A bugle of the left lost to fate's caprice

The Bloody Circus
October 24, 1997

It is tempting to believe that if the Daily Herald had been as well informed and as highly readable as this admirable, if selective history of it proves to be, the paper, voice of a Labour movement as well as of a Labour party, would never have disappeared from the news stands in 1964. Huw Richards, journalist and scholar, has brought the Herald back to life. He concentrates on its middle period during the 1920s when it was under direct Labour party/ TUC proprietorship, but relates what was then happening to the newspaper and its readers, to what had happened before and what was to happen later.

If Annie Besant had nine lives and Henry Hamilton Fyfe, editor of the Herald from 1922 to 1926, had seven, the Herald, according to Richards, had three. Ironically, its demise came only a few weeks before the return of Labour to power in 1964 after 13 years in opposition. There had always been such planetary conjunctions. As Richards points out, the paper had been born on April 15 1912, the same day as Kim Il Sung, a better survivor; and on the January day of 1924, in its second life, when Ramsay MacDonald became first Labour prime minister, its editor had to deal with the death of Lenin (and a British railway strike). Lenin came off best.

The relationship during the 1920s and the 1930s between the Labour party and Soviet Union, not to speak of the small British Communist party, is doubtless more interesting to most historians of the British Labour movement than the relationship between the Herald's editor and his journalists and proprietors, or that between all of them and the party whose interests they were expected to serve. Yet this brief but well-researched work will be of as much interest and value to historians of communications as to historians. After all, the histories themselves converge. More might have been said of the Herald in its communications context - with other national newspapers enjoying competitive advantages and with local papers suffering problems of their own, and with a newly present and monopolistic BBC which was closer to MacDonald than Fyfe was. Another touch of irony was that John Reith married an Odham, the business which owned the magazine John Bull and which took over management of the Herald in 1929.

If Richards's short book has any serious limitation, it is in its res-tricted comparative dimension. To have given it an adequate one would have involved a Herculean task. It is easier to focus on the oddities and readers will be tantalised by them; they are part of what Richards calls a trio of "oddity, paradox and idiosyncrasy". There is another feature however, which makes for a quartet. Big names appear before they become big. We learn in 1960 of "attractive, dark-haired Betty Boothroyd, twice a Labour candidate" going off to the United States to work on Kennedy's presidential campaign.

The second world war is less securely handled than the 1920s, as are some key figures in Labour party history. There are only two references to R. H. Tawney and one to Harold Laski. Ernest Bevin figures prominently - it was he who wrote in 1919 that the Herald should "not be full of the caprices of the princes, the lubricities of courts and the sensationalism produced by display of the sordid", though he added, "all these things are but passing phases".

What would he have made of 1997? In its last issue the Herald was more interested in the future than the past, which in the words of the editor only deserved "a quick glance". Richards, having read more of the Herald than its most regular reader, seems to have got the perspectives just right.

Lord Briggs was formerly provost, Worcester College, Oxford.

The Bloody Circus: The Daily Herald and the Left

Author - Huw Richards
ISBN - 0 7453 1117 2 and 1118 0
Publisher - Pluto Press
Price - £40.00 and £13.99
Pages - 256

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