Sultan of Swing: Sue Cameron reviews Michael Crick’s biography of David Butler, the inventor of the swingometer

The biography examines 70 years of history between government and academia as well as the changing relationship between TV and politics

The BBC studio for the coverage pf the 1970 general election In the foreground on the raised portion are (from left) Graham Pyatt, David Butler, Cliff Michelson, Robert Mackenzie, Alan Watson and Bob Welling, with Michael Barret. Photo: PA

By Sue Cameron

14 Dec 2018

It would be unthinkable today. In the middle of a general election campaign with only two weeks to go before polling, a young, unknown research student from Nuffield College, Oxford, was summoned to a booze-fuelled tête-à-tête dinner with the leader of the opposition at his country house. The student had written a piece for the Economist headed ‘Electoral Facts’. Crammed with data on by-election results, turnout and Gallup polls, it gave a formula for working out the ratio of votes to seats. The eminent politician had recognised this as ground-breaking stuff and he wanted to know more. The year was 1950. The great man was Winston Churchill and the student was David Butler who, despite his youth, was already well on his way to revolutionising the analysis of elections. Years later, he said that after that encounter with Churchill he was never in awe of any other situation or person.

The Churchill story is the opener in Sultan of Swing by Michael Crick, which tells the story of how Butler, an academic, became the first “telly don”, transforming TV coverage of elections and devising one of the best known props of the small screen – the swingometer. “You invented that swingy thing,” observed the Queen when she knighted him some 55 years later. “More or less,” he replied.

By the time he met Churchill, the 25-year-old Butler had already pioneered the use of percentages in interpreting election results. In doing so he launched the new science of psephology. The name – more elegant than the suggested alternative of “electionology” – is derived from the Greek word for pebble, which the Athenians dropped into an urn to vote. It was by what David Dimbleby called “the magic of psephology” that the BBC was able to predict the result of the 2017 election only minutes after the polls had closed.

Butler has analysed every British election since 1945, through the Nuffield election book series as well as in his broadcasts. In telling Butler’s story, this book takes us on a canter through 70 years of democratic history, covering the interplay between government and academia as well as the changing relationship between TV and politics. In 1950, when Butler appeared on the BBC’s first televised election programme, only some 2% of the population had TV sets. Butler “immediately grasped the historic nature of the TV project” but the hidebound Beeb insisted that it could not cover election campaigns, apart from bald announcements of the results, because of its duty to be politically impartial.

“It is absurd,” complained Butler in the 1951 election study, “that political subjects should be ignored by the main national medium of communications just when interest in them is at its peak.” It was even more nonsensical given that by 1955, a third of households had TV sets. Butler, and his fellow BBC commentator Robert McKenzie, “conspired” to hold a secret, high level conference at Nuffield. Present were the BBC and ITV top brass, senior academics, Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, Liberal leader Jo Grimond and David’s cousin, Rab Butler, then deputy prime minister. It was the only time David Butler felt he had been a “real activist in politics” and he scored a victory. From then on, broadcasters were able to cover elections much as they do today – as “proper journalists”.

“You invented that swingy thing,” observed the Queen. “More or less,” he replied.

Butler’s network on both sides of the Atlantic was extensive. He had worked in the US, at one time in the British Embassy, and through his research for the Nuffield books, he knew almost all the leading figures in government. His contacts included from Robert, now Lord, Armstrong, who came to Nuffield while still cabinet secretary, and Harold Macmillan, who told him that his phrase “You‘ve never had it so good” had been aimed not at the nation as a whole, but at a single boiler-suited heckler. One future cabinet secretary, the 22-year-old Gus O’Donnell, then a Nuffield student, had the job of feeding Butler with figures during the 1974 election programme.

Michael Crick’s biography of Butler, who is now 94, gives some fascinating and unexpected insights not just into our politics but into the way the British Establishment works – who knows who, where and how they meet, the family and other connections. Crick rightly credits Butler with helping to bridge the divide between scholarly and public affairs, not sticking in an ivory tower but appearing on TV, going to party conferences and interviewing major political players for his books. He was not always right and his pioneering work sometimes earned him the hostility of colleagues – academia can be a bitchy place. Yet, as Crick says, “if most of us managed just a tenth of David Butler’s achievements... we’d have been pretty successful”.

❱ Sultan of Swing – The Life of David Butler

❱ by Michael Crick

❱ Biteback Publishing

❱ £25 Hardback

Read the most recent articles written by Sue Cameron - Book review: Where power lies behind the black door of No.10

Share this page