The North East will be losing its longest-standing MP this May when Sir Alan Beith retires from office. Political editor Jonathan Walker talks to the veteran Liberal Democrat about scandal, coalitions and convictions.
Sir Alan Beith has been at the front line of British politics for 42 years, a fixture on the North East political scene as its longest-standing MP and - for most of that period - its sole Liberal Democrat in the House of Commons.
He joined Parliament following one political scandal and was close to the action of another as it turned into one of the largest in recent political history. And despite a Parliamentary career spent mostly on the opposition benches, he has also been involved in partnerships with both Labour and the Conservatives that have governered the country at times of crisis.
With just over three months left in office, his time in Parliament will be winding down not quietly, but with his Berwick constituency one of the key marginals in the North East, hotly contested by his Lib Dems and their Conservative coalition partners.
But speaking to me in his House of Commons office, he made it clear that he never expected political life to be easy.
Sir Alan grew up in Cheshire and joined the Liberals as a young man. “I looked up who the Liberal secretary was in the village where I lived, and it was the Sunday School superintendent at the chapel we went to.
“I went to him and said ‘I’d like to join the Liberals’, and he said: “Oh, nobody’s done that for a while, we haven’t got any forms’.”
A grammar school pupil, he won a scholarship to Oxford and stood unsuccessfully for the local council while a student.
But it was a when he moved to the North East, to work as a lecturer at Newcastle University, that his career took off.
In 1970 he stood for Berwick, but came third behind Labour and the successful Conservative candidate, Antony Lambton.
But he had another chance three months later when Lambton resigned after newspapers revealed his affairs with prostitutes.
“The by-election took six months, because the Tories held it off for as long as they possibly could. I remember my agent saying this was going to be a fight to the finish, as indeed it was. We won by 57 votes.”
Sir Alan arrived at Westminster with the nation in crisis.
“The day I took my seat they declared a state of emergency. I stood there waiting while a Government Minister brought a message from the Queen, because they’d declared an emergency because of the miners’ strikes”.
Battles with the unions prompted Ted Heath, the Conservative Prime Minister, to call an election for February 1974. But this produced a hung Parliament, and a second election was held in October that year.
“So within one year I fought three elections. It was constant campaigning from the summer of 1973 right through nearly to the Christmas of 1974, with brief opportunities to show what I would do as a Member of Parliament.
“I was constantly experimenting and developing things like the tour of villages - taking a motor caravan around every single village and hamlet, 120 villages - every summer, which I have done without fail ever since. I’ve no longer got the motor caravan so we use the car but I still do it in pretty much the same way.”
When Sir Alan arrived in the Commons he was one of only 13 Liberal MPs. But the party did have the advantage of a charismatic and popular leader - Jeremy Thorpe.
“Jeremy undoubtedly contributed a great deal to my by-election victory and success in holding the seat.”
Thorpe’s career came to an end after a man named Norman Scott claimed the pair had been in a sexual relationship, at a time when homosexual acts were illegal in the UK and attitudes were very different to today. In a bizarre incident, Scott’s dog Rinka was shot dead by a hired gunman.
Thorpe was later charged with conspiracy to murder, but found not guilty by a jury.
Sir Alan describes Thorpe as ”a brilliant speaker, a man of very genuine liberal convictions,” but says his life became “something of a Greek tragedy”.
“It was a very difficult time for the party. But the values and beliefs of the party were strong enough to sustain it through those difficulties.”
His friend David Steel (now Lord Steel), who represented the constituency neighbouring Berwick in Scotland, became party leader.
By 1977, Sir Alan was party chief whip - and the Liberals entered the Lib-Lab pact, in which they supported the Labour government of the day.
Sir Alan draws parallels between this and the decision to join the Coalition government in 2010. Both were prompted partly by economic chaos.
“It was really hard work but it got inflation down from 21% to 7%. It was a situation, like the beginning of this Parliament, where somebody had to do something and we felt we had to do something.”
He took part in regular meetings with Labour colleagues designed to ensure the partnership ran smoothly.
But he says: “It wasn’t a proper coalition. It had only the barest of majorities. It was a necessary experience for the country to get some stability, but it couldn’t really last.”
