Jonathan Fryer looks back at the life of a softly spoken Libral Democrat peer who crossed party boundaries
The Liberal Democrat parliamentarian Richard Livsey, who has died at home at Llanfihangel Talyllyn in September 2010 aged 75, was one of those rare politicians regarded with respect and affection as much by political opponents as by allies. His passion for rural life, Welsh devolution and music, as well as his commitment to Liberalism, endeared him to friends and colleagues. He was courteous, soft-spoken and without pretension, yet his mild manner and soft voice belied a steely determination which ensured that things he wanted doing did get done, usually in the way he wanted.
He made a significant impact on agricultural matters during the 11 years he represented his home territory of Brecon and Radnorshire in the House of Commons, transferring his expertise to the Lords after he stood down as an MP. But for all his involvement in the business of Westminster, as well as a period spent working in Scotland, his heart remained in Wales. He was leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats from 1988 to 1992 and became a key figure in the “yes” campaign in the referendum that led to the creation of the Welsh assembly.
Richard Arthur Lloyd Livsey was born in Talgarth, Breconshire, and attended the progressive independent school Bedales, in Hampshire. From there he went to Seale-Hayne agricultural college in Devon, before acquiring an MSc in agricultural management at Reading University. Once qualified in 1961, he joined ICI, who sent him to Scotland. There he acted as assistant farm manager on a company farm at Castle Douglas in Galloway for a year, during which time he met his future wife, Irene Earsman, always known as Rene.
In 1962, ICI transferred Richard to Northumberland, where he served as its agricultural development officer for five years. After leaving ICI he returned to Scotland, becoming farm manager of the Blairdrummond estate in Perthshire. It was then that he became seriously involved in Liberal politics, fighting the safe Conservative seat of Perth and East Perthshire in the 1970 general election, coming fourth and losing his deposit.
The following year he returned to Wales, helping to found the Welsh agricultural college in Aberystwyth and taking up the post of senior lecturer in farm management there. He held that job for 14 years, while at the same time running a 60-acre smallholding at Llanon with Rene.
Richard’s poor showing in Perth had not dented his enthusiasm for frontline politics and he was selected to fight his home seat of Brecon and Radnor in the 1983 election, on a Liberal-SDP Alliance ticket. Though he garnered nearly a quarter of the vote, he came third, just behind Labour but a long way behind the incumbent Conservative, Tom Hooson. However, Hooson died in 1985, at the age of just 52, prompting a byelection, at which Richard was the obvious choice once more to fight the seat for the Liberal-SDP Alliance. The famous Liberal byelection machine swung into action, with activists arriving from all over the country, not a few of whom got lost trying to find the addresses of isolated voters in the constituency.
Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was deeply unpopular, especially in Wales, and it was far from clear whether Labour or Richard would capture the seat. In the event Richard did, with a majority of just 559 over Labour. At the 1987 election, his majority fell, after several recounts, to a nail-biting 56, this time over the Conservatives.
For someone used to running farms, Richard could be surprisingly impractical at times. During one election campaign, while on a visit to Margam college, south Wales, his car suffered a flat tyre and he had to appeal helplessly for someone to change the wheel.
Richard joined the parliamentary select committee on agriculture as well as that on Welsh affairs. But his assiduousness both in the Commons and in the constituency was not enough to avoid being narrowly ousted in 1992 by the Conservative Jonathan Evans.
Richard then joined ATB-Landbase Cymru, first as deputy director, then as development manager. But from 1995 onwards, his main concern was winning back Brecon and Radnorshire – as the seat was renamed – which he did comfortably in 1997. He was then appointed Liberal Democrat shadow secretary for Wales by Paddy Ashdown. Ashdown’s successor, Charles Kennedy, later recommended that Richard be sent to the House of Lords when he stood down as an MP in 2001. In the Lords, he became a member of the European environment and rural affairs committee, cementing his European credentials by accepting the post of president of the European movement in Wales.
Being in the Lords gave Richard more time to pursue some of his leisure interests, including fly-fishing, watching cricket and supporting Neath rugby club. He enjoyed being vice-president of the Guardian Hay festival. As well as being a patron of Brecon cathedral singers and chairman of the Brecon jazz festival, he sang in the Talgarth choir, performing at the Welsh association of male voice choirs’ concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London only last year.
Richard is survived by Rene, their two sons and one daughter.