Tony Greaves

It is a year today since Tony died.  I have been talking with other friends and his family about how best to remember him in a way which captures both the essence of the man and the extent of his contribution to Liberalism and his party over 60 years of activism.  I finish by asking how we to remember Tony and build on the massive legacy of his life in Liberalism.

Tony had the most secure moral compass for Liberalism of anyone I have known.  Time and again, his reaction to events demonstrated an instinctively Liberal mind.  He applied Liberalism as a profound value to challenges, believing that deep, Liberal values would offer the best solutions.  His immediate responses often offered a clear analysis and understanding which showed the natural direction for Liberal political action.  One reason why he was dismissive and angry at times at people with power in his Party and beyond was simply that they didn’t have that instinctive grasp of a Liberal response.  He could be difficult at times, but it would be worth thinking as well about how often he was actually right on the substance of matters.

Tony was the single most important contributor to the growth of the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats between 1970 and 1997.  By-election victories built on the ideas and campaigning methods of community politics as did the growth of local parties and council groups from wards to towns to counties to regions to success in Parliamentary elections.  The Association of Liberal Councillors led that work and Tony led the ALC during those formative years.  Those successes were based, more than on any other single element, on Tony’s painstaking, committed, patient work with activists, campaigners and Council Groups to help them, often one by one, to learn about campaigning and winning; always emphasising the need to find an activist’s personal voice that was securely founded in Liberal ideas, along with a commitment to making a Liberal difference in the life of a community or a person.

That’s why he found it difficult to understand those who see liberalism as being defined by a long process of producing disconnected policies.  For him, the policy was the Liberal value, applied to a circumstance.  He wanted those deep, Liberal values to drive every single response, from potholes through to global relations.  What unites us as Liberals is not loads of policies, it’s one approach to everything.

Tony believed that growth in our Party should be founded in promoting and enabling the leadership of committed individual Liberals to make a difference here wherever we are and now, rather than being directed as foot-soldiers towards a distant goal of a Parliamentary majority.  Tony, like many of us, found it difficult sometimes to see the flame of distinctive liberalism within some of the directed, disparate activism.

I use the word “instinctive” in describing his Liberalism, which is true.  It was, however, firmly rooted in a very strong intelligence; a great deal of reading, talking and listening; and, above all, a lot of thinking.  It found some expression in his management of Hebden Royd Publications as a publication arm for the Party which promoted debate and in which Tony was the central figure on the side of diversity of ideas.   The most important legacy of his thought and Liberalism is the Preamble to the Liberal Democrats’ Constitution which he wrote with Shirley Williams.  Tony’s description of how it was written, including the arguments, agreements and detail of their drafting is a fascinating story.  I heard about it in occasional conversations over a long time – in fact, the first 34 years of the Party’s life.  More recently, he used the Preamble as the basis for talking with Party groups about what it means to be a Liberal. I would have liked to have heard one of those sessions, not least because Tony was so pleased to draw people into a debate rather than just listening to him.

I rather doubt that Tony would ever have called himself an intellectual or even felt comfortable with the idea, although it is a fair description.  That’s partly because the word didn’t seem to fit someone who was firmly rooted in the local communities of which he was part throughout his life.  Those roots were why Tony was firmly committed to elected and powerful regional government and opposed to the centralised state.  He was a unique combination of community activist and intellectual with a political vision that extended far beyond any local area or experience.  He was certainly not a “citizen of nowhere” in that sneering phrase, but neither was he ever limited by locality in his thinking.

Tony also understood that community activism – involving active citizens in “taking and using power” – had to be part of the same process as the operation of democratic, representative government; they are and must be inextricably linked and both are founded in relationships.  It’s what Tony once called “politics as market-place” in a booklet we wrote together.  That’s a market-place where ideas and policies are debated, challenged and agreed to create the compromises and experiments which take democratic societies forward.  It is notable that, after Tony’s death, some of the letters to Heather came from peers in other parties who remember Tony for the clarity of his arguments and the deep knowledge behind them, particularly in anything which involved land, land use and ownership, the countryside and the natural environment.  That knowledge was rooted in Tony’s deep love and experience of walking, climbing, geography and geology.

The final thought I want to offer is this: for many people the most lasting memory of Tony will be of kindness, patience and understanding combined with a lively wit and sense of humour.  That’s true most of all for Tony’s wife and daughters, and also for many more people who lived around him and in his ward and town, for many of the friends and political activists he supported, taught and encouraged, and for many of those who faced problems in life, not least as we got older.  Tony had a deep respect for others, not least those with whom he disagreed.  He showed great personal kindness and support for numerous friends and colleagues through his political life.  He never turned political disagreement into personal animosity.

