Wednesday, April 28th, 2010 03:11 pm
'Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.' – Jane Howard, Families

In my introduction to these blog entries, I wrote that they would be about why I'm a Liberal Democrat, and specifically not try to say why anyone else should be. That's true of the policy discussions that I've written about so far, but it's even more true about my subject for today, which is fellow Liberal Democrats I admire.

Most of them will be people you don't know, and even if you do, there's no reason why you yourself should particularly care. However, they are a very big part of why I'm a Liberal Democrat, so indulge me while I tell you about them. I'll be back to policy tomorrow.

My parents, obviously, are a huge influence on me. My mother was the first Liberal activist of the two (although she herself was the daughter of staunch Tories). My father got bitten by the activist bug when he took over from my mother - who was ill with chicken pox - during one of the 1974 General Elections (I don't recall which). I was roped in to help with leafletting from then on. In the heady days of the Liberal/SDP Alliance, I regularly accompanied my parents to by-elections across the country.

Several Liberal characters stand out from those days. Our local celebrity MP was Clement Freud, a character for whom the expression 'larger than life' was surely coined. Truro MP David Penhaligon was a regular face on the by-election trail; I met him several times and was devastated by his death in a car accident in 1986. Shirley Williams came and stood in Cambridge City; I was impressed with her passion and drive then, and have remained so ever since. At the time, as Liberal I was somewhat suspicious of her as one of those dangerous right-wingers from the SDP I'd been warned about; gradually I came to realise what a misguided and simplistic view that was. Shirley, then, helped me to stop thinking of politics in the straightforward left/right way it was always portrayed in the press at the time.

Former party president Des Wilson stands out from those days too, and I'm sad he's no longer around in the party (though very much alive, well and writing about poker). Des founded Shelter and ran Friends of the Earth; he was anti-establishment, and I remember being impressed watching him give speech after speech that affirmed to me that there was a place for radical, principled liberals in UK politics, even if that place wasn't in government.

One face from those days is still around and I regularly see him at party conference: Viv Bingham. Viv is an institution. He's never been an MP, but was party president from 1981-1982, and is a tireless campaigner. At the most recent Lib Dem conference, he delivered an impassioned speech in favour of co-operatives and customer/employee ownership of businesses. His amendment to the motion having been accepted, Viv went on in the evening to lead us all in a rendition of We Shall Overcome at Glee Club, as he does every conference. Viv is a lifelong unilateralist; the year we finally scrapped a commitment to like-for-like replacement of Trident he sang the verse 'We shall ban the bomb' with particular feeling. Yes, Viv, deep in my heart I do believe, too.

Another Lib Dem conference regular – well, he would be, he chairs the Conference Committee – is Duncan Brack. Duncan is someone I admire greatly, a liberal of integrity, dedication and seemingly boundless energy. Iain Dale places him firmly in the 'beard and sandals' wing of the party; that's the wing I'm in, and I'd be proud to share it with Duncan. It usually falls to Duncan to introduce the geekier and more technical constitutional amendments at conference, but this is because Duncan has a genuine talent for explaining the details of such things so that (a) you understand them and (b) you care. What's more, you know that he cares about your views, even if he doesn't share them; he is a committed liberal to the core. My chairing of the Decision-Making Plenary at BiCon in the past couple of years has been somewhat influenced by him. On the occasions when he makes speeches in policy debates, he is always clear, to the point, and unafraid to challenge the party hierarchy – actually, I'm noting that willingness to question the party line as a common thread among people I admire most in the party. He's also an acknowledged expert on the history of the party, and has written or edited several books on the subject, including, I note, one called Why I am a Liberal Democrat. What are the odds?

Many of the people I know currently in the Lib Dems, I know online. In fact, all three of the following are people whose blogs I read for months before meeting them.

