Meeting Report: A Nasty, Deplorable Little Incident in our Political Life: the sacking of the editor of the Dumfries Standard, 1957

31 January 2014
David Dutton

A nasty, deplorable, little incident in our political life: the sacking of the editor of The Dumfries Standard in 1957.

This was the arresting and surprising title of the talk showing on the screen for the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society meeting at the end of January. It emerged that the speaker, booked for that evening, had called off because of illness. Old Icelandic Literature might be a topic for the future.

David Dutton, a Society member, who taught history in Liverpool for many years before moving to Dumfries, was sufficiently well-organised to be able at short notice to present his Members' Night talk a fortnight early. The audience was not disappointed: the well-researched topic had local interest and related to a period in the lives of many in the audience.

The introduction cited several instances of press barons influencing political thinking and policy from Victorian times to the present day. Max Aitken, later Lord Beaverbrook, and successive Harmsworths, headed by Lord Northcliffe, built up newspaper empires and reaped their rewards from Conservative and Labour Prime Ministers. Churchill in opposition in 1949 spent five weeks writing his memoirs at Beaverbrook's luxurious holiday villa near Monte Carlo. The activities of the Rupert Murdoch empire in recent times look moderate by comparison. However, with dwindling newspaper circulations the influence of the press has inevitably waned.

By the middle of the 20th Century only about twenty small newspapers from Greenock to Aberystwyth gave their support to the Liberal Party, which had once commanded a big following throughout the country. A haemorrhaging of support in the 1930s had been caused by a split in the party over Free Trade. A new party, known as the Liberal Nationals and led by Sir John Simon, was formed. The name of the party changed to National Liberals in 1948, by which time they were virtually indistinguishable from the Conservatives.

The Dumfries and Galloway Standard and Advertiser remained loyal to Liberalism — superficially. Founded in 1843 and based in Queensberry Square near the Midsteeple, The Standard, as it was generally named, had long given support to Liberalism. James Reid, editor since 1919, was also chairman of the Dumfriesshire Liberal Association; but when Dr Joseph Hunter, MP for Dumfriesshire since 1929, joined the Liberal Nationals, the Standard gave its full support. Only Langholm out of the constituency branch associations remained loyal to genuine Liberalism. Hunter's death in 1935 caused a by-election, the victor of which was Sir Henry Fildes, another Liberal National.

Major Niall Macpherson (1908–1987) won the Dumfriesshire seat in the 1945 general election. So close was his association with the newspaper that he held his surgeries in the Standard's offices. Genuine Liberals did not contest the seat between 1950 and 1963 for fear of splitting the Liberal vote and letting in the Labour candidate. Yet at the 1950 general election The Standard declared to Liberal voters that a good Liberal was standing in a straight fight against Labour. Macpherson, who styled himself a 'National-Liberal-Unionist' (as he continued to do), won the seat and was later appointed Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland by Sir Anthony Eden.

In 1954 the octogenarian Reid stood down as editor. A.G. Williamson succeeded despite being a committed orthodox Liberal. The Standard's proprietors perhaps thought they could induce a change of mind. They were wrong! Williamson stuck to his Liberal principles. A marked change in editorial tone received a warm reception from the readership. When an orthodox Liberal performed well in a by-election in Inverness, The Standard declared that the National Liberals were now mere henchmen of the Conservatives. Personal criticism of Macpherson was, however, muted because he was a conscientious constituency MP.

The Suez crisis changed matters. Liberals like Jo Grimond denounced the military action against the Egyptian occupation of the canal whereby Eden tried to topple Nasser. Macpherson as a junior Minister had to support the Prime Minister or resign. His backing of the Government to the hilt incurred resentment from Williamson. Britain was castigated at the United Nations where it used its veto for the first time. This elicited a harsher tone towards the MP in The Standard: the fact that 60 nations voted against Britain in the Security Council showed the extent of world condemnation. The newspaper argued that no true Liberal could support the British government.

Macpherson was clearly annoyed by the newspaper's stance and he and Williamson were invited by the directors to a meeting in the editor's Standard office. The chairman asked Williamson to leave the room, his own office. The eventual outcome was that Williamson was dismissed on 19th June 1957 and replaced by R. Fergusson.

The idea that the MP had been responsible for the editor's removal was raised in the House of Commons. Labour MP for Hamilton, Tom Fraser, told the Commons that the minutes of the meeting had been deleted and new ones, which did not record Macpherson's presence, inserted. Claim and counter-claim circulated. The matter was even reported in the United States.

Harold Macmillan who became Prime Minister in 1957 noted in his diary that this 'ridiculous row' had become a national scandal. Labour forced a heated debate in the House of Commons in which the words in the title of this talk were used. Parliament divided along party lines, giving victory to the Conservatives by 293 to 233.

Macpherson survived to serve under future Prime Ministers, Sir Alec Douglas-Home and Edward Heath, until 1974. In 1963 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Drumalbyn. Only then, in the resulting by-election, did the Unionist candidate drop his 'National Liberal' designation. The true Liberal party could now re-emerge.