David Butler, who died at the age of 98 earlier this month, was someone who helped shape how media and broadcasters covered elections in the UK. His influence spread to how politics is understood and portrayed more generally.
Butler was there at the onset of what has become known as the 'Nuffield election series', named after Nuffield College, Oxford University, where the main author Robert McCallum was based. This began with the 1945 General Election in which Butler wrote two appendices, followed by one in the 1950 study, before becoming its main author in 1951 and being a co-author up to the 2005 election. He was involved in 17 of the 21 post-1945 UK elections.
There is much more to David Butler than these studies of UK elections, important though they were. He contributed to changing how UK elections and political campaigning were understood and even organised. Alongside this, Butler made a major contribution to how TV punditry, analysis and commentary evolved, and was involved in the BBC's TV coverage of elections from 1955 onwards.
Before then, the BBC covered elections as if coming from a past world of reverence and stuffiness, lacking any of the life and energy which should be associated with democratic politics. There is a direct connection from David Butler and Robert McKenzie in the 1950s to today's world of how election results are broadcast, linking Jon Snow and John Curtice, all of whom owe a debt to the pioneering work of Butler.
David Butler, swing, the swingometer and C S Lewis
Butler created or gave prominence to several of the key terms which we now think of as central in how we interpret election results and the movement of votes. One of these is the idea of 'swing': the shift of votes between political parties and, particularly in Butler's age, between the Conservatives and Labour.
When he laid out this notion in one of the appendices of the 1945 election, it had been suggested to him by Oxford academic Robert Ensor, who Butler always acknowledged. The creation of this term, like many before and after, led some to associate it with magical powers, over-stating its characteristics and believing it could prophesise from vote changes the exact shift in seats and election results.
What Butler's swing analysis was predicated on was two-fold: a stable two-party system of Conservatives and Labour, and a national change in votes. These two factors were there for the most part in 1945 and subsequent elections arguably until 1970. But they had not been evident to the same extent pre-1945 in the politics of the 1920s and 1930s, which saw Conservative dominance as the Liberals declined and the Labour Party became a national force.
Along with the idea of swing came the physical embodiment of it in the swingometer. Butler came up with this in a memo to the BBC in 1955. It was tried out in the 1959 election but took a bigger role in the 1964 contest, where it was fronted by Butler's fellow TV pundit and election analyst Robert McKenzie.
The brilliance of the swingometer was that it offered a connection between the idea of swing, changing votes and seats shifting from one party to another. It was still located in the idea of two-party competition and national swing which were to become increasingly problematic as UK politics fractured. But it also provided a direct connection from the very analogue world of late 1950s/early 1960s broadcasting and the sophisticated computer modelling and graphics which now dominate TV coverage of elections.
On top of all this, Butler contributed to the dissemination of not just the above ideas but a concept: psephology, which draws from the Greek word for pebbles, as ancient Greeks used pebbles to vote. The word was initially created as a bit of a joke to learned science and academic disciplines but it was to take-off as a term in the English-speaking world.
The standard explanation says that Oxford dons came up with the term in the late 1940s and that it was then popularised by Butler. Michael Crick in his biography of Butler, Sultan of Swing: The Life of David Butler
, published in 2018, quotes a letter from Robert McCallum to his co-author Alison Readman of the 1945 Nuffield study, talking about the origins of the word and linking it back to an Oxford conversation where it came from the legendary C S Lewis, who created the magical world of Narnia.
It's a great story about the genesis of a word, now widely used in political and media circles, and which has not entered common currency or indeed the wiki entry for psephology. The first public reference in print to psephology was by Robert McCallum in 1951, followed by Butler in 1952, with his use of it in the USA. This resulted in coverage in the New York Herald,
with headline: 'All a joke says British visitor: Oxford Don Explains New Word'.
Without David Butler, TV commentary and coverage of elections would not quite be what it is today. Without the ideas of swing and the swingometer, perhaps there would be no John Curtice and election studies. How elections are portrayed by broadcasters might be taken a little less seriously.
