For many years Adrian Slade has interviewed prominent Liberal Democrats. To mark his recent decision to make his archive of the interview recordings available to researchers and other interested parties, Lib Dem Voice is running a selection of his write-ups of interviews from over the years. The latest is from 2002 and is with Lord Avebury, formerly Eric Lubbock – victor of the 1962 Orpington by-election, MP for eight years and chair of the parliamentary human right s group from 1976 to 1997.
For a few astonishing days in March 1962, the Liberal Party led the Conservative and Labour parties in the opinion polls, the only time it had ever done so since polls were invented. Just a few months later Prime Minister Harold Macmillan sacked half his cabinet in his Night of the Long Knives, prompting Jeremy Thorpe’s most famous comment – “greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life”.
There was only one reason for this unprecedented upheaval in British politics – Eric Lubbock’s extraordinary victory in the Orpington by-election, in which he turned a 9,000 Tory majority into a 7,800 Liberal majority.
The Liberal Party had begun its revival under Jo Grimond, at the Torrington by-election in 1958 and in the 1959 general election, when the Liberal voting tide turned for the first time since well before the war. There had been council gains and by-election near misses in 1960 and 1961, but nobody had anticipated the scale or impact of the victory achieved at Orpington. After all, the Liberal Party had only five MPs, two of them, in Huddersfield West and Bolton, elected under local pact arrangements with the Tories. The party was far from the force in politics that it is now, even if Jo Grimond’s popularity matched, and at times exceeded, that of Harold Macmillan and Hugh Gaitskell. But people were becoming increasingly disillusioned with the Conservative government that had been running the country since 1951 and Labour was tearing itself apart over defence and Clause Four. The fruits were there for someone to pick.
Before the Orpington by-election few would have betted on Eric Lubbock becoming the chief picker and the Liberal hero of the year. Although always a supporter, his work as a roving management consultant prevented him from joining the party until 1960. In that year, he moved to the Charterhouse company in the City, bought a home in Downe in Kent and contacted the Orpington Liberal Association.
Like all new Liberal recruits in those days, Lubbock found himself “on the executive within ten minutes”, and asked to contest a council seat very soon after, on Orpington Urban District Council. As in so many other constituencies at that time, the local Association was held together by a handful of activists.
“There was Mrs Musket who was the great pillar,” he says, “and you must have heard of Donald Newby. The other great stalwarts were Christine and John Parker who had helped to build up the party since 1959, and we had a few councillors too. They asked me to stand for the ward in my home village of Downe. It was quite small and I managed to canvass every single house. I ended up with 75% of the vote, adding one more to our council number. We actually got more votes overall than the Tories in those elections but at the time nobody took much notice.”
The world changed forever for the local party when the MP for Orpington, Donald Sumner, was appointed a County Court judge early in 1962. The Conservatives were looking for a safe seat for their head of research, Peter Goldman, a protégé of Ian Macleod, and he was drafted in as their candidate. In 1959 the Liberal candidate for Orpington had been Jack Galloway, who had come close to winning second place from Labour, although he was still 9000 behind the Tories. He would probably have stood again but “there was a little hitch”, says Avebury gently, “a technical legality involving Jack’s divorce and re-marriage, which might have led to allegations of bigamy from his first wife. Jack decided to stand down.”
Eric Avebury’s account of what followed again illustrates the somewhat haphazard, if engaging, way in which party affairs were run in the early 1960s.
“There was a meeting of the executive and Christine Parker rang Donald Wade, the chief whip, explaining the situation and asking if the party could send down someone like Mark Bonham-Carter to contest the by-election. But Donald said he didn’t think that was right and couldn’t we get someone who was better known locally. Christine explained this to us and then turned to me and said ‘Why don’t you do it, Eric?’ This met with the executive’s approval and the next thing I knew I was asking my employers whether they would give me the time off to fight the by-election.”
To his surprise they agreed, and old style Liberal democracy had suddenly produced the hard-working new candidate for Orpington. Always modest, Avebury claims little personal credit for his famous victory. It is fair to say that he might not have won without the extra campaigning skills of Pratap Chitnis, now Lord Chitnis, who was the Chris Rennard of his day. He became the agent and, with his team, mobilised Liberals from all over the country.
How did feel about that at the time?
“Oh, I was delighted and I got on very well with Pratap. He had an excellent reputation as a very slick organiser. He was strict on the mechanics of the election but he never tried to interfere in the political side.”
Avebury agrees that the unprecedented and disproportionate scale of his subsequent win momentarily changed the face of British politics.
“At least everyone thought it would” he says, “but we were a bit premature. We were talking about going into Bromley and sacking Harold Macmillan, and, if Orpington could fall, so could most of the seats in the South East. We had already run very close in Blackpool and then we came within 1,300 votes of winning West Derbyshire, but of course the most significant consequence was Macmillan’s Night of the Long Knives that followed soon after.”
“ The Tories were obviously mystified by the whole thing. Ian MacLeod had misguidedly talked about the faceless people of Orpington who had done this dreadful thing. Locally this had rebounded badly on the Tories.”
Adapting to parliamentary life involved Lubbock in a steep learning curve. With only five other MPs he was thrown in at the deep end by the Chief Whip.
“We’ve got this pipeline bill, Eric,” recalls Avebury. “You’re an engineer. You know something about them so you can take that on in the Standing Committee. So, as well as covering lots of other issues, I soldiered on for weeks, mostly having to deal with matters completely outside my experience, like the compulsory purchase of land through which the pipes were going to pass. There was no engineering in it at all.”
A year later he was saved, or thrown into deeper water, when Jo Grimond appointed him Chief Whip in place of Arthur Holt who had resigned, a position Eric retained until he lost his seat in 1970. This gave him a unique perspective on Jo Grimond and Jeremy Thorpe.
