Goodbye to all that – a tribute to David Butler

David Butler

David Butler

As the European elections campaign creaks to a close, one familiar figure has been missing from the corridors of Westminster and Whitehall, Brussels and Strasbourg. In 2006 David Butler, grand old man of British psephology, decided to hang up his pen. Butler, Emeritus Fellow of Politics at Nuffield College, Oxford, and for long a familiar face on election night television specials, has been associated with ‘Nuffield Studies’ of British elections since 1945 and has been the author or co-author of each one since 1951. After writing the 1951 and 1955 studies alone, Butler fell into the tradition of co-authorship; with Richard Rose (1959), Anthony King (1964, 1966), Michael Pinto-Duschinsky (1970) and, most enduring authorial relationship of all, with Dennis Kavanagh (1974 onwards and through till 2005). Each of these studies had been ‘Butler and …’ but, in 2005, in a symbolic recognition of the changing weight of responsibilities, it became ‘Kavanagh and Butler’, and from now on it will be ‘Kavanagh and Cowley’ (as in Philip Cowley, of Nottingham University). The Nuffield studies series (original volumes are now collectors’ items and a few years back Macmillan brought out a boxed set of reprints) is therefore safe but, as all who have had the privilege to work with David would gladly attest, British elections simply won’t be the same without him hovering in the campaign corridors.
In his self-effacing manner, David bowed out quietly, though many in Westminster and Whitehall would have wished to bid him farewell comme il faut. The Guardian newspaper ran an editorial ‘in praise of David Butler’ (25 November 2005). He had been awarded a CBE in 1991 and elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1994 – still, some would argue that he deserves further recognition for all that he has done since, particularly in the context of the Hansard Trust and the Electoral Commission. Butler was born in 1924. His father was Professor of Latin at University College, London and the young Butler grew up in Bloomsbury and was educated at St Paul’s School. He commanded a Sherman tank during the war. Wartime memories have to be squeezed out of him, but he recalls putting the canvas  ‘skirt’ up and floating across the Scheldt. Afterwards, he studied at New College, Oxford, where he became lifelong friends with Tony Benn. He went to Princeton University 1947-48, then returned to Oxford as a researcher and academic at the relatively new Nuffield College. He was personal assistant to the UK Ambassador in Washington for one year (1955-56), but otherwise remained as a fellow and then an emeritus fellow of Nuffield College.
In his television heyday, Butler was known for his enhancements to the original crude ‘swingometer’ and for his stress on the voter’s ‘pocket book’. He still has a knack for the telling phrase or observation. Now, as the grand old man of psephology, he can look back on the extraordinary evolution of politics and political campaigning since the Second World War. Butler owed his success to a number of factors. The most important was ever-growing personal knowledge and contacts: Butler, for example, has interviewed every Prime Minister from Winston Churchill onwards, has taught large numbers of the UK’s political classes and has surely been read by the rest. He has a vast stock of personal and political anecdotes (I remain fascinated by the one he tells about the rust stains on the Duke of York’s column, representing the power of the parliamentary question!). Butler has bequeathed his collected interview notes (impressionistic and succinct but always interesting) to Nuffield College, Oxford and, once released, these behind-the-scenes glimpses will surely help political historians better to understand the thinking behind electoral tactics.
The Nuffield Studies were not his only achievement. Over the years, David branched out into studies of referendums, of coalitions and of American, Indian and Australian politics (and through the latter he developed a global network of friends). In 1979, writing together with David Marquand, he extended the Nuffield series to include the new direct elections to the European Parliament. He wrote about them again in 1984 but, disappointed by low interest (and low turnout), he failed to cover the 1989 European elections. This was an irony since, with the Green Party capturing over 15 per cent of the vote (though no seats), the election turned out to be the most interesting until then.
And that is where I came in. Living and working in Brussels, with an academic sideline, I went up to Oxford to propose that we co-author the 1994 European elections Nuffield Study. I had last seen him back in 1982, as a callow PhD student visiting from Italy. He received me then with great kindness and gentleness. Having served me an improbably large sherry in a pint glass (it was eleven in the morning), he heard me out and then gave me a simple piece of advice. ‘If I were you,’ he said, ‘I’d drop the theory and get on with the writing.’ Now, in 1993, he welcomed me to his Banbury Road home. He left me alone in the sitting room for at least ten minutes with his son’s dogs. I wondered whether this was a test of some sort. It was certainly testing. The sofa he had sat me on was low and one of the dogs kept climbing up on the back of the sofa and making lunges at my ears whilst the other, in classic pincer-fashion, tried for my legs. David accepted my invitation. The 1994 study was a watershed in several senses (Smith’s untimely death, Blair’s rise to power). We gelled, working well as a team. David concentrated on the UK end and I on the European bit. In truth, we were interested by different aspects of the same phenomena and we happily repeated the experience in 1999 and 2004 (his penultimate Nuffield study).
If Butler had still been writing, then I would have been tempted to continue our teamwork this year, though it would have been difficult. These election results promise to be full of event and surprise and consequences, though not necessarily in a pleasant way (above all, will the British National Party win seats?). I feel bad about discontinuing the series since, unlike the General Election series, nobody has offered to take on the role. On the other hand, the House of Commons library and the Electoral Commission both produce excellent accounts and analyses of the European elections. Above all, though, I feel bad because I’ll miss scurrying with David Butler through Westminster and Strasbourg, tracking down politicians and officials and scenting the hunt of the political chase.

Note: I had hoped to get this tribute published somewhere in the national media. For now, my blog will have to do.

1 Comment

  1. Jon Worth

    I had the pleasure to listen to him a couple of times while I was a student at Oxford – a fantastic individual. We need more like him!

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