Monday, 29 July 2013

It was a hundred years ago today... Jo Grimond Centenary

One hundred years ago in St Andrews jute manufacturer Joseph Bowman Grimond and his wife Helen, welcomed a son into the world. He would be named after his father, but would end up being known to many and Liberals for generations simply as Jo.

After qualifying with a first class honours degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Balliol College, Oxford he went on to become a barrister and publisher, before the outbreak of World War II saw him along with many other young men sign up for the army. He was discharged with the rank of Major and as Major Grimond he was selected by the Liberal of Orkney and Shetland to stand in the post war election of 1945.

The seat had been lost to the Conservative Basil Neven-Spence in 1935, the first time it had been out of Liberal hands in almost a century. The young army Major and his wife Laura ( née Bonham Carter) came to the islands and worked their way around the electorate. He promised that he would come and live in the constituency should he be elected, something he failed to do but only by the margin of 329 votes to Neven-Spence. Five years later he was back and while Neven-Spence only polled 56 votes less than in 1945, Jo had increased his vote by 3,262 almost as much as the Labour candidate got. He was one of only 9 Liberals elected in 1950.

Immediately upon his election he was made the chief whip of the party in the Commons a role he would serve in for 6 years. It is role that both successors (Jim Wallace (1988-1992) and Alistair Carmichael (2010-present)) have followed him into.

In the 1955 election the party fared worse and only returned 6 MPs and the following year the leader Clement Davies stepped down as leader. Jo was duly elected by the small parliamentary party as the new leader, looking to take the party forward from their lowest point in history. But over the next 11 years it was a role he embraced along with the life of a constituency MP, the people in Orkney had an MP who lived amongst them, which at the time was somewhat of a novelty for the most northerly seat and the people furthest away from Westminster.

Under his leadership the Parliamentary party was to double in size, although not before losing the Carmarthen by election in 1957 following the death of Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris. A pill all the more bitter to take as the Labour victor was Megan Lloyd George the daughter of the last Liberal Prime Minister. However, the tide was about to turn. Four months later there was a good second place in the North Devon by election, followed in February1958 by a strong second by Ludovic Kennedy in Rochdale. Six weeks later the break through came in Torrington when Jo's brother-in-law Mark Bonham Carter. In was a gain from the breakaway National Liberals who ten years later would merge with the Conservatives. Though it was to be lost the following year at the General Election.

It was to be another 4 years before the famous Orpington by election saw Eric Lubbock, now Lord Avebury, and in 1965 a certain young lawyer called David Steel would win in Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peeble. Between these there was the speech that contains the most quoted phrase of Jo's, it was within the closing, rousing paragraphs of his leaders speech before the Liberal Assembly of 1963 in preparation for the following year's General Election.

The people of this country, as I have said, are entitled to have politicians who stand up and tell the people what they mean. They are entitled to have politics in which the parties stand for some principle and, without that, you will never have healthy politics in this country.

One thing is certain about this election. Great interest is going to be fixed on the number of votes cast for Liberal candidates and the number of candidates returned. Even if there is not a Liberal Government, the temper of whatever government there is going to be will be validly affected by the public support given to the Liberal Party. If you want an example of how effective a Liberal vote can be, only consider the result at Orpington. Not even the crackest shot in the Tory Party has ever bagged six Cabinet Ministers with one barrel! 

If we return after the election with a solid block of Liberals in the House of Commons, even if we do not hold a majority, we shall be able to influence the whole thinking of the country and attitude of whatever party may be in power. We have made it clear that we intend to use that influence. As the election approaches we shall not shirk the battle, nor shall we be diverted by the great volume of criticism which we hope will pour down upon us.

War, delegates - war has always been a confused affair. In bygone days, the commanders were taught that when in doubt they should march their troops towards the sound of gunfire. I intend to march my troops towards the sound of gunfire. Politics are a confused affair and the fog of political controversy can obscure many issues. But we will march towards the sound of the guns.

Our Government, for too long, has pretended not to see what it does not like. It has put the telescope to its blind eye in a very un-Nelsonian mood, so it can say that there is no enemy in sight. But, delegates, there are enemies, there are difficulties to be faced. There are decisions to be made. There is passion to be generated. The enemy is complacency and wrong values and inertia in the face of incompetence and injustice. It is against this enemy that we march. We are not alone. The reforms which we advocate are inexorably written into the future. We move with the great trends of this century. Other nations have rebuilt their institutions under the hard discipline of war. It is for Liberals to show that Britain, proud Britain, can do this as a free people without passing through the furnace of defeat.
In 1967 having led the party through 3 general election at the age of 63 Jo decided it was time to make way for some of the younger men (sadly there were no Liberal women MPs at the time) to take the reigns. But during his time the party as well as the by election gains had finally won North Devon in 1959, Bodmin, Inverness and Ross and Cromarty in the 1964 election, Cheadle, Colne Valley, West Aberdeenshire and North Cornwall at the 1966 election

Sadly Cardiganshire had gone the way of Carmathen in the 1966 election, and Bolton West and Huddersfield West both had fallen in 1964. Caithness and Sutherland just across the Pentland Firth from Jo's constituency was also temporarily wrested back into Liberal hands between 1964 and 66.

Only Montgomeryshire and Orkney & Shetland had remained in Liberal hands throughout Jo's tenure as but the party had grown as a presence both in Westminster and in the Country. Many of the older members of the party when I first joined and indeed still had joined as a result of Jo's time as leader of the part; a time before I was born. But now on my walk to work I pass the house that used to serve as Jo's election HQ in the early years. I sat next to the grandson of the couple who owned it at the dinner to celebrate the centenary of his birth earlier this year, Boys' Brigade badges was the conversation started but the shared love of history made the evening fly by.

Today is the centenary of the day he was born, but Jo was actually the second child born within a week who would go on to lead a political party, though never to Government. Almost at the other end of the country from Fife in Plymouth a City Councillor and the Liberal candidate who failed to win Totnes 3 years earlier Isaac Foot welcomed his fourth son into the world, Michael would of course fail to unseat Margaret Thatcher in 1983 and was soon after resigned as leader to be replaced by Neil Kinnock at the party conference in October.

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