Jennie Rigg (also historically The Yorksher Gob on LJ) is a writer whose work I read for some time before realising that she was a party member. I'm not quite sure how, because she's liberal to the core and hardly shy about letting people know her affiliation. But the things I noticed in her blog were the keen insights into feminism, her rants about RTD-era Doctor Who, her strong atheism, and the swearing - she swears like the Yorkshirewoman she is. Her guide for how not to annoy bar staff  is required reading for anyone who's ever been in a pub, she opposes the smoking ban on liberal grounds, and she's not afraid to tell anyone what she thinks of their policies. She also trawls the blogshere for interesting links and serves them up for your edification; if it's worth reading, she'll usually have linked to it somewhere.

Alex Wilcock is another Liberal Doctor Who fan. I first met him in person at the Leyton and Wanstead PPC selection meeting a couple of years ago, and was a somewhat embarrassingly effusive fanboy at him. His post on how Doctor Who made him a Liberal is justly famous and has been published in both the Liberal and Doctor Who presses. It exemplifies what it best about Alex's writing; it is beautifully crafted with a great eye for the flow of argument, highly detailed, and, well, very long. Long-term illness prevents Alex from being as active in the Liberal Democrats as he'd like, which is our major loss. In 1997, as a member of Federal Policy Committee he ensured that we had a manifesto commitment to criminalise incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation. This was in the days when Sir Ian McKellen being invited to No 10 was big news; people with that principled a commitment to unpopular causes are rare and should be treasured.

I'm not completely sure whether I've met Alix Mortimer off-line. I've certainly been in the same room as her at party conference, but I don't think we've spoken. I could sit and read her blog for hours, though; she is witty, erudite and incisive. This post in which she eviscerates Micheal Grove's views on history teaching by channelling Joyce Grenfell is a classic of the genre, but then just as you've got her pegged as a brilliant satirist she throws a post like this one into the mix; serious, beautifully argued and above all, self-aware about not having all the answers.

These are some of my fellow Liberal Democrats, and I'm proud to share a party with them.
Wednesday, April 28th, 2010 04:24 pm (UTC)
Wednesday, April 28th, 2010 07:00 pm (UTC)

This is why I am a Liberal Democrat. You should have met Alex when he was younger - boundless energy, relentless enthusiasm. I remember a very late night in 1994 which ended with us pooling all the money we had left to buy the (morning) papers and read his press. He had proposed a republican motion the night before and I think that was the day he got his favourite headline ever. Either the Mail or the Sun called him something like the most dangerous man in Britain. Perhaps he will see this and correct my fading memory.
Wednesday, April 28th, 2010 07:01 pm (UTC)
Cor. *shuffles* Thanks. And in that company!

I personally couldn't swear that we've never spoken at conference because I am nearly always quite drunk. But whichever of us is less drunk should make a point of it in September.
Wednesday, April 28th, 2010 11:04 pm (UTC)
'Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.'

And the Lib Dems are very much mine. I've been thinking about this, and I can't think of another place where I can express all the important aspects of who I am, without self-censoring. I can be poly, Christian, geeky, whatever, it's all accepted, whether the person I'm talking to is any of those things or not. And even if we disagree vehemently about policy during the day, we can still be singing The Land shoulder-to-shoulder in the evening.
Thursday, April 29th, 2010 06:00 pm (UTC)
I've mixed feelings about one of that list.

Des is a fabulous campaigner, responsible for some real changes in society. Unfortunately, he's also been described as 'unable to recognise a talented woman if he fell over one' and that showed when he was in charge of election campaigning.

Duncan was on the Union of Liberal Students exec (along with Liz Barker) while I was in ULS. (I still remember misspelling his name 'Dunca' in one set of exec minutes!) I haven't seen him in person in decades, but he was delightful then and clearly going places within the party.

Of the three MPs, yes, it's Penhooligan I miss the most. I still think he'd have been leader after Steel if he'd been wearing a seatbelt that fateful winter day. Shirley was the nicest of the Gang of Four, the opposite of Owen.
Friday, April 30th, 2010 10:06 pm (UTC)
It didn't help that the other person in that role was Richard Holme whose interest in women was also limited - he had affairs with more than one woman Liberal candidate only to crap on their careers. (I'm sure I've told you who else made a hobby of that.)

Oh, to have Chris Rennard write some uncensored memoirs.