Ludovic Kennedy: a man who just missed out on becoming Liberal Party leader

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 with broadcaster, writer and twice Liberal candidate Sir Ludovic Kennedy from 2003.

In the 1959 general election just 2,000 votes separated Ludovic Kennedy from becoming Liberal MP for Rochdale, and possibly a future party leader.

The party he joined in 1956 had all but heard its death knell at the previous election, but the subsequent emergence of Jo Grimond as its new leader had re-vitalised the near corpse and, with the help of the Suez crisis, begun to attract some prominent supporters.  Among them were two already known broadcasters, Robin Day and Ludovic Kennedy.

“Yes. It was Jo Grimond who first stirred my interest in party politics” says Kennedy without hesitation.  “Jo, when he said things, lightened up the whole world so I knew this was the mast to which I could nail my colours.”

Ludovic Kennedy was already a household name – as a principal newscaster for the then fledgling ITV network and also as a leading campaigner against miscarriage of justice. He had championed, and eventually helped to prove, the innocence of Timothy Evans. Evans had been wrongly hanged in 1951 for a murder committed by Rillington Place killer, Christie.

Kennedy was also married to a famous, and beautiful, ballerina and film actress, Moira Shearer, so he was the ideal high-profile candidate to fight a by-election if one came along.

But where had his Liberalism come from? He was an Etonian by education, and he had had an impressive war record. Was it from his up-bringing, his naval experience or was he, as Roy Jenkins described himself, an instinctive liberal?

“Definitely an instinctive liberal, and also an instinctive democrat, as Roy was,” he says.

“I couldn’t be anything else. My upbringing wasn’t important at all. Far from it in fact. After my father retired from the navy he had been in all his life he became a Conservative agent, so I was brought up at Conservative fetes and things like that. And the navy was not an influence either … we didn’t talk politics. We were just there for the war. One thing that did confirm me in my Liberalism was Anthony Eden’s disastrous foray at Suez. That was an issue that made me very angry,” he says.

So, when the opportunity to stand in a by-election in Rochdale was offered to him in 1958 he had no difficulty in accepting, and he came less than 4000 votes short of beating Labour in what had previously been a Conservative seat. He must have had a good organisation?

“Oh yes, we did. Rochdale was an old Liberal town and they had a very good local Association they called the Rochdale Reform Association – they always used the word Reform rather than Liberal. I had a very good agent and there was a curious man who came down from headquarters called Dominic Lefoe. He was a great rabble-rouser. He organised soapbox meetings and things. We also got a good deal of help from outside. I did a lot of village hall meetings and we put round leaflets on thrilling subjects like site value taxation and the abolition of something called Schedule A – I can’t remember what that was now.”

Not quite like today’s by-elections but undoubtedly effective, and the result was even improved upon in the general election of the following year.  By that time Ludovic Kennedy was also presenting ITV’s flagship current affairs programme This Week. Looking back on his 2,000 vote near miss, how much had he really wanted to win?`

“I have often asked myself that,” he said. “If I had won, I would have accepted it, but my career would certainly have been very different.”

In that same election Robin Day fought and failed to win Hereford. Unlike Ludovic Kennedy, he subsequently left the party altogether. Was he an instinctive Liberal like Kennedy himself?

“I think he thought he was, and he did admire Jo Grimond, but in fact he was a deep-rooted Conservative,” says Kennedy with a large smile.

Within a year they had both joined the BBC’s Panorama team and for Ludovic Kennedy, apart from a brief period as candidate for South Bucks, party politics took a back seat.

“It was then that I realised that it was not really on for me and that I wanted to be a writer and a broadcaster.”

Nevertheless he re-emerged powerfully during the 1966 general election, writing and presenting the Liberal party’s controversial political broadcasts. “One of them, attacking Harold Wilson, did achieve particular acclaim’ he remembers. ‘Can the leopard change his (Socialist) spots?’ was the theme.”

With his journalistic as well as political perspective how had he viewed the Grimond decade?

“I just accepted that the Liberals were a small party and likely to remain so, but it didn’t change my allegiance in any way. It was often said of Jo Grimond that he was the best Prime Minister we never had and he would have been because he was exactly the same in public life as he was privately. There was no dichotomy.”

He still rates Grimond very highly, although he also has warm words for Jeremy Thorpe. “He was wonderful until he crashed. He was a born politician and it was a tragedy that the one thing he lived for he could no longer do.”

When he and his family returned to its roots in Scotland in 1966, Kennedy’s Liberal loyalties became rather more stretched. Unlike the Scottish Liberal Party, he believed, and still does today, in an independent Scotland. He never joined the Scottish Nationalists but he spoke for their candidates on one or two occasions, when there was no Liberal standing.

“Yes I spoke for Winnie Ewing in the Hamilton by-election” – a famous Scot Nat victory in 1967.

He is not over-impressed by today’s devolution to a Scottish parliament which he clearly considers a half measure. “I still believe that if Denmark can run its own affairs, why can’t Scotland?” he says.

However, he has never deviated in his overall support for the Liberals and now Liberal Democrats. In ’83, if he had not been moving south again, he might well have been persuaded by David Steel to stand again as a candidate (in Edinburgh), and he found no difficulty in supporting the merger with the Social Democrats in 1988.

“I had always thought that David Owen was a bit of a busted flush but with instinctive liberals and democrats like Roy, Shirley and Bill Rodgers, I thought the prospects were good.”

Party politics have never dominated Kennedy’s life. First and foremost he has been a writer and broadcaster who has used his considerable skills to campaign vigorously on issues he cares deeply about – miscarriage of justice for Timothy Evans, the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, Sally Clark and others, and his continuing efforts to relax the laws on euthanasia (“it’s coming. It’s a worldwide movement now. People in this country think that it is all right to help people die slowly but immoral to help them die quickly’). But he has been an important source of personal support to three Liberal leaders and to Roy Jenkins, as Liberal Democrat leader in the Lords. “Roy was kind enough to put me forward for a peerage but Paddy Ashdown turned the idea down,” Kennedy adds without bitterness.

For all that he may still differ from it on the Scottish issue, the party can count itself lucky to have had him on its side.

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