Are you a Lib-Dem then? My train of thought on something about what we had been discussing must have prompted the question, but it took me by surprise. Most people think of me as very conservative; establishment man in dark suit, drives a Jaguar ergo must be a Tory. But others see me through my various campaigns; for freeing Gary McKinnon, to get Pete Seeger a Nobel peace prize, my liking for protest songs and support for breast cancer research and they see me way over at the opposite end of the political spectrum.
Like most of us I began to think independently as I got into my teens. My cultural exposure had been primarily to both upper and working classes, but as I began to fly the nest I began to mix in a little middle class. Born in Newbury and living in the shires I grew up in staunch Tory country, but the towns I lived near during childhood; Reading, Croydon and Guildford amongst others, had their fair share of industry even if they were not the industrial heartlands.
All of these influences swirled around me, stirred up by my avid reading of all the daily papers in the school library through which I began to absorb events around the world, especially in South Africa and America, this being in the mid sixties. One doesn’t fully understand at that age and can be easily swept into things. Once I was spotted wearing a Free Nelson Mandela badge at school in contravention of dress code. My penalty was to have to put the case for his continued imprisonment in a debate. My research for that debate gave me a healthy desire to be careful about judging books by their covers, and that has stood me in good stead over the years since.
I was too young to vote at that time of course, and would actually miss the age of majority as they lowered when I was between 18 and 21, but which way was I leaning then? The Liberal party had some appeal, possibly the underdog factor, but Joe Grimond made two big impressions on me. He stood on my foot for the first of these. This was in Guildford in about 1964, and I was quite miffed when my Mother insisted that I clean my shoes as usual that evening. I wanted to leave the mark he made there to show my friends next day at school. The second impression was as a direct result of the first. Here was this important man, one of the three main political leaders of what was still, then, a great nation. He was leaving an engagement and trod on my foot as the small crowd pressed in to see him. Obviously in a hurry he could have strode on, but he turned, identified me as the victim and apologised. Just a straightforward act of politeness, one human to another. That basic decency impressed me hugely and it is another lesson that I have tried to carry on over the years: You are never too important to say sorry.
That was more than 40 years ago, and I have been through the changes since as far as my politics go. At one time I worked for an employer that operated a closed shop, so I had to be a union member. If I was in I would be an active voice, and that got me onto the local branch committee. Later I was a member of a management union, but left because of the conflicts of interest with my job. Trade union activities enhanced my exposure to local politics, and I recall hearing a young Neil Kinnock speak when he was still a Welsh firebrand and, at the time, an impressive orator. Perhaps the biggest period of political activity for me was the 1979 general election. I lived in Chelmsford at the time and our sitting MP was Norman St John Stevas, a man I detested. The main opposition was former local Liberal councillor Stuart Mole with the Labour candidate having no chance. Our union committee debated long into the night; did we throw our weight behind promoting the no hope Labour option, or did we come out for the local man on the basis that we could maybe unseat a Tory grandee?
We didn’t resolve the issue and I can still remember the atmosphere in the union room the day after the election. Despite all the gloom and predictions of doom under a Tory government, five months later I got moved to a new job in another office and less than 2 years later I was promoted and sent to London and my career was really launched. The 80s were very good years for me even if you factor in the failure of my first marriage. The man who had had to stop driving and had to get out and have a smoke at the news that Ted Heath had lost the leadership of the Conservative party did well under Heath’s replacement when she was PM.
Once I got far enough up the management ladder to have some apparent influence I got to meet politicians on a regular basis. Most of them, certainly over the last 15 years, have left me very unimpressed. They talk some strange language, constantly looking over their shoulder to see if their minder is happy that they are still on message, and they fail to show any sort of business acumen; most of them I would not have employed in anything other than a basic clerical job if at all. There have been one or two exceptions, but I only have to refer you to the expenses scandals as an example of how I see standards having slipped since Joe Grimond showed how things should be done.
Over the years I have never been a member of a political party. I have been approached a number of times by two of them to join, but have resisted. Yes there could have been some short term personal gains, but that isn’t why you should get into politics and I didn’t want them. I prefer to be my own man, so the only political thought that I have had now and again has been to stand as an independent councillor. That hasn’t happened though, so I remain just a voter.
So am I a Lib-Dem? Yes I’m a bit liberal at times and I certainly believe in democracy, but that doesn’t make me a Lib-Dem and my political leaning, like my vote, is my business. In any case, you’ll see me as you want to you see me and make up your own mind if it matters that much to you. It doesn’t to me.