A year after Tony’s death, this essay isn’t an obituary; we did that a year ago.  As Tony would much prefer, it’s an attempt to build on the knowledge and experience of his life to think about where we, including his Party, go next.  I would like to hear from anybody who wants to help in that task, preferably with some ideas about how we set about it.

Thanks to Tony’s family and others of Tony’s friends who contributed to these memories.

* Gordon Lishman is over 70 and has campaigned for older people and on issues concerned with ageing societies for about 50 years.  Nowadays, he does it with more feeling!

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  • Paul Thompson 23rd Mar '22 - 11:20am

    Thank you Gordon for your insightful article.

    I remember Tony very well and he certainly had an influence on me with the local activism leading to bigger things. Learned so much in those early ALC days and then ALDC and am convinced it helped develop the bedrock on which greater things were to come in St Albans though rather longer than we’d hoped. Thanks Tony for all your inspiration.

  • Thank you Gordon for this moving tribute to Tony. I regularly re-read the preamble to the constitution which he co-authored. It continues to inspire me and I often share it with others whose values seem to correspond to ours. It reflects Tony’s sense of internationalism even if he didn’t talk so much about that. He was for instance a member of the Lib Dem Friends of Palestine and this reflected his concern for international law and human rights. He reminded me in recent years of the time that Jeremy Thorpe and Lord Byers (then chief executive of the Party) tried in a heavy handed way to pressurise the Young Liberals (of which he was then Chair) not to criticise Israel for the continued occupation of Palestine well after the 1967 war. He was proud to have stood up to them. Labour has its own high-minded values as well when it comes to internationalism, but they were heavily compromised when they were in power from 1997 to 2010. We must continue to champion them in opposition and if we ever share power again.

  • Gordon writes of Tony’s clarity of argument and the deep knowledge behind them, particularly in anything which involved land, land use and ownership, the countryside and the natural environment.
    It was as a consequence of this knowledge that I had the privilege of working with Tony on the APPG on Land Value Capture. Tony oversaw the drafting of a private members bill on reform of the 1961 Land Compensation Act to allow local authorities to acquire land at existing use vaue.
    Tony penned a piece for LibdemVoice in 2017 that is worth revisiting Where now for LibDems

  • Well done Gordon. Such a huge loss still.

  • Suzanne Fletcher 24th Mar '22 - 12:23am

    This popped up on my Facebook memories for 23rd March.
    Tired out and whilst waiting for a message meaning I could go to bed turned on TV for first time this month. House of Lords determined to try to sort out complicated and detailed amendments to bill on planning issues. Next time you are cross with bad planning decisions remember that lords Tony Greaves , Taylor, foster, were all there arguing points to make it better at gone midnight and wishing they too could go to bed.amendment ZBB 101, section…… ( I can now 😀)

  • Like Tony’s contributions, this tribute is deeply felt and deeply thought. Tony was a leading light of the Young Liberals when I joined the Liberal Party as an undergraduate out of frustration with Harold Wilson’s first government and a growing sense that Liberals had something to say about liberty and community that “spoke to my condition”. He continues to inspire.

  • It’s good to see Gordon unpacking Tony’s “instinctive Liberalism” . It was something that inspired you to look out for the same quality in others. Sometimes I have commended people as potential candidates by describing them as “natural Liberals” even when they have hardly uttered a party political thought. Sometimes people express their fundamental values in more than words.

  • Sandy Walkington 24th Mar '22 - 12:47pm

    Yes yes yes. I keep being reminded why I miss the Liberal Party for all its occasional ramshackleness. We need to always think what it means to be liberal with a small ‘l’

  • Rif Winfield 24th Mar '22 - 1:55pm

    Gordon, I endorse all that you and others have written about Tony. He is sadly missed, both personally and politically. I remember his determination and how helpful he was to everyone around him. I recall having the priviledge of running his committee room in Winewall during local elections, and the discussions we held about Constitutional Amendments. I’m not sure how happy he was fitting into the HoL, but he certainly made every intervention his own and never compromised on his liberalism.

  • Roger Billins 24th Mar '22 - 7:35pm

    So many Lib Dems have forgotten what the founders of community politics, such as Tony Greaves, meant-it is not a strategy to gain power-it is an end in itself.

  • Suzanne Fletcher 24th Mar '22 - 9:43pm

    @Roger Billins – so right, community politics is NOT a strategy is is an end in itself

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