Review by Tom Chidwick
Having been in government for thirty-two out of the last one hundred years, the Labour Party occupies more than its fair share of the pews in the pantheon of unjustly forgotten parliamentarians of the previous century. From ILP stalwarts George Barnes and John Wheatley to devolutionist Scots of the Seventies John P. Mackintosh and Harry Ewing, some of Labour’s most complex and engaging characters have slipped from public consciousness, becoming ripe and willing subjects for fledgling and unoccupied biographers. In this compelling account of the turbulent life and times of one of their number, Victor Grayson, Harry Taylor re-establishes the fiery one-time MP for Colne Valley as one of England’s staunchest and most noteworthy socialist pioneers.
Born into searing poverty on Merseyside in September 1881, Grayson was an Evertonian by birth and one of seven surviving (and illegitimate) children of a ‘wayward’ Yorkshireman-soldier and an impoverished Scots mother in domestic service. Suffering from a pronounced stammer after being born tongue-tied (an irony of history, as Taylor highlights, for a man who would later be dubbed ‘Britain’s greatest mob orator’), young Victor’s formation was shaped by poverty and his work-shy and ‘generally idle’ father’s serial unemployment, first earning his crust at just ten years of age. As Huddersfield journalist Wilfred Thompson has noted, the formative years in Liverpool and Manchester meant that Grayson made an ‘early acquaintance with the misery and privations of the out-of-work, and mingling with the flotsams and jetsams of society, gained an experience of the degrading effects of soulless toil by doing odd jobs to gain food and shelter’.
Having taken up a seven-year apprenticeship at J.H. Wilson’s Bank-Hall Engine Works at Sandhills before discovering a desire to become a preacher, Taylor notes that Grayson began to ‘haunt all forms of open-air meetings’, initially believing religion to be the best way to ‘save his class from the social evils amongst which they found themselves, and to build a better world’. Whilst the impact of organised religion on Grayson’s early life suggests that he lived a distinctly Victorian existence—having undertaken religious instruction at the Unitarian Home Missionary College in Manchester—In Search of Britain’s Lost Revolutionary chronicles the life of a markedly modern man: a radical, even revolutionary, socialist—who believed that ‘only political power in the hands of the working class could truly alleviate their problems’—and whose Unitarianism, Taylor speculates, was partially informed by his bisexuality.
Not dissimilarly to the author of the book’s foreword (the MP for Islington North and the previous Leader of the Opposition), Grayson was renowned for his visceral speaking style, possessing an inherent sense of what his electorate ‘felt or wished to feel’ and imbuing his platform oratory with a ‘rollicking humour’ as well as a profound theological purpose. Coming to prominence in a highly fragmented socialist movement—which Michael Foot once observed was the only political creed of the age which could claim ‘such richness or command such widespread intellectual contributions’—Grayson’s career dovetailed with an era in which the alleviation of poverty and unemployment was a national question and politics a moral and often fraught crusade.
As Andrew Marr recently observed in a review of Tristram Hunt’s new life of Josiah Wedgwood, the best biography reminds us that ‘our predecessors could be infuriating, complex folk, resistant to neat analysis’ and Grayson is no exception. As a revolutionary platform favourite, his victory at Colne Valley in July 1907—albeit with a majority of just 153 votes over the Liberal son of Free Trader, John Bright—as well as his refusal to sign the constitution of the Parliamentary Labour Party (a condition of joining its grouping in the House of Commons) exacerbated the first (and now almost cyclical) tussle for the soul and direction of the fledgling party.
As Harry Taylor observes, Labour’s more conservative establishment figures—including Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald, and Philip Snowden—maintained that Grayson’s militant advocacy of extra-parliamentary action endangered their commitment to the ‘parliamentary road to socialism by emboldening the more radical and revolutionary elements of the movement’. By contrast, as Grayson told the Independent Labour Party at Huddersfield in 1908, his supporters and the Colne Valley electorate considered it a ‘pearl of great price that we should have independent socialism represented in the House of Commons’.
Likewise, as an endearingly flawed, ’emotional and fragile soul, battling with burgeoning alcoholism and living a closeted life—engaging in what his friend and one-time landlord, Samuel Hobson, labelled ‘dangerous hospitalities’—Victor came a cropper of ‘chapel-going, working-class trade unionists … the most homophobic elements in the political firmament’ and the party’s heterosexual chiefs. Finally, with mounting speculation among party gossips that Grayson—whose heavy drinking and imminent bankruptcy had, at one point, led him into what appeared to be ‘an impossible slump’—was ‘prone to excess, living a secret double-life and lacking wise counsel’, Taylor makes a convincing case that his subject’s disappearance in 1918 was most probably brought about by a close supporter of MacDonald, threatening the 39-year-old former parliamentarian with the ‘definitive end’ of his public life.
In Harry Taylor—a Regional Director of the Labour Party who has mined a rich vein of recently discovered archival material as well as revealing testaments from Labour luminaries —Victor Grayson has found an understanding, but not uncritical, champion, who wears his extensive research lightly and has now confirmed his status as one of the party’s most perceptive and sympathetic chroniclers. Whilst any examination of such an uncompromising spirit inevitably (and sometimes inadvertently) encourages the ‘flaming torch of revolt’—which H.W. Lee and E. Archibold suggested that Grayson ‘carried against the official Labour Party leadership, from Land’s End to John O’ Groats’—Taylor argues that Victor’s life teaches us that the British Left and its representation of working people in Parliament would be better served by realising that ‘strong party structures and organisation are the basis of electoral victory’, concluding that a ‘dizzying array of parties on the left will never further the cause of socialism in Britain’.
Over a century on from his still-unsolved disappearance, Grayson increasingly appears to be, as Taylor argues, an ‘apparition from a distant generation of Labour figures’, despite being six months younger than Ernest Bevin, the distinguished Foreign Secretary in Clement Attlee’s gold-standard administration. In that sense, Grayson is a prime example of what the renowned Whig historian, G.M. Trevelyan, once called ‘the poetry of history’ – the ‘quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing into another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone, like ghosts at cockrow’.
Tom Chidwick is a freelance writer and contemporary historian, who writes a fortnightly column for Scottish Review. He is currently writing a history of the 1979 referendum on the creation of a Scottish Assembly. He can be found on twitter at @TomChidwick
About the Author
Harry Taylor is a former Labour councillor who now works as a political director. He is co-author of Peter Shore – Labour’s Forgotten Patriot, and author of the forthcoming Victor Grayson: In Search of Britain’s Lost Revolutionary, to be published by Pluto Press in 2021. He can be found on twitter @HarryTGTaylor1