In 1977, when my family moved to the town of Peebles in the Borders region of Scotland, I discovered that the Member of Parliament for our new constituency, which was Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (later to become Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale), was one David Steel. 39 years old at the time, Steel was the relatively young and fresh-faced leader of the Liberal Party, which is now the Liberal Democratic Party. Initially, the knowledge that I was represented in Westminster by the leader of the UK’s third largest political party made me feel a bit important, even if I didn’t have a clue what his party’s policies were. I suspect that a lot of the people who voted for him didn’t have a clue either.
In the 1980s, however, the Liberals entered a political alliance with the Social Democratic Party, led first by Roy Jenkins and then by Dr David Owen, in the hope of creating an election-winning centrist alternative to Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government. This hope was never translated into reality; and Steel’s reputation, meanwhile, went downhill fast. This was largely due to the satirical puppet TV show Spitting Image, which in the mid-1980s decided to depict Steel as a pompous but ineffectual squeaky-toned midget who was constantly manipulated and bullied by a Machiavellian and contempt-dripping David Owen. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cwGvgC-r4IE.) Steel is on record as saying that his Spitting Image puppet became so embedded in the British public’s imaginations that it seriously harmed his credibility among voters.
Ironically, despite the uselessness of his puppet caricature, it was the real David Steel’s ruthlessness that ended Owen’s political career. In 1988, after disappointment in the previous year’s General Election, he forced Liberal and SDP members to vote on a proposed merger of their parties, against Owen’s wishes – and when majorities in both parties approved the merger, Owen was finished. However, Steel was by then yesterday’s man too. He stepped down as leader of the newly-created Social and Liberal Democrats later that year and gave up his Westminster seat in 1997.
During the height of Spitting Image’s popularity, it was slightly embarrassing to have as your MP someone whom most people knew as a pygmy-sized, pipsqueak-voiced latex gargoyle who was browbeaten and tormented on TV every week by David Owen. However, that was nothing compared to the embarrassment that befell Peebles following the fifth review of the Boundary Commission for Scotland, which in 2005 saw fit to transplant Peebles and its hinterland from the Borders region and onto an area to its immediate west, creating the Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale constituency. A rural territory populated by obviously rightward-leaning farmers, this new entity elected to Westminster the Conservative politician David Mundell. It was the only Scottish constituency to elect a Conservative MP. That’s right, there’s only one Tory MP in Scotland and he’s representing me.
Now, each summer at the Agricultural Show held in Peebles’ Hay Lodge Park, the Conservative Party invariably sets up a tent and The Only Tory MP In Scotland sits inside it, ready to press the flesh with his constituents, should any flesh present itself. Passers-by at least have the opportunity to point and crack a well-worn joke: “Look, there’s the Rare Breeds Tent.”
However, being represented by The Only Tory MP In Scotland is not the biggest embarrassment in the political history of Peebles. The other day I was doing some research on the Internet and I happened across the incredible story of Captain Archibald Maule Ramsay, who became MP for the town in 1931, while it was part of the Peebles and Southern Midlothian constituency. In that election Ramsay’s majority was nearly double that – 17,435 votes to 9,185 – of his closest opponent, the Labour Party’s Joseph Westwood, who’d been the sitting MP. (By the next election, however, Ramsay had obviously lost much of his lustre for the victory-margin over the Labour candidate was reduced to less than 1,500 votes.) Ramsay was a member of the Scottish Unionist Party, associated with but not properly a part of the Conservative Party in England and Wales – only in 1965 would it become the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party and turn into a regional branch of a Britain-wide Conservative Party.
Scottish-born but educated at Eton and then at Sandhurst, Ramsay entered the army in his late teens, was seriously injured during World War I, and after leaving the military in 1920 became a company director. He also became involved in conservative politics. Deeply religious, Ramsay may have crossed the line from being merely right-wing to being extremely right-wing in response to what he saw as the terrifyingly atheistic and anti-Christian nature of communism.
