Oxford University Liberal Democrats:
OU Lib Dems frontpage
Vote, Vote, Vote for Brian Law!
In the storerooms at my former workplace, Wycombe Museum, were the massive bound archive volumes of the local newspaper, the Bucks Free Press, going back to the 1920s. These were, of course, packed with all sorts of fascinating local historical detail, and once, while searching for the answer to an enquiry, I discovered that the Wycombe Liberals had selected the upcoming President of the OU Liberal Club, Brian Law, as their candidate for the 1950 General Election. Here, mainly drawn from the pages of the Free Press, is the story of that campaign.

Brian Law and Wycombe Liberal officials

From The Bucks Free Press , 6.1948.
'A 22 years-old Oxford University law student, Mr Brian Law, was enthusiastically adopted as prospective Liberal candidate for Wycombe constituency at a meeting at High Wycombe Liberal Club on Monday. He received a unanimous vote from his audience after a speech in which he warned them that they would have to work heart and soul for the next General Election 'because 1950 is a time at which Liberalism will sink or swim as a political force. 'It is because I believe we can make Liberalism swim here in High Wycombe that I come before you this evening', he added. ... Mr Law, the son of a bank manager, was educated at Sunbury House School, Willesden Green, and at Merchant Taylors School before going to St John's College, Oxford, in 1944. Prior to going to the University he had volunteered for the Army and was sworn in and placed on the reserve. In March, 1945, he was recalled to the Colours and was commissioned from the Royal Armoured Corps O.C.T.U. to the l0th Royal Hussars. On commissioning, he was presented with the Sam Browne belt of honour, awarded to the best cadet of the entry. He served with his regiment in the Rhine Army until January this year. He then returned to Oxford where he is reading philosophy, politics and economics in his studies for the Bar. He will take his finals in June, 1949. Mr Law's keenness in the Liberal cause has been recognised at the University, where he is president-elect of the Oxford University Liberal Club. He has seized every opportunity to carry on political work and during the long vacations has spent time as a Liberal Crusader in the Finchley Division and has led the Crusaders in Westmorland.
Mr Law was introduced on Monday by Mr John Taylor, the chairman. He was convinced, Mr Taylor said, that they needed a candidate who had something that the others had not. In Mr Law they had a young man who had a great advantage in the knowledge he would obtain at Oxford and who was fresh from the Army, so that he was still familiar with all the grouses and grumbles most of them had two years ago. He was young and could appeal to the electors and show them that the Liberal Party was not as old as people had been led to believe.

Mr Law, in his speech, mentioned that he was at Oxford under a government grant. When he first went there in 1944 he looked back on what he considered was a period of masterly inactivity on the part of Tory administration and felt the one crying need for the country was a reactionary government
[sic - surely some mistake!]. In 1946, as a radical, he and many like him had thought that a progressive government had been returned to power and that they had high hopes for the future. Now, three years later, they were thoroughly disillusioned with this so-called progressive, radical government.

They had seen first of all what to his mind was an indiscriminate policy of nationalisation. They had seen the Government, with an overwhelming majority in the House, bring forward measure after measure without any real argument at all: measure after measure that sheer weight of numbers had carried through. That was never more true than in the present Bill for the nationalisation of iron and steel.

During the past 30 years there had been a decline in Liberalism and a decline in Liberal principles. At the same time there had been a decline in the moral outlook and a falling away from the fundamental Christian principles. He could hardly believe that these two things were coincidence. 'I believe as a young man', Mr Law added, 'that the only way we can stem that decline is by returning to really genuine Liberal principles throughout the country and I believe that the Liberal Party is the only party that can bring about that return'.

Turning to the future of the Liberal Party, Mr Law said that to his mind 1950 would be a vital time. Two things could happen: they could see
a virtual eclipse of the Liberal Party as a political force if they let things run, but if they all did their best to see that Liberalism lived as a Party they would see a turn in the scale. This would have a snowball effect and once more the Liberal Party would become a political force in the country. It would mean a great deal of hard work. he said, but they must prepare to fight an election at any time after the turn of the year despite the fact that there were adequate reasons to suppose that it would not come before 1950.

