WITH the 2024 General Election over; it is interesting to look back 50 years to July, 1974 when Jeremy Thorpe, then leader of the Liberal Party drew large crowds when he visited Craven, and successfully predicted the country's second general election in less than a year. Lesley Tate looks back to when the Liberals very nearly ousted the Tories. 

"THE dark days of the Liberal Party have gone. We are now back again in the front line of British politics," said Jeremy Thorpe to a crowded Skipton Town Hall where he had been given a rousing reception.

In July, 1974, Britain was just a few months into a new Government. The General Election of February, 1974 saw Labour, led by leader of the Opposition and former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, gain 14 seats, but 17 short of an overall majority. The Conservatives, led by incumbent Prime Minister Edward Heath, lost 28 seats, resulting in a hung parliament - the first since 1929.

Mr Heath sought a coalition with the Liberals, led by Mr Thorpe, but the two parties failed to come to an agreement, so Mr Wilson became Prime Minister for a second time. Mr Wilson called another early election, which was held in the October and resulted in a Labour majority.

Back in the summer of 1974, the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, MP for North Devon, was very much already on the campaign trail, and busily predicting the inevitability of an autumn general election.

Joining him in a packed Skipton Town Hall was Claire Brooks, prospective Liberal candidate for Skipton; her sister, Beth Graham, president of the Skipton Division Liberal Association, and various other leading local Liberals.

Mr Thorpe said he was delighted to visit Skipton and thanked all those who had waged such a superb campaign at the last general election. He also congratulated them on their good sense for selecting Mrs Brooks as their candidate.

Mrs Brooks, who died in 2008, was a a former pupil of Skipton Girls High School who studied law at University College London and went on to become a lawyer and politician. In the October election she was to come within 590 votes of ousting Conservative, Burnaby Drayson, who held the Skipton seat from 1945 to 1979.

Mr Thorpe told the Skipton audience that the division 'could and must' return a Liberal MP at the next election.

"Your job, your contribution is to see whether this constituency will add to that great Liberal voice in the House of Commons, either as a major opposition party, or better still as the government of the day. If you get them to the House of Commons, I promise I will make good use of them," he said.

"The dark days of the Liberal Party have gone. We are now back in the front line of British politics. You here in Skipton are within an ace of capturing this constituency. I believe you will do it; it is up to you. I leave you today expressing my confidence you are going to do it."

Mr Thorpe said he wanted to tell people what sort of society he wanted to see established in the country; a society which everyone believed was fair. He said the Liberal party was going to support and encourage co-operation in industry and the acceptance of some of the disciplines which they had to accept, if they were going to cure their economic problems.

"We Liberals have a great contribution to make, " he said. The approach of Liberals to private enterprise was very different to the two other parties. "We happen to believe in private enterprise providing there is real power sharing. We believe that people should have a share in the profits and should be involved in the decisions of management and should be part and parcel of management. That is a different concept from the Conservative Party's idea of private enterprise."

And, while there was a role for the State - electricity, gas, and railways - it was not a dogma. The Liberal approach to industry was based on partnership, trust and sharing wealth. That was the one way they were going to achieve industrial peace in the country, he said.

"It we can get people to work together, there is no reason why we should not be the richest nation in Western Europe. Most of our economic wounds are self-inflicted."

Before answering questions from the audience, Mr Thorpe was presented with a copy of Dr Geoffrey Rowley's book Old Skipton.

Later, in Settle, to a packed Victoria Hall, Mr Thorpe said that seeing that the Prime Minister Harold Wilson did not seem prepared to accept the discipline of a minority Government, an autumn election was 'inevitable'.

Among those he spoke to in North Ribblesdale was 92-year old Harry Cox, who claimed to be 'Settle's oldest Liberal'.