The first director general of the BBC was made a minister with a Commons seat by Chamberlain, J.B. Seatrobe reveals, but was moved into a backwater by Churchill and shunted up to the Lords.
Sir John (later Lord) Reith, first and longest serving director-general of the BBC, had close involvement with politics throughout his career in public service. For several months in the early years of the Second World War, he was also an MP.
Reith had long considered a parliamentary career, even while at school in Glasgow. Later, as an engineering apprentice, he wrote in his diary in February 1914: "I went to see Gulland, the chief Liberal whip in Scotland. I was awfully keen to go into Parliament." The following year, while serving on the Western Front during the First World War, Reith discussed political life in an exchange of letters with his father, a Free Church minister, who had described politics as "a wretched occupation" and warned him that "political life is full of snares and disappointments".
It was clear from this correspondence that the 25-year-old Reith had lofty ambitions but was not interested in what he saw as the daily parliamentary grind: "Ever so many elements will be most revolting - as for instance the necessity for ‘keeping in' with one's constituents and voting on some occasions as the party whip ordains."
He discussed politics and Parliament with luminaries such as Lord Bryce, and decided against becoming secretary to a new Liberal MP, JM Kenworthy, because "he isn't enough of a personality for me; his views too radical, salary too low". He also flirted with the Labour Party, writing to JR Clynes, then vice-chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, in early 1920, asking whether it was the party most aligned to his religiously inspired beliefs in public service. Clynes, unsurprisingly, gave a non-committal reply, and Reith did not pursue a Socialist political future.
At the outbreak of war in 1939, Reith expected to be offered a senior ministerial job, such as Secretary for War, but nothing happened until the following January. The Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, wanted him to be Minister of Information, not really the post he coveted, with a seat in the Commons.
Despite his long-held political ambition, the reality of the Commons was something Reith still regarded as an unwanted hassle. Even when discussing his new job with the PM, he told Chamberlain that he "was very sorry that it had to be the House of Commons". At a meeting with Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, Reith told him he was rather frightened of the Commons. Churchill replied: "Not nearly as frightened as they are of you." Stanley Baldwin, by then in the Lords, wrote to him on 31 January with some very detailed, practical advice on how to handle the House.
For his election, Sir Charles Barrie, National Liberal MP for one of the two Southampton seats, was kicked upstairs to the Lords to make way for him. There was a brief hiccup over his ‘party' designation - he stood as a National rather than a National Liberal - but all necessary electoral formalities were done on 1 February and he was declared returned unopposed. In fact, he admitted that he "signed my name in the mayor's book ‘MP for Southampton' an hour before I should have done".
On 6 February his introduction to the House as a new member was made "to loud ministerial cheers" and a cry from the Labour MP for Glasgow Gorbals, George Buchanan: "Give us a signature tune!" By 13 February he confided to his diary: "I think I enjoy being an MP as long as I do not need to bother with a constituency."
However, following the replacement of Chamberlain by Churchill as PM, Reith was moved sideways to be Minister of Transport. On 22 May he wrote: "No pleasure at all in the House of Commons now, and the Ministry of Transport is a backwater."
He did not make his maiden speech in the House until 19 September 1940. It was on transport, but as the debate was held in secret session, no verbatim Hansard record exists. His 45-minute speech was apparently well received. The Tory chief whip told him it was "bloody good" and the fiery Labour MP, Manny Shinwell, threw a congratulatory note across to him.
This minor Commons triumph was not to be repeated because, in early October, Churchill moved him again, this time to the Ministry of Works, with a seat in the Lords. Reith surprised Churchill by saying he had hoped to stay on in the Commons and foresaw an active political life after the war, but grudgingly accepted the move.
So ended his brief Commons career, though he remained a minister until 1942. One Conservative backbencher and diarist, Sir Cuthbert Headlam, provided an uncharitable summary of Reith's departure: "The move of Sir John Reith (+ a peerage because presumably he has been a complete failure in the H of C) to yet another post is typical of our method of never getting rid of a man once the press has insisted upon him being a superman!"