Chance Encounters: Tim Razzall doesn’t quite reveal where the Lib Dem political bodies are buried

The cover of Liberal Democrat peer Tim Razzall’s memoirs features a quote from Nick Robinson, saying “After a quarter of a century as a Lib Dem power broker, Tim Razzall knows where the bodies are buried”. True, but as the first line of the book illustrates, the memoirs are not a guide to location of said corpses but rather mostly an account of Razzall’s entertaining life outside politics, often featuring both the music and business worlds: “I met Frank Sinatra through Robert Maxwell. That’s if you can be said to have met someone who was on a private jet with you for fourteen hours and never spoke to you”.

Chance Encounters - Tim RazzallThe discretion over many political details, especially bearing in mind his close working relationships with both Charles Kennedy and Chris Rennard, will doubtless disappoint some readers. There could have been a fascinating account, for example, of the human strains for both Charles Kennedy and his colleagues caused by the former party leader’s struggle with drink.

Discretion, however, has mostly won out, and to Tim Razzall’s credit there aren’t the sort of tales that would have secured a tabloid newspaper serialisation for his political stories.

His life outside politics, however, is great fun to read about, full of name-dropping of the famous and tinged with sadness such as the two occasions he had to have his father sectioned.

There are still some political snippets worth reading the book for, especially Tim Razzall’s tale of his role in the community politics revolution in Richmond that made it one of the Liberal Party’s early areas of local government success and for his accounts of what it was like to be a political party treasurer before the reforms of 2000. His account of a donor to multiple parties dishing out a suitcase full of cash is a stark illustration of why, as he says himself, those reforms were so needed – and indeed he argues for more controls over political donations in future, wanting to see a £50,000 cap on individual donations.

He also helps explain why the party took the ill-fated donation from Michael Brown, later convicted of fraud. The Liberal Democrats asked Special Branch if Michael Brown’s background and claimed business in the UK were legit:

The report came back … that the relevant company’s bank account was sizeable from what were undoubtedly trading activities. So there seemed no reason not to accept the donation. Anna [Werrin, Charles Kennedy’s advisor] clearly needed to be careful about disclosing the information from Special Branch, as they would never go on the record to disclose how they could obtain the relevant information … The Electoral Commission were satisfied that we had complied with our obligations.

When it comes to the former Lib Dem campaign supremo Chris Rennard, Razzall says relatively little but gives some of the background to how he ended up so powerful in the party (on which see also my history of the party’s campaigning). Of the allegations against the party’s former Chief Executive he says:

It is from this period that the allegations against him for sexual misbehaviour relate. I have no knowledge of what happened, as during the period that Chris reported to me nobody came forward to make a complaint. I know that this has been investigated in detail and Alistair Webster QC has produced his analysis. I cannot comment on the truth or otherwise of the allegations against Chris. I can only comment on my experience.

It is clear from the report of the independent investigation commissioned by the party leadership to review party culture and procedures that the organisation needs to set up clearer systems to ensure that similar allegations in the future are dealt with more effectively and sympathetically.

There’s also a gem for anyone interested in the evolution of election rules:

After we chose Frank as our candidate [for the Action Parliamentary by-election of 1968] I came up with an idea that later resulted in a change in the law. Up until then, a candidate’s party affiliation could not appear on the ballot paper. This preserved the fiction that the candidate not the party was receiving the vote. So a huge amount of effort in any campaign went into reminding the electorate of the name of a party’s candidate. This was a problem particularly for the Liberal Party, with fewer resources than the other two parties.

So I suggested to Frank that he change his second name to ‘Liberal’ so that he would appear on the ballot paper as ‘David, Frank Liberal’. He agreed. So the Home Office changed the law afterwards. Whether they would have done so anyway I know not.

At times, the book becomes rather a sequence of anecdotes, but never just name drops the famous. Frequent references too are given to grassroots party campaigners as well as more national figures such as Navnit Dholakia who Tim Razzall feels have not had the full public recognition their contributions to British society deserve.

It all makes for an enjoyable read, as the eclectic mix of names in the index – from Mohammad Azharuddin through to Sandi Toksvig and Bill Clinton – demonstrates.

If you like this, you might also be interested in Des Wilson’s Memoirs of a Minor Public Figure, which similarly mixes Liberal / Liberal Democrat history with a life outside politics.

Got a view on this review? Then please rate it on Amazon.

Buy Chance Encounters: Tales from a varied life by Tim Razzall here.

Note: a review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher.

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