'However good our policy and our principles may be, unless we get down to the basic facts of political organisation we are not going to make much headway' , added Mr Law.

Mr John Taylor formally moved the adoption of Mr Law as prospective candidate and Mr C.J.S. Mitchell, chairman of the Young Liberals, seconded. Tributes to the organising ability, keenness and thoroughness of Mr Law were paid by Miss Elizabeth Graham, this term's president, and Mr Bernard Dann, past president of the Oxford University Liberal Club.

'Speaking at his first public meeting since his recent adoption as prospective Liberal candidate for Wycombe Division, Mr Brian Law told an audience at Great Kingshill Village Hall on Wednesday that it was ridiculous to say that Liberalism stood halfway between the paralysis of the Conservatives and the galloping consumption of Socialism. It was a progressive radical party with a third programme in British planning, he said.

Throughout the week, Mr Law, with a party of supporters from Oxford University, has been canvassing and addressing meetings in villages throughout the constituency. The first of the meetings, at Great Kingshill, was presided over by Mr WE Noel, and supporting Mr Law were Mr Keith Kyle, Miss Elizabeth Graham, Mr John Defrates and Mr John Brunner, all of Oxford University. Mr Law, contending that it was futile to listen to the insidious suggestion of opposing parties that Liberalism was the '
half-way-house', said that when the Labour Government was placed in power it has the confidence of the people that, as the first really radical progressive Government in 20 years, it would produce some constructive programme. Now, three years later, there was great  disappointment at the encroachment on individual liberty and the way in which much legislation was passed in its framework, leaving so much for Ministers to decide.

Of the Liberal policy, Mr Law said that with regard to conscription, the present system was wasteful of manpower and money required for our economic recovery. A Liberal Government would do more to encourage a volunteer Regular Army so that the number of conscripts could be
reduced progressively.

It had been said that Liberals stood for free trade, but the emphasis would be on breaking down trade barriers between nations because they believed that no nation could become prosperous unless its neighbours were prosperous. Real prosperity depended on a prosperous world, he said. Mr Keith Kyle said that while the Labour Government had realised the need for a planned economy it has set about its task in the wrong way. The Liberals did not propose to nationalise industry, but to bring about an industrial democracy which would preserve the liberty of the individual and stop the continual fight between employers and employees in industry. The Liberal Party would also have a more radical approach to a Union in Western Europe, said Mr Kyle, and it would endeavour to increase the total amount of world trade.

The meeting concluded with a brains trust in which questions were answered by Mr Brian Law and his colleagues. Prior to the meeting Mr Law had spoken at Frogmoor, High Wycombe, and during the week the campaign extended to Stokenchurch, Princes Risborough, and other villages.'

(It's astonishing how language shifts. Such was the prominence then in people's minds of the 'Brains Trust', that the phrase occurs not just here but on almost every page of the newspaper in 1948. But then, opposite the above report is one declaring 'Police Go Gay' and in turn not far away is an account of a local football team charmingly christened the 'Marlow Wogs'. Actually, given the use of the phrase 'Brains Trust', I would have thought describing Liberal policy as the 'Third Programme' was dangerous business, rather. Keith Kyle was Brian Law's successor as OULC President in Trinity 1949, while Elizabeth Graham was President when this article appeared. Her contemporaries were convinced she was destined to be a Liberal MP; but she surprised everyone by marrying Peter Kirk, ex-President of OUCA and son of the Bishop of Oxford, Dr KE Kirk, and left politics completely.)

