Percy Harris

Sir Percy Alfred Harris, 1st Baronet, PC (6 March 1876 – 28 June 1952) was a British Liberal Party politician. He was Liberal Chief Whip and Deputy Leader of the Liberal Parliamentary Party.

Sir Percy Harris in 1946

Political positionsEdit

Percy Harris was regarded as a radical Liberal with a strong social conscience, which grew from representing a working-class area of the East End of London. He was particularly interested in the issue of social housing, a major responsibility of the London County Council. Harris sided with H. H. Asquith against David Lloyd George in 1918–23. Thereafter, he sought unity within the Liberal Party. When the Liberal Party split in 1931 over the issue of free trade, he sided with Sir Herbert Samuel and against the Liberal National breakaway led by Sir John Simon. Under the leadership of Sir Archie Sinclair, he rose to prominence in the party. Harris was a strong supporter of the social policies advocated by Sir William Beveridge and was key to getting Beveridge to run for the Liberals.[1]


Harris was born in Kensington, the second son of Wolf Harris (1833–1926) a Polish immigrant. He was educated at Harrow and Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Harris was called to the bar by Middle Temple in 1899. In 1901 he married Marguerite Frieda Bloxam (1877–1962). They had two sons including Jack Harris (23 July 1906 – 26 August 2009).[2] A great-grandson is the former Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament Matthew Taylor—which Taylor, who was adopted, discovered in 2008.[3]

Political careerEdit

Harris first stood for election at the 1906 general election when he was the Liberal candidate for the Ashford Division of Kent. Ashford was a safe Conservative seat that they had won at every election since the seat was created in 1885. He was not expected to win and in an election that saw the Liberals sweep the country Harris came within 400 votes of toppling his Conservative opponent.

Harris next contested the 1907 London County Council election for the Progressive Party, the municipal wing of the Liberal Party. He contested Bethnal Green South West alongside his running mate Stewart Headlam and they were both elected.

In 1910, Harris contested the January 1910 general election as Liberal candidate for the Harrow division of Middlesex. Harrow was a safe Conservative seat that had been unexpectedly won by the Liberal James Gibb in 1906. Gibb had decided to retire and Harris was given the hard task of defending the seat. Harris had attended school in Harrow so knew the area a little. In a tougher year for the Liberals, Harrow was re-taken by the Conservatives.

Harris did not contest the December 1910 general election. When the Liberal MP for Bethnal Green South West resigned his seat in 1911, Harris was keen to win the Liberal nomination for the 1911 Bethnal Green South West by-election, however, he withdrew in favour of Charles Masterman.[1] He then focused on his duties at the London County Council. In 1912, Harris was appointed as the Chief Whip for the Progressives.[2] He retained his seat on the London County Council until 1934.[4][5] Harris's London and its Government (1913) was the standard work on metropolitan municipal government.


In 1914, Harris was adopted as prospective Liberal candidate for the Harborough division of Leicestershire for the general election expected to take place either in 1914 or 1915. Harborough was a Liberal seat where the elderly sitting member had decided to retire at the next election. However, the outbreak of war postponed the general election. In 1915, Harris was elected Deputy Chairman of the London County Council. In the meantime, the health of the Liberal MP for Harborough deteriorated and he resigned from parliament causing the 1916 Harborough by-election. Harris was re-adopted by the local Liberals and his candidacy was also officially endorsed by both the Unionist and Labour parties, due to the wartime electoral truce. However, Harris faced a strong opponent in the by-election who received much Unionist support as well as strong support from prominent newspaper barons.[6] Despite this, Harris was elected to Parliament. In May 1918, when H. H. Asquith challenged Prime Minister David Lloyd George in the Maurice Debate, Harris sided with Asquith and went into the division lobby against the Coalition Government.[1] As a result, he lost his seat at the 1918 general election when his Unionist opponent was endorsed by the Coalition Government. In 1919, Harris was engaged in correspondence with John Wycliffe Black, Chairman of the Harborough Divisional Liberal Association, about the amount of money Harris was expected to contribute if he wished to remain as Parliamentary candidate. In the end Harris was not able to meet the requirements of the divisional Liberal association and sought another constituency. Black was then adopted by Harborough Liberals as their candidate.[7]

