Great Thinkers: John Curtice FBA on David Butler FBA

by Professor Sir John Curtice FBA

24 Jun 2019

Sir David Butler provides us with the intellectual architecture that we still use to understand how the electoral system inside the UK works in practice, how voters behave and why they make the choices they do

Sir John Curtice FBA

For three decades, Sir David Butler FBA was the BBC’s go-to psephologist, covering every election from 1950 to 1979. Today, that role is filled by his former pupil, Sir John Curtice FBA. In this episode, the two colleagues discuss how Butler came to make his career studying and analysing elections. 

David Butler was born during the general election of 1924 into a political family. While pregnant, his mother ran the election campaign for his grandfather, the Tudor historian Albert Pollard, who was standing as the Liberal candidate for London University. Growing up in the 1930s, Butler was passionately interested in cricket and cricket statistics, but the Second World War put a halt to match days. Perhaps naturally given his family history, he transferred his attention to election results, spending time reading through and playing around with past results.

Butler studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at New College, Oxford, although his studies were interrupted by army service during the Second World War. After he returned to Oxford, his economics tutor, knowing of his interest in voting figures, sent him to see the historian Ronald McCallum of Pembroke College, who was writing a study of the 1945 general election. McCallum asked Butler to contribute a statistical appendix for what would become the first volume of the Nuffield Election Studies, in which he introduced the idea of ‘swing’. The appendix received a lot of positive attention and marked the beginning of Butler’s career as a psephologist.

I am not a statistician, I am not highly qualified. I applied simple arithmetic and percentages to election results and produced much more orderly picture of what was going on nationally than was previously available.

Sir David Butler FBA 

In February 1950, McCallum was asked to provide television commentary for that year’s general election. He accepted on condition that David Butler would be invited to sit beside him, supporting McCallum’s commentary with his knowledge of statistics. This was the beginning of Butler’s 29 years as the BBC’s resident election statistician. He covered every election from 1950-1979, including the historic 1979 general election that swept Margaret Thatcher to power, until he was eventually succeeded by his former pupil and the interviewer of this podcast, Sir John Curtice FBA.

Television was a relatively new medium in the 1950s, which allowed Butler to play a significant role in shaping how election predictions and results were explained to the general public. Robert McKenzie, a Canadian professor from the London School of Economics, was his alter-ego on many of these broadcasts. Together they are credited with popularising the swingometer, a graphic that shows the effects in seats of the swing from one party to another. It was first used on-screen in 1959 by Butler, but later became McKenzie's trademark. The swingometer lives on in current election broadcasting, although these days it is computer-generated.

Butler’s influence on the role of television in politics extended beyond the television studio. Initially television did not cover election campaigns. But in 1958, Butler gathered senior figures in politics and broadcasting at Nuffield College for a conference in which the case was successfully made that television should provide coverage of election campaigns.

I have no regrets… my life is not planned, it has been accidental. I’ve done things, I’ve enjoyed myself, felt the challenge of trying to answer contemporary questions.

Sir David Butler FBA

In 1951 Butler became the principal author of the Nuffield Election Studies series, a role he performed either alone or in collaboration for over 50 years. The aim of these studies was to provide an immediate, impartial account of how an election had been fought and won, and thereby reduce the risk that they become surrounded in myth. The studies were informed by extensive off-the-record interviews with politicians and party strategists. Butler credits his skill as a political interviewer to the three months he spent hitchhiking across America in 1948. He would strike up conversations with the drivers who offered him a lift by asking them about local politics – while making sure they did not throw him off!

But perhaps Butler’s most important legacy was a collaboration with the American political scientist Donald Stokes that resulted in the book, Political Change in Britain. This was based on the first academically directed nationwide survey of voters in Britain, an enterprise that was subsequently institutionalised as the British Election Study and has become the most important academic resource for studying voting behavior at each and every election since 1964. Curtice describes Political Change in Britain as “the Bible of British psephology”, providing the first comprehensive account of how and why British voters behaved as they did.

David Butler was awarded a CBE in 1991, knighted for his services to political science in 2011, and today is Emeritus Fellow of Nuffield College and a Fellow of the British Academy. He celebrated his 94th birthday shortly before this recording.

Sir John Curtice FBA is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2014. He is Chief Commentator on the What UK Thinks: EU and What Scotland Thinks websites.

Audio excerpts © BBC Motion Gallery / Getty Images

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