoyed the book – anyone else who’d like to buy it can get it here (http://www.liberalhistory.org.uk/product/british-liberal-leaders-leaders-of-the-liberal-party-sdp-and-liberal-democrats-since-1828/) or at spring conference! – and it’s a fair criticism to note there were no women chapter authors. In choosing authors, in general we approached people who had already written biographies of the leaders in question – we weren’t paying them anything, and for various reasons we couldn’t give them all that much time, so we thought it was best to ask people who could write the chapters relatively easily – i.e. people who had already published books about them. As far as I’m aware – please correct me if I’m wrong – there are no biographies of any of the leaders featured in the book written by women.

    In general, in fact, there are very few women political historians around. We are trying quite hard to expand the number of women authors in the Journal of Liberal History, and we are always interested to hear proposals for articles from women.

    The book covers only those elected, or appointed, as leaders of the Liberal Party, SDP and Liberal Democrats; for the SDP, we covered only those elected to the post, after the initial period of self-appointed joint leadership (we were also under pressure from the publishers to keep the book’s length down – it’s longer than both its Labour and Conservative counterparts!). Although no women have led any of the three parties, we have already published a booklet (Mothers of Liberty) featuring leading women Liberals, Social Democrats and Liberal Democrats. (We’ve sold out of the first edition and will be revising and reprinting in the near future.)

  • Mary Reid…. There are umpteen pro AWS articles currently running on LDV…..You say ‘ironic’ but, rather than comment on the content, the article spends most of its time bemoaning the lack of female input…

    I applaud those woman who achieve the highest positions in politics, industry, etc. However, I just wish we would put half the effort into widening our attraction to those of different backgrounds rather than on gender….

    What I will wager is that most, if not all, of women chosen to replace a retiring MP will differ in only one detail from their predecessor; gender…

  • Martin Land 9th Mar '16 - 4:07pm

    Ruth, if you want it, write it.

  • As I have said before Margaret Wintringham deserves a book written about her.

  • Ruth Bright 9th Mar '16 - 5:02pm

    Bless you Martin – thanks for the inspiration, perhaps I should rehash a few old essays of mine about Edwardian Liberalism I might find mouldering in some dusty corner of the LSE.

    expats – as Duncan Brack rightly highlights I have lots of praise for the book but surely the fact that 24 out of 24 of the chapters are written by men sends a rather discouraging message about the party’s culture. As Mary rightly says my comment about AWS was meant to be a bit of fun. But those who wish to avoid AWS need to come up with some ideas about how to adjust the political culture in other ways.

    Paul Murray – Anne Crumbie sounds amazing. Is there someone in your local party who could interview her? If not I volunteer!

  • Haven’t read the book yet, so must be cautious.

    @ Ruth : “Asquith’s failings” is a bit of a worn out theme and according to modern historians (Cassar and Quineault) he was much better than that. As for LLG – he was an energetic rascal. According to Maynard Keynes, ‘Lloyd George was rooted in nothing…. void and without content… a being who lives and feeds on his immediate surroundings’.

    AWS ? I take my hat off to Campbell-Bannerman. – who advised women to “keep on pestering”. I’m afraid Asquith was a very late convert and LLG (as usual) made promises, disappeared, and finally only partially implemented women’s suffrage in 1918 in a way that favoured his Tory coalition partners..

  • Ruth Bright 10th Mar '16 - 7:25am

    David Raw – I see what you mean about poor old Asquith. History goes in fashions like everything else and Asquith is on the up at the moment!

  • Paul Murray 10th Mar '16 - 8:02am

    @Ruth – my partner Arnie Gibbons is a good starting point for information and contacts.

  • Ruth Bright 10th Mar '16 - 9:03am

    Thanks Paul. Happy to hear about any other “Liberal Herstory” candidates.

  • It is still happening – the outrageous gender imbalance when it comes to political historians and pundits.

    Just listened to a BBC programme called “The 30 year itch” about the political culture in the UK since the 70s. Male political commentators (not counting the male presenter) outnumbered women by 10 to one.

    Are there no more women who could offer an analysis of British politics in the twentieth century? Weren’t we there?

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