People often ask whether you can remember where you were when JFK died. I don’t I was too young. But, for those of us who can remember David Penhaligon the feeling, I suspect, is similar to those people felt when John Kennedy was shot. A feeling of deep loss having very little personal knowledge of the man personally.
As an MP from a peripheral party at the time he was possibly a surprising national political figure who had garnered a great deal of national publicity and was almost certainly the shoo in as the next leader of the party, ahead of the eventual winner – Paddy Ashdown.
I was sitting in my front room with several school friends when I heard the news, being only 16 he had had a surprisingly big impression on me. Although I joined the SDP I had briefly met David Penhaligon once and also seen him speak once. The former was on polling day in the Knowsley North By-election, caused by the resignation of Robert Kilroy-Silk as a Labour MP. I, and fellow campaigners, had been out delivering leaflets in the pouring Merseyside weather and returned to the Alliance HQ, where we discovered David Penhaligon and other party luminaries with their sleeves rolled up delving into the inner workings of a printing machine. It was a surprising if apparently usual event.
This was an image I will never forget, and it has rather shaped my view of what MPs and party figures should be like since. He was deep down an activist and keen to helping in a by-election, however unlikely the party’s chances of winning. The other time I saw him was when he spoke at Methodist Central Hall at a pre-election rally in December 1986. His was an inspiring speech which set the tone for an exciting day at a party rally.
However, as any Liberal Democrat in Cornwall will tell you, his influence remains an important aspect of the party’s resonance and influence in Cornwall. I can remember campaigning in several general elections in Cornwall and still getting support for the party, twenty years on, because of the work he did for Cornwall, especially in Truro and St. Austell.
Liberal Democrats, especially in Cornwall, owe an awful lot to David Penhaligon and today we remember all that he did for us, the party and for Cornwall.