David Butler answers Prospect's Brief Encounter questions. Illustration: Nick Taylor

David Butler: The quality of politicians at the moment is depressing

The inventor of the swing-o-meter on lunch with Churchill, his biggest regret, and remembering the 1931 general election
November 13, 2018
What is the first news event you can recall?

The 1931 general election. I was seven and I stood outside a polling station in St Pancras. My father was a professor at UCL and we lived in Bloomsbury, and it was a polling station in an elementary school around the corner.

Which past political figure would you most like to have dinner with?

I had it at 25, when I spent four hours with Winston Churchill and that made an enormous impression on me. He was obviously the greatest man in the world and it was an extraordinary privilege to just have him, in a sense, showing off to me, two weeks before the 1950 general election. I said I was 25; he said “Oh better hurry up young man, better hurry up, Napoleon was only 26 when he crossed the bridge of Lodi.” After that I felt I could never be in awe of anyone else I met.

What was your most uncomfortable on-air moment?

I was really lucky not to have many. I first appeared on television in the 1950 contest and was so absorbed in what I was doing, and I would have been doing the same analysis at home with friends if I hadn’t been on air. I had no time to be nervous or worried. And I don’t think I made any great big errors. Elections fascinate me and I have had extremely good times on results nights.

What do you most regret?

I suppose I most regret the fact that I have lived eight years longer than my wife, Marilyn. I was very happily married to an extremely clever woman who went from being a BBC producer to the head of an Oxford college and a distinguished author.

Are things getting better or worse?

In the short run they seem to be getting worse. I am on the whole an optimist and have been an optimist all my life. But at the moment the quality of politicians and the way in which they handle problems is decidedly depressing. I think, for example, in the 1970s the top half dozen Labour people were much superior to the top half dozen today.

The talent you wish you had?

I am totally unmusical. And I think I must be missing something because so many of my friends get so much out of music. I wish I could appreciate it.

The last play/film/novel that brought you to tears?

I don’t think I’ve ever wept in a cinema or a theatre. I have been much moved by some things. I saw Lear done at Stratford and was certainly moved there.

If you were given £1m to spend on other people, what would you spend it on and why?

I suppose the challenge is: can you think of one big thing £1m could do, or would you give it to something where it would be spread widely over the deserving poor? I think I’d be tempted to try and do one big thing but I have no idea what the big thing would be.

And I am afraid that now I need to run. There’s a thing called the Pebble Club, for people who are interested in elections, and we’re about to have lunch in Soho. It’s called the Pebble Club because the ancient Greeks used to drop a pebble (or psephos) into an urn when they went to vote.