'A legend to me and to so many of my friends': Tim Farron pays tribute to Lord Greaves
Although famed for his gruff honesty, Tony Greaves was also kind, principled, thoughtful and funny. The Liberal movement has lost one of its finest.
Tony Greaves saved the Liberal Party. In 1970 he introduced to the party’s assembly the plan that led to the Liberals focusing on community politics, investing our efforts and immersing ourselves in our communities, serving and empowering them. The first motivation behind this was to live out our politics in the real world and to serve, but the secondary motivation was electoral and strategic. Community politics would give the party purpose and incremental electoral success.
Three months before Tony made that historic speech to the assembly, the party had almost been wiped out in the June 1970 general election – reduced to just six MPs, three of whom (including the leader) had majorities of less than 500 votes. At that time we had just 300 councillors in the entire country. It didn’t look good for us.
By 1974 we had more than doubled our numbers in Parliament and trebled our vote share. The number of Liberal councillors grew and grew and soon passed the 1,000 number.
Between 1970 and 1974 the Liberals didn’t change their leader, nor did we really change any major policies. We did, however, change our focus, our mission, and our approach. That is why we survived and that is why we grew. Tony Greaves was utterly instrumental in that happening.
I joined the Liberals as a fresh-faced teenager in 1986. I was lucky that although I joined the Party at sixth form college, I didn’t exclusively give myself over to the high-minded, ideological yet abstract joys of student politics. I also fell in with a dodgy crowd of Methodist little old ladies in the town of Leyland, Lancs, who were the local Liberal councillors and campaigners. Their politics was of course liberal and principled…but it was earthy and practical and real – and I fell in love with it. Soon, I discovered that this band of local Liberals had followed a system and a way of doing politics designed by this bearded chap a few miles east in Colne, east Lancashire.
As I started to go to more party events and got embedded in the Young Liberals and Union of Liberal Students, I began to understand how highly esteemed Tony Greaves was across the party. An election winner and an advocate for Liberalism in action who shaped who we are as a movement.
On my return from university in 1993, I was honoured to follow one of those amazing Leyland Liberal ladies, my mentor Neva Orrell, as Leyland’s county councillor. Just short of my 23rd birthday, I walked into the hallowed chamber of Lancashire County Council and took my seat next to Tony Greaves. I was star struck by a man who was a legend to me and to so many of my friends yet was utterly without front and apparently without ego. His irreverence and radicalism led to him teaching me all sorts of habits, some of which I have since had to unlearn!
But even when he was critical of leaders it was because he loved the movement and could smell pomposity, foolishness and hubris at 50 paces
He was very serious about his politics, but impishly tribal at times – he loved winning elections. Yet he wanted to win elections for a reason. When the Liberal Democrats won control of Pendle council in the 90s, he was delighted to put community politics into practice as he reorganised the council to ensure that decisions were taken by communities in communities. He devolved decision-making down to almost street level. This involved giving opposition councillors power they would never have otherwise had. How Lib Dem is that?
Tony was famously a thorn in the side of every leader; I don’t suppose I was leader long enough for him to become a thorn in mine! But even when he was critical of leaders it was because he loved the movement and could smell pomposity, foolishness and hubris at 50 paces and was too honest to be able to keep his mouth shut.
If the party leadership thought they could tame Tony by sticking him in the Lords, they soon discovered their error!
He was such a lovely and generous man; famed for being grumpy and gruff, he was also incredibly kind and thoughtful and very funny. He was utterly principled and completely devoted to his family, whom he loved so very much.
It is such a weird thing to find yourself side by side with one of your heroes, breath-taking when they become your friend and devastating when you lose them.
The Liberal movement has lost one of its finest; he was a lovely friend and I miss him so very much.
Tim Farron is Lib Dem MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale