Jo Grimond is something of a legend amongst Liberals of a certain age, not least due to the fact he reinvigorated the party after a period in the doldrums. My own parents became Liberal voters because of him and I am sure they are not the only ones. As leader, Grimond mapped out a clear strategy, encouraged the development of new policies and brought fresh energy to its cause. He was helped greatly by his personal charisma and an electorate moving slowly away from its loyalty to Conservatives and Labour.
Born in Fife, Scotland in 1913, Grimond chose law as a career and qualified as a barrister and went on to serve as a Major in World War II. In 1945 he contested Orkney and Shetland as the Liberal candidate narrowly missing out. It was won in 1950 and he held it continuously until his retirement in 1983. The seat has returned Liberal Democrat MPs ever since. The parliamentary party Grimond joined in 1950 was a very small one and he was soon made Chief Whip – quite a task given the disparate bunch he found himself amongst. Some favoured closer links with the Conservatives whilst others pulled in the opposite direction.
Grimond became leader in 1956 and set about promoting the Liberals as the non socialist centre left alternative to the Conservatives at the same time as writing extensively on Liberal philosophy. He spoke of ‘marching his troops toward the sound of gunfire’ and when asked if a Liberal vote was simply a protest vote, he responded ‘that there was a lot to protest about.’
Famous byelection victories in Torrington in 1958, Orpington in 1962 and Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles in 1965 demonstrated that in certain constituencies his party could actually win. Sadly this was not repeated in General Elections, and it was Labour, who he sought to replace, moved on from their internal warfare of the 1950s and united under Harold Wilson. He went on to win the 1964 election.
Grimond stood down as leader in 1967 with his party on the way up, the number of MPs at Westminster had doubled and progress was made in local government. In 1964, the Liberal Party fielded 365 Liberal candidates compared to just 110 in 1955. He remained active in the parliamentary party and returned as caretaker leader in 1976. Grimond even enjoyed the lofty title of elder statesman later in his career. He moved to the House of Lords in 1983 and passed away ten years later. Passionate for his unique constituency of Orkney and Shetland, Grimond will always be fondly remembered in Liberal circles as a thoroughly decent man and a conviction politician who understood the true meaning of his philosophy.
For me he was the man who put in place a strategy that ensured Liberals were able to challenge effectively in scores of constituencies and maybe it is time that his centre left non socialist alternative to Labour idea was revived.
David is a member of Horsham and Crawley Liberal Democrats