There has been a recent and very welcome burst of histories of Liberal (Democrat) activism being published, such as Graham Tope’s A Life in Politics, recording the contributions of people whose names will otherwise slip by the history books. In doing so, they paint a picture of what grassroots politics is actually like, often rather different from the sort of politics recorded in the memoirs of former ministers or analysed by political scientists.
Martin Kyrle, a Liberal activist for over 50 years, is the latest to join this trend with a 69 page volume of his reminiscences and anecdotes, intended as the first volume in a series.
The collection tells the reader much about Martin, but this is not really an autobiography for the tales jump about from one interesting event to another, giving a sense of what a small, often dysfunctional political party organisation was like back in the 1950s and 1960s rather than telling a continuous tale of his life.
He started off in Southampton, where “attending the Executive Committee was seen [by other members] as an end in itself, not the means to one … They saw nothing incongruous in spending an evening once a month debating the finer points of party policy when there was no possibility of any of their ideas being implemented, and saw no reason to complement their debates by undertaking practical activity which might make implementation possible, e.g. by standing for election”.
Many of the obstacles to political activity Martin Kyrle encountered are all too familiar even now, such as the way an Executive meeting got completely hung up on the details of the pricing of tickets for a fundraising event, with the meeting descending into a shouting match. Not only in politics do meetings have a tendency to spend huge amounts of time generating large volumes of heat over minor details.
One part of the historic record that the book preserves is the contributions to Liberal Party campaign techniques of John Wallbridge and his THOR organisation system. (Alas even Martin can’t recall the origin of the name THOR itself.) The book also reproduces several election leaflets from the time, showing how not everything has changed – education, hospitals and being local featured just as strongly then.
At times the semi-professional nature of the publication shows through, but these are only small blemishes in what is a light, quick and enjoyable read.
The Liberals in Hampshire – a Part(l)y History Part 1: Southampton 1958-65 by Martin Kyrle is priced at £5 plus two first class stamps. Orders should be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Part 2 of Martin Kyrle’s history is also available.