Bethnal Green South WestEdit

The split with the Harborough Liberals gave Harris the freedom to pursue a parliamentary career in Bethnal Green South West, the seat he represented on the LCC. The parliamentary seat had a chequered history; the Liberals had won the seat on eight occasions but had lost it three times. At the last election in 1918, the Liberal candidate had finished third with just 24%, behind a socialist candidate supported by the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers. At the 1922 general election, Harris faced the Unionist MP who had taken the seat from the Liberals in 1914 and a Communist who had Labour Party support. The sitting Unionist member finished third and Harris re-gained the seat polling over 40% of the vote. Harris repeated his victory in 1923 when his Communist opponent ran as an official Labour Party candidate and in 1924 when that opponent once more ran as a Communist. The 1924 election was a very bad election for the Liberals nationwide but Harris's support had held up very well. During the 1924–29 parliament which was dominated by a Unionist majority, Harris worked closely with a group of radical Liberal MPs that included William Wedgwood Benn, Frank Briant, Joseph Kenworthy and Horace Crawfurd to provide opposition to the government.[6] Harris avoided getting involved in the Liberal Party in-fighting of the time and supported the radical policy platforms of the party presented under Lloyd George's leadership. At the 1929 general election he was easily returned, thanks in part to both the Communist and Labour parties running candidates.

National GovernmentEdit

When the Liberal Party split in 1931 over the National Government, Harris supported Sir Herbert Samuel who wanted the party to stay in the National Government and fight strongly for Free Trade. At the 1931 general election, the Conservatives, who had come fourth in 1929, did not bother to run a candidate against him. Harris was re-elected with nearly 60% of the vote against an opposition split between Labour and Communist. On 14 January 1932, Harris was created a Baronet, as Sir Percy Harris of London.[8] When the Liberal Party left the National Government following the defeat on Free Trade, Harris followed into opposition. At the 1935 general election, he faced just one opponent, a Labour Party candidate who was also opposed to the National Government. Harris held his seat with a reduced majority in a tough election for the Liberals which saw their Leader, Sir Herbert Samuel, lose his seat. In 1935, the new Liberal Leader Sir Archie Sinclair appointed Sir Percy Liberal Chief Whip in succession to Walter Rea, who had also lost his seat at the recent general election.

Wartime GovernmentEdit

In 1940, when Liberal Leader Sir Archie Sinclair took up a cabinet position in the Churchill Coalition Government he appointed Harris as Deputy Leader of the Liberal Parliamentary Party in addition to being Chief Whip. The deputy position had been vacant since Sinclair had become leader in 1935. At the same time Harris was appointed a Privy Counsellor. On his shoulders fell much of the responsibility of leading the party in the Commons and in organising the party in the country. The Liberal Party was invigorated by the recruitment to its ranks of Sir William Beveridge, author of the Beveridge Report and optimistically met the electorate at the 1945 general election. However, the election was a disappointment for the party and particularly for Harris who lost his seat in the Labour Party tide.

Latter yearsEdit

Sir Percy Harris's tombstone in Chiswick

In 1946, Harris published his autobiography, Forty Years In and Out of Parliament, Fleet Street Press.[2] After the loss of his parliamentary seat, he remained politically active and won his old London County Council seat back from the Labour Party in 1946.[9] Harris played a key role in the formation of Liberal International in 1947 and was President of the British Council of LI.[10] He was re-elected in the 1949 London County Council Elections, but found himself to be the only Liberal on the Council and briefly holding the balance of power between Labour and Conservative. In 1950, Harris sought a similar return to parliament for the new merged seat of Bethnal Green, but in a bad year for the Liberals, finished a distant second.

