By IAN WALLER
THE trains and planes from Edinburgh last week-end were carrying a lot of sad, baffled and disillusioned people —the delegates to this year's Liberal Party Assembly. a gathering which will surely be remembered as one of the most catastrophic in their history.
Two years ago at Brighton we had the Red Guards—the militant and angry young men, some nearer to Trotskyism than Liberalism, trying to take over the party; last year there was the Establishment counter attack. But this year there was nothing; no controversy or vitality; just a group of respectable middle-aged people clapping all the routine Liberal cliches about co-partnership and regional devolution.
There were, it is true, still some of the angry young men around carrying "workers control" or "direct action" badges,
and they had tried to hold what they called "a Free Assembly" —it was supposed to he a 48hour talk-in untrammelled by the restraints of formal rules and bourgeois conventions. But it proved a sad and sorry farce; no sadder. however, than the Assembly itself.
Dominating the Assembly was one man—not, however, the leader Jeremy Thorpe, but his predecessor, Jo Grimond, who, throughout the week, was the subject of endless interest and speculation and who, 1 suspect, revelled in it all.
For some Mr. Grimond's behaviour was baffling, for others it was disgraceful (significantly, some of the loudest applause of the week came when Russell Johnston, the Liberal M.P. for Inverness. attacked Mr. Grimond, linking his name
with others in the party who were being disloyal to it). But for me, Mr. Grimond personified the Liberal predicament.
There he was wandering around, a lost soul in search of a cause, deeQly unhappy about the plight the Liberal party finds itself in and distressed by the lack of leadership shown by Mr. Jeremy Thorpe. And it is this after point which must be particularly galling for Mr. Grimond, the man who built the party up to its post-war peak and who also Chose Mr. Thorpe as his successor and threw all his weight behind him in the election for the leadership.
This confusion precisely reflected the state of the party— lost, unhappy and without leadership. Nor did Mr. Thorpe fill the vacuum in his winding up speech to the Assembly.
The fault, it must be said, is not entirely Mr. Thorpe's. Indeed, Mr. Grimond is lucky to have got out in time before the inevitable reaction and, in part, at least, the consequences of his own failure caught up on him.
For, although Mr. Grimond achieved remarkable results in his ten years of leadership and established a unique role for himself in British politics, he also failed to create firm and lasting foundations for his party. And it is the foundations that are crumbling now.
Today the party is paying the price for their failure—and it has this added problem; while the suburbanite is going back to the Tory party, the disillusioned Labour voter finds no comfort in the Liberal party. Instead he either abstains or votes Conservative (and there is far more affinity between the working classes and the Tory party than with the Liberals— there was scarcely a trade unionist to be seen at Edinburgh) or, and the most disturbing of all for the Liberals, he votes Nationalist in Scotland and Wales.
Mr. Grimond is now obsessed with Scottish Nationalism—a free and independent Scotland talking on equal terms with England is how he puts it —and this is at the roots of his dissatisfaction with the Liberal party. He wants them to get on the nationalist bandwagon. He sees it as a new and potent political force cutting across all the usual party and class boundaries.
But the party refused to follow his lead and Mr. Grimond left no doubt in everyone's mind that his first loyalty now is to Scotland and no longer to the Liberal party. "He wants to be Scotland's first Prime Minister" was the popular joke at Edinburgh. Most of the Scottish Liberal M.P.s are strongly against any compromise with the Nationalists (one of Mr. Thorpe's most humiliating moments at Edinburgh was when president of the Scots Liberals, Mr. George Mackie, forced him to recant on what looked like a Grimond inspired move to: wards them) and they will go no further than the idea of a Scottish parliament subordinate to the UK parliament.
Ian Weller is Political
Correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph