Only Lower Upper

Peter Clarke

  • Liberal Lion: Jo Grimond, a Political Life by Peter Barberis
    Tauris, 266 pp, £19.50, March 2005, ISBN 1 85043 627 4

At any rate, he had a happy death. Just over 80, in good health if a little deaf, well known and well liked, dignified and distinguished, he had addressed the House of Lords on Thursday 21 October 1993, choosing to intervene in a debate on a favourite topic: employee share ownership. His argument was double-edged or at least ambivalent. He did not object to the effect of 14 years of Thatcherism in reducing the power of organised labour; but he genially deplored the consequent shift in power towards capital, since the essential objective ought to be a wider spread of wealth among the majority, without which the current unpopularity of state socialism was likely to prove temporary. It was after 6 o’clock when he sat down. On Friday, as so often before, he caught the plane up to Orkney, in his old parliamentary constituency, where he still possessed a capacious home in the Old Manse of Firth, near Kirkwall. On Saturday evening he had a severe stroke. On Sunday he was dead. When the House of Lords reconvened on Monday, the tributes were warm and widespread, and not just from his own party. Jo Grimond, the leader of the Labour peers said, was ‘a man who gave politics a good name’.

Peter Barberis has written a book that endorses this judgment. It is a well-researched account of Grimond’s career, presenting a sympathetic view of him while not flinching from asking some awkward questions, though generally on matters that would be regarded as tactical rather than strategic. It doesn’t openly proclaim a big-L Liberal allegiance but its small-l liberal perspective is manifest throughout. Barberis, who is a professor of politics, betrays (or perhaps affirms) his calling by the attention he gives to Grimond’s intellectual pedigree and its influence on his role in the Liberal Party. Was he an intellectual in politics, then? Not exactly. ‘He was his party’s most fertile ideas man at Westminster since David Lloyd George, perhaps since Gladstone,’ Barberis blurts out in his final section, almost as though he has just thought of it, reassuring himself by adding: ‘That is what he was – an ideas man, not a political philosopher or even the careful crafter of detailed policy lines.’ It is in this way that Grimond’s achievements are given a highly positive interpretation.

So a happy life too? He himself, it seems, was not quite so sure. At his memorial service, Mark Bonham Carter revealed that Grimond thought of his career as a failure. True, after he became leader of the Liberal Party in 1956, in the midst of the Suez crisis, with only five followers in the House of Commons, he may have promised it a resurgent role in British politics; yet when he resigned, just over ten years later, it still had only 12 MPs and remained marginal rather than crucial to the making and unmaking of governments. He may have conjured up the idea of a realignment of British politics, but the grip of the two-party system remained obdurately strong. What was revealed under Grimond’s leadership, however, was the party’s developing capacity to serve as a channel for a protest vote. In an age when governments simply did not expect to lose by-elections, the Liberal victory in the rural Devon constituency of Torrington in 1958 signalled a thrillingly alluring potential for third-party politics.

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