Back in July I got an email from Jim Hancock that read:
Jessica and Katy Bingham have asked me contact you to ensure that you
know that there will be a memorial celebration of the life of their
father Viv Bingham (President of the Liberal Party 1981-82) on WED
SEPT 12th at 6pm in the Lloyd George Room of the National Liberal
.. and so it was a goodly crowd of Liberals assembled at the NLC to remember Viv's life. It was the sort of event Viv would have loved to attend. The range his of friends there from Ministers to focus deliverers confirmed him as a man who could move easily in so many different settings. He was described during the evening in various ways; a good man, a fully rounded man, a convivial man, a man of firm convictions but one who strove not to fall out with those with whom he disagreed.
The evening was hosted brilliantly by Jim. We all reminisced about Viv and therefore we all smiled and laughed, we sang the old songs and believed again that we could overcome.
At the front was Chris Green, Gordon Lishman, Michael Meadowcroft, Joan Walmsley, and Paddy Ashdown all of whom spoke-more of which later-they were joined later by Don Foster and finally by Andrew Stunnell who proposed a toast. In the body of the kirk was all manner of folk; Peter Brook, Paul Rowan, Helen and William Wallace, Tom McNally, Jenny Tonge, Martin Thomas (who played the piano) Simon Hughes, Mark Hunter, John Leach, Hugh Jones, John Pugh Johnathon Fryer and many others
Viv would have loved to have been there and he wouldn't have missed the opportunity of sharing a few thoughts. As Michael observed he was a national politician. The records show that he did fight a council seat once but his interest lay in national politics. He will be remembered for two policy areas, disarmament set within a broader context of international relations and industrial policy
Viv did not understand why the party had back peddled of worker ownership. When I wrote immediately after his death I did not mention that he had worked for the National Coal Board. It was there that he met and worked for Fritz Schumacher an influence that remained with him all his life. He was talking about it when we met at the Birmingham conference 2011. It is part of the reason that he moved to work in the Co-operative Group in Manchester as a senior executive. It was why he was so attracted to the Grimond policy of employee ownership and workers co-operatives. His daughters told us last night that he had started work on some memoirs and a paper on why the co-operative movement and Liberals should be able to co operate together better.
He was a champion schemes that promoted industrial democracy and employee ownership. I know that this tradition also exists within the Labour Party but it has never commanded the the support that many may have hoped. In some way this does go back to the influence of the Webbs and the early Labour Party. Viv knew this history well. After the Rochdale pioneers had established their consumer co-op there was a move to establish a producer co-op and a mill was acquired to this end. It failed. Workers co-ops were off the agenda and state ownership and nationalisation became the dominant credo of the Labour Party. Blair may have tried to dump it. Tristan Hunt may speak of mutualism but in my experience Labour activists want nationalisation and anything else is second best.
In my original piece I thought Viv joined the party as a student. Last night the date was agreed to be 1962 -the year of Orpington. I had thought Viv had been a Liberal at Oxford chiefly because I remember telling me about the campaign around the racially mixed marriage in 1948 of Seretse Khama as wiki records:
Having banned interracial marriage under the apartheid system, South Africa could not afford to have an interracial couple ruling just across their northern border. As Bechuanaland was then a British protectorate (not a colony), the South African government immediately exerted pressure to have Khama removed from his chieftainship. Britain’s Labour government, then heavily in debt from World War II, could not afford to lose cheap South African gold and uranium supplies. There was also a fear that South Africa might take more direct action against Bechuanaland, through economic sanctions or a military incursion. The British government therefore launched a parliamentary enquiry into Khama’s fitness for the chieftainship. Though the investigation reported that he was in fact eminently fit to rule Bechuanaland, "but for his unfortunate marriage", the government ordered the report suppressed (it would remain so for thirty years), and exiled Khama and his wife from Bechuanaland in 1951.
I don't know if that was Viv's first real engagement in International politics but it certainly set the tone. It was, of course , his commitment to disarmament that marked him out. In this he walked on a bigger stage than the Liberal Party. But the party was his home and he argued his case with passion and he organised. Michael Meadowcroft said he wasn't a plotter. I'm not sure I agreed. Peter Brook and I were comparing memories of times when Viv went head to head with the leadership and won. He achieved that not just by his oratory but by his organisation. Certainly over all the maneuverings about Cruse missiles he carefully planned how to win. As Chris Green recalled last night it was he who enlisted Paddy to propose the anti Cruse motion that torpedoed David Steel. It was true also in industrial policy where he took on Pardoe, Steel and Cyril on a range of issues. In particular during one of Steel's mad moments when he was attracted to legislation about strikes in the public sector Viv not only won the argument he deployed his troops with some skill and shrewedness to achieve the desired end. We were given one further example back to the dreaded seats negociatations between the SDP and the Liberals this time his interlocutor was that angry little man Mike Thomas, Viv so neutralised Thomas's contribution that it allowed a deal to be done.
One further thing that I left out from my original piece was Viv's health. Towards the end we were all aware of his physical ill health. Andrew Stunnel reported that earlier this year on advice from his Doctor that he needed more exercise Viv turned up offering to deliver a Focus round . In his one and only Christmas letter he also spoke of his experience of depression. I think that for most folk that was the first they knew of it. I always found him quite open about it and he took an interest in the work I do in mental health and even took the chance to discuss his medication!
Paddy was both an ally and an adversary and he spoke about Viv and his part in his liberalism. I wrote that Viv's last conference speach was in support of David Grace's motion on Trident. I stand corrected. Apparently he successfully moved a motion to ensure that conference papers were available in hard copy. The irony of this was not lost on any of us when Paddy came to the end of his contribution telling us that there was a part of Pericles great funeral oration that he wanted to quote. . He took out his mobile phone where he had stored the quote. You've guested it, he couldn't find it but he persevered and persevered and persevered until he did.
.............We make friends by doing good to others, not by receiving good from them. This makes our friendship all the more reliable, since we want to keep alive the gratitude of those who are in our debt by showing continued goodwill to them: whereas the feelings of one who owes us something lack the same enthusiasm, since he knows that, when he repays our kindness, it will be more like paying back a debt than giving something spontaneously. We are unique in this. When we do kindnesses to others, we do not do them out of any calculations of profit or loss: we do them without afterthought, relying on our free liberality.
and he ended:
Each one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person
Finally we sang 'we shall overcome' listened to Viv's favourite music including-Bladon Races, Karalia Suite, G&S ( a little Liberal or else..) etc. We talked on into the evening and agreed that we hope his daughters would share what Viv had written about his life .