‘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, 29 April 2013

Last MP to go to work by horse

Harry Nathan was the last MP to ride to work on a horse. He was used to coping with danger, having survived being shot through the head in the First World War.

Nathan was one of 18 new Liberal MPs elected in 1929, of whom only two (James de Rothschild and James Scott) remained members of the Liberal Party for the rest of their careers. Most split off with the Liberal Nationals after 1931, but four, including Nathan, defected to the Labour Party.

Nathan joined the Labour Party in 1934, but was defeated in the 1935 election. He returned as the victorious Labour candidate in Wandsworth Central on this day in 1937, gaining the seat from the Conservatives.

In 1940 Nathan resigned the seat to make way for Ernest Bevin to enter the Commons. Nathan went to the Lords, where he later served as Minister for Civil Aviation. In this role he was responsible for sacking Donald Bennett, who featured in yesterday’s post – see below.

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.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Hats off to the Pollsters

Up to the 1930s people used to make it very easy to guess how they voted. If you went outside you would stick a piece of material on your head, which would let everyone else know which social class you belonged to and, therefore, almost certainly how you voted. If you look at any photograph of a crowd of British people between the wars, regardless of age or affluence, they will be wearing a hat. The same was true internationally.

The reasons for the decline in popularity of hats are many and varied. Limited headroom in cars, Brylcreem, wartime shortages of material, the desire to get away from military uniforms, delicate hairstyles, rejection of conformity and the influence of role models all played a part, although the full reasons seem to be under-researched.  Among the role models considered to be particularly influential in bareheadedness was President Kennedy. However, he did wear a hat to his inauguration, contrary to popular belief.

The trend to bareheadedness has its origins much earlier. The peak year for hat manufacturing in the US was 1903, but by then there was already a growing trend for hatlessness. Newspaper reports from New Zealand in 1905 refer to the ‘hatless craze’.

Today, if you look at a photograph of a crowd of British voters, it would be very difficult to distinguish a Liberal Democrat from a Conservative or a Labour voter on the basis of their appearance. Opinion polling started as hat-wearing died out. The pollsters have had to replace the milliners.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Anniversary of one of Churchill’s five defeats

For a hugely successful politician, Winston Churchill clocked up a significant number of electoral defeats, failing to be elected on 5 occasions. Today is the anniversary of one of them – at Manchester North West in 1908.

Churchill was first elected at Oldham in 1900 as a Conservative. He defected to the Liberals in 1904, but did not fight a by-election on his change of party allegiance. He remained MP for Oldham until the 1906 election, when he transferred to Manchester North West.

In 1908 he was appointed to the Board of Trade. The rules then in force required that newly-appointed ministers had to resign their seat and face re-election. Churchill faced his electorate on 24 April 1908 and lost.

Typically, Churchill bounced back and was found a seat at Dundee just two weeks later. He represented this seat until 1922, when he was again defeated. This time he had to wait two years to make a comeback – at Epping.

At the 1924 election, with a widespread fear of communism heightened by the Zinoviev letter, some hybrid Lib-Con candidates emerged, styling themselves Constitutionalists. Churchill was their most famous example, but in total there were ten. Seven won their seats. After the election they went their separate ways. Four of the victors re-took the Liberal whip and three (including Churchill) joined the Conservatives in the new parliament. The Constitutionalists’ electoral performance did not represent an electoral breakthrough, or the formation of a viable new party and the experiment was dropped.

Churchill was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in Baldwin’s1924 government and his reintegration into the Conservative Party was complete.

In all, Churchill won 16 elections and only lost 5.

Recession, fewer police, but crime falls

The BBC today reports that Britain is becoming more peaceful with falls in the level of violent crime, despite the country's economic difficulties and declining police numbers. George Monbiot has written in the Guardian about research which appears conclusively to link levels of lead pollution (mainly from paint and vehicle exhausts) with levels aggression and criminal activity.
Crime levels have generally been falling from their peak in the 1990s, after lead was removed from paint and petrol. The UK is not alone. The falls seem to have occurred around the world, irrespective of the crime-reduction policies being implemented by individual governments. 

Michael Howard, Home Secretary from 1993 to 1997, famously claimed that ‘prison works’ and that tough sentencing would reduce crime. However, it now looks as though it was not prison, but poison, that was at work. 

Ironically, Howard previously served as Environment Secretary and it may well have been the work of this department which led to the reduction in crime!

The key figure behind the fall in crime, however, may not be an elected politician or a police leader, but Des Wilson who led the successful campaign to remove lead from petrol.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Is there such a thing as a good election to lose?

