‘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, 24 December 2012

The generous tale of Christmas Williams

If you were called Christmas Williams, you might well want to be known as Chris. This was indeed the case with Christmas Price Williams, Liberal MP for Wrexham from 1924 until his defeat in the 1929 election.
Christmas nearly returned early to parliament in October 1931, for Montgomeryshire, when Clement Davies, who had been elected for the seat in 1929 was told that he would not be allowed to stand for re-election and to continue with his lucrative new day job as Managing Director of Unilever. Williams was selected as Davies’s successor, but at the last minute Unilever relented and agreed that Clement Davies could stand again for parliament and keep his job.

Chris Williams very generously bowed out of the race, giving Clement Davies the opportunity to remain in parliament. Davies at that stage supported the National Government and was returned unopposed as the MP for Montgomeryshire in the 1931 election, as indeed he was again in 1935.

Chris Williams did not reappear in parliament, but he is perhaps remembered more often than he would have been (especially at this time of year) if Chris had been short for Christopher.

And no prizes for guessing Christmas Williams’s birthday!

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Why was David Steel’s Spitting Image puppet smaller than David Owen’s?

The relative size of the Spitting Image puppets of David Steel (Liberal leader 1976-88) and David Owen (SDP leader 1983-87) has been the subject of much speculation and amateur psycho-analysis. The Steel puppet was much smaller than the Owen puppet, and this has been the source of much ‘puppet-size anxiety’ for David Steel since then. He felt that he was portrayed as the junior of the two Davids and, probably correctly, believed that this undermined his reputation.
In reality David Steel is very slightly shorter than David Owen, but only by a small fraction. Having calculated from photographic evidence that this did not account for the difference, thoughts then turned to conspiracy theories, centred on the idea that the puppet creators had been persuaded to include a subliminal message that the SDP were the dominant partners in the alliance.

I have discovered the truth. When I was in Cornwall, I met Peter Fluck, member of the Fluck and Law team who created the puppets for the television series, and he explained to me the real reason for the differing size of the puppets.

In the early days of puppet-making for the programme, the creators decided to make less than life-size puppets, to save on materials. They then had scaled-down clothes made for them. After a while, someone worked out that it would be cheaper to use more latex to make the puppets life size, as there would be more-than-compensatory savings on the cost of the clothes, which could then be bought from charity shops.

Sometimes, truth is less strange than fiction – and sometimes accountancy trumps politics.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Authors' Foundation Award for William Wedgwood Benn Biography

A very welcome surprise Christmas present arrived today in the form of an Authors' Foundation grant for my research and writing on my forthcoming biography of William Wedgwood Benn, First Viscount Stansgate and father of Tony Benn.

William Wedgwood Benn was an ardent follower of Asquith, elected in the Liberals' 1906 landslide. He turned down Lloyd George's offer of the post of Joint Chief Whip in 1916 and instead remained on active service at a seaplane base. Had he accepted, he could have changed the course of Liberal history.

In 1927 Benn took the unusual step of resigning his seat on transferring his allegiance to the Labour Party. Although this put him out of Parliament for over a year, he went on to serve in the cabinets of two very different prime ministers, Ramsay MacDonald and Clement Attlee. Benn again risked his life in the RAF in the Second World War, but survived until he was 83. He was created Viscount Stansgate in 1942 and sat in the Lords until his death in 1960. His son, Tony Benn was able, eventually, to free himself of the inherited viscountcy, so that he could continue his career in the Commons. His grandson, Hilary also served in the cabinets of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

There is a fascinating story to be told and I am very grateful to the Society of Authors for the funding to enable me to write it.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

When was the Liberals’ turning point? Grimond’s arrival? Torrington?

The Liberal Party’s fortunes fell dramatically from their peak of 400 seats in 1906 to a low point in the 1950s, with only six seats in general elections. There has been a long, slow, but fairly steady, recovery to the point where the Liberal Democrats now have 57 MPs – roughly the same figure as 1929.

At some point the party’s fortunes must have turned. But, was there a date or an event which marked the change of the tide? Many people assume that the arrival of Jo Grimond as leader in November 1956 must have marked the turn-around. Others date the start of the recovery to the Torrington by-election victory in March 1958.

Of course, turning points are usually only visible after they are passed and so it would be natural that the watershed went unnoticed at the time. The graph below shows the Liberals’ share of the vote in post-war by-elections. In the middle of the chart is a sudden step change. Torrington is not the first of these new peaks, or even the highest – and the step happened in 1954, nearly two years before Jo Grimond took over the leadership.

Liberal Party By-election Share of Vote 1945-1960

The step change was the Inverness by-election of 21 December 1954 – neither famous nor a victory. The Liberals’ share of the vote at 36% gave them a very close second place to the winning Conservative candidate in this previously-Conservative held seat. The result was therefore not a dramatic upset. It took place in Scotland in the middle of winter and the results came out on Christmas Eve. Hardly surprisingly, not many people noticed. However, it was the Liberals’ highest share of the vote in a three-way by-election since 1932 and the improvement was sustained. In the 19 by-elections fought by all three major parties since the war leading up to Inverness the Liberals had averaged only 9.3% share of the vote, but in the 19 by-elections from Inverness onwards the Liberals averaged 25.2%.

Clement Davies, ageing and alcoholic party leader, had had a torrid time leading the Liberals through their darkest years, but in the last two years of his leadership the party averaged 26.5% in by-elections, but when Jo Grimond succeeded, the comparable figure for his first two years was slightly lower at 24.7%.

