‘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

Sunday, 28 April 2013

The Liberal MPs who might have defected to Ukip

Over the past few weeks Ukip members have claimed that some historical figures such as Churchill and Einstein would have joined their party. These claims sound rather fanciful, but is there any evidence that Ukip could have attracted high-profile converts, including some from the Liberals or Liberal Democrats?

Opinion poll findings suggest that 17% of Conservative voters at the last election have defected to Ukip, 4% of Labour voters and, despite the mis-match between LibDem and Ukip’s policies, 9% of LibDem voters.

It is extremely unlikely that any current LibDem MP would defect to Ukip. In fact Nick Clegg has an excellent track record of avoiding defections among his MPs and former MPs to any other party. Despite the strains of being in a coalition government with the Conservatives, no current or former LibDem MP has defected under Nick Clegg’s leadership – a record shared only with Ming Campbell and David Steel.

However, the longer-term history of the Liberal Party was littered with defections of MPs and former-MPs – in fact in the hundred years from 1910 to 2010, 122 MPs or former-MPs defected from the party. Is it conceivable that any of them would have defected to Ukip, had the party been around at the time?

Most of the defectors went to the Labour and Conservative parties, (in fairly equal numbers), motivated by better career prospects or because of policy disagreements. None of these would have been likely converts to Ukip instead, had the option been available. However, there were other defectors who went to minor parties, and not necessarily the ones you would expect a former-Liberal MP to join.

Among the 122 defecting Liberal MPs or former-MPs were five who made the move to a radical populist party, and among these there might have been some who could have been tempted to join Ukip, given the opportunity. The five were Horatio Bottomley, Cecil Beck, Cecil Dudgeon, John Pratt and Donald Bennett.

Horatio Bottomley was expelled from the Liberal Party after being declared bankrupt in 1911. He returned to Parliament in 1918 and formed the nucleus of his own radical populist party. Bottomley was too wilful and self-important to have joined anyone else’s party, so he would not have been tempted to join Ukip, unless there had been a vacancy for its leadership. Ukip would have been better off without him, anyway. In 1922 he was convicted of fraudulent conversion and sentenced to seven years in prison. One other Liberal MP, Cecil Beck, was tempted to join Bottomley before his final departure from the Commons and Beck does appear to have been a possible candidate for conversion to the Ukip cause.

The New Party was founded in 1931 by Oswald Mosley, before he became a fascist. The party had a clearly-worked out set of Keynesian economic policies. It attracted former Liberal MPs Cecil Dudgeon and John Pratt. Cecil Dudgeon was in Parliament as a Liberal MP in 1931, but feared the loss of his seat at the next election. He stood under New Party colours in 1931, and lost (as he almost certainly would have done, had he remained a Liberal). He later omitted his membership of the New Party from his Who’s Who entry and made a serious contribution to public life as Food Controller for Scotland in 1950. Had Ukip been in existence in 1931 and offered Dudgeon a chance of remaining in Parliament, Dudgeon might just have taken it at that one point in his career.

John Pratt had been a Liberal MP from 1913 to 1922. By 1931 he was in desperate financial circumstances and looking for a route back into Parliament. Forced to sell his wife’s piano to make ends meet, he admitted that his problems were caused by ‘riotous living’ and that he had ‘lied and lied and lied’. Offered the prospect of a return to Parliament under Ukip colours, Pratt might well have been tempted.

The last possible contender was Air Vice-Marshal Donald Bennett. Bennett became one of the shortest-serving MPs of all time when he was elected unopposed as Liberal MP for Middlesbrough West in a by-election on 14 May 1945 only to lose the seat at the general election held on 5 July - just 73 days later. Bennett continued to court controversy in his post-war career, as he had in the RAF during the war. He was sacked as head of British South American Airways when he refused to ground his planes after several crashes. He became embroiled in court cases involving commercial litigation and taxes and he was sued for libel by another former Air Vice-Marshal who objected to Bennett’s revealing in a book that he had worn shorts to a meeting. Bennett took flight from the Liberal Party and eventually stood as a far-right National Party candidate in a by-election in Nuneaton in 1967. Between his departure from the Liberals and his far-right destination, Bennett could conceivably have been a convert to Ukip.

So, all in all, possibly as many as four Liberal or former-Liberal MPs - Bennett, Pratt and the two Cecils - Beck and Dudgeon - might conceivably have been tempted to join Ukip in the course of the 100 years. Whether this group would have been regarded as a great loss to the Liberal Party or a great catch for Ukip is another question.

You can read more about these characters and all the other defectors, both to and from the Liberal Party, in my book ‘Defectors and the Liberal Party 1910 to 2010 – a study of inter-party relations’, published by Manchester University Press.

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