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banner Friday, 21 September, 2001, 14:51 GMT 15:51 UK
The man who 'saved' the Liberals
By BBC News Online's Ben Davies

As the Liberal Democrats begin their annual conference in Bournemouth there will be plenty of delegates who are in no doubt that if it wasn't for a young, charismatic party leader they would have no party at all.

In 1956 a man called Jo Grimond took the reigns of the then Liberal Party and, as many party elders will argue, he saved it from death.

Jo Grimond
The young Grimond was seen as charismatic and inspiring
At the 1955 general election the party had secured just 2.7% of the votes cast - fewer than 750,000 - and won just six seats.

At the 1966 election, the year before Grimond stood down, they had 12 MPs and secured three million votes - 11.2% of those cast.

Grimond had succeeded in the meantime in recruiting a new wealth of talent.

It was his radicalism, enthusiasm and personal charisma that tempted the likes of Menzies Campbell and David Steel to get involved in Liberal politics.

Grimond died in 1993 but there is little doubt that the Liberal revival of the 1960s and 1970s was his greatest political legacy.

When he became leader, at the age of 43, his party had become something of an electoral joke, fielding minimal numbers of candidates, losing endless deposits and retaining just six seats - two of them based on an electoral pact where local Tories had agreed not to run.


But he was a determined man who on winning the leadership told his party: "In the next 10 years, it is a question of get on or get out. Let us make it get on."

Jeremy Thorpe
Mr Thorpe succeeded Grimond in 1967
There followed a radical improvement of the party's structure turning it into a much more professional organisation.

The immediate challenges of Grimond's leadership were tough ones - not least the Suez Crisis followed by a by-election upset in Carmarthen which, in a two-way fight, was lost to Labour's candidate, ex-Liberal Lady Megan Lloyd George.

They were grim days, but the following year was to provide a boost most famously in the Torrington by-election.

It would be overstating the case to say that the story of the Liberal Party under Grimond was from there on in one of unqualified electoral success - it was more a question of slow but steady progress.

The 1959 general election secured them an increased share of the vote to 5.9% and had secured six seats and lost only 56 deposits - the smallest number since 1935.

Small comforts

Small comforts but better than the extinction that a few years previously had been seen as almost inevitable.

David Steel
Lord Steel believed Grimond saved the party
Lord Steel, who as the presiding officer of the Scottish parliament is no longer involved in party politics and therefore will not be attending the Lib Dem conference, said he had "never dreamed" of becoming an MP when he joined the Liberals.

"I was just attracted by Grimond's personality and his power of argument," he said.

In the years up to when Lord Steel became an MP, in a 1965 by-election, there was steady electoral progress.

"I am quite certain that if he hadn't become leader the party would have died a natural death," he said.

Menzies Campbell, who is the Lib Dem's frontbench spokesman on defence, said that by 1945 the Liberal Party had become "a music hall joke".

When Mr Campbell joined the Liberals he was at university still. Again it was Grimond's charisma that was a huge part of the draw of the party - he was tall, young and handsome.

"Grimond was for political realignment, was arguing for a non doctrinaire, non-socialist party in the centre-left," he said.

Menzies Campbell
Mr Campbell was inspired by Grimond
Of course if Grimond hoped that his party would eventually overtake Labour as the natural centre-left opposition to the Conservatives he was to be disappointed.

And there was no re-alignment of the left - the predominantly middle class Liberal Party was singularly unsuccessful in recruiting trade unionists, for example.

The 1964 election that saw Harold Wilson's Labour propelled to power turned out to be straight fight between the two main parties but Grimond's achievement had been no mean one.

Party membership was doubled compared to 1959, the number of full time agents had doubled, and the annual income of the Liberals had tripled.

Steady progress

But despite fielding 365 candidates the party secured just nine Commons seats - even though more than three million people voted Liberal and the party's share of votes had increased to 11.2%.

Paddy Ashdown
Mr Ashdown faced his own crisis as leader
The following election, in 1966, saw them increase their MPs to 12 despite fielding fewer candidates than in 1964.

The next year Grimond stood down as leader although he still fought his Orkney and Shetland seat until 1979 and had a brief caretaker role running the party between the resignation of the scandal-hit Jeremy Thorpe and David Steel's election.

Even as an elder statesman Grimond was still inspiring people to get involved with Liberal politics. One such is the MP for Lewes, Norman Baker, who saw the ex-leader speak during the 1980s.

Mr Campbell said: "Paddy Ashdown saved the party - it nearly went into liquidation when he took over. He spent the first two days raising the money to pay the staff's salaries.

Charles Kennedy
Mr Kennedy wishes to overtake the Tories in the wake of this year's success
"Grimmond saved the party, Steel saved the party after the fallout from the Thorpe affair.

"Charles Kennedy is the first party leader to receive a party he didn't have to save."

Of course that is largely true - he has inherited a professionally organised, well represented and financially sound operation but he has shown his ability to build on that legacy.

But unlike Grimond, Mr Kennedy is now engaged in a battle to replace the Tories and not Labour as the main second party.

It remains to be seen whether that is an achievable goal.

See also:

12 May 99 | UK Politics
Peer wins top parliament job
11 Jun 99 | UK Politics
Leadership race goes public
07 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Tories are unleadable - Kennedy
20 Jan 99 | UK Politics
Ashdown to quit as leader
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