Sir Clement Freud RIP


The Isle of Ely by-election in 1973 was my first serious political campaign. I was a student at Cambridge, the sun was shining, and we bunked off lectures to join Clement (or "Clay") Freud in his quixotic campaign. The by-election followed the death of Sir Harry Legge-Bourke, who was one of the last National Liberal MPs - they sat with the Conservative Party in the House of Commons.

The constituency had the jewel of Ely Cathedral and city at its heart and then mile after mile of featureless fen. Freud at that stage was best known for his dogfood adverts - but heaven help you if you mentioned them in his presence. His Liberal politics were deathly serious - this was a man who later made the first serious effort to introduce a Freedom of Information bill in the UK (in which I was also closely involved - but that is another story).

I had an absolute ball in the Ely by-election. I was sent to canvass the cathedral precinct which was pure Barsetshire. The former monastic buildings at Ely are a beautiful architectural jumble with no way of identifying the individual homes. I just knocked at every likely entrance door and opened every gate, interrupting clerical croquet matches and garden tea parties, canvassed the head of King's School Ely and encountered the then Bishop running down the Palace drive with a dog tucked under his arm. The contrast with the fens could not be more marked.

Isolated little villages, one of two streets and mostly two surnames, ruler-straight drainage ditches and outflows, miles of sugar beet in the black earth, the cathedral's lead roof shining in the distance like a great sailing ship. The dogs of Littleport were particularly noteworthy - snarling brutes of beasts chained to houses by what looked like pieces of the Forth Road Bridge - and Clement Freud transmogrified into "Mr Frood". No-one expected the Liberals to win.

From the miles and miles of blue poster boards for the Tory candidate, all the fields, all the cows, all the sheep, all the trees, and all the hedges were voting Conservative as Clement Freud noted in a memorable speech. Fortunately all the people voted for him.


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