Cult Figure

David Clark, Victor Grayson: The Man And The Mystery

Quartet, 324pp, £20.00, ISBN 9780704374089

reviewed by Ian Birchall

‘Nationalisation of land, canals and railways . . . the eight-hour work day . . . universal education and free school meals . . . abolition of the House of Lords.’ One can imagine the sage, moderate journalists and politicians admonishing us that such ‘extreme’ programmes do not win elections. But in the summer of 1907 it was just such a radical programme that launched Victor Grayson (1881 – 1920) on his brief but spectacular career with a by-election victory in the West Yorkshire constituency of Colne Valley.

Grayson was just 25 years old, a student from a college for Unitarian ministers. But his campaign became something of a sensation. Public meetings, often in the open air, were held throughout the constituency, attracting thousands. As well as campaigning vigorously for socialism, he took up the cause of women’s suffrage, despite mockery and physical violence. Admittedly Grayson got only just over 35% of the vote in a three-cornered contest, but the turnout was 88% (almost inconceivable nowadays), showing just how the young candidate had excited the interest of the constituency.

The Labour Party had only recently come into existence; it did not have individual members but was an alliance between the trade unions and socialist organisations, notably the Independent Labour Party. So Grayson stood as the candidate of the local Colne Valley Labour League, with little support from the national Labour Party, and he refused to accept the discipline of the Labour Party when he entered parliament. Although the Labour Party was still in its infancy, it already had conservative tendencies: Labour leader Keir Hardie explained the reluctance to back Grayson, saying there was ‘a desire that men who had grown grey in the movement should not feel that they were put aside to make room for younger men.’

To win a famous by-election is one thing; to work patiently in parliament in order to use it as a platform is more demanding. (The recent experiences of George Galloway confirm this.) Grayson didn’t even try. He made a few speeches and staged a provocation when he demanded an immediate debate on employment even though the Labour MPs had agreed a timetable; he ended up being excluded from the House shouting 'traitors' at the Labour MPs and calling the Commons a ‘house of murderers.’ Instead he devoted his time to touring the country, exploiting his reputation and drawing crowds to hear about socialism.

Unsurprisingly he lost his seat at the 1910 General Election. He had become involved with Robert Blatchford and the Clarion organisation, which propagandised for socialism by sending horse-drawn vans round the country, and promoted choirs, brass bands and cycling clubs. In 1911 he played a part in the foundation of the British Socialist Party in 1911 (later one of the main components of the Communist Party), but was soon marginalised. Grayson was above all a propagandist, a speaker and a journalist, rather than a party-builder. His health suffered under the pressure, and he had become a heavy drinker.

The advent of the First World War disoriented socialists throughout Europe, and Grayson was no exception. He became ardently pro-war, making savage attacks not just on Germany’s rulers but on the entire German people. He argued that party differences should be dropped for the duration of the war, and sharply condemned war-time strikes – though from time to time he did suggest that workers would expect to see improvements at the end of the war. He toured the country making recruitment speeches – apparently Winston Churchill suggested he should do this rather than join the army. Then he travelled to Australia and New Zealand, doing a similar job. Eventually he enlisted and saw action briefly before being wounded.

But the element of legend attached to Grayson’s life was enhanced by his departure from the scene. In 1920 he left his home in the company of two visitors. He seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth. No body was ever found, but despite various claims that he had been seen, there was no evidence he was still alive.

Clark has carefully examined all the available evidence. One point he draws out is that Grayson seems to have been bisexual – and, of course, at that time the penalties for homosexuality were savage. He was also connected with the sale of honours. Perhaps the milieu he frequented gave him opportunities for extortion which could help him finance a new life away from politics. There is even a possibility he was murdered. But Clark inclines to think he managed to create a new identity for himself and survived until World War II. All this, however, remains speculation, and it is unlikely there will ever be definitive answers.

David (now Lord) Clark has long been fascinated by Grayson; this book is a revised and expanded version of one he published more than 30 years ago. Having served in the Commons for over 25 years, Clark knows the procedures and manoeuvres of parliament and the Labour Party well. (It was his carefully-timed retirement that enabled David Miliband to enter parliament without the tiresome necessity of a proper selection process.) So his account of Grayson’s career supplies a well-informed context.

Clark was himself MP for Colne Valley in the early 1970s. He managed to interview some of his constituents who remembered the Grayson campaign from more than 60 years earlier, and to capture memories of the remarkable events which time had not erased. Yet Clark is a product of the modern Labour Party, very different from the organisation that existed before 1914, when it embodied real hope of transforming the world. Too often he seems to perceive Grayson through modern eyes. Thus he notes, quite rightly, that Grayson was a formidable speaker. But it is his technique that impresses Clark – he calls him, slightly disparagingly, a ‘mob orator’ and notes that he knew ‘the tricks of the trade.’ But this is to put form before content. It was not just technique that excited Grayson’s hearers, but the sense that another world was possible, something now vanished from the imagination of Labour functionaries like Clark.

In a bizarre conclusion Clark lists Grayson as one of the three great ‘cult figures’ of the Labour Party – alongside Tony Benn and Oswald Mosley! This is unacceptable. Mosley was a foul racist who merely used the labour movement as a stepping-stone to advance his own vile ambitions. Benn and Grayson, whatever criticisms they are open to, were genuine socialists. Clark informs us (doubtless with thoughts of Jeremy Corbyn in mind) that these three had the ‘facility of attracting disciples,’ but aroused the ‘suspicions of the ordinary person.’ That ‘ordinary’ people are much more diverse and complex than the vote-counters could ever imagine does not cross his mind.

Anything that awakens interest in Grayson and in the socialist traditions of the labour movement is valuable, and Clark’s book is welcome. But anyone seeking a fuller understanding of Grayson's story should also dig out Reg Groves’s The Strange Case of Victor Grayson (1975). Groves was a lifelong revolutionary, and has an empathy for Grayson’s most radical years that is absent from Clark’s well-researched account. As he puts it, Grayson’s story will ‘quicken the pulse and warm the hearts of all who speak and struggle for social justice.’
Ian Birchall is a historian and translator. His most recent book is Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his Time.