Book Review: ‘The Strange Case of Victor Grayson’

Disappearing Man

‘The Strange Case of Victor Grayson’, by Reg Groves. Pluto Press, £2.

The tale of Victor Grayson’s disappearance used to appear regularly in such series as “The World’s Strangest Stories”, flavoured by the possibility that somewhere he might still be alive. The idea can now be dismissed — it is ninety-four years since Grayson was born; this book assembles the facts of his life and political career.

Grayson was one of the figures thrown up by the pre-1914 Labour movement. Beginning in chapels and street-corner meetings in Manchester, he emerged as an outstanding young orator. The Colne Valley Labour League chose him as their candidate in the by-election of 1907; to everyone’s astonishment Grayson was elected to Parliament, at twenty-five. The ILP and the Labour Party had refused to endorse his candidature, because it crossed their arrangements with the Liberals. Preaching a fiery radicalism which centred on demands for measures to deal with mass unemployment, he was continually at odds with the parliamentary Labour leaders.

After losing his seat, he joined with H. M. Hyndman and Robert Blatchford in forming the British Socialist Party — it was only a change of name by the Social Democratic Federation. However, personal failings had already taken hold of Grayson: in particular, drink. He still attracted large audiences, but it was never certain he would turn up. In 1915 he went to New Zealand, where eventually he joined the army and thus returned to England. His disappearance followed some dabbling in Irish politics and in the question of the sale of titles by Lloyd George; Reg Groves links it with a political agent named Maundy Gregory, who was in the latter affair.

One interesting aspect of the book is its account of the wheeling and dealing by Keir Hardie, Snowden and others to preserve their alliances or their ambitions, or both. It is a pity that Reg Groves has let his own political romanticism run away with the story in respects which are not essential to it, such as claiming that Grayson was “the first and last man ever to be elected to Parliament as a socialist”. He was nothing of the kind: he was a brilliant and passionate demagogue, but a reformist who ended by supporting the 1914-18 war as did the men he condemned.

Likewise, Grayson’s criticisms of the House of Commons are extended into a theory that he was destroyed by the “fraud” of parliamentary action and would have been saved by syndicalism. This is absurd, and the writer should think again about the implications of facts he himself gives. Nevertheless, the book is worth anyone’s reading for its picture of a curious and tragic political figure, his contemporaries and times.

Robert Barltrop

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