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Reminiscences of Honor Balfour, first woman President of OULC in the 1930s

Gilbert Murray, Oxford Liberal luminary

Brian Law, former OULC President, stands in the 1950 General Election

The Hoare Affair - scandal in the Student Union, 1990
Cornmarket OULC offices
The first OULC premises, on the corner of Cornmarket and
George Street
Short History of the OU Liberal Club
For some time it has been felt that a large and representative club is needed for those members of the University who hold Liberal and progressive opinions.

With these words was christened the Oxford University Liberal Club, probably the first specifically political university club in the country. It was not the first Liberal organisation, however. As well as the Russell & Palmerston Club, of course, there was also the Liberal League, which was in existence around 1903-4, founded 'in defence of free trade'. As for the OULC, the upper membership limit was set at 150; the money came from Whig grandees such as Lewis Harcourt. There was a President, Secretary, and a Treasurer, and committee members were responsible for organisation and political work, all commonplace enough. What would be less familiar to its modern counterparts was the social element. The OULC was very much a gentleman's club, modelled on the great London clubs whose members were the fathers, grandfathers and elder brothers of Oxford undergraduates, and, if its roots were in common ideology, its activities centred on providing a pleasant social environment for members.The Club's premises, consisting of a club room, dining room and library, were at the corner of George Street and Cornmarket. The rooms opened in Trinity 1913, were open from 11am to 11.45pm, and played host to the twice-termly speaker-meetings. The fee was 10/- per term. Most astonishingly, the practice of black-balling was used to exclude potential members who might prove undesirable. This was all typical for Oxford clubs of the time.

The Club went into abeyance as Oxford emptied during the First World War and was inaugurated anew in a triumphant meeting at the Town Hall on 15th November 1919, where former Prime Minister Asquith was guest of honour. Again dependent on outside donations, over 1920 the Club was hit by serious defections as half its members left to form the Labour Club and the New Reform Club, a pro-Lloyd George group which reflected the national divisions in Liberalism and which survived until 1925 (the Labour Club, alas, is still with us). However, in 1921 there were still 13 members in Balliol and 12 in LMH. Indeed half the total membership was female, reflecting a perennial truth that the OULC was rather good at attracting female members and rather less good at making use of them, a situation that changed only during the dislocations of World War Two, and in the late 1990s.

In the 1920s the Club matched the decline of the Party nationally. Although two future MPs appear in the lists (RH Bernays and Dingle Foot), we know little of its activities until Honor Balfour became the first woman President in 1931, acceding to the office after finding virtually no Liberal activity on her arrival as an undergraduate. Balfour regretted that she and her colleagues 'could barely keep things ticking over', and contemporaries such as Michael Foot carried on defecting to Labour, but in the circumstances even that was not a negligible achievement.

One of Balfour's college secretaries for Jesus was a certain Harold Wilson, and it was Wilson's generation that really began to make a difference to OULC. In Hilary 1935 Wilson became Treasurer, with future MP Frank Byers as President and Raymond Walton as Secretary. This triumvirate launched the first Club newspaper, the Oxford Guardian, had a Club tie made up (depicting a phoenix rising from its own ashes), and started a Club library. Over 1936-7 membership trebled to 305, and in its writings, statements and causes the OULC showed a sense of intellectual confidence in Liberalism that the Liberal Party itself stood in need of, a confidence reflected in its continued strength during the disruption of World War Two.

The war years altered the relationship between Club and Party, seeming the strengthen the one and weaken the other. As early as 1943 the Club began producing Liberal Review as a newsletter for the Union of University Liberal Societies, and when the name was changed to the University Guardian it showed how much OULC dominated UULS. The General Election of 1945 was bitterly disappointing to Liberal hopes, yet between then and 1949 the great majority of the Club's officers had either returned from war service to finish degrees or had begun truncated courses after their demob. These older members organised the recruitment of younger undergraduates with such efficiency that membership rose to 450 by Trinity 1947, and 644 in Michaelmas. Jeremy Thorpe's term as President in 1950 saw the figure just top 1000, and a year later Philip Watkins raised it to 1175. This was substantially bigger than either OUCA or the Labour Club, but most of the membership joined for the social events (such as the annual Garden Party and the May Morning Liberal Breakfast) and speaker meetings - and, in a segregated university, the chance to meet the opposite sex. Consequently from about 1949 to 1970 there was a second structure, the Liberal Party Group, whose membership was open to confessing Liberals only and which was more seriously political.

