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Profile: KCC Liberal Democrat leader Antony Hook talks to local democracy reporter Simon Finlay

At just 43, the leader of the Liberal Democrats at Kent County Council, Antony Hook, has arguably as much, if not more, political experience as some of the chamber's old hands.

Local democracy reporter Simon Finlay caught up with him at his office in County Hall…

Hard at work KCC Lib Dem leader Cllr Antony Hook
Hard at work KCC Lib Dem leader Cllr Antony Hook

Twenty two years ago, a fresh-faced young man who was still at university stood for parliament in his home constituency, Dover and Deal.

No one gave him much hope of beating Labour's then-unassailable incumbent, Gwyn Prosser, but he did achieve his own objective of significantly increasing the Liberal Democrat vote (a feat he repeated four years later).

His name was Antony Hook. But it wasn't his clean-cut, boyish looks that seemed to impress. Even aged 21, just old enough by a few months to stand for parliament, old political hands recognised he had something else.

The young Hook was personable, very bright, across his brief, full of ideas and clearly loved the campaign trail.

The defeated Tory candidate Paul Watkins remarked at the time: "We should keep an eye on young Hooky. He'll do well."

Mr Watkins, a veteran of Dover politics and a one-time leader of the local council, is not one to offer praise lightly.

County Hall in Maidstone
County Hall in Maidstone

A couple of decades later, 'Hooky' has not only achieved his dream by becoming a criminal barrister but he was elected for a short time as Member of the European Parliament before Brexit was finally 'done' in January 2020. He now leads the six-strong Liberal Democrat group at County Hall.

Antony James Hook was born in Bristol in 1980 and moved, with this parents, to the Kent seaside town of Deal at the age of nine.

At Dover Grammar School, he was a diligent student who left with four very good A levels but not before spending a great of time in the library devouring books, newspapers and magazines for political thinking and current affairs coverage.

One book that made a distinct impression was John Stuart Mill's 1859 book, On Liberty, which examined the relationship between authority and liberty.

"Mill's book was essentially about the benefits of people's right to live their lives the way they want to and not be interfered with. It really struck a chord with me - never left me," he says.

Paddy Ashdown's "inspirational" leadership and his stance on the eruption of violence and genocide in the Balkans, not to mention his belief in proportional representation, led the teenage Hook to the Liberal Democrats.

Former Dover and Deal MP Gwyn Prosser (Lab)
Former Dover and Deal MP Gwyn Prosser (Lab)

He fought two general elections alongside his studies (at modern history at University College London and then law at City University) and launching his legal career.

During a three-year stint at the Crown Prosecution Service, he ran across Keir Starmer, (the then Director of Public Prosecutions and not yet a knight of the realm) and was struck by his calmness and willingness to listen.

"Whereas some others may have tended to fly off the handle, he actually considered what was being said to him. From what little I saw of him, I was impressed."

The journey to the European Parliament was a decade in the making. Mr Hook, who had unsuccessfully fought two general elections in 2001 and 2005, set his sights on Brussels and Strasbourg. When the sitting Lib Dem MEP Emma Nicholson decided to retire in 2009, a place on the candidates' list came tantalisingly close.

"That made me decide that this was something I wanted to do, " he recalls.

As bad luck would have it, he was on the list at a time when the Lib Dems were due for a (Cameron/Clegg) post-coalition "kicking". (The Lib Dem decision to drop its stance on tuition fees in return for a deal with the Tories almost destroyed the party and has yet to fully recover.)

Cllr Antony Hook tried unsuccessfully to be elected to parliament
Cllr Antony Hook tried unsuccessfully to be elected to parliament

As a coordinator of the Euro 2014 campaign for the party, he did just enough to save one of the party's 11 seats.

Mr Hook recalls: "It was the end of the coalition and the voters wanted to give us a kicking. Although I didn't get in, I helped to save one seat. I was quite philosophical about it."

Notions of another stab at it in 2019 was surely on, but for the 2016 referendum on Europe and Brexit. Delays and arguments over the manner in which Britain should leave Europe dragged on interminably on meaning June's EU elections went ahead.

This time, Mr Hook won a seat. His tenure as an MEP lasted just eight months, at a time when he and wife Rebecca had just had a baby daughter (now four and the first of two girls) and often spent their time commuting between their Faversham home and Europe, babe in arms.

"It was an intense period not just personally," he says with a chuckle, "There were political dramas playing out constantly throughout those eight months because no one quite knew what was happening. We were dashing here and there and always had the baby to consider first and foremost."

How did he feel about the end, when it came? "I was sad, I won't lie. Not for myself but for the country and all that we had lost through Brexit."

KCC Lib Dem leader Cllr Antony Hook outside his county hall office
KCC Lib Dem leader Cllr Antony Hook outside his county hall office

The Lib Dems failed at the 2019 general election with the manifesto pledge "Stop Brexit - Build a Brighter Future", clearly having missed the point that, by then, many people were so fed up of the political, point-scoring impasse they wanted out more than they wanted back in.

Mr Hook reflects: "Parties, mine included, are choosing not to talk about it, despite the fact that the British economy is smaller and less prosperous than before."

The Hook name comes up from time to time when Lib Dem candidates are being considered for Westminster seats perceived to be winnable.

"I have a young family and the amount of commitment and time away from work is massive in order for a Lib Dem to win any seat anywhere, so no, that's not on the horizon," he explains.

Today, he leads half a dozen (the Conservatives have 60) Lib Dems in the chamber at County Hall. He is noted for his barrister-like approach to detail and an ability to unleash the incisive question.

When 2025's KCC elections come around again, few Tories believe that they will have anywhere near 60 seats.

County Hall in Maidstone
County Hall in Maidstone

The Lib Dems, Labour and the Greens could benefit equally if the landscape changes.

Mr Hook says: "I love my jobs - as a lawyer and as leader of the Liberal Democrat group at KCC. It suits me with two young children."

He believes that county authorities, as they were conceived in the latter half of the 19th century and evolved over time, are a thing of the past. He prefers the notion of devolved arrangements.

Observing that Northern Ireland has roughly the same population as Kent (1.8m) and has its own elected assembly with "huge powers", he sees a future freer of the shackles imposed by central government. He claims the KCC Conservative leadership is "too compliant".

Now the authority is in dire financial straits, having to find tens of millions of pounds to stave off a section 114 notice, which is effectively an admission of bankruptcy .

To illustrate, he says KCC has no say in planning matters being passed yet has to make highways adjustments, provide schools and healthcare when they are. It must provide taxis to children with special educational needs - yet a borough or district council issues cabbies' licences.

Antony Hook was a Faversham Town councillor
Antony Hook was a Faversham Town councillor

Mr Hook, who represents Faversham at KCC, adds: "It's clearly not working - we need to think again. And change is definitely coming - some kind of change is needed.

"People seem to prefer living in the devolved arrangement. They might not like the guys in charge but that it exists is popular."

Sitting in the Lib Dem group leader's office on the ground floor of County Hall, there is a mission statement beside his desk which reads: "The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty ignorance or conformity."

Perhaps it is political credo to keep the members on message - or just a reminder of where it all started for Antony Hook in the library of Dover Grammar School leafing through the pages of Mill's 'On Liberty'.

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