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History

Forgotten Liberal heroes: Pratap Chitnis – campaign mastermind

Listen to Liberal Democrats make speeches and there are frequent references to historical figures, but drawn from a small cast. Just the quartet of John Stuart Mill, William Gladstone, David Lloyd George, David Penhaligon corner almost all of the market. Some of the forgotten figures deserve their obscurity but others do not. Charles James Fox’s defence of civil liberties against a dominating government during wartime or Earl Grey’s leading of the party back into power and major constitutional reform are good examples of mostly forgotten figures who could just as well be a regular source of reference, quotation and inspiration as the traditional quartet. So in this occasional series I have been highlighting some of the other figures who have been unjustly forgotten.

Pratap (later Lord) Chitnis was the post-war Liberal Party’s first grassroots campaigning mastermind. His pioneering activities laid the groundwork for the later work of better known people such as Trevor Jones and Chris Rennard.

Born in 1936 to a family with a history of Liberal politics (his grandfather stood and lost in 1906), he was inspired by Jo Grimond to join the Liberal Party himself in 1958. Chitnis first worked in the National Liberal Club’s library and then become head of the newly created Liberal Party Organisation’s Local Government Department in 1960.

In this role, and backed by enlightened Liberal figures such as Richard Wainwright, he forged a new job for party headquarters of knowing what was happening in local government around the country and supporting the winning of local elections. That often meant trying to hunt out even as basic information as where there were Liberal councillors elected via scouring local newspapers and ringing local journalists.

His impact on encouraging local government growth was substantial, but at the national level he made an even bigger splash as a result of being sent to Orpington to run the Liberal Party’s by-election campaign there in 1962. The subsequent victory of Eric Lubbock had much to do with Lubbock, the local party’s success in earlier years and wider social and political trends. But it also owed a huge amount to Chitnis. It firmly established him as a organisational political star even if, as Eric Lubbock recounted, not all of Chitnis’s contributions may have been quite as desired:

One Saturday night the [by-election headquarters] mysteriously burned down, and we suspected that Pratap Chitnis, who had been drafted in to run the campaign, had thrown a cigarette end into the bulging wastepaper basket.

He authored the Liberal Party’s then new Local Government Handbook, which placed great emphasis on organising for and then vigorously fighting local elections, something that had not been seen as a necessary part of a national political party’s life previously:

Those areas where in recent years Liberals have made the greatest progress in achieving representation on Councils have not necessarily been those places where our policy was any better than that of Liberals elsewhere, but places where our organisation, whether amateur or professional, could match and even surpass that of our professionally organised opponents. Elections are not won only on the merits of policy. Liberals must organise their elections, and organise them well.

In later years he was the first Liberal Party Training Officer, then head of its press team, then led the whole Liberal Party Organisation before moving on in 1969 to become Secretary of the Joseph Rowntree Social Service Trust (later renamed the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust). In 1975 he became its Chief Executive, a post he held until 1988.

In the 1970s and 1980s he was involved in many other organisations, including chairing the British Refugees Council 1986-89, and often being an election observer overseas. He became a life peer in 1977, ending up as a cross-bencher.

As The Guardian‘s obituary of him later highlighted, his influence on Liberal politics continued in key ways:

He was a modernising head of the Liberal party organisation, active in the party throughout the time of Jo Grimond, Jeremy Thorpe and David Steel. He was a key player in negotiations that led to the creation of the Liberal-SDP Alliance, which endured from 1981 to 1987…

When Thorpe went on trial in 1979 for attempted murder and conspiracy to murder, Chitnis and some Liberal friends persuaded the former MP Peter Bessell to return to England from the US to be a witness. Bessell claimed to have heard discussions about the murder plot. Thorpe was acquitted but he had to resign the party leadership.

As with many of the party’s campaigning experts, public office was not something Pratap Chitnis pursued seriously for himself. He only stood once, for St Marylebone Borough Council in 1959, when he finished bottom of the poll. Many of those who have followed his advice have done far better.

Pratap Chitnis died in July 2013.

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