On the morning of December 22nd, 1986, Cornwall’s best-known politician of the late twentieth century, David Penhaligon, was killed in a car crash. The death of Penhaligon, 42 years old and Liberal MP for Truro since 1974, came as a huge shock.
Penhaligon was the son of a caravan park owner in Truro. Educated at Truro School, he left at 16 to become an engineering apprentice at Holman’s, Camborne, which in those days took on scores of apprentices every year from a wide area of Cornwall. Although qualifying as a chartered engineer, David Penhaligon’s future was in politics once he had joined the Liberals in the 1960s.
That decade saw the Liberal Party recover from its post-war low point. As Liberals won the two east Cornish constituencies in the mid-1960s, David was trying to become a parliamentary candidate. His early attempts were rebuffed, being rejected for Truro in 1966 and for Falmouth-Camborne in 1968. Amazingly, given his later appeal, one reason apart from his youth was that his Cornish accent was ‘deemed unsuitable for a Westminster candidate’.
After unsuccessfully fighting Totnes in Devon in 1970, he was finally selected for Truro in 1971. Some vigorous campaigning in the traditionally Labour-voting villages of the clay country paid off. Aided by another Liberal revival, Penhaligon replaced Labour in second place and ate into the Tory majority in the election of February 1974. He then squeezed the Labour (and MK) vote sufficiently to to win a narrow majority in the second election in October of the same year. In 1979 and 1983 David Penhaligon was one of the very few who were able to stand against the Thatcherite tide. His personal popularity was indicated by the steady increase in his majority even as his colleagues went down around him.
Described by the one-time Liberal leader David Steel as ‘an instinctive Liberal of the old school’ Penhaligon was a clever political operator, carefully crafting an image as an outsider and a man of the people. In his case it was a man of the Cornish people as he became seen as a champion of Cornish issues. At one time he described himself as ‘a ten per cent (Cornish) nationalist’, probably about the right proportion so as not to scare the voters. At the same time, his career advanced in the parliamentary Liberal Party and at the time of his death he held the important post of Treasury spokesman.
David Penhaligon was fortunate in that his political career coincided with a time when the Cornish element of the Truro constituency was still large enough to provide the bedrock of support while the newer professional population in the local government and healthcare sectors tended to have liberal ideas. This coalition underlay Truro’s Liberal decades from 1974 to 2010. However, with the constituency now once again a Tory/Labour marginal, major demographic transformations on the way and the rundown of the public sector, any chances of a Liberal revival or another David Penhaligon in Truro now look extremely slim.