Benjamin (Ben) Spoor, the eldest son and second child of John Joseph Spoor and his wife, Merrion Graham Spoor, was born in Bishop Auckland on 2nd June 1878. His father, a plumber, was an active member of the Liberal Party and prominent Primitive Methodist local preacher.
Spoor was educated at Bishop Barrington's School and at Elmfield College. At the age of fourteen he began an apprenticeship in plumbing. He later established his own business as an ironmonger and builder's merchant. On 10th October 1900, He married Annie Leybourne, with whom he had a son. (1)
Spoor joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1903. Like his father, he became a Primitive Methodist lay preacher. He was elected to the Bishop Auckland urban district council and over the next few years he chaired several different committees. According to Herbert Tracey: "As Chairman of the Education Committee he rendered particularly valuable service. He made unceasing war on all those prejudices against free education which have done so much to restrict the scope of a decidedly half-hearted measure." (2)
The Labour Party was completely divided by their approach to the First World War. Those who opposed the war, included Ben Spoor, Ramsay MacDonald, Keir Hardie, Philip Snowden, John Glasier, George Lansbury, Alfred Salter, William Mellor and Fred Jowett. Others in the party such as Arthur Henderson, George Barnes, J. R. Clynes, William Adamson, Will Thorne and Ben Tillett believed that the movement should give total support to the war effort. (3)
Ben Spoor was one of the founders of the Union of Democratic Control (UDC). Members of the UDC agreed that one of the main reasons for the conflict was the secret diplomacy of people like Britain's foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey. They decided that the Union of Democratic Control should have three main objectives: (i) that in future to prevent secret diplomacy there should be parliamentary control over foreign policy; (ii) there should be negotiations after the war with other democratic European countries in an attempt to form an organisation to help prevent future conflicts; (iii) that at the end of the war the peace terms should neither humiliate the defeated nation nor artificially rearrange frontiers as this might provide a cause for future wars. (4)
Other members of the UDC included Norman Angell, E. D. Morel, Charles Trevelyan, J. A. Hobson, Charles Buxton, Ottoline Morrell, Philip Morrell, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, Arnold Rowntree, Morgan Philips Price, George Cadbury, Helena Swanwick, Fred Jowett, Tom Johnston, Bertrand Russell, Philip Snowden, Ethel Snowden, David Kirkwood, William Anderson, Mary Sheepshanks, Isabella Ford, H. H. Brailsford, Eileen Power, Israel Zangwill, Margaret Llewelyn Davies, Konni Zilliacus, Margaret Sackville and Olive Schreiner.
Henry Page Croft, the Conservative Party MP, was one of those politicians who attacked Ben Spoor in the House of Commons for being "actively engaged in addressing meetings of a pacifist character" in the early stages of the war. (5) As Herbert Tracey pointed out, although "by conviction a Pacifist, but he was not so bound to the abstract idea of pacifism as to refuse his services when he could be devoted to the real service of his fellow men" and offered to help Britain win the war. (6)
In May 1916, Spoor agreed to act as commissioner in Salonika for the YMCA. During his time in the city he saw a great deal of suffering that included famine, and disease, and "many other terrible things that made an indelible impression on his mind". This experience later impelled him to become an early publicist and fundraiser for the Save the Children Fund. that was established after the war. While in Macedonia, Spoor contracted malaria, an illness that recurred for the rest of his life.
