‘Honoured that you are writing my father’s biography’ the late Tony Benn, ‘...wonderfully written’ Hilary Benn

‘Sparkles with fascinating detail…a remarkable story of Liberal and Labour politics in the first half of the twentieth century.’ Michael Crick, Political Correspondent, Channel 4 News

‘Casts much light both on the evolution of British radicalism, and on the legacy which he bequeathed to his son, Tony. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, King's College, London

‘Brilliant biography…wonderful reading about the father and...discovering more about the son.’ Steve Richards of The Independent

‘Well-written and carefully researched, this fascinating biography brings to life a major figure in British political history…an excellent job of weaving together the strands of a complex life…as well as filling in the background of the Benn family’ Richard Doherty, military historian

Monday, 1 October 2012

Party leaders and alcohol

Unlike the position in America, the UK does not require potential political leaders to disclose details of their health. This has led to several unfortunate consequences.

In 1922 Andrew Bonar Law became prime minister, but died of throat cancer only seven months later. During his peacetime premiership from 1951 to 1955 Churchill suffered a stroke, although this was hidden from the public at the time. Anthony Eden's disastrous decisions leading to the Suez Crisis in 1956 may well have been influenced by his medication for a recurrent bile duct problem.

British leaders come under more scrutiny today and no prime minister can change his or her hairstyle without attracting media attention, let alone suffer a stroke. However, many party leaders have been alcoholics and in many cases this has not prevented their continuing in office. Charles Kennedy was forced out of the leadership of the Liberal Democrats in 2006 because of his alcohol problems. Jack Straw has revealed that John Smith, Labour leader from 1992 to 1994, was, in Straw's words, a 'functioning alcoholic'.

The party leader who was probably most debilitated by alcoholism, however, was Clement Davies, Liberal leader from 1945 to 1956. He managed to avoid alcohol for extended periods, but at times of severe stress (particularly general elections!), he was forced out of action and out of public sight for weeks on end. Davies's problem remained hidden at the time. When I was researching his biography 40 years after his death, I interviewed many people who knew Clem Davies and some of them were still convinced that the story of his alcoholism was a malicious lie. However, his own family confirmed in detail the extent of his problem. Part of the reason for Clem Davies's alcoholism was that three of his four children had all died at the age of 24, in unrelated incidents.


  1. Alun - on the 20th anniversary of John Smith's death, googling news stories on the late Labour leader I belatedly have discovered your blog entry above. For the record, I worked for John, in the two years he was Labour leader. I can assure you that while he liked a whisky now and again - he was never an alcoholic - functioning or otherwise - whatever Jack Straw may have insinuated. I would go as far as saying that as a young press officer for John at the time - I undoubtedly drank more than he ever did, mainly in the pubs around Westminster. And needless to say I am and never have been an alcoholic. Straw's remarks were beneath him - and frankly ridiculous - but say more about him than he realises. I hope he now regrets them. Best wishes , Mike Elrick

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