The man who can't be wrong

<strong>Taken from The <em>New Statesman</em>5 May 1956</strong>

The Parliamentary Labour Party us

Of all the House of Commons personalities, the most irritating is perhaps Mr Sydney Silverman. He is a cocky man, who throws his shoulders back as if to swell his chest, and thrusts his now bearded chin outward and upward, as if to give him inches. Indeed, he seems over-occupied with his own shortness. [As a result] even his jokes are often outsize, and he follows them with an extravagant cackle, slapping his knee in an ecstasy of delight. Often the point of these stories is that some body, corporate or otherwise and very likely the National Executive of the party, has been scored off by him.

The irritations which Mr Silverman produces in private are redoubled in public. He will rise from his corner seat below the gangway and, though the House is anxious to pass to other business, argue some technical point. The House sometimes yells in real anger. But he persists. At length the House subsides and waits hopefully for him to be proved wrong. But the most irritating thing about him is that, far more often than not, he is proved right.

This might merely suggest that he is a good lawyer; but there is much more to him than the bare ability to argue technical points. Coming from a large and not particularly well-to-do Liverpool Jewish family, he had to fight for his own legal education through scholarships. When he did begin to practise, he had just sufficient money to open an office and pay a typist one week's wages. But within a short time he was perhaps the most active, and certainly one of the more successful, solicitors in Liverpool. This success was only partly due to his forensic ability in the police courts. Even more, it was due to his passion for what he believes to be right, and to his bias for believing that right is more likely to be on the side of the little man than of the mighty.

This same passion and tenacity has fired his work in the House of Commons. There, too, he has shown a capacity to argue passionately, and be proved right over much more than mere technicalities. In 1945, when Labour had scarcely caught its breath after its sweeping election victory and was preparing to reshape the world, Silverman held up much government business and might even have brought the government down on what seemed a small point - whether old age pensioners should receive their increased pension at once or wait until every new benefit under the projected National Insurance bill could be implemented. The government was for delay, declaring that prior payment to the old was administratively impossible. At first a majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party seemed to be with the government and against Silverman. But he persisted and, in time, a majority began to feel that, after all, the party had committed itself at the election to help the pensioners more explicitly than it had committed to help any other section of the community, and that perhaps what seemed impossible could, with determination, be done without much difficulty. Eventually, the government gave way and the old age pensioners got their increase six months earlier than had been planned.

As with pensioners, so with the unemployed. Silverman protested in 1946 against clauses in the National Insurance bill laying down that a man or a woman should exhaust the right to benefit after a specified period of unemployment. Though he persuaded some 40 other members to follow him into the lobby, the government won easily. Yet, nine years later, official Labour spokesmen began to advocate what he had advocated.

Neither the ability to be right far more often than wrong, nor the ingeniousness and pedantic logic with which he argues his cases, makes friends for Silverman. But his persistence, his courage and sincerity have long ago won him respect. In recent months another quality has begun to produce real affection. That is the quality of being willing and able almost to efface himself, if the issue for which he is fighting demands it.

It is a quality which has been particularly impressive in the debates on hanging which have taken place recently. Silverman had been responsible for introducing the subject to this parliament. When his motion, calling for the suspension of the death penalty, was carried against governmental advice, the government agreed to find time for a private member's bill. By a fluke of the ballot Silverman happened to win the chance to present such a bill himself; and when the day for Second Reading came, some opponents of capital punishment were afraid that its main sponsor might prejudice floating voters against it. Those fears were groundless. Silverman was matter-of-fact, unemotional and unaggressive to the point of dullness. If this was cleverness, it was a cleverness which impressed the House instead of irritating it.

Silverman has spent his lifetime fighting [and in doing so] he has won for himself a special place both in the Labour movement and in the House of Commons. Yet, till now, the acknowledgement he has earned has been touched with mockery and exasperation, as if with all his abilities he were no more than a crank or an ageing bore. But now there are signs that this is changing, perhaps because Silverman himself has been changing.

J P W Mallalieu (1908-1980) was a Labour MP and New Statesman Westminster columnist.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, An abuse of power