During the Spanish Civil War, reacting against the anti-Catholicism of the Republicans (who were getting support from the Soviet Union), Ramsay became an ardent supporter of General Franco and founded a right-wing organisation called the United Christian Front, which confronted “the widespread attack on the Christian verities which emanates from Moscow.” Alongside this growing horror at godless communism was a growing anti-Semitism. He became leader of the British branch of another organisation, the anti-Jewish Nordic League, which operated as an upper-class counterpart to the more proletarian British Union of Fascists. By the late 1930s, Ramsay had well and truly entered a paranoid fantasy land where all bad things in life were the result of Jewish conspiracies funded by Jewish money. In parliament, he agitated against the then war minister Leslie Hore-Belisha, a Jew, whom he claimed would “lead us to a war with our blood-brothers of the Nordic race to make way for a Bolshevised Europe.”
By 1939 he’d launched another organisation, the secretive Right Club, which attempted to bring together under one roof all the extreme-right groups in Britain – “all the patriotic parties” as he described them. The club’s logo consisted of a picture of an eagle killing a snake and the initials P.J., which stood for ‘Perish Judah’. Among those in Ramsay’s orbit at this time was the Irish-American fascist William Joyce who, later as a naturalised German, would become the Nazi propagandist known by the nickname Lord Haw-Haw and would hang for treason in 1946.
Ramsay, who’d been a guest at London’s German Embassy in 1938, was not happy when Britain declared war on Hitler’s Germany on September 3rd, 1939. The following day, he wrote a poem (which was then printed and distributed to sympathisers by the Right Club) that began: ‘Land of Dope and Jewry / Land that once was free / All the Jew boys praise thee / Whilst they plunder thee.’
While he made increasingly anti-Semitic outbursts in parliament, the wartime MI5 took an interest in the Right Club’s activities. Their interest was particularly piqued by Ramsay’s knowledge of the New British Broadcasting Service, a German radio station beaming Nazi propaganda into the UK – in a speech in parliament, Ramsay announced the station’s exact broadcasting times and wavelength, thereby giving it free publicity; and by a scandal involving the interception of messages between Churchill and Roosevelt and the possible passing of information to the Italian government.
It was no surprise when in May 1940 Ramsay was arrested under an emergency statute, Defence Regulation 18B, and placed in Brixton Prison alongside other potential pro-Nazi subversives like Oswald Mosley.
After four years of confinement in Brixton’s F wing, where he spent all but two hours of each day in a small cell, Ramsay was finally released in September 1944 – the authorities waited until after the D-Day landings before letting him go. He returned to Westminster and took his seat again in the House of Commons as if nothing had been amiss. However, according to Ramsay’s Wikipedia entry, the only thing of consequence he did during the remainder of his career as an MP was to table a motion calling for the reinstatement of the infamous Statute of the Jewry, originally enacted in 1275 by King Edward I. Among other things, the 1275 statute had decreed that all Jews in England should be identifiable as Jews by having a yellow badge attached to their outer garments.
Ramsay’s constituents in Peebles, it should be said, had long since lost patience with him. Back in 1939, when Ramsay’s anti-Semitism had finally bubbled up in public view, eleven Church of Scotland ministers in County Peeblesshire had sent a letter to the Scotsman newspaper denouncing his views. After the outbreak of war, letters in local newspaper the Peeblesshire News were questioning the MP’s integrity, to put it mildly. One correspondent opined that his speeches “might have been written by Dr Goebbels himself.” And although Ramsay’s local Scottish Unionist association in Peebles and Southern Midlothian disowned him at the time of his arrest, the Peeblesshire News still had strong words for them: “This stain on the constituency should have been and ought to have been averted by Peebles Unionists. In this hour of national trial, we ought to have been saved from such dire calamity.”
While Ramsay was incarcerated, the constituency’s needs were attended to by another MP, David Robertson, who for some reason represented the constituency of Streatham in London at the other end of the island. And it was no doubt a relief for the town, which had lost some 70 inhabitants in the war, when Ramsay didn’t contest the seat again in 1945 and it was won by the Labour Party’s David Pryde.
The main event in Ramsay’s post-political life was the publication in 1952 of his autobiography, The Nameless War. In it, he makes lunatic but typically Ramsay-ian claims such as that John Calvin, expositor-in-chief to the Presbyterian churches, had actually been called Cohen – and guess what religion he’d really been; or that Oliver Cromwell had been a Jewish agent who’d executed Charles I in order to facilitate the Jews’ return to England. Ramsay died in 1955.
For more information on a figure from my town’s political history whom most folk would prefer to forget, check out these articles: