Victor Grayson: the mystery of Britain’s lost revolutionary

Issue: 176

Diana Young

A review of Victor Grayson: In Search of Britain’s Lost Revolutionary, Harry Taylor (Pluto, 2021), £16.99

Although the Edwardian era may have been the Indian summer of Victorian grandeur, it was also a period of growth for British socialism. The Labour Party had evolved from the Labour Representation Committee by 1906 to become a palpable force in parliament, and it would only grow—though no one knew that at the time. Marxist parties existed from the start of the decade, including the Social Democratic Federation, the Socialist Labour Party and the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Marxists and revolutionaries also existed within the Independent Labour Party (ILP), and disillusionment with the parliamentary route led to the foundation of the British Socialist Party in 1911. The notable student revolt at Ruskin College in 1909 and the desire for a grassroots pedagogy informed the emergence of independent working-class education and the labour colleges. The suffragists and suffragettes gave voice to disenfranchised women and unionised working-class women, and the the Women’s Social and Political Union was founded in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia. Union amalgamation and the syndicalist movement suggested an alternative to the parliamentary road to socialism, which had been the expected route since the first socialist revival in the 1880s.

The mystery and indeed romance surrounding the socialist politician Victor Grayson was part of this socialist fervour in Britain before the First World War, as described in this new book by Harry Taylor. Born in Liverpool to a family with no steady income, Grayson went through school and an engineering apprenticeship before being scouted to become a future minister in the Unitarian church. By the time he went to study theology at Unitarian College in Manchester, he was already a noted speaker for the ILP. In Manchester he cultivated the support of the Pankhursts and especially that of Christabel, who was also a student at the college. Grayson and Christabel Pankhurst established a student socialist society together, which Taylor describes in some detail (p42-44). The two seemed to be drawn to each other, and you can almost hear them chatting in front an open fire in Taylor’s book. Nevertheless, we do not get to discuss why Grayson and Pankhurst had both become super-patriots and conservatives in the space of a few years. What caused them to take this trajectory? This question is simply never discussed.

During 1906, Grayson spoke passionately at meetings of the unemployed in Manchester’s Stevenson Square, and his reputation for energy and charisma grew. This led him to be nominated for the Colne Valley by-election in July 1907. He stood as an independent socialist because he was denied official endorsement as a Labour Party candidate, and this inadvertently drew attention to the divisions in the labour movement at the time. Nevertheless, Grayson was a star; he was young and a great speaker. Babies were named after him, including one Victor Grayson Feather, better known as the redbaiting 1970s Trade Union Congress general secretary Vic Feather, born in 1908. Grayson’s politics were as much those of the Unitarian church as those of the ILP and socialism, based on his personal experience of poverty. Despite Taylor’s rather weak claims to the contrary, Grayson was no theorist; nonetheless, his charisma and sheer energy carried him to a famous narrow victory over the Liberal Party in Colne Valley.

Even though it was almost by mistake that Grayson missed the endorsement of the national Labour Party, it was a mantle he wore with pride; he was nothing if not an individualist. He refused to take the Labour whip in parliament, and his passionate speeches of moral outrage led to a charge of unparliamentary language and suspension from the House of Commons in October 1908. Was this act fuelled by alcohol, as has often been claimed? Taylor suggests not (p117). Yet, for the Labour Party managers who valued their agreement with the Liberals, Grayson was seen as a liability rather than as an asset.

Grayson’s star quality opened the doors to dinner parties and receptions, and his drinking became public knowledge. In a movement that prided itself on its respectability, and indeed its moral superiority, drunkenness and alcoholism were more than frowned upon. Another possible source of scandal was his homosexuality or bisexuality—the author settles on the first (p63). From his time in Liverpool, Grayson had male lovers. In a world that still dwelt in the shadow of the trial of Oscar Wilde, the potential scandal for a young and dashing socialist politician was dangerous. Grayson lost his seat in the general election of January 1910.

Grayson’s decline was only marginally slower than his meteoric rise. He was actively involved in the campaign for socialist unity during 1910-11, along with the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), dissident branches of the ILP and the independent socialists surrounding Robert Blatchford and his weekly newspaper, The Clarion. However, according to Taylor, Grayson was outmanoeuvred by the SDF and its leader, Henry Hyndman (p168). Grayson continued as an independent socialist speaker and sometime journalist, but his drinking and accumulating debts accelerated his downfall. The outbreak of war saw Grayson on recruiting platforms promoting a “patriotic labour” line, supposedly encouraged to do so by Winston Churchill himself (p197). This was far from a shocking stance; Hyndman and Blatchford, for example, both also supported the war. Unfortunately, however, Taylor misses the opportunity to analyse Grayson’s move to the right by investigating the basis of his patriotic labour position during the First World War.

Grayson, together with his new wife Ruth, went to Australia and New Zealand as a recruiting sargeant, largely to cover his debts. In New Zealand he volunteered for the ANZACs. Wounded at Passchendaele in 1917, Grayson spent the rest of the war convalescing. His wife died in childbirth, and his baby daughter was sent to his in-laws to be brought up in a “respectable” household due to his reputation for drunkenness and indebtedness.

In the post-war years, details of Grayson’s activities become sketchy. The last known sighting of him was on 28 September 1920. The mystery of Grayson’s disappearance has persisted for a century, and the trail has gone very cold. Taylor mentions suggestions that his disappearance may have had something to do with state intelligence kingpin Basil Thompson and the 1922 scandal surrounding Liberal Party prime minister Lloyd George’s sale of honours (p226). All we really know, however, is that he disappeared. That is the real mystery of Victor Grayson and a suitable end to this charismatic failure.

Taylor subtitles his book “In Search of Britain’s Lost Revolutionary”. Yet, though it is undoubtable that Grayson was a flamboyant and attractive character surrounded by the whiff of scandal who disappeared in mysterious circumstances, it is a bit rich to call him a revolutionary. That said, Taylor is not a revolutionary either. His conclusion states, “The Labour Party was formed to represent working people in parliament, not to be an instrument of protest… Strong party structures and organisation are the basis of electoral victory.” He adds, “A dizzying array of parties of the left will never further the case for socialism in Britain” (239).

Taylor’s argument for the political significance of Grayson is weakened by some misinterpretations and errors in the text. For example, he views William Morris as a Christian socialist and anachronistically mentions a “Chartist” rally having led to the Peterloo Massacre (pp90, 53).

Grayson had a reputation as a great speaker in a period when such abilities really mattered, but he left no body of thought in writings comparable to John Maclean (who is more deserving of the title of revolutionary) and Blatchford. Grayson was at best a passionate individual, close to the views of his mentors, Blatchford and gay socialist philosopher Edward Carpenter, who sought to convert people to socialism with his evangelical flourish. There are lessons to be learnt for British socialism from a study of this period, but they are not drawn by Taylor; we thus await a book that will do this for us.

Diana Young lives and works in Prague in the Czech Republic. She has been active on the left for over 40 years and is currently a member of Socialistická Solidarita. She is also a member of CLARA Collective, an international Marxist feminist group based in Prague.