Britain’s ‘Red Guards’
It is not a miracle but it is a transformation. Not so long ago they were a rather dreary collection of youngsters with not much hope in the age of swinging Britain. Now their numbers are growing, they have a reputation for fiery iconoclasm, they dress their girls in orange mini skirts and their leaders have a national standing which rivals may envy.
One up, in other words to the Young Liberals—one up in the cynical, vote-grubbing game of capitalist politics.
There are now 533 Young Liberal branches; their headquarters admit to having only a vague idea of total membership but claim about twenty thousand now, compared with about fourteen thousand at the beginning of 1966. Their publicity has been remarkably successful; they are famous as the so-called Red Guards of English politics and, although very few people could name the chairman of the Labour Party Young Socialists or of the Young Conservatives, George Kiloh, chairman of the National League of Young Liberals, is something of a national youth figure as are Terry Lacey and Jon Steel.
The Liberals have achieved this by a skilful propaganda mixture. Although they avoid the tag of extremism, they claim to be “radical”, which means that they can take almost any problem and loudly demand that it be solved immediately, crash bang. They can oppose the Incomes Policy, American action in Vietnam, they can stand for votes at eighteen—yet nobody calls them fellow-travelling Communists. They can scream for pop radio and for the abandonment of Britain’s bomb, without being dubbed beatniks.
They say they want a revolution but this does not cause anyone to look under the bed for the lurking anarchist.
It is not difficult to imagine the attraction which this policy could have for the youngster who, while he accepts the existence of capitalism, wants to do something about its problems. He might look at the Young Socialists, but the Labour Party’s connection with the badly mauled policies of nationalisation, wage freeze, racialist immigration control, would be enough to put him off. Then there are the Young Tories but they seem to be divided between boys and girls looking for someone to marry and young men in the obligatory dress of coloured shirt and stiff white collar, bearing a sickening resemblance to the young Quintin Hogg. Besides, the Tories are also connected with spectacular failure.
Apart from these there are the Liberals, whose failures as a government have been forgotten. The Young Liberals have a smart new symbol, jazzed up policies and a freedom for their members which is found in none of the other parties. Yes, a youngster looking for a political party might well choose the Liberals.
George Kiloh agrees that the freedom enjoyed by the Young Liberals may have contributed to their recent success; the senior party obviously does well not to try to clamp down on its youngsters. When the Red Guards came roaring into the last party conference at Brighton with their swearing and demands for workers’ control, Jo Grimond — who was then Liberal leader — merely made sure that he was photographed having an amiable drink with them. It is perhaps a measure of the Young Liberals’ mood that they were not overwhelmed by this; a few months later Jon Steel said at Notting Hill:
“Jo has had his day. he is finished. he must change his ways or get out. After 13 years leader of the Party he is tired and worn out.”
George Kiloh was reported as asking, at the same meeting, whether the Liberal Party should keep Grimond as leader and risk “stagnation”; he also attacked Eric Lubbock for “keeping M.P.s in the House debating futile motions when they should be out keeping in touch with their constituents.”
When we asked Kiloh about this report. he denied that he demanded Grimond’s resignation. But the important point is that, even after they had expressed strong criticism of their party leaders, the Young Liberals were neither rebuked nor restrained. It is impossible to imagine the same tolerance in the Labour Party of a Young Socialist who said that Wilson must go.
Kiloh claims that during the past year the Young Liberals have attracted many young people who would otherwise have joined the Labour Party. They are, he said, taking advantage of the fact that Labour is “stranded” — the Young Liberals are “mopping up the Left.”
So it’s a success story — but there have been many others before. Is there anything new about policies which insist on five million new homes within ten years, a stronger United Nations, the end of slum schools, a cut in “defence” expenditure? This is typical of the countless reformist programmes which have been used to deceive the working class into the belief that the ailments of capitalism can be cured without getting rid of the system itself.
Let us be clear on one point. The Young Liberals proclaim: “We Want a Revolution.” But they accept capitalism; they want “Cheap group travel for young people . . . ” . . . thorough training for all employees.” In other words they want a social system where the necessities of life have to be bought, whether cheaply or not, and where there are employers and employees. Their demand for a revolution is empty; it is safe to say that they do not even understand the meaning of the word.
No political party has yet solved the problem of transforming its promises, which are often so alluring to workers, into reality. Inevitably, there comes a time of reckoning — and this is something the Young Liberals may have to face. Many of their members (Kiloh claimed they would be “a minority”) must have political ambitions. What will they do, if they see no prospect of realising their hopes in the Liberal Party?
Let us take a recent example. The Young Liberals, in true Red Guard style, insisted that the party contest the Brierley Hill by-election last April. This was all very exciting for them and proved what dare-devils they are. But when the votes were counted the Liberal candidate had lost his deposit. How much more of this can the Young Liberals take, before their ambitions persuade them to go seeking after safe seats and political plums with Labour or the Tories?
To the parties of capitalism, political principles are notoriously flexible. The Young Liberals are no exception to this. We are so accustomed to it, that it would not even be ironical if the Red Guards were beaten by the realities of the political struggle of which they are a part. They are full of fire, now. But perhaps one day they will be in the bigger battalions — Labour and Tory M.P.s who blushingly recall the days when they did their bit to make the mini skirt a political symbol.