Young Liberals, youthful radicalism: remembering Peter Hellyer

For most current members of the Liberal Democrats, the tensions within the Liberal Party in the late 1960s and the different ways we responded to the student revolts of 1968, the Vietnam War, the apartheid regime in South Africa and the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which ended in the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, are all ancient history.  For those of us who were Young Liberals then, however, this is a key part of what shaped our approach to politics.  A phone call last week from Hisham Hellyer to tell me that his father Peter had just died reminded me.

Peter Hellyer was the International Vice-Chairman of the YLs, under George Kiloh’s chairmanship, when the Young Liberals were dubbed ‘the red guards’ by the right-wing press, echoing the young militants of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  The first generation that did not remember the Second World War, in the UK as elsewhere, rejected the deference of their parents to old domestic and international hierarchies and to the institutions that embedded those hierarchies.  Peter was part of the YL contingent in the great anti-Vietnam demonstration in Grosvenor Square in 1968.  He’d met Thabo Mbeki at Sussex University, and became one of the most active members of the anti- apartheid Stop the Seventies Tour campaign.

Like other young radicals, he accepted an invitation to visit the Soviet Union in the winter of 1967-8, but was proud of visiting the anarchist Prince Kropotkin’s grave in Riga and of discussing the national identity of Ukraine in Kyiv.  The Soviet Embassy later protested to the Liberal Party that the articles he wrote on his return ‘distorted Soviet reality.’  And he took up the cause of Palestine after the Israeli victory and occupation, researching the links between Israel and the pre-transition South African government.  From this grew a fascination with the Arab world, fostered by working in Sudan in the early 1970s, where he met and married an Egyptian woman, moved to Cairo, converted to Islam and settled in Abu Dhabi.

I regained contact with him when I became our foreign affairs spokesman in the Lords, when he began to ‘put me right’ about the situation in the Gulf states every time I talked about the region.  By then he had become a UAE citizen, editor of the main Emirates English-language newspaper, and an expert on the region, its politics, history and archeology.  As foreign affairs spokesman I learned a great deal from his son, who travels between Cambridge, Washington and the Arab world, advising the British government on inter-faith relations, the contentious ‘Protect’ scheme and wider issues – an invaluable interpreter of Islam to ‘the West’ and of the Western world to Islam.

Younger Scottish Liberal Democrats may well remember Peter as a regular election campaigner in the Borders for David Steel through the 1980s and beyond.  ‘The boy David’ was almost a contemporary Young Liberal and later president of the Anti-Apartheid Movement; Peter returned repeatedly to support him.

Current controversies overshadow the different clashes of the past.  Jeremy Thorpe mishandled the radical enthusiasm of that generation of YLs, leading many of them to move on to other movements or (like Peter Hain) to Labour.  Forgetting his own radical past, when the Daily Mail had dubbed him as ‘Bomber Thorpe’ for his enthusiasm for intervening to stop South Rhodesia declaring independence, Jeremy feared that wavering Conservative voters in the southwestern seats we were hoping to win would be put off by their vigorous campaigning, and did his best to dissociate them from the party.

That’s a problem that has not gone away.  The swing voters we are seeking to win over in seats around London and across southern England are hesitant about paying higher taxes to ‘level up’ the north and England’s coastal towns.  They accept that there’s a problem with climate change, but they find their SUVs convenient for taking their children to school.  Britain still needs radical change, but the painful adjustments that will involve are not welcome to voters whose lives are more comfortable as things are.  We are a radical party dependent on centrist support.  It’s no easier to strike the right balance today than it was when Peter Hellyer and his generation were stretching the limits of ‘acceptable’ campaigning.

* William Wallace is Liberal Democrat spokesman on constitutional issues in the Lords.

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13 Comments

  • So very sorry to hear that, William, and thank you for your kind and thoughtful comments.

  • Katharine Pindar 8th Jul '23 - 8:37pm

    Thank you for this remembrance of Peter Hellyer, William. I wish I had known him, since my youth was similarly dominated by joining in protests about the Vietnam War, the Anti-Apartheid Campaign, and the occupation of the West Bank, so it has been good to read about Peter’s continuing active international life. Thank you also for your part in the Lib Dem and other progressive-minded Lords’ excellent work in revising the appalling Anti-Immigrants Bill.

