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David Butler ends his renowned Friday evening seminar series at Nuffield College

RISJ Admin

Contributing Author

53 years of media and politicsDr David Butler
Friday 4th June 2010
Johanna Vehkoo writes:
For the first time in 53 years, Dr David Butler sat on the chair usually reserved for the guest of his legendary Media and Politics seminar at Nuffield College, Oxford. On Friday evening 4th of June, the people gathered in the seminar room witnessed the end of an era, when David Butler brought his seminar series to a final conclusion by answering questions instead of asking them. Dr Butler's well-worn armchair was occupied by John Lloyd (of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism), who assumed the role of the questioner, together with Baroness Margaret Jay, a former student of Dr Butler.
Also for the first time in 53 years, the Chatham House Rule did not apply. The last seminar of David Butler was, uniquely, on-the-record, which is the reason why we can report about the event on this web page.
Bringing together journalists and politicians in an Oxford common room was the revolutionary invention of the young don in 1957. Butler introduced the off-the-record rule for the seminars so that the civil service mandarins, leading politicians and journalists could speak freely and share their real life experiences and anecdotes with the audience. This created an extraordinarily intimate ambience in the seminar room. Butler never asked the guest to prepare a talk, as he "only wanted their genius".
Among the guests of the seminar series have featured such towering figures of both British public life and media as Tony Benn, Baroness Shirley Williams, David Dimbleby, Alan Rusbridger, and the director-general of the BBC, Mark Thompson – and the names listed here are only some of the guests of the 85-year old Butler's last academic year. In the previous 52 years the seminar has played host to the former Prime Ministers, Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Edward Heath, John Major and Tony Blair.
As a young don in his twenties, Butler was twice summoned by Winston Churchill. Sir Winston, having forgotten why he had invited Butler, gave his whole 'Blood, Sweat and Tears' speech over dinner. On his second visit, Butler found himself explaining the arithmetic of the upcoming election by using apples and tangerines.
Meeting Churchill, whom he had greatly admired, prepared Butler for interacting with all the famous guests of his seminars. "I could not be in awe of anyone's presence since", Butler said on Friday 4th of June.
Butler is one of Britain's first and still most renowned psephologists (study and statistical analysis of elections). British television audiences have come to know him as the astute commentator of the BBC's election night programmes from the early 1950's until the year 1979. He is well known for launching the concept of swing in elections and for co-inventing the swingometer, first used on screen in 1959. Butler was involved in authoring or co-authoring every edition of the Nuffield studies on British elections from 1945 to 2005.
David Butler's eternal interest in the elections is not only about quantifying. He said that he was sorry to see the "human nature, the analysis and the journalistic side" of politics and voting being drowned by sheer mathematics. Butler found Britain's last general election as the most exciting ever. About his own voting behaviour he said: "I did not vote in the 1950’s, but since then I have consistently voted for all parties."
Read an article about David Butler in The Australian here