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Local history: Wembley Young Liberals in the 1950s

Alan Knight on being active in the Wembley North Young Liberals in the early 1950s.

Joining the Liberals

The 1950 and 1951 elections were not the best of times for the Liberal Party. Our standing in the polls reached rock bottom but from my experience it was not for lack of active members or lack of effort on their part. Admittedly Wembley North was a bit exceptional because after the first year of our existence we were voted by the Liberal News the most active Young Liberal Association (YLA) in the country, but a great deal was also going on in neighbouring constituencies.

I was demobbed from the RAF on 8th February 1949. I am not sure when I joined the Young Liberals but it could not have been long after that because I had been heavily involved for a long time when the election was called for February 1950.

History was my favourite subject at school and we studied British History from 1830 to 1914 for the London Matriculation exam in 1945. Reading about the 1832 Reform Bill, the Chartists, and the never-ending battle to improve the lot of the masses put me firmly on the left of politics. I would undoubtedly have voted for the Socialists if I had been old enough to vote in 1945.

Although I became a Liberal in 1949 I was aware that the 1945 to 1950 Labour government was one of the great reforming governments of all time and Clement Attlee is now one of my political heroes. Unfortunately at that time the country was deeply in debt, rationing carried on for several years, and people were soon disillusioned. Nonetheless the Socialists still won the 1950 election with a very small majority and although they lost in 1951 they gained a quarter of a million more votes than the Tories.

I do not think it was the failure of the government that persuaded me to join the Liberals. I was disillusioned with the class war and I was particularly interested in the Liberals’ co-ownership proposals, which would have given the workers a stake in their company and given both sides of industry a common purpose. The other four main planks of Liberal policy were free trade, subsequently taken up by the rest of the world, proportional representation, devolution for Scotland and Wales, and land value taxation.

Bernard Dann

In 1950 Wembley North had a brilliant young candidate called Bernard Dann. An Oxford graduate, he was only 24 and had served as an officer in the Welsh Guards despite not being very tall. He was a superb speaker and well versed in the art of electioneering. The association had asked his father to stand but he had declined and suggested that we should adopt his son. Bernard was very keen on obtaining publicity in the local papers. As with most local papers the editor of the Wembley News was always looking for news and letters to fill the columns and fortunately he was sympathetic to the Liberal cause. The Wembley Observer was a Conservative paper but we managed some publicity even in that rag. I am afraid we had many more signatories than letter writers. Bernard would come to committee meetings with letters typed out but waiting for the address to be filled in at the top and a signature appended at the bottom. Maybe that would be frowned on nowadays but it did enable us to count our press coverage in column inches each week and I think we were the only constituency in the Home Counties to save our deposit in 1950.

We had an eye open for publicity in everything we did. We even ran competitions to see how long it took the Young Liberals to leaflet-drop each ward, telling the press each time of course. I once persuaded the committee to let me apply to the council for permission to run a fair on Kingsbury Village Green. I assured everyone that the council would turn us down but it might be good publicity. The Green was a small triangle of grass at a busy road junction so there was little chance of obtaining consent. I felt guilty when the council debated it for most of their monthly meeting but we made the front page in style that week.

The local papers published many of my letters and I succeeded in getting letters into some of the nationals including The Times and the Guardian. I even had two published in the Economist. I did not subscribe to that magazine but someone showed me an editorial after the 1950 election, which suggested that the Liberals had suffered a defeat from which they would never recover. It was a case of getting something off my chest and then forgetting about it. I did not buy the magazine to see if they had published my letter but Basil Banks (the younger brother of Desmond, later Lord Banks) told me about it when we shared the platform at a meeting somewhere in the constituency. The editor had added a footnote pointing out that the results themselves proclaimed our defeat to the high heavens. I responded to explain that my objection was to his assertion that we would never recover. He published my second letter but I think he added another footnote the contents of which I cannot remember.

When the Wembley News was taken over by the group that ran the Wembley Observer, the editor invited me to his office to say that the new owners were not sympathetic to the Liberal cause, so we could no longer count on the same level of publicity.

