Monday, 3 June 2013

Women's Liberals welcome new Leader and hear by election candidate speak


Today we bring you the 1956 Annual Report of Southport Women's Liberal Association. It is notable for several features. Firstly the context; the faltering Liberal revival had begun. Deep in the wretched winter of 1954 a by election was held in Inverness-shire on December 21st. In fact so poor was the weather the result did not reach the London Press till Christmas Eve. The Liberal candidate, John Bannerman, was a 'popular Gaelic speaking Highlander, sportsman, potato developer and broadcaster; he had played Rugby for Scotland on thirty seven occasions between 1921 and 1929'. He reduced the Tory Majority from 10,000 down to 1300. Other favorable election results followed -although the party did not fight every seat. Ted Wheeler, amongst others, was dispatched to organise the Torquay by election also held in December a year later and again achieved a significant swing. In February 1956 the Hereford by election took place. The Liberal candidate was Frank Owen. As a young man he had won a Hereford seat in 1929 and he came mighty close to regaining a seat getting 36.4% of the vote. Ted Wheeler told me 20 years later that the campaigning methods adopted at Hereford changed for ever how elections were fought. The Frank Owen that members of Southport Women's Liberals heard speak was the candidate from Herford.

Jo Grimond, who had just taken over as Leader at the time of this Annual Report, needs no such lengthy  introduction . Grimond is properly getting a lot of attention on this the centenary if his birth. David Steel was present at a gathering in Orkney where, in the Firth Church Finnstown, he gave a lecture which, courtesy of Lib Dem Voice, you can find in full here

Jo had a clear political and strategic message which has inspired generations of Liberals. David Steel picked out three issues:
  • .........to shake Britain out of its imperial past with policies more attuned to the realities of the second half of the twentieth century. The American Secretary of State Dean Acheson was frequently quoted as saying that Britain had lost an empire but not yet found a role. Jo was among the early fighters against imperial nostalgia. He spoke against racism at home, and against the conduct of the colonial administration in Kenya at the time of the Hola Camp massacre. On South Africa he said of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960: “I believe something happened which has made a dividing line in history such as we sometimes see. I do not think things will ever be quite the same again…. The prime cause of all this is the attempt to impose a wholly unworkable and repugnant system – a system of race superiority”.
  • ........the most controversial and uniquely Liberal commitment was his espousal of entry into the European Economic Community and
  • opposition to the creation of the so called independent nuclear deterrents of Polaris and Trident.
Steel went on : 'He would also argue that we should concentrate on and promote Liberal principles and values. How do I know that? Because he made exactly that point publicly during the Lib-Lab pact. What had he in mind? First and foremost co-determination in industry. He was deeply interested in that, having studied Yugoslav cooperatives even within a communist system, and the Mondragon cooperative in the Basque region of Spain which he described as “socialism without the state”. He believed fully in co-ownership of shares and worker representatives on boards. Our German Liberal colleagues used to joke with his approval that after the war we the occupying powers insisted on a new German constitution which contained a decentralized federal system of government, proportional representation, and industrial democracy, “and you are so generous you British you took not one of these three for yourselves!”


Grimond will always be associated in the public mind with Home Rule for Scotland and decentralisation within Scotland. Today the Liberal MP for his  beloved Orkney and Sheltland is now arguing for a status for the Islands that recognisies their identity and distance from Edinburgh.

And being Grimond he asserted that a 'Liberal fundamental would be a land tax or site value rating to free up land hoarded for speculation and undeveloped, still as relevant today as it was in his'

When he became Leader in 1956, the Year of this WLA Annual Report, Jo has already caused a stir when  he began to proclaim the need for a realignment of the left. As Michaeal Meadowcroft wrote in Liberator back in 1993 quoting a Liberal candidate who had survived the dark days: "We couldn't stand the Tories and we didn't trust the state." In many respects this is the constant thread of all Jo's writing and places him in the direct succession to T H Green, Maynard Keynes, Ramsey Muir and Elliott Dodds.'

We are now revisiting some of those debates especially on the so called Independent Nuclear Deterrent and Europe. In many ways these questions and the rise a UKIP remind us that we need to face up to a key challenge that Grimond set us 'to shake Britain out of its imperial past '. The failure to grasp the opportunities of Europe and to take on the Little Englanders whose narrow nationalism warps our politics would have infuriated Grimond. When Labour were tearing themselves apart over Europe and the price protection for New Zealand butter Jo caricatured their attitude as waiting to decide whether one was for or against the Reformation until one knew what the monasteries would fetch.

Finally you will note that the WLA met in the Temperence Institute on London Rd-very 'old Liberal' Indeed previous Chairs of the Institute had been Liberal Councillors in the town including John Campion who won Park Ward in 1955-today that post is held by Mr Connard the Lord St Jeweler. I recall a Liberal meetings there in the early 80's. Our usual meeting place was unavailable and someone had suggested going there. I was surprise when I arrived to see a sign board at the front where the groups who had booked the various rooms were displayed. Most of the names were freshly hand written and slotted into place on the board, ours was hand painted and matched the original paintwork on the board. I wonder what happened to it?

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