Matthew Engel is the least fiscally-aware columnist on The Financial Times. For the FT, he writes occasional political sketches, covers major sporting events and produces a fortnightly column of reportage in the Saturday magazine called Dispatch. He wrote for The Guardian from 1979 to 2004 and was editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack from 1993 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2007. Matthew's latest book, Eleven Minutes Late: A Train Journey to the Soul of Britain has been widely praised, but not enough. Since his son Laurie died, aged 13, in 2005, he and his wife Hilary have been running the Laurie Engel Fund in conjunction with the Teenage Cancer Trust and have raised £875,000 to build a new unit for cancer patients at Birmingham Children's Hospital. It is due to open early in 2010. The Engels live in Herefordshire with their daughter Vika. Here Matthew writes about the Times guide to The House of Commons 1945.
Matthew Engel on the Times guide to The House of Commons 1945
I write as the Labour Party prepares to assemble for its 2009 conference in Brighton contemplating electoral damnation and perhaps even eternal annihilation, seemingly with the sense of relief that overcomes the terminally ill if they have enough faith.
This is curious, since history is likely to conclude that the Labour Government of 1997-2010 didn't actually believe in anything.
Still, anyone with any kind of attachment to progressive politics must feel a certain sense of sadness at the impending doom of yet another alleged attempt at left-of-centre governance. It seems a moment to turn to a favourite of mine that recalls a very different moment.
On my shelves it stands between my set of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack (146 editions and counting) and Wisden's Rugby Football Almanack (I have the complete set - just three editions in the 1920s). It is The House of Commons 1945, published by The Times.
In a sense, the positioning is appropriate. Unlike the rugby almanack, The Times Guide to the House of Commons (as it is now called) is still going. It is published after every general election, with a few articles describing the campaign and the previous parliament, then the full list of results, and potted biographies of the winners and the constituencies.
There used to be biographies of all the candidates but the sub-editors seemed to get increasingly bored with having to tell readers about Sutch D. (Loony) and Buckethead, Lord (Gremloids).
However, The Times Guide failed to match the cricketing Wisden's most priceless achievement. It was first published in 1880 but didn't appear four times in the early 20th century, and has been continuous only since 1929. The 1886 Wisden failed to appear until 1887, but it did arrive eventually. Collectability depends above all on continuity.
But there must be a few other nutcases around who love these sparse volumes of arcana. I waited a year before a 1945 edition came up on ebay to enable me to complete my post-war set. I can't remember precisely what I paid - the low three figures, I'm sure - but I didn't mess about and didn't begrudge a penny.
It is not as attractive as the ones that followed: photographs of each MP only arrived in 1950. (Apparently, a lot of them were wrongly identified that time but the general impression of elderly white males, nearly all with moustaches, horn-rimmed glasses or both, is correct, I am sure.)
But the clipped prose and bare figures of the 1945 edition are enough to convey the drama and surprise of that most dramatic of elections. There was a three-week gap between polling and declaration because the forces' ballots had to be flown in from across the world (though not quite from all over it: 'It was not found possible to include Australia and New Zealand').
During the hiatus, 'Mr Churchill went to France for a short holiday and then flew direct to Berlin to take part in the Three Power Conference at Potsdam, where he was joined by Mr Eden and Mr Attlee'. The conference had a short break so the UK representatives could fly home (in separate aircraft) for the results.
The Times Guide goes on: 'Mr Churchill left Potsdam at the height of his fame and power and President Truman and Marshal Stalin no doubt expected him to return within a day or two. But Mr Churchill did not go back to Potsdam. At 7 o'clock in the evening of the day after he had left the Conference he was no longer Prime Minister... Mr Churchill's prudent forethought in inviting Mr Attlee to accompany him to the first part of the Conference enabled the new Prime Minister to resume the Potsdam discussions without any discontinuity.' One imagines Stalin was particularly bemused by this strange way of proceeding.
Page 31 has the telling numbers: Labour 394, Conservatives 188. And then come the details. Even the biographies seem to reveal the sense of astonishment. Here is Greenwich, for instance, gained by Labour with a 10,000 majority. 'Commodore A.W.S. Agar VC (Conservative) won distinction in the attack on Kronstadt in the last war. In 1943 he was appointed President of RN College, Greenwich.' His conqueror, Mr J. Reeves, the book notes dismissively, 'has a long association with the Co-operative movement.'
Brigadier E.W.C. Flavell, the Conservative at Hendon North, 'formed and commanded the first Paratroop Brigade, and on D-Day was the first brigadier to drop with his troops'. It didn't save him from defeat against Mrs B. Ayrton Gould, 'journalist'. In swept Mr G.A. Brown at Belper and Mrs B.A. Castle ('an ARP warden in London during the blitz') at Blackburn, without any first names to inform readers that here were George and Barbara.
Labour actually did not make some of the inroads into genteel England that they did in 1997. Nothing in Sussex, for instance – and the map in the back cover would still have looked predominantly blue, had The Times been up to colour printing.
Even the 12 university seats (which enabled graduates to vote twice) were a Labour-free zone. They were then in their last hurrah before abolition and used proportional representation, which presumably only the educated could understand. But the big cities then had far more seats than they have now – and here Labour dominated. They also won Wimbledon, Taunton, Rushcliffe (now Ken Clarke's impregnable fortress), Cambridgeshire, Sudbury and Hitchin.
Any lefties in need of solace should read this book, though I wouldn't loan my copy for all the Labour votes in Llanelli (44,514 on that occasion).
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]