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.

This was something new – and also something not so new. The fact was that this first Liberal by-election gain for 29 years was pulled off by Bonham Carter, not only the grandson of Asquith, the last leader of a Liberal government, but also the brother-in-law of the current leader. The missing link – and perhaps too largely missing in this biography – was Asquith’s daughter, Lady Violet Bonham Carter, who had supported her father in his final election battles at Paisley at a time when the blackguardly ‘Coaly Liberals’ had deserted him in favour of Lloyd George and his Conservative partners. Lady Vi had carried the tattered standard thereafter, with little worldly success, at least until she watched proudly as her son was proclaimed the victor at Torrington. Grimond’s marriage to Laura Bonham Carter in 1938 had inescapably identified him with the old Asquithian cadre – officers and gentlemen in politics – for whom the Liberal Party had long been the family business.

There is not a great deal about Laura in this book. Its brief is as a political biography and generally this means an oddly stilted treatment of personal matters. For example, Barberis talks of the importance of Laura’s presence in Kirkwall, especially in nurturing the far-flung constituency of Orkney and Shetland, which Grimond held from 1950 to 1983, and which was in every sense far removed from the mainstream of British politics. This necessarily meant maintaining two homes, and Barberis tells of Laura’s reluctance by the 1970s to visit London. ‘She and Jo thus began to live more of their lives apart – conditions in which infidelities sometimes breed,’ he comments knowingly, but then continues: ‘There were, so far as is known, no extramarital relationships with the Grimonds. If there were any “flings”, then the tracks were well covered.’ If these are hints, they seem to point in different directions and, no doubt intentionally, leave us none the wiser. Likewise, though the suicide of the Grimonds’ eldest son is duly mentioned, the most revealing comment comes from another son, that his father ‘had some difficulty in discussing affections and emotions’. But none of this is further explored. In a biography where the subject is always called ‘Jo’, apparently inviting us into the intimacy of private complicity, there is surely some disjunction in maintaining this rather formal, public perspective.

Or perhaps ‘Jo’, like ‘Winston’ or ‘Maggie’, was essentially a public construct, animated by the enthusiasm of an adoring audience who invented a hero in their own image. Perhaps part of Grimond’s appeal was his inner elusiveness, like that of Franklin Roosevelt, concealed under a barrage of charm and bonhomie, as much patrician as populist in idiom, which allowed everyone to think that he agreed with them. That Grimond was an affable and attractive figure is undeniable. He wore his privileged upbringing – Eton and Balliol – lightly but not altogether unselfconsciously. In World War Two a contemporary remembered Major Grimond, now a veteran of the Normandy campaign, ‘surrounded by people completely unlike himself so that he seemed a different animal, a noble beast in a farmyard’. He later corrected a television interviewer who called him ‘upper class’ by saying that the Grimonds were only ‘lower upper’, which no doubt better discriminated the status of jute millowners in Dundee society in the early 20th century.

It is entirely to Grimond’s credit that he genuinely disliked so many aspects of the British class system in which he had been raised. Yet he could never claim, like Harold Wilson or later John Major, to be a ‘classless’ political leader, and he had the good taste not to try. When he called himself a radical, it was not insincere, and many of his instincts set him against self-sustaining structures of power and authority. ‘Let us bust open the patronage and privilege by which both Socialists and Tories manipulate our politics and maintain their rigid out-of-date party structure,’ he declared in 1958. He believed in a democratic ethic sustained from below by active citizenship. His good causes ranged across the world, from European integration to colonial freedom, from co-ownership of industry to the abolition of capital punishment. He was a splendid champion of the underprivileged, the more so since he rarely struck the false note of purporting to be one of them. ‘He was never an outsider,’ Barberis justly comments, ‘more an anti-establishment establishment man.’

It may not have been intended as a nicely calculated piece of tactical positioning, but Grimond’s insider-outsider status served him well in putting the Liberal Party back on the map. As its leader, by now a handsome man in his late forties, with a shock of hair still falling boyishly over his brow, and an easy informality of manner, he did not come over as a stuck-up toff, as so many members of Macmillan’s Tory cabinet did. But his most famous speech to the party conference nonetheless showed who was boss – not like the old days at the jute mill, to be sure, but rather who was from the Asquithian officer class. ‘In bygone days commanders were taught that when in doubt they should march their troops towards the sound of gunfire,’ he told the 1963 Liberal assembly. ‘I intend to march my troops towards the sound of gunfire.’