At Great Kingshill Brian Law mentioned the somewhat dodgy concept of the Liberals' 'Third Programme', and at a December meeting in High Wycombe's Guildhall elaborated the shady idea. Themes emerged which would loom large in the Liberal programme for the next twenty years and more - an end to 'class warfare', electoral reform, and a 'united Europe'; but there were also elements like Free Trade and the philosophy of property ownership which looked back to an earlier era. 
However, Law had no illusions about what the election meant for the Liberals, as the Bucks Free Press reported:

'He claimed that two things could happen to Liberalism at the next election. On the one hand, because Liberal supporters failed to work for the cause, they could see the virtual collapse of organised Liberalism in the country. If that happened, neither of the other parties would have a restraining influence and they would tend to swing more and more to the left and to the right. The other alternative was that by hard work and effort they would see a revival of Liberalism. If that happened, then all the doubting-Thomases who had left would surge back to the Liberal Party. Many people, Mr Law said, had left the Liberal Party and had set out to liberalise the Labour or the Conservative parties. That idea had proved a dismal failure, and those people who had set out with such high hopes had nothing to show for their work.

His next engagement at the literary Institute in Princes Risborough, a tiny market town in the rural north of the constituency, concentrated on attacking the Conservatives, but back in High Wycornbe's Guildhall in January 1949, Law again turned to whipping up what he hoped was the area's vestigial Liberalism, trying to define and defend the party's position.

'Millions in the country are Liberals, but they are not prepared at the moment to subscribe to the Liberal Party as an organisation; it is to them that the Liberal Party must make its play and show what it has to offer', declared Mr Brian Law ... 'We can promise nothing but hard work, but because I am so certain there are millions like us I say, Have the courage of your convictions; be a Liberal, vote Liberal and do everything you can for the Liberal cause'. 'Miss Dorothy Thomas, prospective Liberal candidate for Chelmsford, presided, and the other speaker was Mr Sinclair Wood, a member of Wycombe Rural District Council and prospective Liberal candidate for Henley.

'The policies of the other two political parties, said Mr Law, had been to a great degree similar. On the whole their policies were restrictionist. When England was in the depths of a slump, the Conservatives had tried to patch things up by indulging in restrictive policies. Similarly the Socialists sought to cure all ills by a policy of nationalisation.

'Unlike the Conservative Party, he would not say that everything the Socialists had done was wrong; he believed that in many respects they had put up a creditable performance. He laid at the feet of the Socialist Party two main charges. They had ignored substantially the functions of the House of Commons. Its function as a great debating chamber had been put against the wall because the Socialists were secure with a large majority. They knew there was no need to bring forward sound, constructive arguments for the measures they proposed because they had weight of numbers to carry them through. 'Members of Parliament', added Mr Law, 'have been turned by this Government into mere recording machines; they go into one lobby, or another at the command of the Whip they serve.'

'The second charge was that the Government had taken the function of legislation in its essence out of the hands of Parliament and placed it in the hands of ministers and their deputies. 'If you believe in true democratic government, in true democratic working', he added, 'then I suggest you must regard very seriously this filching away from the House of Commons of its true legislative function'

Sinclair Wood then raised another traditional theme: 'The Liberals appealed to no group or section of the population; they promised to look after no particular interest. They believed politics were not a question of material advantage to any particular section, but a question of right and wrong.'

Brian Law was nothing like as 'reticent' as a modem candidate might be a year before a poll. Politics has become a litigious business, and we are warned on the ground never, ever, so much as to imply, let alone state, that our candidate (the 'Focus Editor') is even thinking of seeking election to public office. This is because electoral law does not define the period of an 'election', and consequently any ill-disposed person can call a party which does not exercise great caution to account over its declaration of expenses after the event. So we all play a bizarre game of promoting our candidate without stating she is one. In the 1940s there was no such duplicity. Although Brian Law was always termed the
'prospective candidate', the whole campaign was very clearly promoting him, in contrast to today's subtle subterfuges.