Bernard also introduced the Young Liberals to hat debates. The participants drew from a hat the motion for the next debate and whether they were to propose or oppose it. One then had five minutes to prepare a speech whilst the previous speaker was performing. I think we were all surprised ourselves with our hidden talents and these fun evenings provided excellent experience in those days when politicians still held public meetings.

We challenged the Young Socialists and the Young Tories to debate with us but needless to say the Tories always refused. The Socialists accepted, and we held a contest with the chairman of the local debating society as the judge. We fielded a strong team and rather wiped the floor with them but they were jolly good sports. We also challenged the Tories to a cricket match, which they wisely declined because a number of our members were stalwarts of the local Kingsbury Cricket Club.

I cannot recall all the posts I held in the Young Liberals but I seem to remember having to write letters of resignation from some seven posts when I moved to Bristol in June 1954. They included such things as the Middlesex Young Liberals but I do not recall any meetings of that body. But I do know that being asked to become vice-chairman soon after I joined was most unexpected, and exciting. Then when the 1950 campaign proper started, Bernard asked me to be the ward organiser for Hyde ward where I lived. Yvonne Sharpe and I canvassed most of the ward and our returns showed the Liberals to be in the lead; so much for the accuracy of canvassing in those days.

When I joined, the chairman of the Young Liberals was Ross Bunce who had been in the RAF during the war (a pilot I think) and was already approaching the retirement age of 30. When he resigned I was persuaded to stand for election but was not successful. A somewhat older friend of Ross was elected and I continued as vice-chairman. The new chairman was not very active and things began to fall apart for a while. I think I did do a spell as chairman at a later stage but I am not really sure. The job I enjoyed most was that of press officer which I think I combined with other posts much of the time. I also enjoyed working on the monthly magazine, which received praise on occasions from the local press and the Liberal News.

Nancy Seear

It was during that period in the run-up to the 1950 election, when I was still vice-chairman, that I met Nancy Seear. Bernard asked me to join an Any Questions team at a public meeting in the Kenton ward. As well as Nancy the team included David Ennals who was secretary of the United Nations Association and a Liberal prospective candidate. He subsequently became a Labour cabinet minister and is now a life peer. Other members of the team were the London editor of the Montreal Star and Basil Banks. I did not do very well.

Nancy was a formidable lady. Before the meeting we had dinner at the Rest Hotel. I sat next to Nancy and a waitress who tried to serve her over the wrong shoulder received a withering look. Recently a Trust has been set up in her name to help promote women candidates. Unfortunately the article in the Liberal Democrat News contained an inaccuracy and they printed my correction under the heading TIRELESS NANCY. I wrote, ‘When writing about the new Nancy Seear Trust, Sally Hamwee said (Liberal Democrat News, 12 Feb 1999) that Nancy fought every general election from 1955 to 1970. When I first met Nancy in 1949 she was the prospective candidate for Hornchurch. I think she fought that constituency in both 1950 and 1951.’

I met Lady Seear again when she opened the New Work Trust in Kingswood. At the time she was leading the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords. I was Personnel Director and represented Mardon Son and Hall. We were chatting about Bernard Dann and our previous meeting when she was whisked away.

Colourful characters

Another of the colourful characters I met at that time was Derek Abel (who fought St Albans) who came to address the Young Liberals and for whom I had to propose the vote of thanks. He had the largest vocabulary of anyone I ever met so I talked about a speech of polysyllabic dignity, a phrase that I think I spotted in a G K Chesterton novel. Unfortunately, I managed to mispronounce polysyllabic, which rather spoiled the effect. Nonetheless he was very charming and walked over to thank me for my little speech.

I think it was during the 1950 campaign that Frank Byers came to address a large rally at the Wembley Town Hall. Standing in the wings he seemed remarkably nervous and I worried that he might fall apart on the stage. His nerves disappeared completely the moment he began a rousing speech. Frank lost his seat in the 1950 election and one day, when I was sitting in the boardroom of Radio Luxembourg doing the audit, I heard him recording in another room. I think it was a programme in which he answered listeners’ questions.

