A rebel MP, regarded as a wildcard by the Parliamentary Labour Party but capable of generating mass support through a busy schedule of rallies, whose election convinced conservative newspapers that a ‘red revolution’ was coming. If only there was some contemporary parallel for the story of Victor Grayson.
Grayson is a legendary figure within the Labour party; ‘a rare political phenomenon who has developed into something of an icon over the years’ despite ‘just one election victory’ and ‘an inauspicious parliamentary career’, a great orator who left an indelible mark on his Northern constituents and caused a scandal with his behaviour in the House of Commons, before breaking with the labour movement over his belligerent pro-War stance in 1914. His mystique is heightened by the circumstances of his disappearance. In late September 1920, Grayson walked out of his home in the company of two men, telling the manageress (with whom he was close) ‘I’ll be back in touch with you’. There were unconfirmed sightings in the UK, Europe and Australia in the decades which followed, before the trail ran cold in 1942.
David Clark, a former MP who had represented Grayson’s own constituency of Colne Valley, published his biography Labour’s Lost Leader in 1985. The Man and the Mystery builds on this work, adding interviews and discoveries made in the intervening years to offer a new theory of Grayson’s disappearance.
Even Grayson’s childhood is shrouded in mystery. Although he was raised in Liverpool, he had no noticeable accent. As a child, he was sent for speech therapy – an expensive and rare luxury for a working class family. He was still in school at 14 (he claimed), past the age at which most children of a similar background would have been out earning a living. It has been speculated that Grayson was the illegitimate son of a noble family, secretly adopted at birth. Clark finds some credibility in this rumour, noting that ‘it was not unusual in this age for working class families to take on an additional baby’, and pointing to the delay in registering his birth, and the fact that his mother signed his birth certificate with a cross, despite being literate.
Grayson shot to national prominence in 1906, winning the Colne Valley by-election from the incumbent Liberal Party, despite the official Labour party refusing to endorse him. He relied on the extraordinary power of his oratory, supported by an already well-established local party organisation. This was an organic movement, driven by labour clubs, and local men serving as councillors; ‘a somewhat unusual political phenomenon’ driven by ‘the power of socialist orators’.
Grayson’s oratory is a key part of his legacy. Described as Britain’s greatest ever mob orator, he is part of a tradition which includes the likes of Henry Hunt and Nye Bevan. Clark was able to speak to Colne Valley residents who had heard Grayson speak, and can testify to the ‘significant following’ that Grayson still enjoyed among elderly residents sixty years after his election. In the days before mass media, he was forced to embark on a punishing schedule of public appearances across England to maximise this talent. His politics were utopian, inspired more by his fervent Christianity than by any reading of Marx; Lenin denounced him as ‘a fiery socialist, without any principles and given to mere phrases’.
His shocking election success was the peak of Grayson’s career, however. In Westminster, he swiftly alienated his fellow Labour MPs, denouncing them as class traitors, refusing to share a platform with Keir Hardie and being ejected from the Commons for disrupting a debate to protest about homelessness. He may have been drunk at the time – alcoholism was certainly contributing to his erratic behaviour, compounding the physical toll his speaking career was taking on him. He lost his post at the next general election, and never held public office again. His ill-health prevented him from speaking in public, and with his sources of income closed off, he lapsed into dire poverty.
The outbreak of World War I marked a major turning point in Grayson’s fortunes. Much of the British left adopted a pacifist, anti-conscription stance; as one of the few pro-war socialists with any sort of public profile, Grayson was suddenly a useful figure for the establishment. He began writing for the jingoistic John Bull, and toured the UK giving rabble-rousing anti-German speeches, particularly in left-wing strongholds such as the Clyde where his experience of socialist rallies was invaluable. He then toured Australia and New Zealand, where he passionately defended Winston Churchill in the wake of the Dardanelles fiasco, before volunteering. He fought on the Western Front before being invalided back to Britain.
After the war, Grayson unexpectedly disappeared from public life, taking up residency in an expensive apartment near St James’s Palace, where he entertained guests like Maundy Gregory, a failed actor and impressario with secret service links, and Horatio Bottomley, the editor of John Bull, for whom he may have ghostwritten articles. How he could afford this lifestyle is a mystery; one possibility entertained by Clark is that he may have been blackmailing Maundy Gregory, who was implicated in a Cash for Honours scandal that threatened to bring down Lloyd George’s government. He suffered tragedy in his private life, as his wife died in 1918, and he was estranged from his only child.
There was no immediate manhunt in the wake of Grayson’s disappearance; in fact, no-one seems to have noticed, and the search only began seven years later, prompted by an article in the Yorkshire Post. It has been theorised that he was murdered, committed suicide or took on another identity, but there has been no conclusive evidence either way. This mystery is the focus of Clark’s additional research. He is quick to rule out the possibility of Grayson dying of natural causes, or losing his memory: he had spent several days visiting relatives and packing his belongings ahead of his disappearance. So we are left with suicide, disappearance or murder.
The murder speculation centres on Maundy Gregory. The men were in regular contact, and Gregory has been implicated in the murder of his mistress, Edith Rosse. There is also a motive, if we believe that Grayson was blackmailing Gregory. Grayson had been beaten up on The Strand shortly before his disappearance, and he was last seen coming out of a house later discovered to be owned by Gregory. However, there is little tangible evidence beyond this. Clark leans more towards the possibility of disappearance, pointing out that before 1914, newspapers rarely used photographs, so Grayson could feasibly have lived undetected if he stayed away from Labour hotspots in the north. Reported sightings of Grayson by people who could be expected to have recognised him add weight to this theory. However, Clark does also introduce some more speculative ideas, relating to the mystery of Grayson’s birth. Returning to the family rumours that Grayson was adopted, Clark suggests that he may have been the illegitimate child of the Marlborough family, and thus a relative of Churchill. There are a few points at which their lives intersect, and it would at least provide some explanation for Grayson’s support of the then-Lord of the Admiralty in the wake of the Gallipoli disaster. There is nothing tangible to support the theory though; while there may be further evidence hidden in archives, but frustratingly MI5 refuse to allow researchers access to any files on him.
In the wake of his disappearance, Grayson has become a cult figure within the Labour party, revered alongside the likes of Bevan and Benn in some quarters. It is tempting to imagine what could have happened if he had come to an accommodation with the more moderate factions within the party, using his oratory within the context of the wider organisation. The story of his struggles with the trade unions and the right wing of the party illustrate an ongoing division within Labour, which is being replayed in the current farcical attempts to depose Jeremy Corbyn. While Clark is very strong on the drama of Grayson’s election, and uses his local knowledge to capture the excitement he generated, it is unfortunate that describing Grayson’s struggles with the Labour party requires a detailed explanation of relations between national organisations, the Independent Labour Party, various committees, the women’s suffrage movement, trade unions and more. Clark is extremely knowledgeable on the intricacies of these relationships, but casual readers may not be so enthralled by the inner machinations of the labour movement in the early 1900s.
Any Cop?: Grayson’s story is a fascinating one, and Clark has likely produced the definitive account (at least, barring any revelations in the MI5 files). While there are passages where the book is bogged down in the minutiae of backroom political machinations, this is by and large a lively and passionate telling of the life. I’m not convinced by Clark’s explanation of Grayson’s disappearance, but it deserves consideration, and there are no gaping holes in his account. This revised edition is a useful update to a classic political biography.