Michael Crick's Sultan of Swing
is a fitting tribute to Butler as a person and his work. Upon his death earlier this month, Crick noted: 'David Butler may have been the last living person to play a significant role in the 1945 election. As a soldier in defeated Germany, his commanding officer asked 20-year-old Butler to make separate speeches to troops explaining Tory and Labour policy'.
Crick also pointed out in 2021 that Butler's first BBC broadcast was in 1949 and the last election he commented upon was 2019: a span of 70 years. But as Crick observed, Butler can claim a longer timeframe: 'The psephologist Sir David Butler, 97 in October, points out that his father was born before the invention of the internal combustion engine; his grandfather before the 1832 Reform Act; and his great-grandfather before the 1776 American Declaration of Independence'.
John Curtice wrote in moving terms of David Butler at the weekend in Holyrood
magazine: 'Nobody did more to advance the academic study of how Britain's electoral system worked, how election campaigns were fought, or why voters behaved as they did'.
Curtice acknowledged Butler's personal encouragement, writing of his experience at Oxford and then subsequently on the BBC's coverage of the 1979 election: 'He was also my supervisor while I was a graduate student. One of the risks that any senior academic who supervises graduate students potentially faces is that their previous work is questioned or overturned by those they are helping steer into the academic world. In David's case, it was he who, unwittingly, set me off in that direction'.
Curtice had looked at 'Cube Law', which estimated the winning margin in seats of a party ahead in votes under First Past the Post. Due to the decline in the number of Labour-Tory marginals, this meant that the Tory majority of 1979 was much smaller than would have been expected.
David Butler encouraged a new generation of scholars and academics to think about how elections were studied, analysed and explained. This was in the era from the late 1950s, through the 1960s and 1970s, when there was an expansive optimistic ethos both in academia and broadcasting, underpinned by liberal establishment values.
I met David Butler a couple of times and was once on an academic panel with him talking about the politics of electoral reform. He was the epitome of good manners. I even, under the Butler era of Nuffield election studies, got cited a couple of times in the volumes. Post-Butler, I was invited to contribute a chapter on Scottish politics and voting to the 2017 UK election study. As someone who has a complete run of the series from 1945, this was a great honour.
Where are today's David Butler-like pioneers?
To some modern academics, the image of the donnish Butler will appear as if from another age: a world where deference, boundaries and what was and wasn't permissible behaviour was more clear cut. A time when the Oxbridge male elite had an even more firm hand on the tiller.
Yet today's world of academia and media analysis is hardly much more progressive and enlightened than Butler was in his day. He was a pioneer and trailblazer. Contemporary academia, even in the world of election studies and psephology, is now much more dominated by complex mathematical and statistical analysis models.
What is too often missing is the Butler-like desire to bring rigorous analysis to the real world and disseminate it widely. For example, in a UK still living with the after effects of a hard Brexit, there is no stand-alone academic study of the 2016 Brexit campaign. Even more damning, in Scotland there is no stand-alone study of the 2014 independence campaign – arguably the most extensive and important democratic decision Scotland has ever made.
This is a change from the academic world of the past. The 1975 European referendum: the first ever UK-wide such contest, merited a David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh book in the Nuffield series. Scotland's first 1979 devolution referendum warranted a collection: The Referendum Experience: Scotland, 1979
, published in 1981; while the second devolution referendum also got a study and book – Scotland Decides: The Devolution Issue and the 1997 Referendum
– which came out in 2000.
There are many reasons for this absence: campaigns have become longer events and so need histories and context; and how academic funding works and what research monies can be obtained for has changed. Another is the retreat from that Butler-like belief in liberal democracy, optimism and education, which the Nuffield study was originally created from.
David Butler may have come from the heart of what was the British liberal establishment but he was filled by a mission to inform, explain and widen knowledge and understanding. The aim of it was to spread a democratising of democracy, voting and elections, and in so doing hope that this would lead to a better, more effective politics and government.
We are a very long way from such assumptions, optimism and enlightenment today. And we could do with similar idealists and pioneers like David Butler across academia, media and politics, shaking things up and challenging orthodoxies.