Fifty years ago today, British politics was rocked by what Sir John Curtice describes as the most 'significant by-election ever'. On Thursday 1 March, after over a year of 'local difficulty' with his constituency Labour Party (CLP) because of his support for the UK's application to join the Common Market, Dick Taverne, the former Labour MP for Lincoln, capitalised on the public's disillusionment with both Edward Heath's government and Labour's resurgent 'militant left wing' to trigger 'the start of a new force in British politics'.
As Scottish Review
goes to 'print' this week, politicos as well as Taverne's fellow veterans of both the short-lived Lincoln Democratic Labour Association and the later Social Democratic Party will gather in Central London to mark this historic victory. While the 94-year-old Liberal peer will not be 'jumping with joy' as the Aberdeen Evening Express
described in 1973, Taverne and his closest friends and supporters will commemorate exactly half-a-century since the first victory by an independent candidate since 1945 and, as Professor John Ramsden argued, the 'greatest personal victory' in British political history.
Born in 'a jungle house on stilts' in Sumatra to Dutch parents in October 1928, Dick Taverne was educated at the private school, Charterhouse, and Balliol College, Oxford – where he partnered William Rees-Mogg on a debating tour of the United States – before becoming a barrister. An appointment to Dingle – brother of Michael – Foot's chambers in the early 1960s saw Taverne's initial specialism in shipping law give way to a flurry of cases from the Commonwealth, helping Foot represent 'nearly every African nationalist imprisoned by the British in colonial days, and after independence regularly appearing for opposition leaders imprisoned by his former clients'.
After contesting Putney at the 1959 election – beating Anne Clark (later Kerr), who Richard Johnson dubbed 'Labour's forgotten firebrand' to the party's nomination – Taverne was elected to parliament three years later as the MP for Lincoln after his predecessor, Sir Geoffrey de Freitas, was appointed British High Commissioner to its newly independent former colony, Ghana. A door-knocking session by the 'Daughters of the Revolution' (Julia Gaitskell, Pat Brown, Margaret Callaghan, Ann Gordon Walker, Frankie de Freitas, Judith Pakenham and Susan Walston) brought Taverne and an otherwise uninspiring election to national attention.
In his early years in parliament, Taverne helped establish the Campaign for Democratic Socialism (CDS) which sought to bolster Hugh Gaitskell's leadership of the party and bypass the 'pusillanimous' parliamentary party. As Hugh Purcell, the former BBC producer who worked with Taverne during his chairmanship of Radio 4's You the Jury
, observed, the nonagenarian who now sits in the House of Lords was, politically, 'too hot to handle' after 1973, but continues to be a popular parliamentarian. Like his friend and mentor, Roy Jenkins – who, according to his biographer, John Campbell, retained a 'scar on his conscience ever after' not endorsing the 'Return Taverne' campaign in 1973 – Taverne is 'fluent, amusing and charmingly combative'.
While Taverne had an almost 5,000-vote majority and had been Lincoln's MP for over a decade, the by-election in 1973 was caused by 'irreconcilable' differences between Taverne and his CLP. A lifelong European, Taverne had been threatened with 'deselection' as the official Labour candidate if he endorsed Britain's membership of the European Economic Community, against the party whip. Ultimately, while Taverne was one of the 69 Labour MPs who defied a three-line whip in October 1971 to vote for membership, he now laments that he was not 'more principled and courageous' in voting for the European Communities Bill, rather than abstaining.
As Taverne recalls in his characteristically elegant memoirs, Against the Tide
, these 'local difficulties' were rooted in a 'fundamental change' in the party's nature when the Left – led by Leo Beckett who helped his future wife, Margaret, replace Taverne – 'promptly forgot its own history of dissent and vociferously proclaimed the duty of every MP to toe the party line'. On a fiery episode of World in Action
, Taverne told Beckett and his supporters on what he later described as his 'local jihadist management committee' that 'I take note of your opinions, but I am not a puppet – I do not vote as I am instructed by my party masters'.
While the cathedral city had been a safe Labour seat since Clement Attlee's landslide victory in 1945, Taverne won a 13,191 majority as the 'Democratic Labour' candidate on an almost 73% turnout. Although the by-election was not the watershed moment that proponents of a third party believed it to be, it reaffirmed – as Taverne intended – Edmund Burke's dictum that a Member of Parliament should not just vote in accordance with the instruction of their constituents. For the Aberdeen Evening Express
, Taverne's victory showed that independents and smaller parties could overcome the Conservative and Labour parties' 'exclusive bully boy
right to sort out who rules Britain without interference from outsiders'.
In an era when the popular opinion of professional politicians, particularly those housed in SW1A, is almost on a par with traffic wardens and employees of HMRC, Dick Taverne's example reminds us of the importance of having independently minded Members of Parliament. While I frequently comment on the rich combination of political experience and specialist knowledge at the ermine-clad end of the Palace of Varieties, the backbenches of the House of Commons are severely lacking in members of the vigour, shrewdness and elegance of the 'Victor of Lincoln'.
As Dick Taverne himself observed on an earlier anniversary, the moral of the story is that deselection, or having your party drift away from your own lifelong convictions, is not 'inevitable political death for an MP who sticks to his or her principles'.
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh