2 SEPTEMBER 1972, Page 6

Political Commentary

Young Liberals around the grave

Hugh Macpherson

The first gathering in the annual summer political circus which we politely call the party conference season takes place at Margate. It is the annual Liberal assembly and has about as much significance as the deliberations of the Society of Gentlewomen in Distress.

Not even the kindest political commentator who ever raised a glass of milk could pretend that these feelings have not dissipated over the last few years as the Party has become weaker although, in a trade created it would seem for eccentrics, there is still the odd scribbler who warms to the Liberal cause as a form of political necrophilia. However the only recent times on ,which the Liberal Party has been viewed with more than a passing general interest is on the rare occasion when their few votes have mattered, as in some of the Common Market votes, or when Mr Jeremy Thorpe is roughed up in the Commons.

It gives no pleasure to write of the demise of the Liberals. Indeed it is an open invitation for some worthy follower of Mr Asquith to write in pointing out that the death of the party has been prematurely announced before. All that can be said is that whilst death is as difficult to define in political parties as in human beings there must be some senior Liberals who are thinking that the time is near to switch off the lung and heart machine and offer the bits remaining (such as Mr David Steel) as transplants to another party.

For the rest of us there is something to be learned, from a post mortem. And surely some of the liveliest autopsies are carried out before the subject is quite dead. The point where the Liberals seemed to fall apart was after the 1966 election. They had seemed important for the eighteen months that Mr Wilson struggled on With a majority that could be counted on one hand. But having resisted all temptation to do a deal with the Liberals and having obtained a strong working majority in 1966 Mr Wilson then ignored the Liberals save for making Mr Thorpe a privy councillor which had the excellent effect of upsetting Mr Heath since it gave the Liberal leader greater standing in the House itself.

It will be remembered at this point Mr Jo Grimond grew tired of leading the Party and slipped off into the Celtic twilight and it was also around this time that the Liberals — being the weakest of the political bodies — were invaded by a parasite which they could neither absorb nor destroy in the shape of the Young Liberals. Future political writers and sociologists may well find this phenomenon a significant event in British political history.

Of course the leaders of the Young Liberals were often neither young nor, by any stretch of the imagination, Liberal. They were the sort of people who would, in the pre-war period, have turned to the Labour Party or even the Communists. Mr Grimond before his departure in January 1967 from the leadership had tried to absorb them and even after he did depart there was considerable tension between him and Mr Thorpe because Mr Grimond continued to woo the youngsters who have grown to around 25,000 and were clearly the most able youth body in British politics. Mr Thorpe never really took to the Young Libs, and they have never taken to him.

The youth movement of the other political parties suffered a loss in membership and in influence to an extent which alarmed their leaders, particulary in the Labour Party, although even the Young Conservatives suffered at the time. Trying to obtain accurate statistics from political parties about the health of their youth movements is rather like asking an operatic -diva for her hip measurement but no matter what brave fronts were put up, the youth movements took a knock from which they have not really recovered.

It was impossible at the time not to sympathise with the intentions of some of the Young Liberals, for the Labour Party showed little comprehension of the feelings of young people and there is little evidence that they do now. When the Young Liberals were in full cry, in the Autumn ofl 1968, this writer had to go to Transport House (and to the other parties) to obtain the co-operation of the political parties in providing youngsters to take part in an open forum television programme which would be nationally networked to discuss a wide series of political and social questions. The National Youth Orgginiser treated me as if I had arrived to sell him an insurance policy. "The trouble with the Young Liberals," said this worthy, "is that they want a lot of dances."

In tne meantime the Young Liberals treated the host body with considerable contempt. One of their ablest le,adere, Fir George Kiloh, cheerfully described the Llberal Party as consisting mainly of "old women of all ages and sexes." In a flurry of activity tne youngsters came within a whisker of committing the Liberal Party to a form of workers control and over the next few years evinced a hearty contempt for Parliament which Mr Kiloh said has an "absolute inability to influence legislation or initiate action." Mr Louis Eakes around the same time announced that "Until a positive lead comes from the Liberal Party, the Young Liberals may have to ignore it as the most effective vehicle for radical reform."

And ignore it , the Young Liberals did. They enjoyed the title of the Liberal Red Guard and pioneered the idea of direct action with sit-ins, marches, demos and other tricks with which we have all become familiar. They were of course, comfortable revolutionaries and could not in all conscience be said to have formed queues to go off and join their hero Che Guevara's revolutionary cause in South America whilst they impatiently awaited the storming of the Post Office Tower. It is pleasant to report that many of these young Red Guards have settled down to safe jobs.

One leader, Terry Lacey, has become conservative enough to join the Labour Party and several others have successfully avoided much adult responsibility by remaining students or PR men for Arab causes.

The significance of their emergence, and save for Mr Peter Hain, their comparative demise, is that it was the last attempt by imaginative young people to attach themselves to the stable left wing democratic party and the first full flight into direct action which has become familiar today. For the most part they were the kind of youngster who 'would have — in another generation — been ambitious to enter the Commons as an MP with the firm intention of changing the system in much the same way as Lloyd George or Ramsay Macdonald embarked on their careers. Perhaps we acknowledge to the way in which we only slowly corrupt youthful integrity through our parliamentary system.

The value of the Liberal Party has been that the prolonged fatal illness from which it has suffered has at the very end let us observe the danger of political parties, and especially the Labour Party, losing touch with the young. Whether we can do much about it is quite another question for the government themselves are now recognising the dangers of the shifting of the centre of power from Parliament — or to be more exact Whitehall — to Brussels. If there existed in 1966 such feelings of remoteness from the seat of power that youngsters took to the streets, what will be their reaction when Parliament becomes even less important at the start of next year?