In the Spring, Law was supported by a 'commando raid' team from Oxford:

'The team from Oxford which is to run a series of Liberal meetings all over the Wycombe constituency during the course of next week, is very much an ex-Service one. Mr Brian Law, the prospective Liberal candidate for the division, himself an officer in the l0th Royal Hussars, will be supported by Mr John Defrates, for four years a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm, Captain Michael Turner Bridger from the Coldstream Guards and Mr John Brunner, who was a Gunner officer. The latter is a son of Sir Felix Brunner, Bt., of Rotherfield Greys, himself a distinguished Liberal. The male part of the team is completed by Mr Jeremy Thorpe, son of the late Mr J.H. Thorpe KC, Conservative MP for Rusholme for many years, and grandson of the late Sir John Norton-Griffiths, also for many years a Conservative Member of Parliament. There will also be three lady members. Miss Elizabeth Galbraith, editor of the Oxford Guardian, who is already a hardened campaigner, and two comparative newcomers to active Liberalism, Miss Prudence Watling and Miss Parry Evans. They expect to hold upwards of twenty public meetings during a week's vigorous activity.

In the middle of all this, there was an entirely different, though not unrelated, event. Merril Atkinson Brady of St Hugh's, former Head Girl of Wycombe Abbey School and Secretary of the O.U. Liberal Club in Trinity 1947, married Rodger Sylvester of Chalfont St Giles at Holy Trinity, Cookham, in January 1949. After serving in the War with the RAF, Mr Sylvester went to Balliol and thus the couple met. 'The bride, given away by her father, was attired in a dress of stiff cream taffeta and wore her great-grandmother's veil of embroidered Limerick lace.'
Wycombe Liberal Association entered the Summer of 1949 in good spirits. The annual Garden Party at the High  Wycombe Liberal Club  was held on Saturday  11th June,and, in contrast to the previous year , the weather was 'perfect' and  the event raised 146 for  party funds. Lady MacFadyean, wife of Sir Andrew, President of the Liberal Party Organisation, opened the fete with a speech praising the Association's parliamentary candidate, Brian Law, and oddly criticising the Government for its 'lack of team spirit' which was 'spreading dry rot through the country'!

Only a few hundred yards away, another Oxonian Liberal was also speechifying. Dr Janet Vaughan, Principal of Somerville College, was chief speaker at Wycombe Abbey School's Speech
Day. Her connection with the Party was now tenuous to say the 
least, but in 1921 she had been one of OULC's first female members; and now she could now be heard in High Wycombe urging the girls of the Abbey to 'hold your hands before the fire of life and ...be prepared to poke up those fires'! Wycombe Abbey, founded by Dame Frances Dove, High Wycombe's first female councillor, was a pioneering centre of girls' education in the area.

Campaigning itself did not begin again until the end of the Summer. In his Autumn and Winter meetings, Brian Law concentrated on industrial themes. Back in the liberal Club at High Wycombe at the end of August, he foretold no improvement in the country's position unless the 'everpresent tension between the employer and the employee' was
Liberal Garden Party
reduced. The Liberal policy of Co-ownership would achieve this by creating 'a distribution of the opportunity to own property or to take a share in the operation and profits of an industry without the control of that property or industry being in any way vested in the State, or subject to the disastrous variations inherent in a system operated by a minority
whose actions were governed solely by their own opinions'. A little dry but clear expression of how Mrs Thatcher's 'property-owning democracy' took the libertarian themes of traditional Liberalism and distorted them beyond all recognition.

Co-ownership cropped up again at High Wycombe Guildhall in October, but at Marlow in December, Brian Law raised the curious notion of a community of interest between the Conservatives and the Communists. Wycombe was alone among Buckinghamshire seats in having a Communist candidate, Elizabeth Leigh, so it was not an entirely eccentric concern. Law argued that the Communists wanted to elect a Tory government which would provoke 'the bloodless revolution which was the essence of the Communist doctrine'. Perhaps this was why he felt an anti-Socialist united front of Conservatives and Liberals was 'the last step any thinking Liberal should take'.