Radio Luxembourg had small offices and I began by sitting at a desk in the boardroom. When the part-time chairman arrived he looked a bit annoyed and asked me to move to the boardroom table. I heard him dictating some letters that indicated that he was a member of the party and I mentioned that I was chairman or vice chairman of the Young Liberals. The atmosphere immediately changed. He visibly relaxed and we had several long conversations after that. He was Major-General Grey and was treasurer of the party at the time. He had obtained the job for Frank Byers after he lost his seat. I was amused when the following year he approached my successor on that audit and asked how things were going in Wembley North.

I remember attending a Party Conference addressed by Clement Davies who was then the leader of the party. It was a very moving speech – just what one would expect of a Welsh MP. It may have been at that conference that I enjoyed sitting at lunch with Hubert Phillips, a humorist, whom amongst other things produced the News Chronicle crosswords.

1950 election

I look back on the 1950 campaign as an enjoyable time; in fact it was great fun. When Eric Bullus, the Tory candidate, had a meeting in the Chalkhill ward a dozen or so of us dispersed ourselves around the room armed with questions supplied by Bernard. On another occasion we stood outside a Tory rally at the town hall distributing leaflets specially printed in blue for the occasion. As people entered the hall they took them with a smile, which gradually faded as they read them. It was cleverly written to start off sounding Conservative and gradually becoming more Liberal. One of our number even went into the town hall and placed one on each seat. I do not think the leaflet had the Liberals down as publishers. We viewed it as a practical joke but I suppose nowadays it would be regarded as rather sinister and we might end up in court. After Eric Bullus was elected I arranged for him to take a party of Young Liberals around the House of Commons, but I think they may still have been using the Lords Chamber at that time.

Everyone was very optimistic during the 1950 campaign, but much of it was an attempt to encourage one another. On the eve of the poll some us ran a sweepstake on the level of our vote. I think Don Bunce was the instigator and I remember doing it at the Olneys’ House in the Kingsbury Road opposite the swimming pool where we held so many of our meetings. Despite the optimism shown by everyone; when we had to write down on a piece of paper our individual expectation of the Liberal vote we were all remarkably realistic.

Constituency activity

The Olneys were a tower of strength for the constituency. Fred ran a weekly Friday night whist drive, on behalf of Fryent ward, at the swimming pool caf. The Young Liberals did the washing up and we made an annual profit of £450. That was a great deal of money in those days and when we held our adoption meetings Fred would hand over a large cheque in response to the appeal for funds. It was all part of our propaganda strategy; we hoped that the public would think that we had raised large sums on the day of the appeal. Not only were Mr and Mrs Olney very active but Noreen and her brother Ivan were also heavily involved. Ivan married Claire and when I met Vera Head a few years ago she said that Claire was helping out at Cowley Street as a volunteer. Vera Head was active in Wembley North after I left the area.

Constituency Executive meetings were held in lush surroundings of the committee rooms of the Wembley Town Hall – paid for, no doubt, by the Fryent whist drive.

We had a birthday party to celebrate the first anniversary of the formation of the Young Liberal branch at the Kingsbury Swimming Pool caf. I think it was in April 1950 and Bernard was able to announce that we had won a Liberal News competition to find the most active YLA in the country. I think we had around 120 members, which would be a very respectable number even today. We had run a competition to see who could sign up the most members, which I won, but I do not think I claimed the prize of two theatre tickets. I cannot remember the details but I think I signed up a number of my school friends, my cousin Eileen and some of her friends and a few people who had expressed interest as a result of leaflet drops.

Liberal alliances

Once when following up enquiries from prospective members, Ken Byfield and I were stopped by an off-duty policeman who thought we were acting suspiciously as we tried to work out the house numbers by wandering up and people’s driveways in the dark. It was probably that same evening that we signed up Margaret who became my wife. The first time the two of us went out together was to a meeting at the Wembley Town Hall addressed by Harold Macmillan who was the Minister of Housing when the Tories were pledged to build 200,000 houses a year. Margaret said she was taken aback when I was the first person to leap to his feet to ask a question. In those days an audience of a thousand was not unusual.

