About Sir David Butler
Sir David Henry Edgeworth Butler was born on 17th October 1924, into a family of academics. After attending Colet Court and St Paul’s School, he read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at New College, Oxford, where his tutor was Isaiah Berlin. He interrupted his academic studies to serve in the war, being commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Staffordshire Yeomanry. As a tank commander, he crossed the Rhine in the latter days of the Second World War.
Whilst still an undergraduate, Butler set out the Cube Rule for elections and published it in a statistical appendix he wrote for the very first Nuffield election study in 1947.
Completing his degree at Oxford, Butler was elected to the Jane Eliza Proctor Scholarship at Princeton University and conducted postgraduate research into opinion polls in 1947 to 1948. After his work at Princeton, Butler spent the last six months of 1948 hitch-hiking around the USA during the presidential election, and following the candidates Harry Truman, Thomas Dewey, Strom Thurmond and Henry Wallace. He began writing occasional journalism, initially as a foreign correspondent for Time and Tide.
Returning to Britain, Butler enrolled at the burgeoning Nuffield College in 1949, writing a DPhil thesis in just two years, on ‘The Evolution and Working of the British Electoral System, 1918-1950’. It was subsequently published by Oxford University Press in 1953.
Having contributed to the Nuffield election studies published in 1947 and 1951, he agreed to take over the series. When the snap election of 1951 was declared, he was appointed a Junior Research Fellow at Nuffield — and has remained a Fellow of the college ever since. The British General Election of 1951, released the following year, was Butler’s first book; the first of 21 Nuffield studies written or co-written by Butler; and the first of 43 books by Butler, not including the multiple editions some books have passed through — British Political Facts (now retitled Butler's Political Facts) is currently in its 11th edition.
Parallel with Butler’s academic career, he pursued a broadcasting career with the BBC starting in 1950, pioneering their TV general election coverage that year. Over the 1950s, he would present various programmes, and he helped design the famous 'Swingometer' used on election nights. In 1958, Butler hosted a conference at Nuffield for the BBC, ITV, and senior figures in all parties, which brokered an agreement to allow election campaigns to be covered on television — until that point, only the results had been covered, after an election had already happened.
Nuffield College continued to be Butler’s base over the years. He served as Dean and Senior Tutor from 1956 to 1964 and as Bursar in 1976 to 1977. As a long-serving member of its Premises Committee, he played a part in commissioning everything from the College’s architecture and furniture, through to its art holdings — a David Hockney portrait of Norman Chester was commissioned by Butler.
Throughout the 1960s, Butler collaborated with Michigan-based political scientist Donald Stokes, producing the seminal Political Change in Britain: Forces Shaping Electoral Choice (1969). The book was based on three waves of panel data, interviewing thousands of voters, and was the precursor to the British Election Study, which continues to this day.
The 1970s and 1980s saw Butler having several professional setbacks, including being passed over for a Professorship and being unceremoniously dumped by the BBC from their TV election coverage after 1979. Nevertheless, he remained enormously productive — the 1970s alone saw the publication of five Nuffield election studies, two updated editions of earlier books, plus a further three new books, including The Canberra Model: Essays on Australian Government based on Butler’s deepening interest in Australian politics. Butler also acted as an adviser on election broadcasting in Australia in the 1970s and India in the 1980s. In 1982, he co-founded the academic journal Electoral Studies, serving as Editor for its first ten years.
In 1962, Butler married Marilyn Evans (1937-2014), a distinguished English literature scholar of the eighteenth century, who became King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge University from 1986 to 1993. As Rector of Exeter College, Oxford from 1993 to 2004, she was the first woman to head a previously all-male Oxbridge college. They had three sons: Daniel, Gareth (who predeceased them) and Edmund.
Butler retired as a Fellow of Nuffield in 1992, but remains an Emeritus Fellow and continues to write and speak sporadically, well into his nineties. In 1991 he was awarded the CBE, and he was knighted in the 2011 New Year’s Honours List.
Photograph of David Butler by Jane Bown.