Butler's overview of his career

On the occasion of his 90th birthday on 17th October 2014, Sir David Butler gave the following speech to colleagues in the main hall at Nuffield College, looking back on his career.

Thank you all for coming tonight. So many friends. So many co-authors. 

For me, this is a hall full of ghosts: Margery Perham, the first Fellow of Nuffield, the 'Queen of Africa'; Philip Williams, that erudite tennis player; and above all, that towering figure, Norman Chester, for 24 years our Warden. 

I recall the first meal served here on June 6th, 1958, when Lord Nuffield heckled the Duke of Edinburgh as he presented us with our New Charter. 

There is a danger that a 90-year-old, fluting his 'swan song', will drift into an ego trip. But my hero tonight is not me, but the College with which my life has been so long intertwined. 

In 1945, my tutor Philip Andrews found that I, a 21-year-old just back from the War, was playing with election statistics. He introduced me to Ronald McCallum, who was writing the first Nuffield election study. Describing himself as 'innumerate', McCallum asked me to provide a few statistics for his book. The appendix that I wrote attracted some attention in the reviews. It won me a year at Princeton, and then, in 1949, it won me a Studentship at Nuffield, not to mention a lifetime of election night broadcasting. 

In my first term here, I stumbled upon the Cube Law, which had been mouldering unnoticed, in a 1910 Royal Commission report. The Cube Law says that 'If votes are divided A:B, seats will be divided A³:B³'. I found that it worked remarkably well for recent elections, and I unveiled it in an article published in The Economist, just before the 1950 General Election. It caused a stir and gave me the most remarkable evening of my life.

I was summoned to Chartwell, to dine with Winston Churchill and to explain the Cube Law. He was Leader of the Opposition, and polling day was a mere ten days off, but he wasted four hours alone with me, spending the time just showing off to a totally unimportant graduate student. Over several glasses of brandy, he gave me the whole of his 1940 'Blood, toil, tears and sweat' speech.

I remarked that I was only 15 in 1940 and that it had never occurred to me that Britain could be defeated. "What, only 15 in 1940?" He counted on his fingers. "That means you are only 25 today. Better hurry up, young man. Napoleon was only 26 when he crossed the bridge at Lodi... What a small man Napoleon was. He could sit on his horse at Waterloo and see all the armies of Europe deployed before him. How much bigger was that evil man at Berchtesgaden, with his forces spread from the Urals to the Channel." And then he broke off into a Miltonic speech about hating tyranny. Enough of that!

I am happy to see here all my principal Nuffield election study co-authors, Richard Rose, Tony King, Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, and above all, Dennis Kavanagh. Dennis wrote nine books with me. He took over the series a decade ago, and he is now busy preparing for the election coming next May. 

But I must mention one other co-author. I have written or edited a rather large number of books, and I am not ashamed of any of them. But there is one of which I am most proud. Political Change in Britain remains in print after forty years and has received awards on both sides of the Atlantic. However, its scholarly importance is not due to me, but to Donald Stokes. He was the cleverest man I have ever worked with, and a wonderful colleague. Alas! He was a perfectionist, refining ideas, and the book would never have been finished without my managerial impatience. 

In my bachelor years, I worked hard to help Norman Chester establish Nuffield College in the Oxford firmament, and I became the first Dean and Senior Tutor of a mixed Oxbridge College, just as my dear wife became the first female Head of a formerly all-male Oxbridge College. In 1962 I rescued her from the BBC, and in the first five years of our marriage, she produced three sons and a distinguished doctorate. Over the years, she rose to higher things in academia as we travelled the world together: Australia, India...and above all, America. 

But Nuffield was always my base and my pride. I have delighted to watch the College evolve and prosper under very admirable Wardens. I remain a deeply grateful member of this institution which has enabled me to live such a full and happy life.