At the next General Election, the lucky constituents of Bridgwater and West Somerset will find an illustrious name on their ballot papers. The Brexit party have unveiled their latest prospective parliamentary candidates, and the candidate they’ve chosen to contest this seat is Alexander Waugh.
Alexander Waugh is a first-rate writer – a shrewd critic, an astute biographer and an occasional contributor to The Spectator. He’s also the grandson of one of England’s greatest novelists, Evelyn Waugh, and the son of one of England’s finest journalists – the late, great Spectator columnist Auberon Waugh. Alexander’s writing invites comparison with his father’s writing, and his grandfather’s. His adoption as a Brexit party candidate invites comparison with his father’s brief but colourful political career.
Auberon Waugh stood for parliament forty years ago, in the 1979 General Election. Like Alexander, Auberon didn’t stand for an established party, but he went one better than Alexander in that he founded a party of his own. The Brexit party aims to secure Britain’s departure from the European Union. The Dog Lovers' party aimed to avenge the death of Rinka, a Great Dane.
As anyone who watched the recent television drama A Very English Scandal will recall, Rinka was the four-legged friend of Norman Scott, a male model who claimed to have had a homosexual affair with the leader of the Liberal party, Jeremy Thorpe (a claim that Thorpe denied). Scott alleged there had been a plot to silence him, culminating in a botched attempt to shoot him by a man called Andrew Newton. Newton claimed he’d only intended to frighten him. What is beyond dispute is that Newton shot Scott’s dog.
Newton was found guilty of intent to endanger life and damage to property (the property being Rinka) and was sent to prison. Thorpe and three others were subsequently charged with conspiracy to murder – charges they denied. Before the trial could go ahead the Labour prime minister, James Callaghan, called a General Election. Thorpe resolved to defend his North Devon seat, whereupon Auberon entered the fray. ‘I found myself genuinely indignant at the suggestion that murder was to be reintroduced as a means of political advancement for the first time since the Tudors,’ he recalled. ‘In the event, it turned out that my anxieties were unfounded, as Thorpe was totally innocent of all charges brought against him’ (as indeed were the three others).
Yet that trial, and that verdict of not guilty, were still in the future. In the meantime, Auberon decided to stand against Thorpe, for the Dog Lovers’ party. ‘Rinka is not forgotten, Rinka, lives,’ read his election manifesto. ‘Vote Waugh to give all dogs the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ Unfortunately Thorpe obtained an injunction preventing the publication of Auberon’s manifesto, on the grounds that it might prejudice his forthcoming trial, so few constituents ever read it. Auberon polled 79 votes – not too bad, considering the publicity blackout. Thorpe lost his seat.
The Tory candidate, Tony Speller, won North Devon by 8,473 votes, easily overturning Thorpe’s 6,721 majority. A crushing defeat for Thorpe? Auberon didn’t see it that way. ‘Despite Thorpe’s name being dragged through the press every day for a week, with lurid accounts of buggery, financial crookery and attempted murder, fewer than 5,000 voters out of an electorate of 77,000 actually switched their votes away from him at an election which produced a bigger Conservative swing elsewhere.’
Thorpe and the other three defendants were subsequently acquitted of all charges, and Auberon returned to journalism. Now, thirty years later, his son is following in his footsteps, beneath a more serious banner, battling against an MP without the slightest hint of scandal to his name. So why is Alexander running? Sadly, not to get a better deal for your dog.
‘I’m irritated at the way in which both the EU and the British Parliament has chosen to play fast and loose with our democracy,’ he declared. ‘I have taken the decision to stop whining about it to my friends and to stand up and be counted. If I am elected to Parliament I shall do everything in my power to help to restore honesty, integrity, trust and democracy to our now broken system of government and to ensure that Britain is put back in command of its own money, laws and borders. When these things are achieved, when we are once again a properly democratic nation, I shall return to the gorgeous green pastures of West Somerset to get on with the rest of my life.’
Does Alexander stand any chance of winning? Stranger things have happened, and with four parties competing head-to-head the next election promises to be uniquely unpredictable. However the arithmetic is against him. The sitting Conservative MP, Ian Liddell-Grainger, is defending a 15,448 majority, and his record on Brexit hardly gives Alexander much traction. He backed Leave in the 2016 Referendum – no Remoaner, he. At the last election, Labour came a distant second, the Liberal Democrats a poor third and Ukip lost its deposit. Could Alexander split the Brexit vote, and let in a Remainer? With the national polls split four ways, anything seems possible.
If that unintended consequence came to pass, Alexander’s father would surely be spinning in his grave – with laughter. It would excite his sense of humour, his love of the absurd. A rebel in a tweed suit, Auberon was gloriously unpredictable, and one of the opinions which continues to surprise so many of his admirers was his unstinting support for the EU. ‘We will be much better off inside a Europe with open frontiers and a single currency,’ he wrote in the Daily Telegraph. ‘The whole concept of national sovereignty, as brandished by our politicians, is a deliberate deception. It covers the government’s right to screw up the economy once every four years in a cynical attempt to be re-elected, and we would be better off without it.’ His ideal form of government, he said, was a junta of Belgian ticket inspectors – far less of a threat to the English way of life that he adored than the cultural and economic imperialism of the USA, which he detested.
So does Auberon’s support for the EU undermine Alexander’s opposition? Of course not. There is a long and noble tradition in English politics (and English letters) of fathers and sons adopting entirely different points of view – particularly when it comes to Europe (consider the contrasting attitudes of Tony and Hilary Benn). ‘What I find repugnant about death is the thought of not being able to know what’s going on with the children, not being able to read the gossip columns,’ Auberon told Naim Attallah. Had he lived to witness his son’s candidature, I’m sure he would have been tickled pink.
William Cook edited Kiss Me, Chudleigh – The World According to Auberon Waugh