Face to face with David Nam

March 12, 2021 6:28 AM
David Nam and family circa 1955

David Nam (front row, far left) family photo circa 1955

David was the first British Chinese Councillor elected across all parties as far back as 1976. CLD's Merlene Emerson had the privilege of interviewing him for this blog.

Q 1. ME: Could you share with us a bit of your family background? I understand your story is both typical of its time as well as unique in its own way.

DN: I was born in Carmarthen, south west Wales in 1940. My father, born 1888, originally came from Canton (Toi San) area, landing in Liverpool in the late 20's via Malaysia. He actually stowed away on a boat and had paid Chinese sailors to look after him whilst on board! There is a family myth that he intended to meet up with his brother who lived in Chicago, but the US law at the time prohibited Chinese naltionals from entering the country.

He married my mother in 1935 and they had eight children, three boys and five girls. Initially my father ran a laundry as this was a normal occupation for Chinese immigrants in the UK in those days. Most of the laundry workers on the British Merchant ships and Royal Navy ships were predominantly Chinese. In the late 50's my parents opened the first Chinese restaurant in SW Wales.

As for myself, I went to the local Primary Church School and then on to the Boys Grammar School. After leaving school I was employed in the Pathology laboratory at the West Wales General Hospital (WWGH) where I obtained a Biomedical Sciences Masters Degree equivalent having studied Haematology, Blood Transfusion and Microbiology.

David NamQ2. ME: I can see you are well integrated into Welsh/British society. How would you describe yourself today?

DN: I regard myself first as being Welsh Chinese, then as a British born Chinese (BBC), and a European.

Q3. ME: When did you decide to go into politics in the UK and why the Liberals?

DN: I joined the Liberals before the General Elections of 1974 during the leadership of Jeremy Thorpe, two years before the scandal he was involved in broke. At the announcement of the General Elections in 1974, many of my colleagues were talking about helping their particular political parties be it the Labour Party or Plaid Cymru (the Nationalist party for Wales); there were no Conservatives who declared themselves! I felt that I had to choose a party to work for and give something back to society.

I was not a political person in those days as it hadn't been that long since I returned from working in Kuwait. I knew I wasn't a socialist particularly as Clause 4 (mass nationalisation) was still part of the Labour Party's Constitution at that time. Conservatism and their right wing ideas appalled me and I certainly wasn't a Nationalist that wanted 'Home Rule' for Wales, although I did believe in the principle of devolution and local democracy.

The Liberal Party was a radical centrist party, believing in a mixed economy, free trade and social justice which were close to my philosophy in life. Carmarthen had been a Liberal seat until the death of Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris. In the ensuing by-election in 1957 Megan Lloyd George (daughter of David Lloyd George) took the seat for the Labour Party. After she died Plaid Cymru took the seat in the 1966 by-election, but never regained the Carmarthen seat again.

David Nam and Alec Cormack

David Nam and Alec Cormack in 2019

Q4. ME: What were some memorable challenges and achievements during your time as a District Councillor?
I was in 1976 the first person who stood under the Liberal banner in a Council election in west Wales. Carmarthen District Council was a 36 seat Council.

We campaigned on very local issues such as having public participation to debate the replacing of the old Victorian Market and the redevelopment of the town centre. We promised to hold regular surgeries to listen to voters' concerns, to have a fair Council Housing policy, about rubbish collection and recycling, street cleaning etc.

The campaign we fought was directly out of the Liberal Election Handbook. Every house received our Focus leaflet highlighting the above. A good morning voting reminder was also delivered. Carmarthen had never seen such a campaign as this before for a Council Election! We had at least shown my Council Ward that the Liberals were still around. We were fortunate that we had good press coverage as being a Carmarthen local 'boy' and my family was known in the town.

It was a 3 seat ward and I 'topped' the poll in my first election and in subsequent elections in 1979 and 1983, retiring from my seat a few months before the 1987 election to work overseas again (first in Saudi Arabia, then to set up the Hematology Department in the Sultan Qaboos University Hospital in Oman).

Whilst a Councillor, my main committee was Housing but I always challenged what I thought were wrong decisions and injustices that I found after reading minutes of all the committees. These would be discussed at the Policy and Resources Committee and then for ratification at the full Council Meetings where I had the opportunity of a "second bite of the cherry" of those items.

