John Barnes, Historian

Richard Wainwright

Richard Wainwright disguised innate shyness by adopting the manner of a bluff Yorkshireman. Hard-working, plain-speaking and immensely practical, he had an instinctive understanding of the Liberal rank and file and they in turn respected the way in which he articulated deeply held Liberal beliefs. He was the mastermind behind Liberal's local government campaigning and tireless in the way he undertook speaking and campaigning engagements. His immense popularity with the rank and file was only once shaken. That was just after he had contributed to the toppling of Jeremy Thorpe by calling on the Liberal leader to sue Norman Scott over allegations that they had had a homosexual relationship. "The truth has got to be brought out." His distaste for Thorpe's theatrical style of leadership was well known. Less well known was the fact that he had refused to run against Thorpe for the party leadership in 1967, believing himself too junior. In 1976 he backed John Pardoe, but the leadership went to David Steel.

Wainwright gave his support to the Lib-Lab pact which propped up Callaghan's Government in March 1977. His subsequent dealings with Labour's Industry Secretary were not without fruit. Although personally unhappy at how little the party had secured on devolution, he voted for the renewal of the pact, almost certainly because of the genuine concessions on help for small businesses and the self-employed that he had secured, and the promise of a move to profit sharing. The Government's failure to deliver proportional representation for the European elections, however, turned him into an angry opponent of the pact, although he simmered down sufficiently to agree that it could last until the summer of 1978.

His long-standing interest in financial affairs was reflected in his role as Liberal spokesman on economics and industrial relations 1966-70, trade and industry 1974-9, on the economy 1979-85 and on employment 1985-7. He served on the Expenditure Committee from 1974-9 and the Treasury Select Committee from 1979-87. He consistently argued for a prices and incomes policy as the right answer to inflation and the "unavoidable price of avoiding mass unemployment" He was a trenchant critic of Nigel Lawson in particular, with typical trenchancy remarking that "there's plenty of price stability in the graveyard." Always his own man, he was nevertheless ready to support right-wing moves to secure compulsory union ballots in 1980.


Richard Scurrah Wainwright was born in Leeds shortly before the end of the 1914-18 war, the son of a chartered accountant, and was educated at Shrewsbury. He won an open scholarship for history at Clare College, Cambridge, taking his finals in 1939, the year in which he gained the Presidency of the University Liberal Club. Brought up as a Quaker, he was a conscientious objector in the Second World War and served with the Friends Ambulance Unit 1939-46. On his return to Britain, he followed his father into the Leeds accountancy firm of Beevers and Adgie, becoming a partner in 1950. From 1968-70 he was a partner with Peat, Marwick Mitchell. The Leeds connection was lifelong. He served from 1948-58 on the Leeds Hospital management Board and was President of the Leeds/Bradford Society of Chartered Accountants 1965-6.

Wainwright had been deeply affected by what he saw of the depressed areas in the 1930s, but it did not incline him to socialism. His lifelong association with the Liberal party was strengthened by his involvement in the Methodist Church as a lay preacher and his experience on difficult housing estates in the east of the city. He missed involvement in the 1945 election only because he stayed in Europe after the war to help with reconstruction, but in 1950 he plunged into the fight, contesting Pudsey where he was then living. He finished a poor third to a knife-edge contest between the Conservative and Labour candidates. The Liberals could not afford to contest the seat in 1951, but in 1955 Wainwright returned to the fray, again finishing third.

Pudsey was by now safely Tory and in 1959 he switched his attentions to the historic seat of Colne Valley, although even in the absence of a Conservative candidate, it had not succumbed to the redoubtable Lady Violet Bonham Carter in 1951. In this first attempt he captured a quarter of the vote, but again finished third.

Wainwright's inability to gain a parliamentary seat at this stage of his career freed him to play a major part in the revival of the Liberal party under Jo Grimond. He helped found the unservile state group in 1953 and played an active part in policy formation. In 1958 he wrote an influential pamphlet, Own as You Earn, and he was later to be deputy chair the Wider Share Ownership Council 1968-92. He served as Vice President of the Party from 1959 to 1966 and was well known for his organisational abilities. He chaired the party's organisation department for two years, inaugurated and personally financed the highly successful local government department, and as its chair was one of the five man organising committee under Frank Byers, that took control of the day to day activities of the party, including local government campaigning, after the 1959 election, bypassing the complex committee structure that then governed the party. This horrified the party's constitutionalists and the position of the new body had to be formalised, a process in which Wainwright's practical mind was exercised to the full. Subsequently in 1974, he put his experience to good use in a report which did much to transform the financial organisation of his party. He served as Chairman of the Liberal Party 1971-2.

When the sitting Labour member for Colne Valley died, Wainwright contested the by-election in March 1963, cutting the majority to 2039 and relegating the Conservative to third place. In 1964 he failed to take the seat by only 187 votes. In the teeth of a strong national tide to Labour in the March 1966 election, he halved the Conservative vote and took the seat by 2,499 votes. It was a remarkable triumph that turned to ashes four years later when a considerable Conservative resurgence enabled Labour to recapture the seat. Nothing daunted, in February 1974, he turned a Labour majority of 856 into a Liberal majority of 719.

While the campaign was still in progress, one of his sons, Andrew, committed suicide. Wainwright and his wife were devastated. Subsequently they created a trust in his memory that was used to fund projects to extend democracy in Britain and abroad.

The historic seat of Colne Valley was drastically remodelled before the 1983 election, so much so that it was initially renamed Huddersfield West, but Wainwright managed a 3146 majority in a three cornered contest in which he took two fifths of the total vote. He stood down before the 1987 election, but refused to go to the "crematorium", which is how he regarded the House of Lords. A long- standing supporter of regional government, he co-founded the Campaign for the North and in retirement served on the Council of the Electoral Reform Society and on the National Executive of Charter 88. Perhaps his most valued contribution to public policy-making, however, came earlier as a trustee of the Joseph Rowntree Social Service Trust 1959-84, where he was adept at turning imaginative ideas into workable projects, often after they had first been subjected to fiercely critical blasts from his fellow trustee, Jo Grimond.