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Russell Johnston: an appreciation

Soon after I took over as Secretary to the Yorkshire Liberal Federation in 1967, I asked Russell Johnston to come and speak at a Freshers' Day meeting at Leeds University. We agreed the date and time and I expected details of his arrival by train. No such information appeared and, to my amazement, he arrived by car, having driven from Inverness. More astonishing was the fact he regarded this as normal. I suppose that to an MP with a constituency two hundred miles across, a trip down to Leeds was hardly much further. What I did realise was that Russell would travel just about anywhere in order to advance the Liberal cause.

Sometimes we talk about "natural" Liberals, about those whose instinctive response to any political situation can be relied upon implicitly, whose judgement is invariably "sound". Russell was one such Liberal. Perhaps more than anyone of his generation, even perhaps more than Jo Grimond if one takes into account the quality of passion and the attribute of emotion. Whereas Jo inspired by the incisiveness of his analysis and the power of his peroration, Russell wooed with his warmth and by his blatant humanity. Also he had the ability to transform phrases that might otherwise be thought trite into vivid expressions of the liberal spirit. Who else would have dared to utter the following phrases, knowing that he could make them appeal directly to his audience:

"Liberalism can never be a spent force. Tomorrow or ever. As long as human kind retain their civilisation; as long as birds sing in unclouded skies, so long will endure the power of the compassionate spirit. But a Liberal society will be built only with the bricks of effort and the mortar of persistence. And it is to you that the challenge is made. It is upon you that responsibility rests. It is with you that hope resides."

Vibrant and inspiring
On the cold paper the words seem hackneyed, but in the hall Russell made them vibrant and inspiring. Similarly he often ended his set Scottish conference speech with a verse from a poem which, almost mystically, he applied to the Liberal challenge. Reading the speech afterwards there might seem to be only a tenuous connection, but it hardly mattered to those who ushered it into their consciousness in the hall. To them it was entirely apposite. No-one could make you feel quite like Russell could that it was necessary to continue the Liberal struggle, however lonely the climb and however rough and stony the path. Who could resist the peroration to his speech to the SLP Conference in 1971, just after the disastrous general election of 1970:

"We can shape the future of mankind, not just in Scotland, but on this planet. It is a future which could be bleak and Orwellian, but if opportunities are taken and people made aware, there is a future which glitters like rivers of molten gold. And it is your place to work towards this. It is your place if you believe in it, to give to it. And even if you and I never live to see its achievement, it is still worth working for. To be a Liberal and to know it is enough."

Russell Johnston's initial inspiration, he often said, came from the writings of Elliot Dodds, the Yorkshire Liberal who, with Ramsay Muir, was the author of the enduring prose of the 1936 preamble to the Liberal Party constitution. I never asked Russell how it was that he came across Dodds' writings at Edinburgh University in the early 1950s. I wish I had. He was also much influenced by John Stuart Mill and, perhaps above all, by John Bannerman, whom he described as "a man of irrepressible, untidy kindness." Time after time in Russell Johnston's speeches there are references and acknowledgements to John Bannerman.

John Bannerman was an iconic Scottish Liberal figure. His by-election contests in 1954 and 1961 in Inverness and Paisley respectively, in both of which he came tantalisingly close to victory, gave the party a great boost and in the 1960s he was often paired with Mark Bonham Carter at Liberal rallies. It was a clever juxtaposition: Mark was the cool, thoughtful policy creator whereas John was the craggy, warm inspirer. I often puzzled why Bannerman was such an inspiration to Russell until I realised that, in fact, neither of them was too concerned about detailed policy exposition over a range of topics, but both of them were able to draw from a deep well of Liberal intuition which could confidently be attached to the issues of the day. To both of them Liberalism was an integral part of their personality and both of them returned time and again to the same few themes - electoral justice, the need to express the integrity of the Scottish identity, the linkage of personal responsibility with state guarantees and the internationalism of the Liberal cause.

Russell joined the Liberal party in 1954 - not an auspicious year - and, when he finally returned from National Service in Berlin and completed his teaching degree at Moray House, Edinburgh, he became the parliamentary candidate for Inverness. At that time the Scottish Liberal Party was run in a highly centralised, and, as it turned out, successful manner by George Mackie and Arthur Purdom. I recollect them making occasional forays to Liberal headquarters in Victoria Street with the huge chairman Mackie dwarfing the organisational secretary Purdom. They appointed key candidates to the Edinburgh staff with the title "Research Officer" or some such designation in order to enable them to devote time to a potentially winnable constituency. Russell and David Steel were two such and they arrived in the House of Commons with less than a year between them - in 1964 and 1965 respectively.

Russell held Inverness, in its various incarnations, for thirty-three years until he retired in 1997, whereupon he was elevated to the House of Lords. Along the way he achieved the unusual record of being elected with the lowest percentage vote ever: a mere 26% in 1992! Somewhat ironic for a lifelong advocate of electoral reform! Despite all his travels and the huge size of his constituency he maintained a high reputation as an assiduous local MP and a powerful voice for the Highlands. In 1973 he was the first Liberal to be appointed to the European Parliament and, with the advent of direct elections, was expected to win the Highlands and Islands seat in 1979 but failed narrowly, and then less narrowly in 1984. The perhaps over-sophisticated reasons advanced for his defeats were, in 1979, that Russell refused to undertake to resign his Westminster seat, and then, perversely, in 1984, having given the undertaking, that the voters were determined to keep him at Westminster. Suffice to say that his passionate Europeanism was exercised thereafter through the Western Europe Union and the Council of Europe.

