Forgotten Liberal heroes: (Lord) Desmond Banks

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 and 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. Hence this occasional series.

Desmond, later Lord, Banks was one of the central figures in keeping the Liberal Party going after the Second World War and in laying the foundations for its subsequent revival under Jo Grimond. Not only was he one of the party’s main intellectual catalysts at the time, he also was a pioneer of campaign tactics that were to become widespread both in the Liberal Party and more widely.

Born on 23 October 1918, Desmond Banks had a private education before volunteering to serve in the army during the Second World War and then subsequently working in his father’s washing machine company. Later he became a life insurance broker and pensions advisor, but his main achievements were in politics.

As a Parliamentary candidate in Harrow, he started the constituency-wide delivery of a free newspaper in the run-up to the 1950 general election and also successfully persuaded the local party to concentrate its resources on a target ward for the next council elections. Both approaches were novel at the time but subsequently became widespread, eventually also forming a key part of the approach to winning Parliamentary seats too.

He later stood in St Ives (1955) and Hertfordshire South West (1959), a reflection of how the modern emphasis on a candidate consistently fighting the same seat had not yet taken hold in the same way.

Desmond Banks also became an important figure in the party nationally, both working at party HQ and editing Liberal News, the party’s in-house newspaper for a while. He continued to contribute regularly to it after his editorship ceased.

Numerous pamphlets and policy papers bore his name. He served in many party roles, including twice chair of the Liberal Party Executive (1961-3 and 1969-70) and once President of the Liberal Party (1968-9), not to mention a period as a speech writer for Jo Grimond.

His influence on the party’s policy direction was strengthened by his founding with others of the Radical Reform Group in 1952, designed to be a counter to those who wanted to take the party in a more right wing direction. Instead, he and others blamed the Conservatives for the poverty at home and rise of extremism abroad in the inter-war period. Similarly abhorring the class war outlook of Labour, they wanted a radical liberal approach in the mould of John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge.

The Radical Reform Group had an unsuccessful period as an organisation outside the Liberal Party – a move aimed both to make it more attractive to defectors from Labour and to help hold on to those Liberals who were moving leftwards. It soon returned to being a pressure group within the party. Its calls for “social reform without socialism” struck many a chord.

Desmond Banks became a life peer in 1974 and had a stint as Deputy Chief Whip in the Lords during some of the most difficult and unsettling times for the party (1977-1983). A supporter of merger between the Liberal and SDP, he continued to be a supporter of the merged Liberal Democrats until his death in June 1997. Both his first and his last contributions in debate in the House of Lords had been on social security.

In 1948 he married Barbara Wells, who had a distinguished political career in her own right. She was a leading figure in the Women’s Liberal Federation, where her activities won her an OBE.

For the other posts in this series see my Forgotten Liberal Heroes page.

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