In the 1918 General Election defeated the Liberal Party candidate in Bishop Auckland. In the House of Commons Spoor argued for the establishment of a League of Nations and a fair peace with Germany, denouncing the Versailles Treaty as a breach of faith. He advocated full recognition of Soviet Russia and opposed the French occupation of the Ruhr. He also visited India and Egypt and was sympathetic to nationalist aspirations. (7)
Ben Spoor was elected to the National Executive of the Labour Party. He was also secretary of the National Peace Council and along with Fenner Brockway founded the No More War Movement, which promoted international peace demonstrations. According to his biographer, Ben Spoor was an outstanding performer in Parliament: "His eloquence, largely founded on a wide and deep knowledge of his topic, and his grasp of routine, rapidly established him as a Parliamentarian of the front rank". (8)
In the 1923 General Election, the Labour Party won 191 seats. Although the Conservative Party had 258 seats, Herbert Asquith announced that the Liberal Party would not keep the Tories in office. If a Labour Government were ever to be tried in Britain, he declared, "it could hardly be tried under safer conditions". On 22nd January, 1924 Stanley Baldwin resigned. At midday, Ramsay MacDonald went to Buckingham Palace to be appointed prime minister. MacDonald told one of his colleagues: "I want to gain the confidence of the country and shall suit my policy accordingly." (9)
Macdonald later recalled how George V complained about the singing of the Red Flag and the La Marseilles, at the Labour Party meeting in the Albert Hall a few days before. MacDonald apologized but claimed that there would have been a riot if he had tried to stop it. However, he would use "all his influence and that of his moderate and immediate friends to prevent this song being sung in the Commons" in the future. (10)
MacDonald had the problem of forming a Cabinet with colleagues who had little, or no administrative experience. MacDonald's appointments included Ben Spoor (Chief Whip), Philip Snowden (Chancellor of the Exchequer), Arthur Henderson (Home Secretary), John R. Clynes (Lord Privy Seal), Sidney Webb (Board of Trade) and Arthur Greenwood (Health), Charles Trevelyan (Education), John Wheatley (Housing), Fred Jowett (Commissioner of Works), William Adamson (Secretary for Scotland), Tom Shaw (Minister of Labour), Harry Gosling (Paymaster General), Vernon Hartshorn (Postmaster General), Emanuel Shinwell (Mines), Noel Buxton (Agriculture and Fisheries), Stephen Walsh (Secretary of State for War), Frank Hodges (Lord of the Admiralty) and Sydney Olivier (Secretary of State for India). (11)
Spoor was not considered a success in this role. It was claimed that one of the reasons for this was a growing addiction to drink. The Labour Party lost the 1924 General Election but Spoor increased his majority in Bishop Auckland. In the House of Commons he advocated closer co-operation with the remaining Liberals, asserting that "the spirit of Liberalism… has flowed into the channels of Labour". (12) In a letter to his old friend, Fenner Brockway he admitted that he was no longer a socialist. (13)
In August 1927, following an incident in which his erratic driving had endangered pedestrians, Ben Spoor pleaded guilty to being drunk in charge of a motor car and was fined £2 plus costs. "His alcoholism resulted in delusions, his doctors certifying him as insane at least once and intermittently confining him in a series of homes". (14)
Ben Spoor was found dead on the morning of 22nd December 1928 at the Regent Palace Hotel, London. A coroner's inquest recorded the cause of death as syncope from disease of the heart and liver, the consequence of chronic alcoholism.
Ben Spoor... received his education in the local board school, and at the age of 14 left school for his father's workshop, where he was apprenticed as an engineer.... Active mental habits, and an accurate perception of the importance of education as an asset to the individual, led him to continue his studies through the years of adolescence, and when at the age of 25 he joined the local branch of the Independent Labour Party his knowledge of political affairs, though lacking the confirmation of experience, was so considerable as to render him prominent in party councils. The ILP have from their inception been distinguished by the close and sagacious attention they have given to municipal affairs. In 1903 the ILP'ers of Bishop Auckland made a vigorous move for more effective representation on the Urban District Council, and young Spoor was among those of their members whose candidature was carried through to success.
Following family tradition by becoming a Primitive Methodist lay preacher, Spoor developed oratorical skills, which he used to good effect after joining the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1903. He was elected to the Bishop Auckland urban district council soon afterwards. During his thirteen years of council service, Spoor chaired a number of committees (notably the education committee) and the council itself. The outbreak of the First World War launched him into the national arena. Although he spoke against the war at meetings of the Union of Democratic Control, an organization that he later nominated for the Nobel peace prize...
From May 1916 Spoor acted as commissioner in Salonika for the YMCA - an organization with which he was already involved and a duty for which Spoor accepted the OBE in 1918.... During his time in Salonika, Spoor saw the destruction of the city by fire in 1917, famine, and disease, and "many other terrible things that made an indelible impression on his mind". This Macedonian experience later impelled him to become an early publicist and fundraiser for the Save the Children Fund. While in this mosquito infested theatre of war, Spoor contracted malaria, an illness that recurred for the rest of his life.