Friday 13 September 2013

The Sound of Gunfire revisited

Tomorrow, I am reliably informed (thank you, Simon), is the 50th anniversary of Jo Grimond’s famous ‘Sound of Gunfire’ speech – probably the most famous speech he made, and a key moment in the very first Liberal Revival.

I’ve just been reading it and it is strangely dated, perhaps not surprising given that it was given a month after Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech and two months before the assassination of John Kennedy. In other words, it was a long time ago.

But the final peroration is memorable and important, especially for the generation of Liberals before mine, and here it is:

"War, delegates - war has always been a confused affair. In bygone days, the commanders were taught that when in doubt they should march their troops towards the sound of gunfire. I intend to march my troops towards the sound of gunfire. Politics are a confused affair and the fog of political controversy can obscure many issues. But we will march towards the sound of the guns...The reforms which we advocate are inexorably written into the future. We move with the great trends of this century. Other nations have rebuilt their institutions under the hard discipline of war. It is for Liberals to show that Britain, proud Britain, can do this as a free people without passing through the furnace of defeat."

It isn’t just nostalgic reading it now. There is something poignant about it. Take this, for example:

"What should citizenship of Britain mean today? What should we create here to which people would assent, so that people will be able to say, ‘I lived in the Sixties and Seventies and, for all my life, I shall be proud of the public life of my country’­? What can we do to restore that confidence, that optimism, to draw people once again into their country’­s affairs and give back power to the decent, hard-working, general British citizen?"

We know now that what actually lay ahead was stagnation, inflation, industrial standstill and a staggering lack of imagination. We also know that what those of us who actually lived through the 60s and 70s would remember – and the abiding greatness of the time – was the creative and cultural explosion, and which took place despite the absence of political leadership.

I remember, when I first went to a Liberal assembly (1982), I shared some of this sense of exclusion that you get in this speech – and, hey, let’s face it, that is the core of the Liberal psychology: we all feel a little left out.  It seemed to me, then and now, a tragedy that UK politics had excluded its Liberal heritage and tradition.

We may not have changed things if Grimond had really succeeded in marching his troops to the sound of gunfire, but we would have injected that Liberal creativity into the political process as well as the cultural one.

What we did do was to create a revolution in local government, though even that was two decades away or more from Grimond's speech.

I remember, as a local government reporter in the early 1980s, a Labour councillor boasting to me that he simply threw away any letters addressed to him at home, because of the sheer cheek of his constituents writing to him there.

In those days, the public was excluded from many council meetings. They were not allowed to speak. Those one-party states in cities and counties led to stagnation, complacency, corruption, and some of the most inhuman public housing in the world.

The Liberals and then the Lib Dems were history’s chosen instrument. They broke that whole edifice apart.

And then, of course, they found themselves in government, and this is where the metaphor of the sound of gunfire is important. Grimond might equally have talked about Nelson’s injunction to “engage the enemy more closely”.

In both cases, it is critically important for the generals and admirals – and their troops – to know what is possible and who is on their side. They need to know what they are for and where they are heading.  Because, as Grimond said, war is "a confused affair".

So I was fascinated to read Peter Oborne’s unexpected tribute to Nick Clegg in the Daily Telegraph this week, and to his leadership skills. And I think he is right. The Lib Dems haven’t been immune to mistakes in office – far from it – but they have been led with very great skill, hour-by-hour balancing the needs of the party with the needs of the country, and what is possible.

There are a whole list of ways in which the policies of the coalition are imperfect, often worse. But when you march towards the sound of gunfire, it makes no sense to mouth the word ‘betrayal’ at every imperfection and misjudgement, when the people leading us have imperfect information at the time, and have almost no time to form an opinion.

So I was sorry to see the barrage of criticism of Clegg over the David Miranda arrest when all he was guilty of, it seemed to me, was vetoing the idea of prosecuting the Guardian.

Heavens, I’m a Liberal. I believe in independence of mind. The idea of party discipline sticks in the throat. But it isn’t in the spirit of the Sound of Gunfire, the path that Grimond laid down, to constantly question the motives of our colleagues.

The battle is too confused for that. When the gunfire has died away, then we might have a chance to see more clearly. But for now, in the heat of battle, we do have to stick together if we possibly can.  Not uncritically, but remembering that this is a very long march indeed.

It may be portentous to say so, but I think the Grimond legacy is our ability, generally speaking, to do so.  We are able to do so only to the extent that we know what we are as Liberals, and that is thanks to Grimond.

1 comment: said...

At the age of 16, remember declaring my support for the liberal party (1958) It was 1997 before I could vote my mp as a winner. Yes fighting along the way sometimes well, sometimes poorly but never losing my support for the liberal ideals