Book review: Sultan of Swing – The Life of David Butler

Written by Sue Cameron on 12 November 2018 in Culture

Michael Crick’s biography of the first ‘telly don’ gives some fascinating insights into our politics – and how the British Establishment works.

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 tete a tete 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 story of how David Butler, an academic, became the first “telly don”, transforming the 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 “electionolgy”- 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 two per cent 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 Mackenzie, “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 Joe 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”.

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 David 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 is published by Biteback.



About the author

Sue Cameron is a columnist, former presenter of Newsnight, Channel Four News and the ITN Parliament Programme and an expert on the Government's relationship with the civil service.

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