Whenever the Liberal party arrived at the task of reorienting its philosophy in the light of new political circumstances it turned to Russell. He was a member of the "Liberals Look Ahead" Commission (chaired by Donald Wade) in 1968/9 and a number of its phrases sound as if couched in his soft brogue:

Democracy cannot flourish on a diet of triviality,
Implicit in the report is a recognition of the human capacity for evil. History teaches .... the futility of facile optimism.

However, the report's insistence that "Experience has shown that a Liberal Party is essential if Liberalism is to be effectively promoted and the Liberal influence in British politics maintained and strengthened ..." sits uncomfortably with his later enthusiasm for the Alliance and particularly for the merger with the SDP, as does his waspish comment on Roy Jenkins' Dimbleby lecture on 1980:

Of course, I was pleased when [Roy Jenkins] made his Dimbleby Lecture a Liberal address. Of course, I'm in favour of co-operation, but I'm not selling the great Liberal tradition or betraying the years of toil of the faithful for a mish-mash of unsalted social democratic porridge. Liberals did not discard their beliefs for office.

Or his comment the following year:

It is of the quintessence of Liberalism that we seek co-operation throughout society and want to work with others of like mind. But we are strangers to expediency. And we have our pride. We have not endured our long struggle in the hills to be patronised by the fat dwellers of the plains.

The clue to his later advocacy of merger might lie in his contribution to the 1996 book Why I am a Liberal Democrat, in which he comments that:

Because of PR, most continental liberal parties were at some time or other in coalition government. The great, warm, patient Giovanni Malagodi [President of the Italian Liberal Party] taught me that compromise was no betrayal of principle .... but a step or two on the march towards one's goals.

Russell's end of conference speeches to the Scottish Liberal Party conference were legendary, so much so that they were collected and published in two volumes: 1971-78 and 1979-86. There is a splendidly cryptic note at the end of one speech to the effect that the peroration was only prepared at the last minute and that no notes survive! His other key publication for the SLP was his 1972 booklet, To be a Liberal, which is said to have been the means of recruiting a number of leading Scottish Liberals, including Jim Wallace. On re-reading this work, I confess to finding it uninspiring. It is, certainly, a well argued tract on the importance of politics, of representative democracy and of the essential reasonable nature of Liberalism but it is not a ringing appeal to the reader to join us on the barricades.

Perhaps Russell's forte was the speech rather than the article. Certainly he had a particularly niche at the annual Liberal Assembly where he was regularly called upon to get the "establishment" out of a difficult corner. Thus, in 1970, it was Russell who - unsuccessfully for once - put the case for the primacy of parliament against the advocates of the "dual approach" of community politics, who in 1979 made the keynote speech in the philosophy debate, who in 1987 made the most powerful appeal for merger with the SDP, and who, at the 1988 special assembly, wound up the debate in favour of that merger with great effect.

Russell did not lack political courage. Unlike Jo Grimond, he had a much more robust view of the Scottish National Party and its latent illiberalism, and when Jo went off on one of his intellectual forays, hinting at the benefits of an electoral pact with the SNP, Russell, at the 1968 Liberal Assembly, criticised Jo, calling him an "intellectual dilettante," which was tantamount to asserting that the Pope wasn't infallible. Similarly, after the 1970 election, Russell rejected David Steel's vapid cross-party "radical action" initiative, calling it "nonsense."

Tantalising question
The tantalising question in the light of his innate and passionate Liberalism, his oratorical skills, his breadth of experience and his popularity with party members, is why Russell never got even within reach of leading the Liberal Party. The closest he came was in 1976 after Jeremy Thorpe's resignation, when he threw his hat in the ring but could not find any Liberal MP prepared to nominate him - apart from the quixotic suggestion of John Pardoe that he and David Steel should both nominate Russell despite being themselves candidates, a gesture rejected by Steel as a tactical ploy on Pardoe's behalf.

Russell "thought that he might have won if he could have persuaded enough MPs to nominate him." Maybe, or maybe not, but his view was never tested. Why not? The difficult answer lies in the uncomfortable realm of personal traits that those charged with the responsibility of recommending an individual for high office have to consider. The question as to whether such concerns should influence one's judgement is not capable of objective resolution and the debate will continue indefinitely. In Russell's case some of the facts are in the public domain. He was named, along with Gwyneth Dunwoody, as having the highest level of unpaid bills at the House of Commons dining room, and two obituarists referred delicately to his "separated" and "estranged" status in relation to his wife, Joan. Another Liberal colleague was appalled when a trustee of a renowned and sympathetic fund suggested to him, in response to the direct question as to why Russell had not been nominated in 1976, that the fund in question had sustained Russell financially for some time for the sake of the party.

I know very little more than this, but my personal experience of this warm and generous man makes me think that he was not harsh or callous but rather uncomprehending of some of the constraints that life places on us. He took pleasure in discussion and debate and his enjoyment of conviviality caused him to be unaware of domestic and practical responsibilities to which he should have given attention. Alas, it was his undoing and the Liberal Party and politics generally are the worse for it.