Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.
There was a gathering of the tribe of British election commentators last Friday in Oxford, to celebrate the 94th birthday of Sir David Butler, the founder of the British psephological profession and to launch the new biography of him written by Michael Crick.
David was born in the midst of the election campaign of 1924, wrote books about every British general election from 1951 to 2005 (and contributed to those of 1945 and 1950), and his fingerprints are to be found on innovations in the media, politics and academic study in Britain and several other countries including India and Australia.
We – if I may include myself in the tribe – do get a lot wrong, and disagree with each other more than people probably realise, but we all appreciate what David has done, and often have our own stories about his personal wisdom and generosity (and also, often, of hair-raising car rides and unusual food).
The story of David’s youth is dramatic, cutting back and forward in 1943-50 from active service with a tank unit in the Netherlands and northern Germany, undergraduate studies in Oxford, hitch-hiking around America in 1948, writing the most innovative section of a major work of contemporary history, and then helping to launch election television in Britain. It is populated with characters such as Isaiah Berlin, Winston Churchill, John F Kennedy and Felix Frankfurter.
David was admittedly a reasonably well-connected young man from an academic family, but even so it is tribute to the fluidity for talented individuals entering British public life under the strains of the war, a fluidity which had not entirely ended by 1950. Intelligence, earnestness, and a willingness to talk to people went a long way, particularly in a field like electoral studies where there were many uncultivated fields to plough.
Butler, indeed, had introduced percentages to the study of elections and imported techniques of analysis from cricket scores to psephology (a term, we learn from Crick, that C.S. Lewis may have had a hand in coining). It is to him that we owe the idea of ‘swing’ and the revelation that the relationship between votes and seats that had seemed utterly arbitrary to people in the 1920s and 1930s was actually subject to the working of rational, arithmetical forces – though to call them ‘laws’ as people did in the 1950s was going too far.
The post-war generation knew David Butler best as a ‘telly don’ – one of several academics who was also a frequent talking head in the first decades of television. He was there in 1950 at the beginning of election night television thanks to the pioneering BBC manager Grace Wyndham Goldie, and made a number of suggestions for how the results could be covered better and more comprehensibly in 1951. In 1955 he suggested ‘a speedometer type device’ to illustrate the relationship between the swing of the popular vote and the constituencies changing hands, but it was used only experimentally in a regional broadcast in that election and the full introduction of the Swingometer had to wait until 1959. The combination of David Butler and Bob McKenzie brought the statistical, predictive side of election night to life for BBC viewers during the pendulum years of 1955-79.
Behind the scenes, he was also instrumental in the Nuffield conference of 1958, an extraordinary high-level parley that cleared the way to televising election campaigns and attracted the leaders of two parties (Gaitskell and Grimond), the Deputy Prime Minister (David’s somewhat removed cousin Rab Butler) and leading broadcasters and academics. Its deliberations remained more or less secret, but the fruits of the discussions came quickly with proper coverage of the Rochdale by-election later that year and then the 1959 general election.
David was also able to create the institution of the Nuffield/Brasenose Friday seminar, at which students would get an off the record insight into the thoughts of leading politicians, media figures, and even civil servants. I remember these occasions from the early 1990s with awe, particularly when Paddy Ashdown came in February 1992 and gave an assured, confident and humorous performance despite being under huge pressure over his private life.
David’s best friends in politics were on either side of the aisle – Tony Benn and Peter Blaker, Conservative MP for Blackpool South 1964-92, and his own political views over the years were probably a moving average of the two of them. There is an amusing section in the book in which he describes his mid-1950s willingness to enter parliament for either the Conservatives or Labour, with a slight preference for the Tories: ‘It was not that my sympathies at the time were more Conservative than Labour – rather the reverse. It was that I would be a hypocrite in either party. But, not being a true believer, I’d feel less guilty among pragmatic Conservatives than among Labour zealots.’
It is an interesting thought about the mid-century Conservative Party that it was considered a broad enough, thoughtful sort of organisation that people who were slightly left of centre like Butler (and indeed my own muse, Reggie Maudling) found it an attractive organisation. It is also instructive that the Labour Party, even of Attlee and Gaitskell, felt to people in the centre ground as if it required more ideological commitment and class loyalty.
Among David’s other contributions to life that Crick recalls is British Political Facts. Long before the days of Wikipedia (and, gentle reader, always check facts somewhere else as well), it was surprisingly difficult to find basic factual information about past political events – not just elections, but who held which ministerial office when, historical economic statistics, votes in the Lords and the Commons, dates of court cases and Royal Commissions… A few paragraphs could require an afternoon or more in a reference library. David and his first co-author Jennie Freeman cleared the way through the thickets with the first (1900-1960) edition and with Anne Sloman and later his son Gareth Butler continued the work. I contributed in a very small way to a couple of later editions, and I remain in awe of the initial achievement.
One thing I remember from my time as a student and assistant to David in the 1990s was dealing with those random communications he sometimes received that he regarded as ‘pornographic’. These were not pornographic in the literal sense, but were written in the tones of pornography, for instance a racist crank wallowing in his wandering invective, as well as the classic ‘green ink’ missives. David is a man of his generation, proper and reserved, a rationalist and sceptic rather than enthusiast, and I think of that withering dismissal increasingly often these days. A lot of political discourse has descended close to the sort of thing that used to be the preserve of those letter writers.
On the other side of the balance for social media, David experimented with Twitter during the 2017 election and was a natural at it. For most of his career, David has excelled at communicating information in bite-sized chunks. His trademark for years of election night broadcasts was the brief interjection that commented on the swing or the turnout of a particular seat as the results came flooding in – he was licensed to pipe up whenever he had something to say. He also had a way, when I worked with him in the 1990s, of noting down a telling observation or fact on a piece of paper and sharing it with me.
David also had numerous pithy pieces of wisdom that he imparted to me, and which I have tried to live by. He commented on a draft of something I had written for him which mentioned a scandal in more detail than it deserved that, ‘it’s best to just say private life.’ Crick’s biography turns up several more Butlerisms – David’s philosophy of keeping it simple in the kitchen, for instance, expressed to a friend in the 1950s: ‘Zbysek, my principle when cooking is that you’ve got to wash up.’
The public world in which David lived was mostly benevolent. It was a professional life lived in friendship, and he was on confidential terms with people of all parties and none. I remember someone who joined Conservative Central Office as it then was saying that he asked his colleagues whether he should give an interview to David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh and was told that it was practically part of the constitution that he should. Academic life was probably nastier, as witnessed by the sour grapes that David sometimes encountered and which denied him the well-deserved recognition of being a full Professor.
It was, however, a ridiculously masculine world, which the younger Butler accepted without thinking much about it but which in later life, under the influence of his illustrious wife Marilyn, he did a certain amount to combat. I remember him encouraging me to go to an Oxford reception for the Oxford & Cambridge Club and tell the organisers about my regret at being unable to join it as long as it maintained its discriminatory policy on admitting women. I’m pleased to say that this small-p political campaign was eventually, with the help of some finessing, able to overcome the constitutional obstructions and open it up.
As an unabashed member of the David Butler fan club, I enjoyed reading Michael Crick’s book. It has Crick’s trademark of painstaking research and lots of interviewing, in which he was admirably assisted by Seth Thevoz and Margaret Crick. It is also a light, flowing read rather than a dense scholarly work, appropriately enough for a book about an academic who lived to explain and popularise his learning. Sultan of Swing is an affectionate work about a man whose life has been lived among the great, the good and the clever, and who deserves to be there on all three of those criteria.
‘Sultan of Swing: The Life of David Butler’ by Michael Crick has just been published by Biteback Publishing.