A better understanding of Jo Grimond’s life is always a healthy corrective to some of the cartoon caricatures about right-wing lurches and Thatcherite policies that sometimes get thrown around over the views of contemporary Liberal Democrats.
Grimond was, after all, a man who talked of himself as being on the centre-left and who pushed for a progressive realignment of politics that would see a new centre-left party supplant Labour. Off and on feelers went out to those in Labour ranks during his career. And yet, he was often sceptical of central government spending, keen to see taxes cut and hostile to the state drawing up endless rules about how people should behave. He called for smaller government, warning that, “A great deal of government expenditure today is not helping the poor or anyone – it is positively harmful”.
Hence I have recently been finally reading Michael McManus’s biography of the former Liberal Party leader. Despite Jo Grimond’s role in the Liberal Party’s revival and in inspiring future generations of the party, his life has not attracted that much in the way of written studies, which meant many were looking forward to the appearance of McManus’s book when it first came out in 2007. Its reception was somewhat mixed: praise for the research and its comprehensive nature mixed with criticism for the number of errors and the number of historical questions not really addressed.
What it does provide is a lengthy study of Grimond’s political thought, with as a result much more attention given to those parts of his life which featured policy writings and speeches heavily than to those where it played a lesser role. Thus the reader finds out plenty about the details of policies but gets little in the way of examples of how particular individuals were attracted to the party by Grimond’s charisma. The book also plays up those elements of Grimond’s thought that fit most with the author’s own One Nation Toryism.
Overall, though, it does give an interesting picture of man interested in policy and able to place it at the heart of his politics. As an aside, Grimond was the only Liberal MP – and quite possibly the only MP, period – to present a TV program about venereal disease, an example of that Liberal trait of being willing to take up at the time controversial issues related to our liberties.
McManus’s writing style is rather disjointed at times, with successive paragraphs jumping from one topic to another, sometimes even with (unintentional?) comedic effect as when talk of Grimond’s belief in the free market as a key party of liberal freedoms gets immediately followed by the fallout from the mating habits of grey seals.
Some of Grimond’s policies very much show their age – such as the push for a five-year economic plan – but others still contain lessons for today, as with his complaint that Liberal Policy was often “advocacy of large expenditure on every sort of thing from social services to Highland Development while at the same time saying that we were living beyond our means”. That helps make Jo Grimond: Towards the sound of gunfire well worth a read despite its limitations.