Ahead of next Tuesday’s Virtual IHR Parliaments, Politics and People seminar, we hear from Dr Mark Roodhouse of the University of York. On 25 January 2022, between 5.15 p.m. and 6.30 p.m., Mark will be responding to your questions about his pre-circulated paper on Charles Watney and the emergence of the consultant lobbyist in Britain during the twentieth century. Details of how to join the discussion are available here, or by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Tuesday 29 May 1945 Charles Tillotson Watney (1869-1945) died aged 76 in a London nursing home after a long illness. Three days later The Times published a short obituary of this familiar Westminster figure who had worked for the paper’s former owner Lord Northcliffe. The obituary made much of Watney’s career as a journalist and editor prior to 1911 but struggled to communicate what he spent the remaining thirty-four years of his working life doing. As the obituary writer put it, Watney ‘specialized almost exclusively in parliamentary affairs about which he had previously absorbed considerable knowledge as a lobby journalist’. It continued:
Aided by a carefully trained staff he [Watney] placed his extensive knowledge of parliamentary procedure and practice and excellent judgement and organising ability at the disposal of innumerable politicians and organisations, undertaking secretarial work, drafting, research, and the organisation of special campaigns or group activities.The Times, 1 June 1945.
There was no contemporary British term for his occupation, which we now recognise as that of professional lobbyist. The lobbyist for hire was considered a uniquely American phenomenon for much of the twentieth century. In June 1922, when speaking to British lobby correspondents or lobbyists as they were then known, the US President Taft pointed out that an American lobbyist was ‘someone who is engaged on behalf of big interests financially concerned in procuring the adoption or defeat of a bill, especially in relation to a tariff’.
Although Watney’s former press colleagues, Parliamentary officials and Westminster politicians knew something of his business and possibly his work on sugar duties for Tate & Lyle, they did not consider him a lobbyist on the American model. In his unpublished memoirs Watney likened himself to ‘a scene-shifter in the theatre of Westminster’ but listed his services variously as those of a journalist, publicity consultant and parliamentary agent in the London Post Office Directory.
Although the birth of the British lobbying industry is frequently traced to 1929 when Watney took the future doyenne of postwar lobbyists Christopher C. Powell (1903-1989) into his firm, Watney actually started the business eighteen years earlier, in 1911, with fellow journalist James A. Little (1876-1947). Their responsibility for publishing a fraudulent murder confession purporting to be that of Dr Crippen forced them to quit their editorial jobs and form a press agency in the St Stephen’s Intelligence Bureau. Reporting on its establishment, the Singapore Free Press noted that it dealt ‘with highly specialised information and publicity work in general … Its special interest to all our readers lies in the fact that it will undertake any publicity of any kind.’
The office and work locations associated with Watney and Little in 1912
Within its first year of operation ‘publicity work in general’ became a major income stream. Watney lobbied the Liberal government and the Conservative opposition about the Imperial Wireless Chain contract on behalf of the Anglo French Wireless Company, worked with Sir Roger Casement (1864-1916) to raise the profile of the Putumayo Mission Fund Committee in the British and American press, and defended a Yorkshire heiress from public criticism after she attacked death duties.
There were no doubt others. Alongside this work the agency secured contracts as London correspondents for a series of overseas newspapers. These relationships brought them further work as London agents of overseas interests – often those of newspaper proprietors and their friends. A similar relationship with his news editor at the Daily Mail, Alfred Harmsworth, the future Lord Northcliffe, gave Watney the business idea that led the firm to offer lobbying services.
The First World War saw demand for the firm’s services collapse as war news crowded out parliamentary news, and statutory rules and orders crowded out parliamentary bills. The business relationship between Watney and his junior partner Little did not survive the wartime change in the firm’s fortunes. After the war ended, he relaunched the firm now under his sole control. While continuing his work as a London correspondent, Watney dropped general public relations in favour of the more specialised realm of parliamentary and public affairs.
The firm offered its services as parliamentary secretaries or agents to trade unions like the Civil Service Confederation and trade associations like the Theatrical Managers Association, and as private secretaries to Westminster politicians including Conservative MPs, Sir Leonard Lyle (1882-1954) and Walter de Frece (1870-1935). Watney’s clients were almost all Conservative Party politicians or part of a wider partisan network that Watney had been part of since his formative days as a journalist on the Birmingham Daily Post in the late 1880s.
The secretarial work for MPs and peers is vital in explaining the firm’s rapid growth during the 1920s and 1930s. This gave Watney and his staff access to the Palace of Westminster, which was central to their lobbying business. It also gave Watney the ability to advance his outside clients’ interests within Parliament.
Watney’s inside clients also brought him work as they asked Watney to help them advance their political agendas and business ventures. For example, the firm’s secretarial work for Lyle led to Watney’s agency for the sugar refiners Tate & Lyle which continued into the 1950s. The firm’s involvement with theatre, cinema and wireless was a result of Watney’s work for Frece and fellow Conservative MP, Sir William Bull (1863-1931). Bull also introduced the firm to the Channel Tunnel Company whose interests it represented on and off from 1929 to the 1980s.
Struggling to manage a large staff and growing caseload, Watney advertised for a new partner in 1929 after a short-lived and unsuccessful experiment in bipartisanship with trade unionist and Labour activist Hugh E.G. Shayler (1885-1973). This was the advert that Watney’s third and final business partner Christopher C. Powell (1903-1989) responded to. A year later Watney’s became Watney & Powell. The name would outlive Powell, who died in 1989, when its latest owners Charles Barker dissolved the firm in 1993.
Powell’s longevity and the loyalty he inspired in his staff ensured that Watney’s pioneering role has long been overlooked. As my paper for the Parliaments, Politics and People seminar demonstrates, thanks to the rediscovery of his unpublished memoirs, online digital archives and family history databases, it is now possible to recover Watney’s pioneering career and re-examine what we know about the operation of interest-group politics, and the UK lobbying industry in particular, between 1911 and 1945.
To find out more, Mark’s full-length paper ‘The Politics of Business and the Business of Politics: Messrs Watney and Powell and the Emergence of the Consultant Lobbyist in Britain, 1911-1993’ is available here. Mark will be taking questions about his research between 5.15 p.m. and 6.30 p.m. on Tuesday 25 January 2022.
To register for this virtual seminar, please follow this link and click on ‘Book now’. If you cannot attend this session but wish to submit a question to Mark, please send it to email@example.com.