In 1956 the Liberal Party was all but dead. With 6 MPs three of whom were from the Celtic Fringes and three of whom survived because of pacts in the Pennines with Tories it would have been very easy for a distinctive strand of political life to become extinct. Indeed when your national opinion poll rating is 2.5% and the potential recording error is 3% you might be!
Without a doubt the Party was saved by Jo Grimond a likeable person – totally committed to his beliefs to whom people warmed instinctively and whose considerable intellect was respected by all. Leading members of the Liberal Party and Liberal Democrats are always victims of a peculiar Parlour game – “what might they have been in another Party?” Shirley Williams stars as the best women Prime Minister we never had; Menzies Campbell the best Foreign Secretary; Vince Cable the best Chancellor etc etc but Jo Grimond was a person that stood apart. No-one who knew him or heard him speak doubted for a moment that had he joined another Party he would have risen to the very top in political life and the Nation’s politics.
His place in politics was pre-destined. Almost anyone who was a barrister in Scotland in the 1930s was also a politician (not too different today actually!) If he did not have politics in his blood he certainly acquired it by marriage. Laura Grimond was the widow of a life peer, the sister of another life peer, the daughter of a life peeress and the great grand-daughter of a hereditary peer of the first creation.
I didn’t join the Party until his leadership was over (although I was member when he took over as temporary leader following the demise of Jeremy Thorpe) but his speech that we should ‘March to the Sound of Gunfire’ resonated through the Party and resonates to this day in the way that all parties conduct their business. Some say that the politics of the Pre 1970s was a gentler era that may be true but it was certainly more deferential and it was very definitely more tribal and class based.
People by and large did not vote for a political party – they voted against one. “I’m voting Labour because I hate the Tories”, and vice versa was an insistent refrain on the door step. Against this the Liberal Party had no voice. Even with our small number of voters, our demographics for membership and voters crossed the divides. Rich/poor, young/old, middle/working (and a few upper) class sprinkled the Party in a rough approximation to the population at large.
Jo looked at politics very differently. Instinctively he felt that class politics was old politics and that what was needed was a new set of ideas based on liberalism which would refocus the centre left. He also had a clear understanding of the importance of a united Europe and led the Party into its early acceptance of the EEC – an issue on which it is united today.
His ideas are still at the centre of Lib Dem philosophy today. They can best be summed up in the preamble to the Party constitution which is printed on our membership cards, “The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”.
What attracted people most to Jo’s philosophy was the fact that he walked the talk. Yes, he actually practised what he preached. At the heart of his life he was devoted to his beloved Orkney and Shetland constituency which he served for 83 years. He argued his cause as Rector of three universities (at different times). He was unswervingly courteous and polite to friend and for alike. But it was his intellect which caused absolute silence when he spoke and his clarity of vision inspired people to follow him.
But Jo’s work is not yet finished. Above all he yearned for a realignment of the left. He believed that there was in public opinion a yearning for a centre ground in which decent profits could be made to support decent services ensuring that all could benefit from progress. As a Liberal Democrat I still believe that. As both other Parties have moved to the centre ground in appearance, indeed for many years new Labour flipped passed us on to the Tory side, there is still a massive gap in the market for a Party whose dogma is empowerment, decentralisation, fairness and openness.
Major Jo Grimond did march us to the sound of gunfire – some of us are still marching