Image of Jo Grimond, Rackwick July 2020.
On a crumbling sea wall in one of the outlying isles, or on the gable of a redundant farm building somewhere in a Mainland parish, you can still make out the faded lettering, daubed in white paint by a zealous supporter during, say, the 1966 general election campaign: VOTE FOR JO!
So popular and weel-kent was Jo Grimond, that only his familiar, friendly first name was required. ‘Vote for Jo, the man you know’, went the slogan. It is now exactly seventy years since Grimond was first elected as the Westminster representative for the Northern Isles. Remarkably, he held the Orkney and Shetland seat for thirty-three years between 1950 and 1983. The exhortation to vote for him was already then, as it is now, redundant, pointless, and unnecessary. Because for much of the twentieth century, Orkney and Shetland was the safest Liberal seat in Scotland.
Why should this be? And why – in the face of seismic shifts in Scottish political thinking and voting behaviour – does it remain the case? Orkney and Shetland is a curious anomaly on the Scottish political map, and Grimond goes as far as to acknowledge this in his 1979 Memoirs: ‘I have heard it said that Orkney and Shetland is a freak constituency segregated from the main highways of British political thought’. Of course, he refutes this. But the question nevertheless remains at the heart of the argument about whether people should continue to vote Lib Dem today. Is to do so not to segregate yourself and your fellow constituents from those ‘main highways’, and in so doing perpetuate the election of a tiny group who will only ever be, at best, voices in the political wilderness at Westminster?
The reasons I hear from people voting Lib Dem in twenty first century elections range from an uncritical assertion from an Orkney Islands Councillor that ‘if Liberal was good enough for Daddy, then it’s good enough for me’, to the friend who told me recently ‘well I don’t really know anything about politics so I always just vote Lib Dem’. I suspect that these sorts of family honour or safe repetitive predictability voting patterns are pretty common in modern Orkney and Shetland. And I absolutely don’t want to denigrate Lib Dem supporters. I know that a great many of my family and friends must vote Lib Dem (and I have done so myself from time to time in the past). I like to think that people here continue to vote this way because they can’t see themselves as idealist Socialists at this late point in history, but neither can they abide the hard-hearted, money-grabbing mentality of those on the right of the Tory party. With a tradition of hardworking owner occupancy in a reasonably classless society where people work every hour available (mostly on their own small-ish farms or in their own small businesses), it’s understandable that the industrial urban roots of socialism and radicalism have never really taken hold in Orkney. Likewise, the excesses of right wing Conservatism are deeply unpalatable to people who live, for better or for worse, in a real community, and understand that there is, of course, such a thing as Society after all; this is one important fact that you can’t afford to ignore when you are an islander.
I wonder how many of the younger Lib Dem voters in the Northern Isles know very much about the history of their party of choice, or indeed about the underlying philosophy of Liberalism. Grimond’s memoir is as revealing on the history as it is fascinating on the philosophy.
We shouldn’t imagine, for instance, that the Liberal party is any less an integral component of the British Establishment or that it is any way further removed from those implacable structures of power, privilege and patronage than the Tory party is. Grimond’s recollections of his early life are a veritable Who’s Who of the rich and powerful families at the very top of the UK caste system during the thirties and forties. He describes his enrolment at Eton, and then Oxford to study the famous PPE course required of future Conservative and New Labour cabinet ministers, with weekends spent shooting on estates where dinners in the lavish country houses of British aristocrats began with sherry and ended with port. When Grimond notes that ‘in 1945 my brother in law Billy became the Chief Scout’ and ‘after retiring as Chief Scout Billy was made governor of Tasmania in 1959’, it is as if this kind of appointment coming to a member of one’s immediate circle is nothing unusual. The power, interconnectedness and exclusivity of this disproportionately tiny British coterie is nothing short of astonishing. But, to his credit, Grimond doesn’t lack self-awareness, and he yearns for a future politics that is – dare I say it? – a bit more like that which we see at Holyrood today, ‘free from the patronising airs of the old Eton and Oxford hierarchy’.
Liberalism, Grimond reminds us throughout, combines the radical instinct with an insistence on individual liberty, and does not see the two as contradictory. Sadly, it’s difficult to see any immediate future for the doctrine in our increasingly fractured and fragmenting United Kingdom. Grimond’s seventy-year-old plea for proportional representation at Westminster has fallen on deaf ears for, well, seventy years. And neither has his argument for the advancement of Liberal ideals through parliamentary coalition stood the test of time, having been shot down in the flames of the end of free university education in England. And now, most inimical of all, narrow right-wing British Nationalism has turned its back on Europe forever.
While it might take a bit of a stretch of the imagination to think that Jo Grimond would have joined the SNP by 2020, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that he might by now be mobilising something like ‘Scottish Liberal Democrats for Independence’. His close involvement with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the work of which informs so many contemporary SNP policies, or his concern for the plight of the Guardian at a time when it was in much less trouble than it is today, reminds us of the social compassion underpinning his values.
And Grimond was a lifelong campaigner for what was originally known as Home Rule and later became Devolution. He was arguing for full federalism and tax raising powers for Scotland when Gordon Brown was still in short breeks. Grimond would have been frustrated beyond belief with Groundhog Day Labour ‘vows’ to deliver federalism or reform the upper chamber. With the combination of his antinuclear conviction and his internationalist outlook, we might imagine he would also be content with the pragmatic middle ground balance of SNP opposition to Trident renewal alongside commitment to NATO membership.
No, Grimond is by no means hostile to the SNP – some of whose socially progressive policies, it might be argued, have stolen a march on his political descendants in Scotland. If we remove the British/Unionist factor from this equation, the only true revival of the fortunes of the Liberal party that it is now possible to imagine in Scotland would come after the event of Scottish independence (at which point the SNP’s raison d’etre becomes redundant). The urgent question Lib Dems need to answer in Orkney and in Scotland today is How do you think you are ever going to achieve anything resembling Liberalism within the archaic and undemocratic structures of the United Kingdom?
This is an enthralling and an endearing memoir, not least because of its love for and affinity with the old Orkney people and ways of life. The warmth of Jo Grimond’s character continues to shine through forty years on. When he writes ‘I take the family as the green of the grass or the warmth of the fire’, we feel we are in the company of a man whose heart is in absolutely the right place. But those Orkney and Shetland folk who persist in voting for Jo today run the risk of insisting that the political world is flat.