These late-1949 meetings were both joint ones. Bruce Belfrage, the candidate for South Bucks, shared the platform with Brian Law on both occasions, and at High Wycombe was also joined by Guthrie Moir of Aylesbury. Saving money by having three candidates speak in one place was fair enough, but what was Bernard Dann, candidate for North Wembley, doing there? The answer lies in the OULC officers' lists: Dann was Organising Secretary of the Club in Trinity 1947 and President in Hilary 1948, and was here to lend support to a friend. He used his platform to refer to the 'considerable number of converts' the Liberal case was winning. One meeting in January, though, was more '
joint' than
the Liberals expected. As the
Bucks Free Press put it:

'At 8 o'clock on Wednesday evening, Downley and Plomer Hill Liberals held a meeting at Downley Village Hall. At 8 o'clock on Wednesday evening, too, Downley Labour Party held a meeting at Downley Village Hall. A large audience assembled. Mr Brian Law, prospective Liberal candidate for the Wycombe division, spoke. So, too, did Mr John Haire, MP for Wycombe division, for Labour. But not together.'

The double-booking of the hall was only solved when Brian Law and John Haire tossed a coin to see who should speak first, and Miss D. Thomas, secretary of the Wycombe Division Liberal Association, was chosen president for the meeting. Law seemed unwilling to question his opponent too hard to his face. 'He would not deny that the Labour Government had pursued a course of social Justice and that the country was happier today than when they took office', and he remarked mildly that 'both the Tories and the Socialists represented a certain class of people only. The Liberal Party aimed to restore personal liberty to everyone'.

This meeting was the last in the 'phoney war' period. Within a week of the embarrassment at Downley, the date of the long-awaited General Election was set for February 23rd. The Wycombe Liberal Association held an excited annual meeting on January 14th, to endorse Brian Law officially as their candidate, and hear him declare 'The uncertainty has gone: the gloves are off.'

The Wycombe District Liberal Association was a picture of absolute confidence as it met on Monday 29th January 1950 to endorse former President of the Oxford University Liberal Club, Brian Armstrong Law, as its candidate in the imminent General Election. 'If everyone of liberal mind in this constituency voted Liberal there is not the least doubt at all that we should have Mr Law returned as our MP', said George Wood, the local Liberal Club President. Sir Archibald Sinclair sent a message of support to the 'brilliant young Liberal candidate', and it may even have been that signs of local enthusiasm, like the constant demands for more public meetings did half-convince the Wycombe Liberals of the truth of their own rhetoric. 'Let's go Liberal - everybody's doing it!' urged the adverts in the paper.

It would not be doing Mr Jeremy Thorpe an injustice to say that nobody defied reality with more glorious panache than he! Appearing at the adoption meeting. He announced that 'You here in High Wycombe are going to win this seat for Liberalism - provided you make up your minds to win. Liberals will troop into the House of Commons in their scores'. The reason why OULC was supporting Law so heavily, said Thorpe, was not just his background but also 'because they were convinced the Liberals were going to win the Wycombe seat'; 'there is nothing to stop you from sending Mr Law to Parliament', he insisted. The Liberal Club was aiming to send four or five canvassers every afternoon and two or three speakers for evening meetings; and help from Oxford was not only in the form of pairs of feet, but also a 150 subvention voted to support Brian Law's campaign. All the signs were that the local Liberals, and the press, were most impressed.

The policy area of most interest during the campaign was the organisation of industry. The Tories wanted to reverse Labour's nationalisations; Labour wanted to continue the programme; so what was the Liberal response? At High Wycombe's Priory Road School on the 16th of February, Mr Law said that one of the first acts of a Liberal government would be to abandon Labour'
s plans to nationalise the iron and steel industries, and not press ahead with the policy of public ownership - except, perhaps, in respect of the provision of water supply. But though de-nationalising was difficult, 'a lot could be done with industries already nationalised. [The Liberals] would decentralise them so that the
employee knew that his boss was there on the spot instead of way back in Whitehall'. At Castlefield School on the 9th Mr Law said that Liberal policies of co-ownership and profit-sharing were the only way to 'encourage production by giving an incentive to all concerned'. In a letter to the
Bucks Free Press he was able to paint both the Tories and Labour Party in the same authoritarian, anti-enterprise colours by calling attention to Conservative legislation which had 'given all the precedents to the Socialists that they needed for the arbitrary control of industry and agriculture' including such tyrannical innovations as the Bacon Development Act of 1935.

