Continuing our series on the history of Jewish MPs we turn our attention to Sydney Silverman. A politician unafraid to tackle the most serious subjects that others refused to be drawn upon.
This blog was written by Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer.
Picture the scene, a lonely cell in Preston Jail occupied by a young prisoner cloaked in a black prison uniform emblazoned with white arrows. To alleviate the agonies of solitary confinement he’d taken to reading a copy of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. As a conscientious objector Sydney Silverman had a pariah status. A great fortitude was necessary to just survive. Silverman was barely out of his teens, but this episode spoke volumes about the courage of his convictions. He had an uncompromising belief in what he felt was right which he maintained throughout his legal and political career. In this blog, we’ll examine the legacy left by a man who was the ‘Reformer’s Reformer’.
In My Liverpool Home
By the turn of the 20th century, the North West of England had become home to a vast Jewish diaspora. Myer Silverman had escaped the pogroms in Romania to settle in Liverpool where he set up a small draper’s business. He married Mancunian, Blanche Stern and their first son Samuel was born in 1895. In the densely populated enclave of Brownlaw Hill young Sydney as he became known stood out with his distinctive white-blonde hair and was given the nickname Quicksilver. An extremely bright child he went to the district grammar school after being awarded a scholarship. Away from the classroom he could be found either in the Central Library or taking part in bayonet drills for the Officer Cadets.
Docker’s & Debaters
Granted an offer of a place at Oxford, Silverman decided to stay closer to home enrolling at the local university to study English Literature. The city was in the grip of industrial strife, especially at the Merseyside docks. Among the crowd of striking dockers attending mass meetings, you could find the diminutive scholar listening attentively to the Union spokesperson Jim Larkin. Enthralled by these orators and intoxicated by the atmosphere of unrest Silverman became a member of the Fabian Society. A railway strike in 1912 saw the army brought in to quell the deepening discord. In the comfortable surroundings of the University’s Assembly Rooms Silverman dipped his toes into the debating world always vocal in support of the working man.
(Read Silverman debate the 1949 London Dock Strike - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1949/jul/06/strike-london-docks#S5CV0466P0_19490706_HOC_268 )
Your King & Country Need You
The outbreak of World War One was a turning point in Silverman’s life. His was an anti-militaristic stance greatly influenced by the writings of the philosopher, Bertrand Russell. Even his father, Myer was dubious of allying with Czarists forces who’d administered overt Jewish discrimination in Russia. When the Military Services Act was passed in 1916 conscription was now on the cards. To avoid the dreaded ‘call up’ Silverman hoped identifying as a conscientious objector would result in exemption. But to no avail, as he spent time incarcerated at Preston, Wormwood Scrubs and Belfast Prison. After the war ended, he completed his studies however, jobs in England were hard to come by, especially for those who had refused military service. Silverman decided to take a teacher’s post in Helsinki. But this exile was not forever.
Case for the Defence
While imprisoned Silverman had started to immerse himself in any legal textbooks he could find. Dissatisfied with teaching in Finland he began to realise that the cut and thrust of the law might be his calling. He returned home determined to make up for lost time by obtaining the requisite degree and setting up a practice over a short period. His remit was ‘dock briefs’ defending the accused unable to afford a lawyer. The mainly working-class clients appreciated the efforts he made on their behalf as his cross-examination reputation grew around the courts. In October 1937 he took pleasure in defending a man who’d thrown a brick that knocked Oswald Mosley unconscious at a British Union of Fascists demonstration in Walton.
(Read Silverman question the internment of Oswald & Diane Mosley - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1942/jan/08/detainees-sir-oswald-and-lady-mosley#S5CV0377P0_19420108_HOC_51 )
Bessie Braddock’s Got Your Back
Since his teenage years, Silverman was an advocate for socialism so it was no surprise when he joined the Independent Labour Party. Younger brother, Ernest developed into a talented speaker on the scene with Sydney recognised as the tenacious debater. He was elected to Liverpool City Council becoming lifelong friends with fellow councillors Bessie and John Braddock. Silverman worked together with the couple seeking to expose fraudulent housing schemes and corruption on the Mersey Tunnel construction. When John Braddock was detained for civil disorder in September 1932 Silverman led a successful appeal to have his conviction quashed pitting himself up against future Home Secretary, David Maxwell-Fyfe. As his professional life soared so did his personal when marrying musician Nancy Rubenstein.
Silverman would dearly have loved to have represented his home city. But despite some determined attempts, he couldn’t break Liverpool’s Conservative/Irish Catholic electoral dominance. Though he did witness his comrade, Bessie Braddock overcame that obstacle in the post-war 1945 General Election. A decade previously Silverman had been headhunted for nomination in the Lancashire constituency of Nelson endorsed by the town’s most popular cricketer, Willie John Throup. Defeating the self-proclaimed ‘Cotton Candidate’ Lynton Thorpe with a mightily impressive 4,500 majority. In his maiden speech to Parliament, he painted a vivid picture of the unrelenting threat of high-level unemployment surrounding the regional mills. After a tiresome year commuting to Westminster by train, the Silverman’s took the plunge by permanently moving to London.