One of the cleverest things I ever did was to sign up my cousin Eileen. Eileen met Ken Vincent at my 21st birthday party (5 Sep 1949) and I am sure that they were both very grateful to me (one of those fairytale stories where people live happily ever after). They married and I have been able to remind their children and grandchildren that they owe their very existence to the Liberal Party and me. Ken and Eileen did a spell as chairman and secretary at some stage.

Derek Mooney

All good things come to an end and unfortunately Bernard’s employers were not happy about his political activities. He was an average adjuster and was posted to Liverpool soon after the election. I believe he subsequently became a Liverpool councillor and I once saw him on television addressing the party conference when it was in Lancashire. In the 1980s when Baroness Seear came to open the New Work Trust in Kingswood she said she was still in touch with Bernard. More recently when I tried to obtain his address from Lib Dem headquarters they told me he was not a member so maybe he has died. When he left London, Bernard donated funds for someone to attend the Liberal Summer School each year for five years. Derek Mooney, who was my closest friend for that period of my life, went in the first year and I attended the second year at Southampton University when Jeremy Thorpe was one of the speakers. I only saw Derek once or twice after we left London but he became a councillor and remained a key party worker. He popped in on us at Cleeve Lawns and I hoped to see him when I attended a conference (may have been at Clivedon) but he had a committee meeting. After his Christmas cards stopped coming I learned from Doreen Darby, our candidate for Wansdyke in 1992, that he had died of a heart attack. She said he was a millionaire and had always been very generous to the Party.

Derek only lived a few hundred yards away on the other side of the Edgware Road but it was in Hendon North, which included Golders Green with its large Jewish population and had a strong organisation. For some reason he was much more active in Wembley North as secretary of the main association and election agent. He did have links with his own constituency, however, and regaled me with stories about Edward Martell, their dynamic Jewish candidate. Martell decided to include the Saturday football results in a leaflet and deliver to every house in the constituency before 7pm. He was dismayed to discover that there was a copyright on the football results but Derek said that the delivery went ahead on schedule. Even with an organisation like that I do not think they saved their deposit.

Derek also told me of the time that he once worked with Martell into the early hours and was woken up the following morning by Martell on a loudspeaker outside his house. Martell had driven to his home in central London and back. This dynamic man arranged for the insurance of all Liberal deposits in 1950 and I seem to remember that he subsequently launched a newspaper.

1951 election

I remember attending a constituency executive meeting in Wembley Town Hall after Bernard had gone when the chairman raised the question of finding a new prospective candidate. He said that there were two local members who could be considered and mentioned my name. I was taken aback and very flattered but I was very far from being ready for such an appointment and I don’t think anyone took it seriously.

Bernard’s replacement for the 1951 election was a very different cup of tea. He was Arden Winch who subsequently became a successful writer. He wrote a television serial about a member of the Royal Family being kidnapped but the victim was changed to a diplomat’s child after a major media row.

Arden arrived at the count in a dinner jacket having been invited to a Daily Telegraph party. The constituency chairman had great difficulty in persuading him to stay for the announcement of the result and his vote of thanks to the returning officer.

On one occasion during the 1951 election campaign, when we were driving through the West End in Arden’s open-topped sports car, he leapt out, rushed round the car and jumped back into the driver’s seat clutching all the posters that had adorned his car. ‘I am not having everyone laughing at the Liberal Party’, he announced. Apparently we had broken down but his reactions were so fast that I had not realised.

He married Phoebe, a stalwart of the Bristol Liberals, and I met his son, Nick, when he was the agent for Jeanie Matthew in the 1994 European Parliament election.

Leaving Wembley

I have very fond memories of my years with the Young Liberals in London. One of the things that impressed me about the party was the way that it covered the whole population. But then one of my reasons for joining was disillusionment with the class war that seemed endemic in the other two parties. Not only did I campaign with people of all ages but also all classes, occupations and, of course, all religions.

Before we left Wembley in June 1954 two or three wards asked me to stand for the council. I would probably have said no because I was married by then but since we were moving from London the question did not arise. A few years later Derek Mooney told me that Brian Robins, a reporter on one of the local papers and one of the Wembley South Young Liberals, had won a council seat by canvassing every house in the ward. That was before pavement politics began, before Orpington, and when the party was still at its lowest ebb.