How did he compare them as leaders?
“Both had enormous charisma. We were very lucky to have two leaders who, although completely different, both had an affinity with the public and the ability to get a message across that took us forward. Jo was responsible for raising us from the status we had reached in the fifties to something far more credible in the minds of the public. Jeremy was not as good as Jo at bringing in the academics and outside thinkers to help us with developing policy. He was more broad brush and his political interests were predominantly international.”
And who was the better party man?
“Oh, Jeremy. He had a much better relationship with party headquarters and the constituencies.”
The Orpington win in 1962, incidentally probably the first by-election to be won with a substantial element of community politics, had proved to be a false Liberal dawn. Although the 1964 and 1966 elections produced a near doubling of the vote and a modest increase in seats, they were not the breakthroughs that the party had hoped for.
What could have been done differently?
“Looking back, I don’t think our tiny band in parliament was as good as it should have been in capitalising on the support of the party generally and bringing experts in to help us, not just in policy but in advice on legislation and other things. If we had had more we might have made a greater impact.”
The Labour Party’s leadership change from Gaitskell to Harold Wilson could not have helped?
“No. The Labour Party did recover and a lot of what Wilson was saying, for instance about the white heat of the technological revolution, appealed to Liberals. And after ’64 there was of course some talk of Lib-Labbery.”
Indeed there was. The idea of some kind of arrangement between the two parties was floated by Jo Grimond in 1965 and went down rather badly with most of the party, but Lubbock was less concerned.
“I knew it was not going to happen because I was in regular contact with the Labour Chief Whip, John Silkin. He was personally in favour of a realignment of the left, but he knew a pact would never go through the Labour machinery. It was just one of Jo’s many ideas, I think. I don’t think it came from anywhere else. Like so many of his ideas, it was a bit advanced at the time but I don’t think it did us any harm. It identified us as a radical party at a time when we still had a number of old free market Liberals in our ranks. But I don’t think it was ever seriously discussed with Wilson.”
He felt there was an inevitably about the loss of his seat in 1970, following four further years of Labour government. “Our poor showing in that election was caused by factors beyond our control. The electorate wanted a change and didn’t see us as a viable alternative, which in those days we were not,” he says. “I knew from my canvass returns that I was going to lose.”
Without Lubbock and six other MPs who lost their seats, the Liberal Party in the Commons was again struggling, and he himself had to invent a new life. He was offered, and took, various consultancies and within a year had become a peer, not, as some assume, a life peer but a peer by inheritance. Initially he was very reluctant to take his peerage.
“I was against heriditary peerages, as I still am,’ he says. “I could have disclaimed and fought the seat again, but I took a lot of advice and decided that the bird in the hand was the better option.”
So Eric Lubbock became Lord Avebury and turned his mind to civil liberties and human rights, initially with the Institute for Race Relations. In the Commons he had already been secretary and chairman of the parliamentary group on civil liberties, which was serviced by the National Council for Civil Liberties, of which Martin Ennals was secretary.
“Martin had moved to Amnesty International so he said to me, ‘Why don’t you get more involved with international human rights?’ Which I then did. For example, I represented Amnesty in Sri Lanka in 1971 when they had 15000 people in detention without trial. But Martin and I, along with Anti-Slavery, Amnesty International and UNA , all wanted to see a parliamentary human rights group, and, with their help, in 1976 I succeeded in forming one.”
Eric Avebury became chair of that group, a position he held until he stood down in 1997. During those years he also became an acknowledged champion of human rights, banned or warmly welcomed in many countries in almost equal proportion.
Had attitudes to human rights changed for the better in the last 25 years or were they much the same?
“I think they have changed for the better,” he says. “There are mechanisms now which allow for intervention on human rights issues that would not have been possible in the years after the war. The notion that every nation was sovereign and could do what it liked has changed. For example, in the Soviet Union, when people tried to raise human rights in the sixties or seventies, they would be told it was nothing to do with them. But the change had started with the signing up to the ’66 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Gradually this has taken on the force of international law.”
Of all the many issues over those years which had angered him most?
“That’s a difficult question because it has to relate to the time. For instance, at the time of the apartheid regime that was undoubtedly the most evil. Thank goodness that is now gone but we are still left with international racism and xenophobia, and that infects many countries, although we have done a good deal in this country to tackle these issues.”
He feels that the Liberal Democrats could be doing more on international human rights and, with James Moorhouse, has recently launched a human rights group within the party. In other respects he may have been less directly involved in party affairs than he was in the sixties, but he is a regular voter in the House of Lords.
Had he felt part of all the many changes – from leadership to merger – that the party had been through since he left the Commons?
“I had my own views about the merger and the relationships we had with the Social Democrats we had then,” he says, “and particularly strong views about Mr David Owen. But I think the party has been enriched, particularly in the Lords by leaders like Roy Jenkins, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams. Unlike the old days the party peers now all speak with one voice.”
And, as a man with long experience of false Liberal dawns, what did he think about future prospects?
“I don’t believe in breakthroughs. We should do well to realise how we got to the position we are now. We did it by hard work at local and national level. That is the way we make progress not by hoping for some blinding flash that takes us into Downing Street without any further effort.”
When the composition of a non-hereditary House of Lords has finally been determined Eric Avebury will cease to be a peer but he has one further, perhaps surprising, ambition.
“I am contemplating taking ordination in a Buddhist monastery,” he says.” For the last few years I have been patron of the Buddhist chaplaincy and I think it would be interesting to experience such a completely different way of life.”
If he takes such a step, it will be yet another example of his lifetime commitment and courage.