In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and remained in office until 1990, changing Britain forever.
Sir Alan believes she was right to argue change was needed, but the way she went about it was disastrous for the North East.
“There was a lack of understanding of what happens if you let the manufacturing industry and the mining industry of the North East of England whither away rapidly and you’re not making the investment to replace it.
“You finish up, as we have done, with a North East that’s much too dependent on public sector jobs. And not enough was done to invest and build in things like communications and skills, to build a new economy for the North East.”
Labour was riven by internal fighting and four leading members of the party broke away in 1981 to form a new centre-left party, the SDP, which soon formed an alliance with the Liberals.
“Quite clearly it unleashed a lot of potential support for ideas we believed in and allowed lots of people to break away from old party allegiances.
“From the beginning I was convinced the two paries could not compete with each other. With the British election system we would do nothing but harm by fighting against each other, and we had a painstaking process of deciding who was going to fight which seats.”
The SDP/Liberal alliance was so popular for a time that David Steel told Liberal members in 1981 to “go back to your constituencies and prepare for Government.”
More realistically, perhaps, some supporters hoped the alliance would displace Labour as the official opposition to the Conservative Government.
But in the 1983 election the alliance came a close third, with 25.4% of the vote compared to Labour’s 27.6%, and its share went down in the next election, in 1987.
The decision was made to merge the parties - but while this was backed by SDP members it was bitterly opposed by David Owen, the SDP’s leader.
“The merger was absolutely essential and has been extremely successful but was very painful at the time, and quite damaging,” says Sir Alan.
With David Steel standing down, Sir Alan stood for the party leadership but was defeated by Paddy Ashdown (now Lord Ashdown).
Despite never holding the top job in the party, Sir Alan has been deputy leader twice - from 1985 to 1988, and from 1992 to 2003.
It meant that on occasion he had the task of officially representing the party during Prime Minister’s Questions, the regular jousting match between the party leaders when MPs are at their most unruly.
“The public tell me constantly that what happens at Prime Minister’s questions is appalling, and I agree,” he says. “I sit there thinking: ‘What am I doing in this ridiculous performance?’.
“It’s only a very small part of the Parliamentary week, and quite unlike a lot else that happens here. But it’s the main thing that the public sees and the news media show.
“And it gets more and more ridiculous as we get nearer to the election.”
In more recent years, Sir Alan has re-invented himself as a senior backbench MP. He chairs the Commons Justice Committee and the Commons liaison committee - arguably the most senior Commons committee - which regularly questions the Prime Minister.
Sir Alan was a firm supporter of the party’s decision to join a Coalition with the Conservatives in 2010.
“We absolutely had to do it. It was the right thing to do, and it has achieved more than I would have thought possible.”
He reels off a list of Liberal Democrat achievements in Government, including increasing the starting point for income tax, increasing funding for schools with pupils from low-income families, providing free school meals for every primary pupil and ensuring Labour’s plans for identity cards were axed.
But he admits: “My only disappointment is that as we feared - as we almost knew from the beginning - we’d never get as much credit as we think we deserve. The things we have worked hard to achieve don’t necessarily push up our national poll ratings.”
In some ways, Sir Alan has had a difficult life. He lost his wife Barbara to breast cancer in 1998 after 33 years of marriage. A son, Christopher, also died suddenly, aged 25.
In 2001 he married former Lib Dem MP Baroness Maddock.
“I had the good fortune to be able to marry again. So I have been happily married twice, which is a great privilege.”
His faith is also important to him, and he is a Methodist lay preacher.
“There is a relationship between my religious beliefs and political beliefs. We are a diverse country, of people of different faiths and no faith. But I think Christianity is part of the foundations of our country and continues to be important to it.”
Quitting the House of Commons will give him more time to indulge in passions such as walking - he says he rarely has time to enjoy the countryside of his Berwick constituency - and music.
“I have always been active in music and helped in the foundation of the Parliament choir, which brings together members of both houses and staff, and even some journalists occasionally. It cuts across all barriers, which is very good. And I hope to do more music when I retire.”
But he may not retire from public life entirely.
“Once this election is over, I will most definitely take it easy for a few months.
“But I expect to do something - to have some working time. But a lot less than as a Member of Parliament.”