'Socialists' was the term universally employed - 'Labour' was never heard in Law's speeches - but he was fairly warm towards his actual Socialist opponent, the mild sitting MP John Haire. 'I believe that Mr Haire has conscientiously and thoroughly well represented the interests of his constituents ...the only trouble is that he belongs to the wrong party.' In general
, however, 'As a practical policy Socialism has failed absolutely.' Mr Law was scrupulously careful to make noises opposing both other parties equally but his statements about the Tories, however angry, were vague compared to his strictures against Labour: 'What the Tory Party says and what it does is a very  different matter.' Instead he raised again at a couple of meetings the intriguing case that a Conservative victory would provoke a revolution. 'The only reason that the Communists had put forward a candidate in Wycombe was because they hoped to get the Labour Party out and the Tories in ... I prophesy that if the Conservatives get in, Communist numbers in this area will double in the next two months.'

During the fourth week of the five-week campaign, Brian Law attended sixteen speaker-meetings, and nineteen in the final week, culminating in a final triumphal gathering in High Wycombe Guildhall. This was all the candidates' basic method of meeting the voters, when they were not touring with canvassing teams, and put a great deal of stress on them as they were driven to and fro across the constituency to face a different set of questions in each venue. At Tylers Green on the 14th, Law, the South Bucks candidate Bruce Belfrage, and the whole platform were stumped by the question 'Would a Liberal Government do anything to the land development provisions of the Town and Country Planning Act?
', obviously having failed to bone up on the last few years' controversial planning applications affecting the village as they should have done. Within minutes of that it was off to Naphill, with its RAF base, for another meeting. Brian Law's most demanding day was the last Saturday of the campaign, when he had an open-air meeting at noon in Great Hampden; another in High Wycombe at 3.30; then addressed a gathering at Longwick at 7; travelled to the other end of the constituency to Bourne End by 7.45; and finished at Marlow at 8.15. In the last week, apart from the weekend, he held four meetings each night. Fingest, Bledlow, Frieth, Turville (the tiny village where The Vicar of Dibley was filmed) - barely a parish hall was left unvisited, barely a narrow Chiltern lane left undriven along.

There is no way of telling whether the Wycombe Liberals really expected all this frenetic activity to result in a victory; if they did, they were disappointed. On Thursday 23rd February, somewhat over 8000 people voted for Brian Law, comprising 16.4% of the poll, and Labour narrowly held the seat, just avoiding the necessity for a Communist revolution.

By March 8th the Liberals had recovered enough to meet together and reconstitute the Association. Brian Law was unanimously re-adopted as candidate and was strikingly upbeat.
'As far as we are concerned', he said, 'There is no reason for despondency ...I have grown to love Wycombe and I believe Liberalism can thrive here. I pledge myself to do everything in my power to achieve that end.'

In fact, Brian Law had good reason to be relatively cheerful. He had actually succeeded in what was a rare achievement indeed in 1950
- raising the Liberal vote, which in Wycombe was up by about 1% on the 1945 figure. There were only 28 seats where the Liberal vote rose, and only a couple in the southeast of England. The OULC could be pleased with what had been achieved in its adopted constituency (it was certainly more successful here than in Oxford!).

It was only a shame that nothing, in fact, resulted. Despite his declarations, Brian Law was not the candidate for Wycombe in 1951; there wasn't one. What became of him is unknown - perhaps his sudden acquisition of a wife and family precluded him from following the rather hopeless career of a 1950s Liberal politician. Without him, and the support he was able to draw from Oxford, the organisation weakened; it was not until 1959 that the constituency found another candidate, and not until 1974 that Brian Law's result was bettered.

OU Lib Dems officers lists
OU Lib Dems history
Buy Things
Go to homepage