  • Steve Trevethan 9th Jul '23 - 7:45am

    Might our party show leadership by pointing out the inflationary consequences of bank rate rises and that bank rate rises contribute to the wealth of banks?

    More generally, might we show clear, beneficial differences from the economics policies of the gruesome twosome of the Conservative and Labour in their cosy cartel?

  • Gordon Lishman 9th Jul '23 - 11:02am

    Thank you for the sad news, William.
    I remember Peter well and had occasional contacts with him in recent years along with others of the YL diaspora including the late Guy Thornton, Pete Kercher and Peter Harvey.

  • Thank you William for this article. I too have warm memories of Peter. He sent me to my first international conference representing YL’s and I drove with him and two others to Bulgaria in 1968 for the International Youth Festival. We came back through Prague just four days before the Soviet led invasion.
    The YL’s attracted a lot of radical youth in the 60’s who frankly found Harold Wilson’s Labour Government sadly lacking in moral fibre. It failed to tackle Ian Smith, or the Ulster Unionists in Northern Ireland, with catastrophic consequences. It introduced racist immigration restrictions and failed to clearly dissociate itself from the American led Vietnam war. I see signs of the same lack of principle emerging in the Starmer led Labour Party.

  • David Blake 9th Jul '23 - 11:35am

    There are quite a lot of obituaries, but this one is by his son.
    https://www.thenationalnews.com/opinion/comment/2023/07/05/peter-hellyer/

  • Rif Winfield 9th Jul '23 - 1:18pm

    Although I never met Peter Hellyer, his inspiration of the Young Liberal Movement led to the great campaigning period in which NLYL provided the ideological catalyst for Liberal politics throughout the 1970s. I shared in that campaigning, and mourned the gradual drift to the centre which engulfed the Party during the 1980s. Sadly the passage of years has thinned out the ranks of those who argued for a radical left (but non-Marxist) solution to the problems of society. The inevitable success of the Starmer-led Labour Party in 2024 will be to the detriment of any fundamental change in the way in which political change can shape our future. While I still have many friends within the Liberal Democrats, the merger with centrist Social Democracy has – as many of us foresaw – failed to create an alternative vision of society. Even the century-long campaign in which I participated for a genuinely representative electoral system to replace FPTP has foundered, and we are now in an epoch where ideology-free charlatans can twist public opinion to further their own self-important careers at the expense of the form of government we need.

  • John McHugo 9th Jul '23 - 2:31pm

    William, although your article is essentially an obituary for Peter, I wondered if I might comment on your reflections in the last two paragraphs about the tensions between our ideals and the cold reality of winning over voters in different parts of the country. As you say, this is very much a current dilemma for us.

    I joined the party during Ming’s leadership. The thing that impressed me most about the party then, after the quality of many of the people I met who belonged to it, was the very disparate geographical spread of our seats and their very varied nature. We literally held seats from John O’Groats to Land’s End, were represented in the big cities and in the least densely populated regions, and in some of the richest and poorest areas of the country.

    Despite our electoral disaster in 2015, I think a psephologist would say that even with our attenuated representation in the Commons, the seats we represent are still varied in the same way, and much more so than those of the two big parties. Juggling the interests of such different areas is a huge challenge, but if only we can find ways to do this successfully we can confidently proclaim ourselves as a genuinely national party in a way they are not. There must be some way for us to do this.

  • Nigel Ashton 9th Jul '23 - 9:10pm

    I am sorry to read the sad news about Peter Hellyer. I remember having lunch with Peter when I was International Vice-Chair of the YLs in the early-1980s. He was very supportive and a fount of knowledge and wisdom.

  • Paul Medlicott 29th Sep '23 - 1:50pm

    Only today, when I happened to turn to one of Arthur Hellyer’s gardening books, was I prompted to wonder what had become of Peter – and google led me here; and from here to Hisham Hellyer’s fine obituary of his father. I don’t believe Peter and I had been directly in touch for half a century – so Hisham’s piece has taught me so much about his father.
    It also reminded me of how my own father, Sir Frank Medlicott when Treasurer of the Liberal Party, championed and supported the Young Liberals – often incurring the wrath of the then leader, Jeremy Thorpe. My own happy and frequent associations with Peter and others such as Louis Eaks and the Hain family originally while Editor of the Liberal News in 1969-71 and later as David Steel’s Parliamentary Press Officer return now as important memories.
    Peter was a true radical.

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