‘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

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Anniversary of 1962 Montgomeryshire by-election

Today is the anniversary of the Montgomeryshire by-election of 1962. It was caused by the death of Clement Davies, leader of the Liberal Party through its darkest years from 1945 to 1956. Clem assumed the leadership after his predecessor, Archie Sinclair lost his seat in the 1945 election, along with the chief whip, Percy Harris and the party's leading thinker, William Beveridge.

Clem Davies never had the full confidence of some of his parliamentary colleagues, particularly Megan Lloyd George, as he had become a Liberal National in 1931 and only rejoined the Liberals during the war. Davies had, however, played a significant behind the scenes role in Chamberlain's replacement by Churchill after the Norway Debate in May 1940, for which Churchill offered him a viscountcy, which he declined.

Clement Davies had a troubled personal life. He was an alcoholic and three of his four children had died in unrelated incidents, but all at the age of 24. The eldest son died in his office from an epileptic fit, his daughter was electrocuted by a high voltage overhead wire (deemed at the inquest to have been suicide) and the second son died in a military training accident on Salisbury Plain during the war. Only his youngest son, Stanley, survived into old age and was still alive when I researched his father's biography.

Clem worried that he would be the party's 'Omega' - the last of the line. He once described his position as Liberal leader as being one of almost 'supine weakness'. Nevertheless he held the party together for eleven dispiriting years, turning down Churchill's offer of a coalition and a cabinet seat for himself after the 1951 election.

In 1954 the Liberals came close to victory in the Inverness by-election and party membership started to recover. In 1956 Jo Grimond took over the leadership and was able to inject new dynamism into the party, which doubled its number of MPs to 12.

Clement Davies survived to the age of 78 and was still MP for Montgomeryshire at the time of his death. But, as Clem himself put it, the party 'refused to die'.

The winner of the 1962 by-election was Clement Davies’s Liberal successor, Emlyn Hooson, who wrote the foreword to my biography of Clem. Hooson held the seat until he was defeated in 1979. It was won back by Alex Carlile in 1983, who handed it on to Lembit Opik in 1997, who held it until his defeat in 2010.

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