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Ahead of his time: was Jo Grimond the future of Lib-Labism?

The publication of an essay by John Curtice for IPPR’s new journal, Juncture, provoked some interesting debate (here, here and here) about the prospects for a Labour–Liberal Democrat coalition after the next general election. Much of this discussion understandably concentrates on the electoral arithmetic, party dynamics and personality politics involved. Less attention is paid to the ideological underpinnings of a new progressive alliance and the policy commitments it might embrace.
At this point, articles or blogs on this subject usually return to the new liberalism of the early 20th century, and the great reforming Edwardian governments, before continuing on an intellectual tour through Lloyd George’s Yellow Book and the towering contributions made to the Attlee government’s post-war settlement by Keynes and Beveridge. We progress from there to the Lib–Lab pact and the realignment of the centre-left in the 1980s, before the tour comes to an abrupt halt shortly after Roy Jenkins’ report on electoral reform in 1998.

It’s a familiar journey but it misses out a figure who might just hold the key to the future of the British centre-left: the Liberal leader Jo Grimond.

Grimond took over the leadership of the Liberal party in 1956, when it was at its lowest ebb. It had six MPs and a miserable 2.5 per cent of the popular vote. He had the foresight to see that its natural role was to be at the heart of a new progressive centre in British politics, between the left of the Labour party and the Conservatives. He repositioned it as a centre-left party, anticipating by a generation the formation of the Social Democrats and their merger with the Liberals in the 1980s. It was a repositioning that remained intact for the most part until Nick Clegg became the Liberal Democrat leader.

Grimond’s relevance for contemporary debates is rather more subtle than this would imply, however. He was the author of a number of works of political theory and policy reflection in which are contained themes and insights that bear directly on the question of what character a future progressive alliance might possess. None of these books is particularly deep or profound. Grimond didn’t possess Crosland’s intellectual gifts. But he plugged away at a set of ideas which are surprisingly resonant today.

First, Grimond believed in breaking down concentrations of power in the economy, establishing co-ownership of firms and distributing wealth more widely. ‘You cannot have a contended, industrious and stable society where property is concentrated in a few hands, or worse still under the control of the State,’ he argued in 1959. In terms that would resonate with Jon Cruddas, he argued that ‘the system ought to stress the community of interests among those taking part in production. It ought to emphasise joint responsibility.’

Workers, Grimond contended, should be given status alongside shareholders in company law, and ‘the growth of a body of worker-shareholders taking part in the affairs of the company in both capacities’ should be encouraged. He put forward a save-as-you-earn plan for share ownership and praised employee mutuals like John Lewis.

All of this was of a piece with a strand of post-war liberalism that promoted a third way between state and private ownership and argued for a wider distribution of wealth and asset ownership. It has remerged today in the form of a renewed focus on employee ownership among Liberal Democrat ministers. A policy review has been established under the leadership of Graeme Nuttall, a longstanding expert on and advocate of employee ownership, which will be published in the summer. It is policy territory where liberal and Blue Labour concerns can meet each other.

Second, Grimond was a staunch critic of centralised statecraft and public bureaucracies, and a promoter of new forms of community welfare provision. Some of his harshest words were reserved for Beveridge himself, who he claimed had been ‘carried away by dreams of grandeur’, deluding himself that ‘under his name and proposals the Liberal party, for which he stood in the 1945 election, would sweep the country.’ In fairly predictable liberal terms, he criticised the cost, redistribution and expansion of public administration implied by the Beveridge report. But he also castigated its results in terms that speak to contemporary critiques of New Labour’s statecraft:

‘Another feature of the Beveridge report was that it did not contemplate that the recipients of its benefits would have the right to say in what they wanted. They were not to be involved in the administration of the scheme. Benefits decided by a beneficent government passed by parliament … were handed out by methods of greater and greater complexity. It was tainted with corporatism and paid scant attention to the opinions and wants of people …’
The Common Welfare, 1978

Grimond argued for radical localism, community welfare programmes, and diversity and choice in public services. By the late 1970s, he was both of his time – picking up the winds of change that would sweep Thatcher to power in the 1980s and turning towards the right as he did so – and ahead of it, anticipating elements of Blairism in public services, as well as critiques of the latter’s centralism and managerialism. On occasions, he gets close to just the sort of ‘New and Blue’ mix that might rescue Labour on public service reform.

But Grimond also had an appreciation of the spaces between state and market, and the institutions that fill them, which Nick Clegg sorely lacks. When it reflects on the somewhat desiccated account of social mobility currently pursued by the Coalition, a post-Clegg Liberal Democrat party will have to rediscover insights like these, from the late 1950s:

‘There have always been in civilised societies places like the church, the universities and some branches of medicine, open to non-competitive people. We are in danger … of carrying the race for promotion, business, wealth into unsuitable fields. I rather shrink from the phrase ‘opportunity state’ … for when the state competes it becomes entangled with every sort of ambition for prestige, it becomes tyrannical, and into the bargain it is usually inefficient. There is a better role for the state in protecting public bodies which can offer different satisfactions.’
The Liberal Future, 1959, p58

As Labour thinkers scour their own traditions for inspiration, they would do well to cast an eye over Grimond’s visionary but neglected liberalism. They might like what they see.

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One Response to Ahead of his time: was Jo Grimond the future of Lib-Labism?

  1. Norman Perry says:

    What a pleasure for a 60-something to see Grimond getting some credit. I joined the Young Liberals in response to his thoughts. Possibly unlike Nick, I think Jo’s views are just as apposite to Cameron conservatism as to Labour. There is a real Middle Way in there.