Who were his troops and what was this gunfire? The survival of the parliamentary Liberal Party after World War Two had hung by a thread. Grimond’s predecessor as leader, Clement Davies, deserves credit for maintaining its independence by resisting Tory blandishments. Faced with a common socialist enemy in 1951, Churchill, in his last benign evening in power, was ready to extend the embrace of coalition to the party of Asquith, under whom he had once served, and whose daughter remained a lifelong friend. Indeed, Lady Vi had enjoyed Churchill’s support when she fought the Colne Valley constituency in 1951 – unsuccessfully, which meant that her political integrity was not subsequently compromised by scrutiny of how she might have voted in parliament. The successful Liberal candidates in Bolton and Huddersfield, however, were returned as a result of pacts with the Conservatives. Grimond was only too well aware of this. By 1957, what with the loss of the Carmarthen seat in a post-Suez by-election to a Labour candidate – Lady Megan Lloyd George of all people – the Liberals were down to five MPs. Moreover, all except Grimond in Orkney and Shetland were dependent on Conservative forbearance. Socialist taunts that the Liberals were simply another bourgeois party, and a client party at that, were difficult to meet.

Hence the crucial significance of the Torrington result in 1958. It showed that Tory seats could be won; it helped rule out any anti-socialist front; it meant that Grimond, outraged by an unjustified neo-colonialist war over Suez, was asking the party to regard the Tories as their primary target. The subsequent general election in 1959 was disappointing for Grimond in that the Liberal poll was no more than 6 per cent nationally, that Torrington was lost, and that the number of MPs did not rise above six – but at least all six were uncompromised. It was in this context that Grimond declared his strategy. ‘I have always said that we should have a new progressive party, and that it would have to attract many people who, at present, lean towards the Labour Party.’ Here, then, were the potential troops.

Grimond’s political legacy was the concept of a realignment of the politics of the moderate left. It was an anti-Labour policy in that it meant stealing some of the support that Labour loyalists had been brought up to believe belonged to them. It was an anti-Tory policy in that it meant creating an effective alternative to Conservatism – something that the Labour Party was no longer capable of providing. Putting it this way suggests that the policy was symmetrically balanced, in keeping with its Liberal auspices, and that it was simply a posh way of wishing a plague on both their houses. But the crux of the issue could equally well be described as an institutional antagonism to Labour as a party – because it was an anachronism – while welcoming many of its natural supporters and their values. This contrasted with Grimond’s ideological antagonism to Conservatism, the real enemy.

The case for Grimond is that his vision has been essentially realised since the 1980s and 1990s. Agreed, many political developments have not followed his blueprint, but would he not have been gratified by the big changes? To find that the axis of politics has tipped against the Tories? To see that the Liberal Democrats are a viable third party? And on defining issues – Suez for him, Iraq for us – more radical than Labour? In this sense, Charles Kennedy can truly claim to have put the Liberal Democrats in the firing line by an exercise in leadership that only in hindsight looks more obviously correct – and hence less courageously bold – than it seemed two years ago. In 1956 we were manipulated into a Middle Eastern adventure by Anthony Eden on a false prospectus that ill concealed the real aim of regime change – a fatal flaw in the political, let alone the moral or legal case for committing troops without United Nations sanction. In 2003 it happened again.

Barberis gives the pro-Grimond view credence, though with some qualification. He has a chapter entitled ‘Father of the Alliance’, echoing a tribute that Roy Jenkins graciously (or shrewdly) offered to Grimond after the SDP had come into being in 1981, which might be considered as a welcome fulfilment of Grimond’s prophecies. But Barberis shows that the old man, long since retired as Liberal leader himself, had been less enamoured than the current leader, David Steel, of the initiative that Jenkins had originally launched. If Barberis is characteristically cautious here, he is altogether more forthright in rejecting the further claim that the Third Way, as fitfully espoused by Blair and New Labour, owes anything to Grimond, who admittedly sometimes talked of finding a third way between ‘capitalism and state socialism of the traditional kind’. But this lower-case third way hardly amounted to a coherent political philosophy (any more than the upper-case version has done).

The case against Grimond, of course, is that realignment was not practical politics in the 1960s and 1970s, when he actually proclaimed it as the goal. And so we return to the question of whether his sombre assessment of his own career was the right one. A number of things could have been said to cheer him up, and no doubt were, many of them quite true. The achievements were not inconsiderable; the respect in which he was held was real and comforting. He had always wanted to go into Liberal politics, with no illusions about its efficacy as a career ladder into ministerial office, so ought not to have felt disappointed. Though he sometimes gratified the Young Liberals in the 1970s by his wayward endorsements of direct action, he had relished his three decades as an MP. ‘I’m a fully paid up parliamentarian: I adore the place,’ he said in 1979.

But another kind of appeal was perhaps more potent for Grimond – not to pleasure but to duty. For if he had not been ready to lead his troops over the top, and to throw himself on the barbed wire, how could the objectives he set have been achieved by those lucky enough to survive into a more propitious phase of party warfare? Yes indeed, he marched towards the sound of gunfire.