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Peter Hellyer

Peter Hellyer was one of that remarkable vintage of radical Young Liberals which flourished in the late 1960s and early 1970s. During little more than a five year period this group played a key role in the formulation of a distinctive “Libertarian Left” ideology which they applied to the highly charged issues of the day, including the Vietnam war, apartheid in South Africa, CND and the peace movement and the plight of the Palestinians. Because when faced with establishment intransigence they took to direct action, not least in successfully stopping the 1970 South Africa Rugby tour, they provoked considerable opposition within the Liberal Party hierarchy who felt, probably correctly, that the Young Liberals’ highly publicised actions were losing the party votes and simply did not know how to cope with a youth movement that had considerable momentum, many thousands of members and constantly showed up the rigidity of Labour’s Young Socialists. Also the Young Liberals’ willingness to campaign alongside others who were sometimes in far more extreme and illiberal organisations who agreed with their stance on a specific issue was often much too pluralistic for the party leaders.

I missed out on involvement in the contemporary Young Liberal Movement being on the party’s staff from 1962 and during the whole period. However, I was often called on to attempt to mediate but given the way that Jeremy Thorpe, the then leader, mishandled the situation and even publicly attacked his own youth movement, all efforts were futile. The rift between the Liberal establishment and the Young Liberal Movement led to the appointment of a three-person Commission of Enquiry being set up in December 1970, chaired by Stephen Terrell, a leading QC and Liberal candidate.1 Possibly because there was no simple formula available to combine discipline with passion its few conclusions came to nothing.

Peter Hellyer was a key participant throughout this period not least as its International Vice-Chairman from 1967 to 1969. Surprisingly, given his capacity for producing beautifully written English in later publications, he did not contribute to the two books of essays published by the Young Liberal movement in 1967 and 1971.2 As a key officer, together with Louis Eaks, another officer of the movement, he visited the Soviet Union at the invitation of the Komsomol - the youth section of the Communist party. They insisted on varying their allotted programme to visit the tomb of Peter Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist, and, in Kiev, they asked party officials to explain the nature of Ukraine’s separate national identity.

Later, key officers of the Young Liberal Movement abandoned it and, somewhat perversely given their trenchant criticisms of the 1966 Labour government, Peter Hain, George Kiloh and, temporarily, Simon Hebditch joined the Labour party, or, as in Hilary Wainwright’s case, left mainstream party politics altogether, or as with Lawrie Freedman, became a knight of the realm and one of the country’s top defence experts and had to steer clear of active politics. Peter Hellyer, however, remained involved with the Liberal Party and, later, the Liberal Democrats. He was as radical as the others on key issues but while they were often more impetuous he was more thoughtful, particularly on the ways and means of achieving change. His approach to politics was in fact similar to that of his Young Liberal colleague, Tony Greaves, but without the occasional irascibility of the latter.

Peter’s connection with the Palestinian cause following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war led him to a deeper involvement with the Arab world and this became his abiding interest. In Sudan met his late wife, an Egyptian of Sudanese-Moroccan heritage, and converted to Islam. In 1975 he was part of a Liberal Party delegation to the recently independent United Arab Emirates (UAE). This visit developed into a deep relationship with the country and he wrote a considerable number of books on the archaeology, natural history and cultural history of the region, living there from 1978, apart from a three year sojourn in London in the 1980s. For some time he also ran the first English language radio station in the UAE and was the editor of its main English language newspaper for more than a decade. He was highly respected in the country and In 2010 he was granted Emirati citizenship. All in all he spent nearly five decades chronicling the history, natural beauty and modern transformation of the UAE.

Peter Hellyer had a remarkable memory and, in the midst of his many commitments in the UAE, he wrote largely from memory what is as yet the more thoughtful and best analytical article on the Young Liberal Movement and that period of some five years, 1966-1971, of radical action and youth involvement in active politics.3

Peter never abandoned his connections with British Liberalism and he would return to the UK for every general election, always to be involved with the campaign in the Scottish Borders alongside David Steel his long term colleague from their Anti-Apartheid days in the 1960s.

Peter Hellyer, born 7 November 1947, died 2 July 2023

[1] Report of the Liberal Commission to the Right Honourable Jeremy Thorpe MP, (Stephen Terrell, John Foot, Gruffydd Evans), 1 July 1971.

[2] Blackpool Essays – towards a radical view of society, ed. Tony Greaves, Gunfire Publications, September 1967; Scarborough Perspectives, ed Bernard Greaves, Young Liberal Movement, September 1971.

[3] The Young Liberals, Peter Hellyer reviews the relationship between the Young Liberal and the left in the 1960s, Peter Hellyer, Journal of Liberal History 67, Summer 2010.