(Read Silverman’s Maiden Speech on Industrial Decline - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1935/dec/11/distressed-areas#S5CV0307P0_19351211_HOC_355)
Dilemmas of War
There was little respite from the intensity of international affairs in the 1930s. Silverman like many of his Labour colleagues was deeply consumed by the Spanish Civil War. After German appeasement failed, he suppressed his pacifist beliefs but didn’t abstain from criticising some of Churchill’s wartime policies. Back in Nelson, he defended a constituent, Nellie Driver who was unjustifiably jailed for a risible association with a fascist organisation. As reports of the Nazi extermination of Jews in Eastern Europe became a horrifying reality Silverman endeavoured to form a committee to organise Jewish refugee resettlement. He was also part of a Parliamentary delegation to the Buchenwald Camp after the allied victory and that winter was an observer at the Nuremberg Trials.
(Read Silverman debate the impending war https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1939/oct/03/war-situation#S5CV0351P0_19391003_HOC_377 )
To Whom the Bell Tolls
Within the western world, many countries were considering abolishing capital punishment and the Labour Government were under increasing pressure to follow suit. The 1948 Criminal Justice Bill was a perfect testing ground to gauge opinion. Silverman was prepared to go straight for the jugular tabling a clause to abolish the death penalty with immediate effect. Going into chamber folklore after making a thirty-minute speech on the validity of his proposal. The stumbling block was the Upper House with the peers unequivocal in their refusal with even a ‘compromise amendment’ proving unsatisfactory. Prime Minister Clement Atlee had the foresight to appoint a Royal Commission to keep the conversation alive. The Commissioners famously called up notorious executioner, Albert Pierrepoint to give evidence.
(Read Silverman’s historic 30-minute speech on Capital Punishment abolition- https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1948/apr/14/new-clause-suspension-of-death-penalty#S5CV0449P0_19480414_HOC_433 )
Cabinet positions were never the chosen path for Silverman who was devoid of any conventional careerist traits essential for any upwardly mobile elected member. His maverick ways exasperated the Labour hierarchy but were warmly received by the capital’s left-wing intelligentsia. An example being the provocative Campaign for the Limitation of Secret Police Powers seeing Silverman rubbing shoulders with celebrities Peter Ustinov and Henry Moore amongst others. As the fifties concluded Silverman aligned himself with the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) movement. Pathe News footage of the time saw him at his mischievous best leading a three-thousand strong anti-H-Bomb march in Scarborough. Much to the annoyance of new Labour Leader, Hugh Gaitskell as it stole the headlines from his party conference.
(Read Silverman challenge the Defence Minister on the nuclear deterrent - https://api.parliament.uk/historichansard/commons/1958/feb/26/defence#S5CV0583P0_19580226_HOC_248 )
The Man Who Can’t be Wrong
As Silverman’s public profile rose it became clear that his reforming zeal wasn’t to everyone’s taste. A New Statesman article on him was derisively titled ‘The Man Who Can’t be Wrong’. Harold Wilson’s elevation to Prime Minister was an indication of the progressive ethos that the sixties promised. His new government made certain that the Death Penalty Abolition Act would not fall asunder. It was duly given Royal Assent in November 1965. But its triumph was marred by the heinous crimes committed by the Moors Murderers who under the new law would only receive life sentences. The following year the media descended on Nelson when Patrick Downey, uncle of one of the child victims stood against Silverman in the election.
(Read Silverman supporting the decriminalisation of homosexuality -https://api.parliament.uk/historichansard/commons/1958/feb/26/defence#S5CV0583P0_19580226_HOC_248 )
Champion of the Underdog
Health issues began to slow down the indomitable Silverman but there would still be no dereliction from any backbench duties. Making his voice heard in debates ranging from Vietnam to smoking in the library of the House. His biographer, Emrys Hughes MP recollected Silverman collapsing in the chamber then being carried out only to be seen later in the division lobby recording his vote. On news of his death in February 1968 House business was adjourned early out of respect. Tributes were made from far and wide. The Guardian called him ‘The Champion of the Underdog’ and The Jewish Chronicle wrote, ‘he was a rebel with many causes, what he lacked in height was more than made up with heart’.
Sydney Silverman: Rebel in Parliament, Emrys Hughes MP
New Statesman Profiles, Sydney Silverman, written by J.P.W Mallalieu
Oxford Dictionary National Biography Vol … written by Sarah Mc Cabe
Hansard, Parliamentary Debates
Pathe News – Labour Crisis 1960, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7aqCvB0l69g
BBC 1966 General Election, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3j_Ms4g_wd8&t=13712s