At a time when the Party nationally was moribund, this all looked very impressive and won the OULC the ear of the leadership. In 1945 and OULC committee presented a report to the Liberal Party Organisation on election strategy, and in 1947 the Party Assembly voted to replace its own statement on international policy with that drawn up by the OULC. By 1950 Party President, Lady Violet Bonham-Carter, had invited the Club President to sit on Party Council, while in 1951 a message from Philip Watkins was instrumental in convincing Clem Davies not to merge the Party with the Tories. The Club sent canvassing parties out into nearby constituencies, and Brian Law was selected candidate for Wycombe while still President!

This incredibly successful formula was followed for some twenty years, with a temporary crisis of confidence in the early 1960s, illustrating the peculiar pattern of an inverse relationship between the popularity of the Club and the Party. In 1961 Malcolm Brahams gloomily wrote in the Oxford Guardian that 'liberalism lost its appeal in Oxford as soon as it ceased to look like a lost cause', but by 1966, when the Grimond revival was long over, membership again stood at more than a thousand.

The late 1960s brought convulsive change to Oxford generally and to OULC in particular. The old Liberal subculture which had nourished the Club, in the form of old members who became MPs or officials, newspapers and friendly businesses, and inherited family traditions, were all passing away to be replaced by the more haphazard networks of ideological commitment. More widely, the meritocratic society advanced by all those '40s and '50s Liberals who had entered the Law, journalism, academia or industry rather than politics was eroding the very privilege which had helped win the Club its pre-eminent position. Innovations like Freshers Fair broke down the old college-based recruitment system, and the atmosphere of radicalism and protest affected all the orthodox parties adversely. Between 1967 and 1970 OULC membership dropped from 1000 to 177; after a dispute with the Proctors, it was renamed 'the Oxford Union of Liberal Students', and entered a period of great disturbance. The final stages in the transition came in 1973 when the University recognised the embryonic Student Union after a sit-in at the Examination Schools, turning it into OUSU, and in 1974 when local government reorganisation swept away the University's six representatives on the City Council.

For the old OULC the focus of attention, other than its own events, and part of the Club's raison d'etre, was to organise support for elections in the Oxford Union, the University's  mock-parliamentary debating society. Now, OUSU and the City Council became alternative outlets for energy, and in fact caused splits and disagreements over the years between those who felt that true Liberals ought to concentrate on one or the other. A 'Progressive Alliance' between the Liberals and Labour ended Tory dominance of OUSU in 1980 when Lesley Riddoch was elevated to the Presidency, while in 1982 the SDP candidate in Central Ward quadrupled the Liberal share of the vote to win the seat, beginning its very peculiar political history and bringing the intensity of a parliamentary by-election to the poll there. For three years, from 1984 to 1986, SDP and Liberal candidates won all the OUSU sabbatical posts, including a victory in 1985 for Matthew Taylor, later an MP. They were able to enact some useful reforms and initiatives.

Although with 100 to 150 members the Club in its various incarnations (the Liberals and SDP merged in 1987) was not enormous, it was crucially important to the City Party, providing the activist base in the only two wards it regularly won, North and Central; the latter in particular, with its 90% student population, required prodigious levels of organisation. The OUSU elections were (perhaps erroneously) seen as an essential precursor to this contest. So important were student activists that, when OULD virtually collapsed at the end of 1989, the councillors established COLD - the Central Oxford Liberal Democrats - to provide a focus for this ward which had no local party of its own.

However, in the 1990s the City Party's attention moved elsewhere. In 1994 Central Ward fell to the Greens, and no Lib Dem won it again until 2001; as they were winning elsewhere it didn't seem to matter, and indeed the western half of the city elected former Club President Evan Harris as its MP in 1997, while the Party took control of the Council with Green support in 2000. The Club's importance in the life of Oxford Liberal Democracy declined accordingly, and even the catastrophic local election results of 2002 made little difference. The Club's relationship with OUSU also changed, as Oxford students proved increasingly unwilling to elect party representatives as sabbaticals, and only the occasional Lib Dem made it onto the OUSU Executive.

Today, OULD concentrates on its speaker meetings and social events. It acts as a recruiting sergeant and publicist for the Party. Its links into the Party nationally are as strong as they were in the 1950s, though its scale is, understandably, a bit more modest than in those days.

OULC PresidentsOULC President and former presidents photographed
The Tatler on 9th March 1949: Arthur Mildon,
John Frankenberg, Henry Palmer, Honor Balfour,
Anthony Walton, Brian Law
OU Lib Dems officers lists
OU Lib Dems history
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