Life of the party

Liberal Lion - Jo Grimond: a political life

Peter Barberis <em>I B Tauris, 266pp, £19.50</em>


Jo Grimond was my mentor, my inspiration, my hero. Without him, I would never have entered politics. So it is a welcome surprise that two biographies have appeared in the past few years. Of the two, Towards the Sound of Gunfire by Michael McMan-us (2001) is the more readable and human, while Peter Barberis's new work, Liberal Lion, is the more thoroughly researched political assessment.

I thought I knew Jo well, but Barberis reveals much about his earlier life of which I was ignorant. Jo never told me that in 1950 - his first year in parliament - he had helped lead opposition to the Attlee government's craven attempt, under pressure from South Africa, to prevent Seretse Khama (later president of Botswana) from returning to his native Bechuanaland after marrying an Englishwoman. It was the first of Jo's many liberal stances on international matters; others included his support for the Palestinians, his opposition to the "independent" nuclear deterrent and his concern that America "should avoid moral and ideological overtones" in the Korean war - plus ca change!

Barberis clarifies for a younger generation just how visionary Grimond was. In the early 1950s, he argued for Scottish self-government, European integration, the removal of trade restrictions and the establishment of a press council, and later spoke in favour of ITV and the possibility of "pay as you view". Barberis's approach is sometimes too theoretical, and there are some careless errors: Jo's wife, Laura, was never a member of Shetland Islands Council, and the name of the renowned "king" John MacCormick is misspelled.

Nor does Barberis quite capture the personality of the man. Jo was always huge fun to be with. I recall that when the Liberal/SDP Alliance was launched (Jo was well ahead of his time in calling for a realignment of the left), he rounded on a TV interviewer: "Of course the thing is bound to be a success because Jenkins is a true Liberal and Steel a good Social Democrat." However, in this book, I did come across one example of his humour that was new to me: during the debates on capital punishment, Grimond ridiculed the "deterrent" argument by conceding that it did deter the same criminal from murdering twice.

What Barberis captures well is Grimond's extraordinary life as a party leader with no resources except his faithful secretary, Catherine Fisher. At a time when back-bench MPs are provided with secretaries, researchers and constituency assistants, it is easy to forget that we, Grimond's colleagues, had great difficulty persuading him to employ just one political assistant. (Jo's objection was that he did not want anyone with bees in his bonnet because he had enough of his own.) To the end, he operated in his constituency out of an upstairs room in the house of the aunt of the local party secretary. Barberis accurately portrays Jo's real devotion - entirely mutual - to Orkney and Shetland. I sometimes think that political professors and commentators fail to understand the genuine pleasure derived by MPs who have been privileged to represent distinct rural communities: David Penhaligon in Cornwall and myself in the Scottish Borders are just two other cases.

As the Liberal Democrats head confidently into an election, it is good to recall that it was Jo Grimond who rescued the Liberal Party from extinction. Here I disagree with Barberis, who gives that credit to Grimond's predecessor Clement Davies. True, Davies kept the party alive; but it was Grimond who revived it. In the 1950s, the Liberals were twice reduced to five or six MPs, of whom only Jo was elected against both Tory and Labour candidates (the others got in on the back of local pacts with the Conservatives).

In his first general election as leader, in 1959, Grimond inspired a whole new generation to commit themselves to the Liberal cause. Despite what Barberis rightly calls his "inherent loose ends", he "had influence upon his own and succeeding generations, more so than many who did hold office". Amen to that.

David Steel was leader of the Liberal Party between 1976 and 1988

This article first appeared in the 21 March 2005 issue of the New Statesman, What Britain really thinks