Crisis at Ettrick Bridge

William Rodgers

  • A Short History of the Liberal Party 1900-88 by Chris Cook
    Macmillan, 216 pp, £9.95, August 1989, ISBN 0 333 44884 7
  • Against Goliath by David Steel
    Weidenfeld, 318 pp, £14.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 297 79678 X
  • Labour’s Decline and the Social Democrats’ Fall by Geoffrey Lee Williams and Alan Lee Williams
    Macmillan, 203 pp, £29.50, July 1989, ISBN 0 333 46541 5
  • Penhaligon by Annette Penhaligon
    Bloomsbury, 262 pp, £14.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 7475 0501 2
  • Citizens’ Britain: A Radical Agenda for the 1990s by Paddy Ashdown
    Fourth Estate, 159 pp, £5.95, September 1989, ISBN 1 872180 45 0

In the General Elections of 1951 and 1955, the Liberal Party won less than 3 per cent of the vote and ended up with six MPs. The party of Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd George had joined the political fringe. But by 1974, despite the electoral system and an absence of credibility as a candidate for government, the Party had raised its share of the vote to 19.3 per cent and the number of its MPs to 14. It was clear that the death of Liberal England had been prematurely foretold.

As Chris Cook reminds us in the latest edition of his History of the Liberal Party, it was Jo Grimond who turned round the depleted Liberal ranks and marched them towards the sound of gunfire. It seemed a risible endeavour, with Lady Violet Bonham-Carter and remnants of the Liberal ascendancy shoulder-to-shoulder with a street-wise generation of young Liberals who cared little for conventional politics. Grimond would catch the Speaker’s eye as the Chamber emptied and speak intelligently to a House which liked the man, but thought his party a joke.

Then came Jeremy Thorpe, the flamboyant actor-manager, famous in private for his impersonations of Winston Churchill and in public for a taste for campaigning that seemed larger than his causes. It was Thorpe who helped his party to win over six million votes in the first election of 1974 when, for a moment, it looked as if the Liberals might hold the balance of power.

In the best of circumstances, it would not have been easy for a new Liberal leader to maintain the momentum that Grimond and Thorpe had given the Party. But the tangled web that led to Thorpe’s disgrace and departure, and then to a bitter contest for the succession with John Pardoe, gave David Steel an almost impossible task. He was 39, but looked younger, a slight figure with an easy smile, a son of the Scottish manse, neither obviously at home with scholars, like Grimond, or in London society, like Thorpe. ‘The boy David’, as the Scottish Daily Express called him on his election to Parliament, looked a lightweight.

Events were to show that he was not. His party wanted from him good television performances and a frequent presence in the public eye. He gave them this. They hoped he would learn to play in the big league, and they were not disappointed. David Steel turned out to be shrewd, cool and tenacious.

But the central question, to which he devotes a third of his autobiography, is his role in the creation of the Alliance. Against Goliath, did the boy David win? With the optimism of a man free of the burdens of office, but still immersed in politics, he would like to believe that Britain’s two-party system is now shaky on its feet. But he cannot pretend, by reverting to the blandness with which he sometimes evades unpleasant truths, that it has all turned out the way he hoped. Fifteen or 20 per cent for the Liberal Democrats at the next election, together with a continuing strong base in local government? It would be a poor reward for his career, especially when the potential support for a party of the centre-left continues to grow, sustained by economic and social trends.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in