Jo Grimond – Jen Robertson reviews his memoirs

Jo Grimond’s Memoirs were by published by Heinemann way back in 1979 and I read my own copy sometime in the 1980’s. One day whilst in a second hand book shop a couple of years back I saw another copy and purchased it for my daughter Jen, a radical green, feminist Social Liberal. Then only a few days ago I put a podcast on my Facebook page (linked here – www.youtube.com/watch?v=dMJscTUAXMI) where Iain Brodie Browne was being interviewed in his capacity of Chair of the Social Liberal Forum. Jen saw saw the podcast and it reminded her of the book because Iain referenced Jo during the interview. She dug it out together with the notes she’d made whilst reading it – you can tell she’s an historian and researcher by trade.

And so 41 years after it was published the memoirs of a long gone politician are being reviewed and indeed challenged by my bit of a leftie daughter. I hope you find her views about Grimond as interesting as I found them.

*****

Hearing Ian Brodie Browne mention Jo Grimond in his podcast interview reminded me of the book of his memoirs that my dad gave me, which I read last year.

It wasn’t really the kind of political memoir that leaves you inspired or fired up and I didn’t feel at the end like this was the work of a great Liberal statesman. What I did feel however was that it was the work of a man I’d rather like to share a pot of tea with. I suspect we’d have a fair few differences but he seems able to disagree well and he was clearly a man of deep thought on many things, a likeable man who would doubtless prove very interesting to chat with. Perhaps we should all be so lucky as to come across that way. Grimond raised some interesting points in his memoirs, though I have to say what seemed most interesting wasn’t actually his work in party politics but with United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) after WWII. He writes really well about it but not for long enough, I wanted more about that, especially as it seemed to sum up a lot of his Liberal ideas. There’s this great thing he says about:

“While it seems surprisingly easy to rebuild cities and industries, you cannot rebuild the lives of those driven from their homes.”

He sounds like he would have been a good man to have around to discuss the current refugee/migrant crisis of the last decade. He talks well about representation and diversity as well, saying there are “too few, not too may, Jews and immigrants in British political life.” I think that one bears repeating today!

To be honest quite a lot of it still feels relevant, there’s a great bit about the National Front where if you replace NF with the BNP it sounds like it could have been written in the last few years. Things don’t change. When he talks about the potential of a Lib/Lab pact in the 70s he says that electoral reform was the only thing that could justify it. We never did get bold enough on asking for that in collaboration talks, did we!

Of course he won himself some brownie points with me for his words on women. He says some wonderful things about how women have been overlooked and how slow progress has been. He also makes some remarks about male aggression and posturing in politics that mark him as probably a little ahead of his time for a wealthy white man.

However if that gained him points he certainly lost some when he touched on arts and culture.

“when I read that some British gallery has spent a million pounds on Italian pictures or French furniture ‘to save our heritage’ I think what fools it’s trustees must be.”

On this subject he rather exposes himself as a far too old-fashioned man of his time for my liking or comfort. He talks about wanting to see money invested in National Trust style properties, rather than in Chinese ceramics or the old Grand Masters (he literally says such thing are being hoarded ‘for the greater glory of curators’ which might be the silliest thing I’ve ever heard, as an insider I can tell you no one ever got into curating for the glory – not so politics!). He wants to see this change in investment because he views the National Trust type properties as ‘our heritage’ – basically proper British history. His idea of ‘our heritage’ is revealed here as pretty insular, not global in the least, and suggests an important lack of understanding on his part. A lot of Chinese ceramics for example were made for sale to the western market, it’s a fascinating early example of global supply and demand (these were often items that had no appeal in China itself, they were made purely for export) and became a key feature of British culture – what does he think we drank all that tea from! Where indeed does he imagine the tea and sugar came from? In reality British culture has been global for a long time, even when it didn’t want to admit it. He starts as though to make an interesting point about returning items to their place of origin (though again here shows no understanding of the fact some of these things were specifically made for export!) but then goes on to talk about it being better if you could go and visit a Canaletto painting on the Grand Canal i.e. where he thinks it should be, as though a trip to the Grand Canal were something anyone could just decide to undertake (a bit of rich white privilege rearing it’s head there)! It’s unclear if he really is making an early case for repatriation of significant artefacts looted by a colonialist Empire or if he just doesn’t think they’re of value here and ‘well why can’t people just go and visit them abroad’. Either way he makes the argument too ill (I mean talking about French furniture instead of say the Parthenon Marbles doesn’t suggest this is about ethics to him) and too briefly to have any merit. It’s in passages like this one he doesn’t come over well, I wouldn’t however imagine that many men of his time would do much better. And he makes an impassioned plea for saving architecture that I have to love. I too would like to see more investment in those National Trust type properties, but I don’t think they are the only example of ‘our heritage’, which is much more diverse than he acknowledges here. Let’s say he’s not a man I’d want representing us on culture. It also seems very much at odds with how open and global a person he seemed to be in all other regards.

