Ros and I attended the launch of "Liberal Youth", the rebranded Liberal Democrat Youth and Students (LDYS). There were lots of young people around, and very few older people. Spirits were high, and there was plenty of optimism and confidence in the air. How different from the first launch of the youth wing of the Liberal Democrats post-merger...
I first got involved with the Young Liberals in 1986, having been encouraged to get involved on leaving my university's Liberal Society. I joined my local branch in Brent and Harrow, made friends who have lasted through the years... but I digress. The next year, following the disappointment of the General Election, talk of merger between the Liberals and the Social Democrats was in the air, and negotiations were soon under way.
The Young Liberals, who had always been suspicious of our Alliance partners, boldly (and some might say, suicidally) announced their terms for merger, most of which were, quite frankly, never going to be obtained. There were a few who were passionately in favour of merger, the 'realos' to steal a term from the emerging green movement of the time, but most were 'fundis', loyal to the concept of radical, community-based activism. There were a few of us stuck in the middle, longing to uphold the fine traditions of the Young Liberals yet fully aware that merger would happen with, or without, the youth wing. Someone had to man the ship until it could be handed over to a new crew.
Once it became clear that merger was truly inevitable, what was intended to become a merger of two youth wings into one rapidly became the fragmentation of two groups into four, maybe five. The radicals, concluding that their terms wouldn't be considered, let alone met, resigned en masse, leaving those in the room to carry on. Some formed the Young Liberal Movement, a ginger group for real liberalism both inside and outside of the Liberal Democrats, a few transferred their allegiance to the continuing Liberal Party, others chose the Greens. The Young Social Democrats sustained losses too, some to the continuing SDP, others, such as Danny Finkelstein, to the Conservatives.
In the midst of the chaos, I became Secretary General in the absence of any meaningful alternative. My task was a sad one, to deliver the Young Liberals to the grave, in the hope that something new and exciting could be created from the wreckage. It was a grim time, being able merely to stand by as an organisation revered by many former activists limped to an ignominious burial.
Merger brought crisis. There was no money to run the central Party, let alone a youth wing of whom the leadership were deeply suspicious. Former SDP members had always disliked the Young Liberals, based predominantly on a knowledge of its past glories rather than its current dereliction, and were not keen to encourage potential troublemakers. And yet there was no desire to cause trouble. The radicals had left, pragmatism was the order of the day but, without money, little could be done, leaving gesture politics as a tempting option.
And so the Young Social and Liberal Democrats (soon to become the Young Liberal Democrats) were born without fanfare, without resources and without much direction. Involvement was weak, activity weaker (except the international activity, for some reason very successful) and influence virtually non-existent. I served from 1988 to 1992 as Secretary, International Officer, President and Treasurer, hoping against hope that we could build something and always running into the sands of lack of resource and credibility.
Over time, and via a merger with the Students, LDYS built up its credibility, its funding and its activity. I have occasionally bemoaned a lack of consistency and follow-through, but it has become a more viable, more respected organisation in the intervening period. Now, it looks like a pretty vibrant group, and I am optimistic for its future.
A word to the wise though. Whilst one should never be radical simply for the sake of it, if you can't be radical when you're young, you're unlikely to discover the notion as you get older. So don't pander to the leadership in search of credibility, be it personal or organisational. Remember that the radicals of the present tend to become the ancien regime of the future and keep making us older people think a bit...