A LABOUR ENIGMA

A well-constructed and balanced review of Victor Grayson The Man and the Mystery by David Clark appears in the current issue of the Literary Review. Kenneth O Morgan, the reviewer, begins his lengthy piece by describing Victor Grayson as ‘the fiery meteor who blazed briefly across the Socialist firmament in Edwardian England.’

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He was, he says, a flamboyant rebel, a handsome, spellbinding orator who rose up from nowhere, winning a famous by-election in Colne Valley in July 1907 at the age of 25, embodying the native American notion of ‘the legend that walks.’ Or in this case, that staggers. For years after his death, his memory was cherished in Socialist circles, especially in the industrial north: Hardie Feather, the Bradford-born general secretary of the Trade Union Congress, was, for example, named in his honour.

Some still revere him still as ‘Labour’s lost leader’ and yet his political career was from the first disastrous and destructive. He proved to be a willing, uncooperative comrade who rejected the discipline of the whips and introduced seeds of division into both the new Labour Party and its socialist affiliate, the Independent Labour Party (ILP).

His life degenerated into alcoholism, gambling and nervous collapse. When he left for Australia during the First World War (which he strongly backed), it was almost a relief. The man of scandal turned then into a man of mystery. He returned from Australia after the war and became involved in Maundy Gregory’s seedy world of corruption and private espionage. Then in July 1920, still not 40, he walked out of his comfortable property in central London and disappeared forever.

Everything about his extraordinary life now appears veiled in obscurity. There were rumours about his birth and suggestions that he had a family connection with Winston Churchill. There were also rumours about his death and suggestions that he was murdered by a henchman of Gregory. In fact where and when he died is still unknown. There were endless reported sightings of him down to the late 1940s, usually unconfirmed.

‘The meteor had fizzled out. Colne Valley’s useful Pericles had become the Loch Ness monster of British politics. This extraordinary career has for many years fascinated David Clark. His interest in Grayson was first sparked in the 1970s when he was himself elected as MP for Colne Valley which gave him important contacts with old associates of Grayson. He then published, through Quartet, a biography of Grayson in 1985 of which this is an updated edition, making use of source material he has discovered, often in obscure places, over the past thirty years. The result is an exceptionally interesting, readable book which is about 100 pages longer than its original version.’

The reader must get a copy of the new edition which is out now. Victor Grayson’s life is worth a flutter for he truly was an amalgam of political chicanery and an orator of tremendous force, yet he lost his way in the end and remains to this day a mystery that baffles and seems beyond resolution.

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