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Martin Horwood MP

Just One More Push... crack

Possibly the best thing you can say about politics is that they are never constant. Some of the greatest British prime minsters of all time have been Liberals – Lloyd George, Asquith, Lord Rosebery, William Gladstone and Lord Palmerston, to mention only a few. But then things changed. In the aftermath the First World War, socialism swept across Europe and later, with the emergence of the fascist dictators, politics became polarised as either left or right; the centre ground in Britain, Liberalism, was marginalised and has never quite been able to regain its former glory.

Ever since I can remember, the Liberals have claimed to be on the verge a comeback, of making a breakthrough. From Joe Grimond to Jeremy Thorpe, from David Steele to Paddy Ashdown and from Charles Kennedy to Menzies Campbell, it was always a case of ‘just one more push’.

The Liberals Democrats control many important local councils but have been unable to translate local to national success. But now, with the possibility of a hung parliament, there is a very real chance that the Lib Dems will finally get into, if not the driving seat then at least the passenger seat, with their finger on the map.

Martin Horwood has been the Member of Parliament for Cheltenham since the last election and with a relatively small majority he will be kept busy trying to keep the seat in the forthcoming General Election.

I met him in his toy strewn home on the slopes of Leckhampton and while he made us a cup of tea I asked him what life was like with May looming. “All the normal casework carries on but you have to do all the election campaigning on top, so it is getting quite strained at the moment. Of course I spend half my time in London when Parliament is sitting. In peacetime I normally go up on a Monday afternoon and come back on Wednesday evening unless there something of special relevance to keep there. Friday is usually my constituency day.

“A huge amount of my work is constituency based.” He pointed to the table where a pile a papers and folders lay waiting for his attention. “I’ve just finished one lot and taken it in and brought that pile back with me. You have to keep doing it - often, as their MP, I am people’s last resort. They can be having battles with the NHS, their local council, pensions or whatever and when they are at their wits end they come to me, and I have to be there for them and I have to do my bit to try and help them.”

I wondered what proportion of his work was parliamentary and how much constituency? “The trouble is you can’t really split it percentagewise. A lot of the stuff I do in Parliament is constituency related. I’ve spent a large part of my time over the past couple of months working on the Floods and Water Management Bill. Now, you could say that was part of my national brief as environment spokesman but on the other hand, most of the examples I quoted during the passage of that bill came from Cheltenham. It’s a huge issue and that’s why I was so keen to do that bill. So is that constituency or is that parliament? I don’t know. The job is two sides of the same coin; a lot of individual casework will lead into parliamentary work.”

We took our tea into the living room and as we made ourselves comfy on the sofa I asked him about his background and how he had become involved with politics. “I was born in the St. Paul’s maternity hospital. My family was by then living on the other side of Leckhampton, on the Shurdington Road, where my mum still lives.

“I then went off to university at Oxford where I read history and then I flipped….” he paused. “Perhaps that was not a good choice of word,” he said with a broad grin on his face. “I moved between Oxford and London where I worked in advertising. Later I worked with various charities and settled in Oxford.”

In 1990 he was elected as a local district and parish councillor there and started working for Oxfam. During his stay at Oxfam, Martin’s teams raised tens of millions of pounds for the poor in developing countries, including £2.5m for victims of the Rwanda genocide.

What, I wondered, had he wanted to be when he was a teenager? “I was beginning to get interested in politics but my first love was art, drawing and things like that. I developed quite a good hand at cartooning, which I still do occasionally.” I suggested he was in the ideal place to pursue that talent. “Absolutely. I was amazed, when I was first elected, to discover there was a parliamentary art collection which MPs can borrow for their offices. Most of the important pictures had been snapped up but I found a pile of James Gilrays sitting in the basement. So, now I’ve got two of them on my office wall. Sometimes when I look at them I still can’t believe it. He was the greatest political cartoonist ever.”

At what stage did he become actively involved in party politics, I asked? “I did get involved when I was pretty young actually. I joined the Young Liberals while I was still at school at Cheltenham College. I remember seconding the motion in a debate that ‘this house would abolish fox hunting.” I suggested that might not have been a debate he had won. He laughed, “Only two people voted for it, myself and the boy who proposed the motion. At least it showed we were ahead of our time.”

I wondered who his influences had been when he was starting out in politics. “It was the David Steele era and it was a very exciting time. In 1981 we had the Richard Dimbleby Lecture with Roy Jenkins promising a reshaping of British politics. This led to the creation of the Social Democrats and later to the alliance between the SDP and the Liberals to form the Liberal Democrats, which we have today.”

I remember that time myself and I remember there was great hope and almost a belief that things would change, that the mould of British politics would be broken, that the old dogmas would be swept away and that everything would be alright. Did Martin find it frustrating that none of it materialised and that politics carried on using the same mould for the next thirty years? “I think, in a way, we did break the mould. Before that, virtually everybody voted Labour or Tory but now we have sixty three Lib Dem MPs and there will hopefully be a lot more in a couple of months. It’s just taking a frustratingly long time.”

Martin was beginning to look at his watch. “Friday afternoon I always put aside a couple of hours for the kids before I go back to surgery. I shall go and pick them up in a few minutes and that time is very important to me.

I had one last question before I gave him a lift to the school. If he were the proud owner of a time machine, which period or event in history would he liked to have witnessed or taken part in? “That’s easy,” he said without a pause, “the fall of the Berlin Wall. The temptation to get on a plane and go over there was overwhelming, but I had a job and it was just impossible.”

I suggested some walls might come tumbling down a bit closer to home at the beginning of May. “That would be even better,” he said with a smile.