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The oldest profession? Psephologists David Butler (left) and R.B. McCallum (second left) in the BBC studio on election night, 1950 (copyright ©BBC Photo library)


While the populace may yawn, it is bonanza time for us election junkies. For the doyen of psephologists, the active 92-year-old Sir David Butler (whose biography by Michael Crick is eagerly awaited), it will be the 16th general election since he first analysed the 1945 polling statistics for R.B. McCallum, that other pioneer of the new science of voting studies. A Scottish Liberal in the traditional mould, McCallum’s main concern in writing what was to become the first of the Nuffield Election Studies was to help avoid what he saw as the punitive economic demands on Germany resulting from the general election of 1918 held in the immediate aftermath of its defeat.

The actual term “psephology” is said to have been used for the first time in 1952 with McCallum and Butler as its first practitioners. Not long after that, the daughter of Butler’s main American collaborator, Professor Donald Stokes, was asked in the playground — so the story goes — what her father did for a living. When she said “psephologist” and a friend replied contemptuously that it must be a new profession, she insisted that it was the oldest profession in the world.

As my doctoral supervisor at Nuffield College, Oxford, Butler introduced me to Britain’s electoral geography. At its heart was the Marquis of Granby, a fine pub with excellent cheese sandwiches situated just off Smith Square. Journalists and party officials would gather there before and after party press conferences. The Tory headquarters was a fine-looking but actually rather grubby building at 32 Smith Square. Labour’s head office was on the same square, at Transport House, the headquarters of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU, now merged into Unite). For a time, the Liberals too had a more modest office on Smith Square. Of the significance of this configuration, more anon.

A highlight of my education was the chance to accompany Butler in interviews with the (soon to be ex-) Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Shortly before the 1970 general election, he was full of confidence as he smoked a Churchillian cigar in his office at Number Ten (not the more proletarian pipe he preferred in public). Asked about his failed application for the UK to join the Common Market, as the European Union was then called, he said that his motive had been that Britain could have led it. A few weeks after that interview, when we called again to see him, he was a refugee. Turfed out of Number Ten when the removal vans arrived on the morrow of his unexpected defeat at the hands of Edward Heath, he was camping in the Vincent Square home of his colleague Dick Crossman while he and his wife looked for a new home.

Wilson’s undignified ouster struck me as the essence of the majesty of “removal van democracy”, the ability of voters to dismiss the government by peaceful means. Two things whose importance have later become apparent did not occur to me at the time. First, that removal van democracy — the direct connection between the verdict of the electors and the dismissal of a sitting prime minister — occurs only in a first-past-the-post system and not always under these rules. In proportional representation systems, the connection between electoral choice and a change of government is uncertain and frequently delayed while rival parties bicker about coalition arrangements and while minority parties are likely to hold the whip hand. Second, I assumed that elections really did have fundamental policy outcomes. That assumption was soon put to the test. It turned out that Heath’s administration, like Wilson’s, was dominated by economic problems exacerbated by trade union bosses. They brought Heath to his knees. Moreover, Heath, like Wilson and Harold Macmillan before him, felt obliged to seek escape from the UK’s economic problems by seeking admission to the club of European nations, a policy which split both of the main parties and received wafer-thin approval in the House of Commons. The shared feature of the UK’s three applications of the 1960s and ’70s to join the European Economic Community was the strong feeling among senior civil servants that the country’s economic situation left no other choice.

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