One memorable achievement was to convince the Housing Committee and Council to redevelop a previous Convent in my Ward which was in a state of disrepair. It was demolished and 20 single person flats were built instead. I also persuaded the Council to renovate and donate 4 terraced houses for the Probation Service to house former prisoners. And convinced the District and County Councils to finance and build a Day Care Centre in the middle of the town. This would be exclusively for the elderly with meeting rooms and dining facilities. I think we were pushing at an 'open door' for this very necessary project.

I also recall preventing the Council from funding a small bridge being built over a stream on private land that belonged to a farmer who was a member of the District Council! I challenged the Council on numerous occasions, using the Council Procedures to ask written questions that had to be answered on items such as the amount of money spent on aborted development fees for consultants. Each year I requested that the Council state what each Councillor had incurred in that year for all their "voluntary" work. We never got paid for our Council work in those days. And the Council were reluctant to publish the figures voluntarily.

Q5 ME: Were you in favour of the merger of the SDP and the Liberals to form the Lib Dems in the 1980s?
I remained a member of the Liberals though I was in agreement with SDP's aims and objectives which were not dissimilar to the Liberal views I valued. When a merger was instigated, I agreed to the amalgamation, so at my 1983 election, I successfully stood as a SDP-Liberal Alliance (Liberal) candidate, 'topping the poll' once again.

My hope at the time was that we could have "broken the mould" of British 2 party politics. The Labour Party were such a wide church from the extreme left to the middle right of British politics. Unfortunately, this did not come to pass and it's even more important these days to have a truly centralist third political party in Britain. We have been wanting after being in coalition with the Conservatives. Nationalist politics is the radical politics these days and the 'protest' votes now go to the Greens and some to the former Brexit / Reform parties.

I recall an anecdote in 1985 involving David Owen of the 'Gang of Four'. He was the Labour Foreign Secretary at the time and he was giving a talk in Carmarthen. I was introduced to him by our then Labour MP Roger Thomas. After a while I mentioned that I was not a socialist disagreeing with Clause 4 of the Labour Constitution although agreeing with some of the more moderate ideologies of the Labour Party. He then stated that he was a Democratic Socialist. I replied that I was a Liberal and believed in social Democracy! Over time, some things like names can change, but not one's underlying philosophy and ideas about life.

Q5 ME: As someone of Chinese descent you were so ahead of the curve in your participation in UK politics, did you consider starting Chinese LibDems before we did in 2006?
DN: I wasn't aware of the CLD until a few years ago and it never occurred to me until then that an organisation as such was necessary. With hindsight I can see how important it can be to lobby for the Chinese community in UK, for the situation in Hong Kong and to cooperate with other organisations with similar problems such as racism. The Chinese have mainly been invisible to the British public but has been highlighted in the past year by Trump during the Covid pandemic hence the increase in East Asian racism.

Q6 ME: What do you think are the issues of concern to British Chinese diaspora communities and to LibDems today?
Some of the concerns for the Chinese in UK relate to racism especially after Covid 19. With the clampdown on democracy in Hong Kong an influx of HK Chinese will come to the UK. The great majority of these will be professionals and well-educated persons but they will require help to assimilate into UK society.

Other issues may include UK's relationship with China, and trade between China and the USA. The way the CCP treats the Uyghur people will undoubtedly affect the way the British look upon the Chinese community despite our having nothing to do with it.

I do believe that the Liberal Party have the correct policies on big questions such as on the environment, the economy, trade etc. We should accept that we are out of the EU and work instead to get our trade and relationship with the EU to be a good one.

It may be difficult to have media coverage for our policies and campaigns but we must keep faith with our values and principles.

Outside of politics, I have worked in hospitals in the UK, Middle East, and in North Africa. In 2010 I retired from the Haematology Department of St Mary's Hospital (Imperial University College Hospital) in Paddington. As an octogenarian, I feel that I should now put up my feet and become more of a supporter of the party from the side lines!

ME: Indeed, you have certainly given back a lot to society. Thank you so much from all of us from the CLDs and the wider Liberal family!