Before the 2010 election the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, suggested that whichever party won the next election would become so unpopular that it might be out of power for a generation. This does not necessarily seem to be the case, as opinion polls show that voters share the blame for the country’s austerity on the last Labour government, the current coalition and the state of the Eurozone.

However, have there been elections in the past when the losing party eventually breathed a sigh of relief that it was not in power. There are three which seem to fit the category of a good election to lose – 1929, 1970 and 1992. Other governments have come to grief over their own mishandling of the economy or through homemade problems, but these three elections probably would have doomed whichever party had won.

Ramsay MacDonald’s election victory of 1929 was five months before the Wall Street Crash and the ensuing depression. Ted Heath unexpectedly won in 1970, only to be faced with a cocktail of international wars, fuel shortages, terrorist attacks and industrial unrest. (The sudden death of his chancellor of the exchequer, Iain Macleod, one month after the election just added to his woes). John Major revived Conservative fortunes after Margaret Thatcher’s departure and won the 1992 election with an all-time record vote, only to be hit with the Pound being expelled from the Exchange Rate Mechanism just four months later.

Handled differently, the circumstances of the First World War, the Winter of Discontent and many other problems could have saved the government of the day, but it is difficult to see how Stanley Baldwin would have done much better had he been elected in 1929, or Harold Wilson in 1970 or Neil Kinnock in 1992.

Politicians may not look back fondly on lost elections, but some elections are arguably good elections to lose.

HS2 – a platform for Ukip?

As Lord Andrew Adonis observed about the proposed HS2 high speed rail system, everyone wants the stations and nobody wants the track. This is almost true.

HS2 is where politics and geography collide. Most of the proposed track will run through rural Conservative-held seats to stations in mainly Labour-held urban areas. Ukip is running its local election campaign on the basis of opposition to the whole idea of HS2 – track and stations. How should the Conservatives respond?

The 1867 Second Reform Act and the 1928 Equal Franchise Act actually offer an answer. These were two examples where the Conservatives made an enlightened decision, suffered briefly in the short run, but eventually reaped a lasting electoral reward.

Conservatives had unsuccessfully opposed the First Reform Act of 1832. Once the door to a wider franchise was open, the process was unstoppable. Rather than resist the Liberals’ attempt at the second major act, the Conservatives seized the initiative and introduced their own version of reform, particularly enfranchising working men in urban areas. Thanks to Disraeli’s dynamism, the Conservatives held many urban seats for a century after this reform, but the party is now virtually extinct in most major cities.

In 1928 the Conservatives took the initiative and introduced the Equal Franchise Act, giving men and women the vote on equal terms. Thanks to Baldwin’s reform, for decades after this the Conservatives enjoyed higher support among women than men. This advantage has only recently been lost.

The Conservative Party now has to choose whether wholeheartedly to embrace HS2 to rebuild support in urban areas, or to resist (probably futilely) and be seen to delay the construction to appease potential defectors to Ukip.

History suggests that the best way to remove Ukip’s platform and to regain support in urban areas is for the Conservatives to put the HS into HS2 and speed up the delivery of the project – creating jobs and being seen to be dynamic. Once it is built, HS2 will soon cease to be controversial.

Today no-one would think of campaigning against the NHS, the M40, HS1 or the Channel Tunnel (all controversial in their time), any more than anyone would mount a campaign on a platform of taking votes away from women.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Death of first Prime Minister

Today is the anniversary of the death of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who led the Liberal Party to its greatest ever election victory with 400 seats. CB, as he was popularly known, was the first person officially to be designated ‘prime minister’. He was the oldest person to become prime minister for the first time in the twentieth century, at the age of 69 and the only prime minister to have died at 10 Downing Street. He resigned the premiership on 3 April 1908 in very poor health, but was allowed to stay in the prime minister’s residence by his successor, Asquith. Campbell-Bannerman died at number 10 on 22 April 1908 at the age of 71.

CB died relatively young by prime minsterial standards. Despite having been a smoker, Margaret Thatcher lived to the age of 87. Her arch-rival and predecessor as Conservative leader, Ted Heath, reached 89. But Heath was not a record-breaker. The longest lived British prime minister to date has been James Callaghan who lived to 92 years and 364 days – just one day short of 93. Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home both made it to 92 and Churchill lived to 90.

Recent research has shown that politicians do indeed live longer than those in other professions, on average surviving to 83.0, compared to academics who have an average lifespan of 81.7 years and performing artists who only average 77.2. 

Currently though, the oldest living former prime minister is John Major, who is only 70.


Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Want to know the politics of an area? Dig a hole

You may think that things move slowly in British politics, with all three major parties having qualified for a telegram from the Queen. 