I do love though that he seems to be a man of quiet conviction, that he thinks having values in politics is so important, and the way he says:

“Liberalism is not at bottom about the vote, it is about how human beings should behave to one another.”

Which might explain why he spends so little time in the book talking about actual politics, in his view I think you certainly see the political in the personal every day. It is a surprisingly politics light book for the memoirs of a political leader. I found a brief clip of a speech of his on youtube (about going in to Europe appropriately enough!) and he came over better than I’d expected. His writing is pleasant, he certainly comes over as a nice man, but not as a political charismatic force. He was more charismatic in person from the footage I could find.

One more thing he said, which I love and just think is very clever and very interesting was:

“had the computer been invented in the last century it would have been predicted that as the rise in population must require more horses we should all by now have been up to our knees in horse dung. Our children will profit from new inventions.”

It’s something I feel we could do with bearing in mind with climate change. The idea that we can’t use less energy because people’s lives would suffer, we need those fossil fuels to power hospitals, schools, industry! We don’t know that. We are trying to judge a possible future based on the understandings of today. Instead of wondering what to do with the horse shit, maybe we just won’t need the horses.

Boris Johnson, a man seemingly without a political compass, should maybe have read this.

Please click on the extracts from the book’s jacket cover notes to enlarge them for reading.

When the Right is controlling British politics – That’s most of the time!

It really is the majority of the time whether we on the left are willing to admit it or not.

There have only been 4 General Elections since the 2nd World war when the the left has had a significant majority in the House of Commons. Then again it could well be argued that whilst Tony Blair had a huge majority his was hardly a government of the left and probably it was only just left of centre. Could the same or similar be said of Harold Wilson’s Government?

What started this line of thought was that I happened upon a lecture by Vernon Bogdanor being shown on the BBC Parliament Channel recently. It was actually about the history of the Conservative Party. Now whilst I don’t care to be told about the regular electoral success of the Tories Bogdanor is always interesting, impartial and factual in his work.

One thing he mentioned has long been a matter of great interest to me and that is the working class Conservatives who have regularly helped put a Tory government in power. You could be forgiven for thinking that the working class (not a term a personally subscribe to but one that is widely quoted) will usually be voters of the left and therefore for Labour, but up to a third of them are not. What’s more many of them may be conservative (with a small c) or simply right wing whilst at the same time tribally aligned with the Labour Party.

I have regularly been fascinated by the group of Labour MP’s (and there have always been a fair number of them in each Parliament) who come over as reactionary, right wing, anti progressive politics or just Tories wearing a Labour rosette. I saw similar people in the trade union movement in my time as well. They must come from families that are loyal to Labour yet their stance on things such as equality issues, gay rights, crime and punishment, immigration etc. are firmly based on the politics of the right. Often these MP’s and trade unionists will be from the industrial midlands and the north and they will be utterly loyal to Labour, no matter what it stands for.

That loyalty will stem from the early days of the trade union movement and the need for trade unionists to stick together through thick and thin. It will have been inbred into them through families, trade unions and the Labour Party, yet often these people will be as far away from progressive politics as you can find. Sticking together is the most important thing, backing their leaders almost come what may is also big for them and I think it is what is in part driving the cult of Corbyn.

He’s either a very, very late political developer or he really is a second division politician of the left who has, almost by chance, found himself leading a political party. If you look at his history prior to being elected as Labour Leader he had pretty much no positions of responsibility in public life much at all. The Labour left will say that was because he had always been down-trodden by the right wing of the Labour Party (the Social Democrats) and held back and that he was always going to be a working class hero of the left one day. Well it’s a view but hardly a credible one I would venture to say.

Corbyn’s big problem is that he has some right wing tendencies and Brexit is the one that really stands out. Brexit has always been about internal battles within the Tory Party. UKIP was set up as those within the Tory Party who could not get the Tories to back leaving the EU felt they had to take a different route. Of course they succeeded in turning the Tories into a Brexit Party and they won over many people within Labour too. Remember the successes of UKIP electorally have often been in areas of England that are working class and where they won council seats they were often in Labour areas. Now UKIP has all but expired its supporters have drifted back to the Tory Party or indeed Labour. That Corbyn backs Brexit is bizarre to many of us on the left of British politics but he does and the Labour Party is backing him despite, we are told, the vast majority of Labour voters not backing Brexit.

But Corbyn is loyal to his right wing working class supporters who of course were the part of the Labour vote that helped the Tories/UKIP give us our Brexit. His party prides itself, or at least it used to do, on being a very broad church. At one end true socialists looking to break up the capitalist system and at the other people who would be at home in a Bluekip type Party if only it was called the Labour Party. That is indeed a very broad church, you could say so broad that internal power struggles would be almost impossible to to stop. The Social Democrats within Labour have gone very quiet these days (with a few exceptions) especially those in elected public positions as their stance is particularly unwelcome in Corbyn’s Labour Party and they need to be seen to be complying with the wishes of Momentum if they are not to be deselected.

So at face value Labour is presently seen to be a party of the hard left under McDonnell and Corbyn but, with Brexit in particular, they are peddling a Bluekip line. Also the party is having more than its share of infighting over racial issues at present and this is another indication of people of the left holding what seem to be intolerant right wing views.

Across Europe in many counties Social Democrat and Socially Liberal Parties have been a part of the mainstream. Labour has tried to be that in the UK but the drag of having illiberal and far left members in the same party has meant that it has struggled far more more than it has succeeded. Many thought that the victory of Tony Blair signaled a new (or New) Labour Party with broad center ground and moderate appeal but the medicine did not work and now Labour is in the hands of both the socially illiberal and hard left at the same time!

The point of all this? To show that the right has a huge influence on UK politics and that’s not just in the UKIP and Tory parties. Labour has it’s right wingers too and it can be quite easily argued that even the Lib Dems all but ceased to have a Socially Liberal leadership during Nick Clegg’s unfortunate time as Leader. Thankfully and even slightly surprisingly, under Cable, it seems to be regaining its radical and socially liberal edge though.

Which ever way you look at it the right usually predominates in UK politics and its because, in my view, there’s no electorally successful Social Democrat/Liberal Party at the heart of our mainstream politics and I say that as someone who looks upon some Social Democrats as being too right wing.

Four go in search of big ideas – A new radical book

birkdalefocus.blogspot.co.uk/2018/03/four-go-in-search-of-big-ideas.html

1983 General Election campaigning in Southport with a young Iain Brodie Browne and the Shirley Williams.

My good friend Iain a local Lib Dem Sefton Councillor is one of the names behind this great new book. I’ve just had my copy delivered to me* – looking forward to a good read. You can read all about this radical way forward on Iain Brodie Brown’s web site ‘Birkdale Focus using the link above.

Former BBC and Liverpool Daily Post reporter/political commentator/writer Nick Hancock debating with Iain Brodie-Browne.

* I ordered my copy directly from the Social Liberal Forum web site – see link below:-

socialliberalforum.nationbuilder.com/big_ideas_buy