As Leader of the Liberal Party, Jo Grimond was stimulating, charming, full of flashes of insight, and often irritating. His memoirs, which are only partly about politics and otherwise consist of a leisurely amble through life in his constituency and with his family and friends, have much the same qualities. They are utterly unpretentious: ‘Not a contribution to serious history,’ he tells us, ‘but a series of footnotes to things and people as I saw them.’ They are often funny and witty, never dull. But when he writes of historic events in which he played a part, or of his hopes for a realignment in British politics, or of the issues which he feels the major parties had neglected, the record is brief, almost perfunctory, and ideas are somewhat haphazardly picked up and quickly put down again, as if it would be tedious for himself or for the reader to examine them at any great length or in any depth.
Part of Grimond’s appeal as a politician has always been his complete freedom from pomposity and self-importance. This is well illustrated by an anecdote about Attlee:
Whenever I hear the words ‘status’ or ‘prestige’ I reach for my gun. I once attended a banquet at which Mr Attlee, after he had ceased to be Prime Minister, was present in full fig. During dinner having dropped something he slid desterously off his chair under the table. The search proved troublesome, so one of the flunkeys came to his aid. Their rumps could be seen bobbing about above the table like the sterns of two terriers down a rabbit hole. In due course Mr Attlee surfaced breathless but triumphant. About half past ten he left to catch the Green Line bus to Cherry Cottage. Seldom can a man have been less concerned about ‘face’. I awarded him a round of heartfelt, if silent, applause.
Nothing could better indicate Grimond’s own lack of concern about status than the manner of his resignation from the leadership. His political aim was to bring about a realignment of the parties in the early Sixties and create a new centre. When he failed, he gave up the leadership because it had become a bore. He found himself staring at the same grey walls in the same town halls repeating the same speeches: ‘At General Elections when politicians must repeat the same speeches over and over again, by the end of the campaign I would listen to myself in a detached way, silently commenting that we were about to have this passage or that. I now caught myself indulging in the same trick even between elections. I found myself constantly “striving” to obtain something or other. It was time to be gone.’
Might he have succeeded? And does the failure of the Liberals to break through then, or to achieve anything except a momentary coalition with Labour between 1977 and 1978, throw any light on the renewed talk today of a new radical centre? Grimond partly blames himself for his failure to press home the victory of Orpington in 1962, when he felt he should have shown greater feeling, as leader, for the schwerpunkt of politics, and pressed more actively for publicity of almost any kind. I do not believe he is right.
The advantages the two major parties have lie not only in the electoral system. They represent the major interest groups in society; and in this area the virtues of the Liberal Party are also its handicap. The very fact that it is free from ties with the unions or business is also one of the major obstacles to its playing a bigger political role – or at least has been so far. Politics are partly about ideas; but to most people they are also about interests. Grimond rightly points to the way the Liberals pioneered so many of the causes which were later accepted by Labour or Conservative governments, often reluctantly and rather half-heartedly and ineptly. Accession to the European Community and devolution are the most obvious. But the Liberals’ occasional leadership in ideas has not so far given them a solid permanent base among voters. When the Liberals have gained strong electoral support, it has been largely as a reaction against the government of the day, especially Conservative governments. Conservative defectors who find Labour an unacceptable alternative will flock to the Liberals, while disillusioned Labour voters, when Labour is in power, seem to cross straight over to the Conservatives. But time after time the new Liberal supporters have proved fickle.
Grimond correctly saw, when he became leader, that the future of the Liberal Party was to replace Labour as the alternative to the Conservatives. But he shows little sign of understanding that the prospects of the Liberal Party depend entirely on the prospects of the Labour Party rather than on its own efforts. And there is no analysis of the changes that would be needed within the Labour Party to bring a realignment about.
The Liberals’ first chance came after 1959 when the Conservatives quickly became unpopular, and Labour’s Left won a temporary victory on the issue of unilateral disarmament. But when Gaitskell defeated the Left, he also sank the hopes of the Liberals. Within a relatively short time Labour, under his leadership, had proved that it could continue to attract and retain the loyalties of those who seek a party of conscience and reform. Even after his death, when Wilson built on the foundations which Gaitskell had laid, Labour looked an acceptable alternative for Conservative defectors. It must be doubtful whether anything Grimond might have done, whether by a campaign of Thorpean razmataz, or for that matter by a weightier restatement of Liberal philosophy, would have eroded the basic strength of the Labour Party once it was clearly no longer dominated by the Left and its leader no longer under challenge from within.
After the Labour victory of 1964 Grimond had hoped for a coalition. There is no evidence that he held any discussions with Labour MPs and I am not aware that there was any attempt to set them on foot, and it is doubtful whether they would have succeeded. Wilson was in a strong position to exploit his narrow majority and turn it into a big one, as he did in 1966. But in any event the Liberal commitment to coalition was at that stage half-hearted, although Grimond deserves full credit for at least desiring one. One is left with the impression that in general the Liberals regarded talk of coalition with either dislike or disdain. Others would have to make the first move.
By the time of the second Liberal revival, that of 1972 to 73, Grimond was more on the sidelines. Once again Liberals seemed on the edge of gaining a position of influence. Again there was a Conservative government which was unpopular, and the Labour Opposition was divided and moving steadily to the Left. However, the unexpected defeat of Heath in his battle with the unions, in an election which even Wilson expected the Tories to win, saved the Labour Party from the kind of trauma which it is suffering today. Heath’s attempt to salvage something from defeat by approaching the Liberals for a coalition was doomed, since there was no sense in a coalition without an overall majority.
By now Grimond’s views had somewhat changed. He had moved away from his earlier support of a mixed economy and found himself in closer sympathy with the ideas of the Institute of Economic Affairs and their determination to roll back the frontiers of the state. This was partly why he opposed the Lib-Lab pact in 1977 which saved Callaghan from immediate defeat. But he also opposed it because he saw a Labour defeat opening new opportunities for a Liberal advance, whatever the short-term dangers to the seats of individual Liberals.
The memoirs were finished before the result of the 1979 election was known. This has left the Liberals in a better position than they have held at any time since the war. Each new government seems to face a more impossible task, and one can hardly see the Conservatives avoiding a prolonged period of deep unpopularity. If the Left win almost complete control of the Labour Party, as seems more than likely, the alternative attraction of the Liberals to Conservative defectors will be stronger than it ever was in 1962 or 1973. Their Parliamentary base is twice as strong now as it was then and their organisation in the country infinitely more powerful and experienced. But the crucial question that they must face is their attitude to any social democrats who ‘break out’ from the Labour Party.
If Roy Jenkins means what he said in his Dimbleby Lecture, and if his lead for a radical centre is followed by even a handful of Labour MPs, will the Liberals spurn an electoral pact? Grimond himself has few kind words for the social democrats today. But when he was leader he saw that the Liberals could not triumph alone: ‘I was right, I believe, in telling the party that it could not by some miracle of parthenogenesis spring from six MPs to a majority in the House of Commons. It would have to go through a period of coalition.’ His words must be just as true today. Even from their better base, since the odds of the electoral system are still so strongly against them, the chances of the Liberals ending up after the next election with enough seats to change the pattern of British politics must remain remote. Liberals and social democrats together could prove a much more formidable combination.
The memoirs are irritating because their offhand treatment of ideas and events wrongly suggests the frivolity about politics which has sometimes seemed one of the weaknesses of the Liberal Party. But the freshness of Grimond’s approach to almost every subject, and the insights he has contributed to British politics over the years, make him an unusual politician. In retrospect, his period of leadership suffered mainly from pursuing a vision which was perhaps twenty years ahead of its time.