Sunday, 16 October 2011

A local Liberal hero who knew why Liberals still banded together to continue-extended and amended the struggle

'The truth is that Liberalism is the only hope of a world in which dictators still rule; in which preparation for war is the only insurance against chaos; in which men can be victimised because of their colour or creed; in which there is one law for weak and another for the strong. It is because we know this that we Liberals are still banded together to continue the struggle.' 

David Bentliff  January 1952

In those difficult days for Liberalism Southport Liberals still commanded significant support in the town. Local newspapers described 'the old world part of the town (Churchtown and Marshside)' as ' for so long a Gibraltar of Liberalism'. Today Nigel Ashton is the inheritor of that tradition which was founded on Methodism and temperance.

Maybe it is because of the unbroken tradition of Liberalism in this town that quite a few names and personalities from that time are still remembered. The 1945 general Election was fought by Robert Martin ( yes that Martin family who  Jonathan Calder was moved to remark on.....Bob Martin was father of Robert Martin.  Bob was the founder of the the dog medicine firm in 1892. He was the President of the Southport Liberal Association and gave £1,000 a year to the Infirmary for the last five years of his life. There was a  Bob Martin Ward named after him..) Sam and Madge Goldberg -Sam came second in the 1959 General Election. He was one of very few who achieved that in a three cornered fight. (Michael Meadowcroft writes about that campaign in Liberator January 2010 page 16-17). Suffice to say Sam was the original Mr Southport to whom we shall return in a separate article later. Sydney Hepworth went on to be the Liberal Leader of the Council organising a Lib/ Lab pact to defeat the Tories before an unfortunate entanglement with a Mr Poulson. Then there was Ken Tissot the Lord Street Chocolatier and finally Billy Watson. Watson was born in Birkdale and found fame as a footballer. He started out with the Blowick Wesleyans  and moved on via Burnely and Accrington Stanley to be capped for England. He served two terms as a Liberal Councillor and after his death his widow was a stalwart of the WLA.

And yet against this colourful backdrop it is the bespectacled  barrister Hubert David Bentliff who upon retiring as Under Secretary to the National Assistance Board became the Liberal Parliamentary candidate in 1951 that the blog's resident historian has nominated as our first local hero.

No Liberal candidate held their deposit in a by election in this period. It was not until John Bannerman in 1954 fighting Inverness that the long march back began. Bentliff took to holding outdoor meetings in the local parks and recruited a whole generation of candidates and activists.Despite the unpromising circumstances Bentliff rallied the Liberal supporters and laid the foundations for the associations subsequent growth. He established local ward committees in Ainsdale, Marine, Sussex and Birkdale along with three Womens' Liberal Associations.  Our own committee in Birkdale was reformed in 1952 and in 1956 Mike Drury became the first Liberal councillor in Birkdake South for thirty years-he won by 2 votes! 

It was his unfortune luck to come on the scene at a time when the party was still in electoral decline. He fought the 1951 General Election along with only109 other Liberals. Most of them lost their deposit. Bentliff did not he polling 8,000 votes. His by election vote in 1952 was the lowest by a Liberal candidate since 1886. Nevertheless he kept organising and campaigning, Even as he was being rushed to hospital for an operation on a perforated duodenal ulcer he was signing the nomination papers for a council by election in Scarisbrick Ward. He died three days later in  Southport infirmary. The by election was delayed because of his death but when it was held we won by 79 votes.

Bob Martin paid tribute to him saying: 'He felt passionate about injustice wherever it lay and was endlessly mindful of others. He spared nothing of himself in fighting to defend those less able than themselves' His memorial service was taken by Revd George Young-himself a former Liberal candidate -who described him as a twentieth century David out to slay every Goliath who stood in his way.'  

The Southport Guardian-alas no longer with us covered the by election result and Bentliff's reaction.

Southport Guardian  for Saturday 9th Feb 1952. The death of the King rather overshadowed the by-election but  there are some interesting quotes from Bentliff. At the count he said “ I am ready again and again .. The fight goes on”. He is also quoted  as saying “The unexpected drop in the Liberal vote has done nothing but to steel me for the fights again”. I think you will agree that it was a remarkable response from someone who had just lost his deposit.  

Then on page three there is a letter from  him which I quote in full

On  Wednesday 3776 Southport men and women stood fast to their Liberalism – nearly 4,000 fewer than at the General Election last October. To the 3776 I give my thanks in a message on another page of the “Guardian” today.
I have no message for those who fear or dislike Liberalism.It is quite natural that they should be jubilant or scornful of what has happened to the Liberal vote this time.
My message is to those Liberals who stood aside from their convictions. I ask trhe to think of the damage they do to what they believe in by allowing themselves to be diverted even only temporarily by considerations which have no bearing whatsoever on any of the grave problems which they know full well can be solved properly only by the application of Liberal principles 

David Bentliff, 10 Lord Street West.

Other points of interest is the message of thanks, referred to in David Bentliff`s letter, which read

DAVID BENTLIFF THANKS all the 3,776 Southport men and women who worked and voted for him and refused to allow ANYTHING to divert them from their Liberalism on February 6th.

On the front page the following appears under the heading  “ It is whispered that….”
A former Liberal agent facing Thursday morning`s realities asked a fellow bus passenger “Does this mean the end of the party in Southport ?

The election campaign appears to have been a very civilized one  with the victorious  Roger Fleetwood Heasketh inviting David Bentliff and Labour candidate, Alan Tillotson, who had stood as a Liberal candidate in one of the Bolton seats in 1950 , for lunch at Meols Hall the next day. I couldn`t imagine Ian Percival Thatcher's Solicitor ewho I fought in the 1983 General Election in Southport or the discredited extreme right winger Ann Winterton who I fought in the two subsequent General Elections extending a similar invitation to me

Many thanks to Michael Braham for the historical research and corrections

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