British Political Facts

Not long ago I wrote an essay about Tony Blair and matters related for an estimable American journal. I wanted to say that the absurd feud between Blair and Gordon Brown was insignificant compared to Iraq, and to make the point more emphatically, I wrote that one day it would seem as esoteric an episode of British political history as the Relugas Compact or Arthur Henderson on the doormat. But my friends across the sea said that they had never heard of Relugas, and so, remembering A J P Taylor's first rule of journalism ("The Editor Is Always Right"), as well as out of general defatigability, I gave up.

If only I'd thought of the answer: try British Political Facts! This wonderful work has been published for nearly half a century and is now in its tenth edition. It doesn't only provide any conceivable information anyone could want on elections, ministries and parties; its sections range from the scrutiny of honours to membership of trade unions, from the media to local government, from a list of European summits to "Political Allusions" - near the end, and my special solace.

When Sir David Butler - as he deservedly if belatedly became in the New Year Honours - published the first edition of this book in 1963, he was already the leading figure in the infant trade of psephology. His very first book was an analysis of the 1951 general election, published when few people reading this were born, and by the time of the Tory leadership crisis in October 1963 he was a television pundit prominent enough to have a footnote in the drama. (After they had discussed the leadership on air, Iain Macleod said to him that Butler's overview was excellent, apart from one thing, which he would explain later. That one thing was Butler mentioning Lord Home as a possible candidate, which Macleod thought - wrongly, as it turned out - entirely out of the question.)

Having pioneered the scholarly analysis of elections, Butler has distilled his lifetime's wisdom into these collections, and I can only say that every politically conscious home should have one, even if most homes will blanch at the consumer-unfriendly price. In particular, any journalist who spends a couple of hours with British Political Facts and can't get a column out of it is in the wrong business. We begin at the beginning with a full list of ministries since 1900 (when Salisbury was both prime minister and foreign secretary, and Arthur Balfour - a nice trick question in Annie's Bar - was first lord of the Treasury, the last time that office was held by someone other than the prime minister).

One startling change since then is the size of the government. In 1900 there were no more than 60 salaried government posts, of which only 33 were occupied by MPs, along with nine parliamentary private secretaries, the unpaid dogsbodies who are expected to vote loyally for the government. By 2000, 82 MPs were government ministers, and there were a preposterous 47 PPSs. That means that when the 20th century began, the "payroll vote" was only 42 in a Commons of 670 MPs in total; a century later, it was 129 out of 659. And if that sounds abstruse, bear in mind that with the earlier payroll-to-backbencher ratio, Blair could not have won a majority vote in parliament in favour of the Iraq war.

Other changes are just as dramatic. There are lists of every minister in office in the course of 110 years and, of course, the results of every general election up to last May. In September 1900, the Tories won their "khaki election", exploiting victories in the Boer war, as David Lloyd George and Margaret Thatcher did with their later wars, though Winston Churchill conspicuously failed to do in 1945. In 1900, even following the three Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1884, the total electorate was only 6.7 million, out of a population in the British isles of 41 million, or roughly 26 million adults. No woman had the vote and only about half of all men did. The first general election at which every citizen over 21 voted was in 1929.

More recently there have been developments more gradual but no less significant. When Blair derides David Cameron for failing to win a parliamentary majority last May, he seems not to have noticed that Cameron and the Tories did substantially better than Labour had done five years earlier - in terms of popular votes (10.7 million, or 36 per cent, against 8.8 million or 35 per cent). Even that's less notable than the long decline in two-party dominance, which may be the most important electoral fact of our times: in 1951, the Tories and Labour between them shared nearly 97 per cent of the vote; by 1974 that was 75 per cent; by last year it was no more 65 per cent. Two-party politics had died, even without electoral reform.

But none of that conveys the sheer fun of the book; the trivial pursuits, if you like. For how long did Lloyd George sit as an MP? Who was the oldest member sitting in the 20th century? Where was the Labour conference held at which Ernest Bevin denounced George Lansbury for "hawking" his conscience, or where Hugh Gaitskell promised to "fight, and fight, and fight again, to save the party we love"? (Answers:
54 years and eight months; S Young, aged 96; Brighton and Scarborough.)

In one way, this edition is sorrowful. David Butler is now 86 and has edited British Political Facts over the years with various collaborators, most recently his son Gareth, who died suddenly less than three years ago at the age of only 42. This book is his memorial - but an amusing as well as learned one. Should we dedicated political anoraks ever tire of defence estimates, governors general, Royal Commissions or membership of the Labour National Executive Committee, we can turn to "Political Quotations": "A fit country for heroes . . . a corridor for camels . . . A week is a long time in politics . . . savaged by a dead sheep . . . the scars on my back".

If for any reason Vince Cable should be feeling morose at present, he can console himself by noting that "from Stalin to Mr Bean" is in this magnificent compendium, as is "psychologically flawed". And "Political Place-Names" covers everywhere from Limehouse - twice, in fact, in 1909 and 1981 - to Granita to, yes, Relugas. Here's the perfect post-Christmas present for any editor.

British Political Facts
David Butler and Gareth Butler
Palgrave Macmillan, 648pp, £150

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's books include "The Strange Death of Tory England" (Penguin, £8.99) and "Yo, Blair!" (Politico's, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Here comes the squeeze