If you look at a map from 1910, the pattern of political support is recognisably the same as today, with Conservative areas dominating rural England, Labour with heartlands in northern England, south Wales and central Scotland and Liberal support around the fringes of England, Scotland and Wales.

If you think this is antiquated, you can discern current voting patterns pretty accurately from religious buildings dating back to Victorian times, or even before. If you travel around Britain, if you find yourself in an area with small Non-Conformist (Baptist or Methodist) chapels you are almost certainly in a traditional Liberal area. The parts of the country with the grander Church of England parish churches with steeples and spires are the areas of strongest Conservative support.

If you want to go back even further, then geology can tell you pretty accurately how people still vote. If you look at a geological map of Britain, Conservative areas are built on chalk, Liberal areas on granite and slate and, perhaps less-surprisingly, Labour areas on coal.

These correlations are more than just coincidence. Religion used to (and still does) influence how people vote. Conservative support has always been strongest in the most Anglican areas, Liberal support in Non-Conformist regions and Labour has had an enduring advantage among Catholics. There is a link with the geology too. The wealthy rural Conservative areas of sheep farming on chalk downs paid for the wool churches, such as in East Anglia, the coal mining areas provided the staunchest support for the Labour Party and Liberalism was fervently supported by slate miners and hill farmers.

So, although opinion polls can give a daily picture of fluctuations in party support, you can see the lasting underlying patterns by digging a hole in the ground. Perhaps there is such a thing as a rock-solid seat after all.

Friday, 12 April 2013

SNP's first MP

Today is the anniversary of the Motherwell by-election of 1945, which brought the Scottish National Party their first MP, Dr Robert McIntyre. The by-election was caused by the death of Labour MP, James Walker, who died in a road accident.

Motherwell had previously been the seat which had seen the UK's first Communist MP, Walton Newbold who sat from 1922 to 1923. The Communist Party adhered to the wartime electoral truce and did not contest the 1945 by-election, so the only candidates were Robert McIntyre for the SNP and Alexander Anderson for Labour. Anderson won the seat back for Labour in the 1945 general election, held only three months later.

Between 1922 and 1945 Motherwell was represented by MPs from four different parties - Conservative, Labour, Communist and Scottish Nationalist.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher and Lloyd George

Even before her death yesterday at the age of 87, only 10% of people surveyed in a YouGov poll considered that Margaret Thatcher was on balance neither good nor bad for the country. 43% thought that she was good and 34% bad. Her death will probably polarise opinions even more in the short term.

However, we do not have to be tempted to leap to one extreme or the other. It is perfectly reasonable to weigh up the evidence of Margaret Thatcher’s career and consider that the overall balance is close to neutral.

Before Thatcher came to power, the trades unions had been holding the country to ransom in the Winter of Discontent, but the aftermath of the miners’ strike during Thatcher's premiership, which severely weakened union power, still leaves deep divisions in some communities.

The sale of council houses gave many a chance to own their own home, but the money received was not ploughed into building more homes. 

Telecoms privatisation has given us a better and more innovative service. Water privatisation has given us no more choice, but higher bills.

The Falklands war was a messy military victory, in an avoidable conflict.

Big Bang City deregulation produced huge profits and tax revenues for the government in the short term, but led to many of the problems of the financial collapse of 2008.

Instead of borrowing money every year, there were years when some of the national debt was repaid during Thatcher’s premiership, but the revenues were flattered by North Sea oil.

Thatcher did promote early green policies, but she was a smoker who did not want to increase cigarette taxes on the pretext of preserving jobs in the tobacco industry.

Eurosceptics credit Margaret Thatcher with taking a strong anti-European line, but she was the prime minister who took the Pound into the Exchange Rate Mechanism.

Margaret Thatcher did win three general elections, but her Labour challengers were successively James Callaghan, Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock – not the most formidable of opponents. Thatcher’s successor, John Major won more votes in the 1992 general election than Thatcher had in any of her victories.

Thatcher was a trailblazer as the first female prime minister, but she only ever appointed one other woman to her cabinet.

Thatcher may have appeared supremely confident, but she was worried that she would be forced from office over the Westland dispute, a disagreement over a commercial partner for a small and struggling helicopter manufacturer. She was reprieved by Opposition Leader, Neil Kinnock’s overblown rhetoric in the Commons debate.

The only other prime minister who divides opinion to anything like the same extent is Lloyd George, ‘the man who won the [First World] War’, but who sold honours for cash and completely mis-judged Hitler. In Lloyd George’s case the good and the bad tend to be found in different events. But in Margaret Thatcher’s case, they tend to be mixed up in nearly everything she did.