In retrospect, the Inverness result could be regarded as the Liberals’ turning point. Parties which do less well than expected often draw spurious conclusions about the reasons for their lack-lustre performance. The Conservatives blamed the fragility of their Inverness victory on the weather and the size of the constituency. I wonder how much better the weather was for the Liberals or the Labour Party and how much smaller the constituency!

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Is Steve Richards right that politicians are not professional enough?

It is very easy to lapse into thinking that there was a golden age of politics at some point in the past, or that senior politicians used to be more substantial than today’s. Many people also argue that politicians are ‘too professional’ these days.
Steve Richards made some interesting (as well as very amusing) points at his Rock N’ Roll Politics event last night at King’s Place.  His view is not that politicians today are too professional, but that they are not professional enough, in the sense that they would benefit from longer experience in politics.

Today’s politicians do not have the dubious benefit which many from earlier generations had of experiencing extreme poverty, fighting a war, being widowed, or even surviving for decades at the top of politics. Today’s fashion for younger leaders means that those reaching the top are often only in their forties – having had little time to be battle-hardened or to have recovered from serious personal or political set-backs. In view of the increase in life expectancy, this seems particularly perverse. Today, those who fail, often do not get a second chance to put into practice what they have learned from their mistakes.

Henry Campbell-Bannerman was 69 when he became prime minister, but led the Liberals to their greatest landslide victory in 1906. Churchill’s earlier failures certainly prepared him for his successful wartime leadership at the age of 65. William Gladstone finally relinquished the premiership at the age of 84, his tree-felling exploits (among other things) having preserved his physical strength well into old age.

However, Jim Callaghan believed that he would have been a better prime minister, had he been younger than 64 when he took office and Ming Campbell was regarded as looking too old to lead the Liberal Democrats, also at the age of 64. The evidence, although somewhat patchy, seems to suggest that experience and recovery from set-backs does enhance leadership ability and resilience.

Harriet Harman seemed to return stronger and more adept, after her temporary dismissal from the cabinet. Arguably, William Hague would make a more successful leader now, than he did in 1997. Nick Clegg, if he is given the opportunity, will probably be a wiser and more capable leader after all the lessons learned in the current coalition. 

Whether we will ever get the full benefit of their suffering and aggravation remains to be seen.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Anniversary of 1918 Election, but not first votes for women

Today is the anniversary of the 1918 general election. There were many unusual features about this election:
It was held on a Saturday, just five weeks after the end of the First World War - the first election for eight years.

Despite the deaths of 885,000 British troops in the war, the electorate tripled. Over 21 million people were eligible to vote in 1918 (including women over 30 years old), compared to only 7.7 million in 1910. But the turnout was only 58.9%. Spanish Flu was ravaging the population and young adults were particularly susceptible – 250,000 died in the UK. 24 MPs had been killed in the war – 15 Conservatives, 7 Liberals and 2 Irish Home Rulers.

This election was not actually the first time that women had been allowed to vote in Britain. Women had had the vote in elections for school boards since 1870 and, in theory at least, some women met the qualifications to vote in elections before the 1832 ‘Reform’ Act, although historians are still searching for evidence of whether any actually did vote. 

The outcome of the 1918 election was a coalition government of Conservatives and Lloyd George Liberals, faced with a mountain of debt.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Religion, Politics and the Census

Figures just released from the 2011 census record a drop in religious affiliation in Britain. 25% of people now say that they have no religious affiliation – up from 15% in the previous census.
Having worked on the 2011 census, I am pretty sure that the figures for religious affiliation still flatter the true position. It is notoriously difficult for others (and sometimes even for ourselves) to define whether we have a religious affiliation. Many do have a strong belief, others a definite affiliation, but many people feel that they fall into a grey area as far as religious affiliation is concerned. The wording of the census questions certainly seemed to nudge those with very tenuous links to a religion (particularly the Church of England) to opt FOR a religious affiliation.

I have posted before (see post for 21 November 2012) about the lingering correlation between voting and religion in the UK. The secularisation trend revealed in the latest census will provide further impetus to the reduction in political allegiance. Coupled with the rapid decline in party membership (see post for 7 October 2012), fewer and fewer voters are going to feel automatically loyal to any one party. At election time, they will be more inclined to shop around between parties, without feeling guilty. 

Politicians have been arguing for ‘choice’, but I am not sure if this is what they hoped for!

Does it have to be a majority government or a coalition in 2015?

All attention seems to be focused on the alternatives of a single-party majority government, another coalition, or a confidence and supply arrangement between two parties, after the 2015 election. These are not the only possibilities. The trends in the electoral arithmetic are making a minority government, without a formal agreement with another party, a more viable option.
At its peak in the 1950s, the two-party system left little scope for a viable minority government. With virtually all seats in the hands of one or other of the major parties, a minority government was mathematically an unlikely proposition and practically an unstable solution – it would have been at the mercy of the support of one other party.

In 1959 the Conservatives and Labour won all except six seats between them. The Liberals won the other six. A minority government would have been unlikely to have emerged, and if it had, it would have beholden to the Liberals.

However, by 2010 a total of 57 seats went to the Lib Dems, but another 28 seats were won by other parties or independents (since then Respect have also won a seat at the Bradford West by-election).

If this pattern of seats dissipating from the main parties continues, or even accelerates (which seems quite likely), the options for a viable government a few seats short of a majority are increased. A minority government could pick and choose where it could gain the support it needed on each individual vote, without being permanently beholden to any one party. This could be the shape of things to come. The whips would be very busy!