Harris died in Kensington aged 76 in 1952. His monument in the churchyard of St Nicholas Church, Chiswick is Grade II* listed. The relief carving by Edward Bainbridge Copnall depicts the resurrection of the dead. It was carved in the late 1920s and acquired by Harris for display in his garden at Morton House, Chiswick Mall.[11]

Electoral recordEdit

1906 general election: Ashford [12]
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Conservative Laurence Hardy 5,994 51.6
Liberal Percy Harris 5,614 48.4
Majority 380 3.2
Turnout 83.7
Conservative hold Swing
Harrow in Middlesex 1910
January 1910 general election: Harrow [12]
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Conservative Harry Mallaby-Deeley 16,761 55.3 +6.2
Liberal Percy Harris 13,575 44.7 -6.2
Majority 3,186 10.6 12.4
Turnout 85.7
Conservative gain from Liberal Swing +6.2
Bethnal Green South West in London 1885–1918
London County Council election, 1910: Bethnal Green South West[13]
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Progressive  YStewart Headlam 2,684 29.0
Progressive  YPercy Harris 2,618 28.2
Municipal Reform Eric Alfred Hoffgaard 2,060 22.2
Municipal Reform H A Meadway 1,900 20.5
Majority 558 6.0
Progressive hold Swing
Progressive hold Swing
London County Council election, 1913: Bethnal Green South West[13]
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Progressive  YStewart Headlam 2,369 30.9 +1.9
Progressive  YPercy Harris 2,359 30.8 +2.6
Municipal Reform Malcolm Campbell-Johnston 1,487 19.4 -2.8
Municipal Reform L Tyfield 1,441 18.8 -1.7
Majority 872 11.4 +5.4
Progressive hold Swing +2.7
1916 Harborough by-election[12]
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Liberal Percy Harris 7,826 67.8
Independent Thomas Gibson Bowles 3,711 32.2 n/a
Majority 4,115 35.6
Liberal hold Swing n/a
1918 general election
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Unionist 8,465 48.2
Liberal Percy Harris 4,608 26.2
Labour Walter Baker 4,495 25.6 n/a
Majority 3,857 22.0
Turnout 63.3
Unionist gain from Liberal Swing
London County Council election, 1919: Bethnal Green South West[13]
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Progressive  YStewart Headlam 1,599 42.0
Progressive  YPercy Harris 1,446 38.0
Labour Joe Vaughan 393 10.3
Labour H. Fitt 371 9.7
Majority 1,053 27.6
Progressive hold Swing
Bethnal Green South West in London 1918–50
1922 general election: Bethnal Green South West
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Liberal Percy Harris 5,152 40.7 +12.3
Communist Joe Vaughan 4,034 31.9 n/a
Unionist Mathew Wilson 3,474 27.4 -24.9
Majority 1,118 8.8 37.2
Turnout 21,129 59.9 +18.3
Liberal gain from Unionist Swing n/a
1923 general election: Bethnal Green South West
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Liberal Percy Harris 5,735 43.3 +2.6
Labour Joe Vaughan 5,251 39.6 +7.7
Unionist John Leigh 2,267 17.1 -10.3
Majority 484 3.7 -5.1
Turnout 21,320 62.2 +2.3
Liberal hold Swing -2.5
1924 general election: Bethnal Green South West
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Liberal Percy Harris 6,236 42.3 -1.0
Communist Joe Vaughan 6,024 40.9 +1.3
Unionist C.P. Norman 2,467 16.8 -0.3
Majority 212 1.4 -2.3
Turnout 21,522 68.4 +6.2
Liberal hold Swing -1.1
1929 general election: Bethnal Green South West
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Liberal Percy Harris 8,109 45.9 +3.6
Labour Christopher John Kelly 6,849 38.7 n/a
Communist Robert Dunstan 1,368 7.7 -33.2
Unionist Herbert John Malone 1,365 7.7 -9.1
Majority 1,260 7.2 +5.8
Turnout 27,895 64.1 -4.3
Liberal hold Swing n/a
1931 general election: Bethnal Green South West
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Liberal Percy Harris 10,176 59.6 +13.7
Labour W.J. Humphreys 3,923 23.0 -14.3
Communist Joe Vaughan 2,970 17.4 +9.7
Majority 6,253 36.6 +29.4
Turnout 27,895 61.2 -2.9
Liberal hold Swing +14.0
1935 general election: Bethnal Green South West
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Liberal Percy Harris 9,011 53.1 -6.5
Labour George Jeger 7,945 46.9 +23.9
Majority 1,066 6.2 -30.4
Turnout 27,484 61.7 +0.5
Liberal hold Swing -15.2
1945 general election: Bethnal Green South West
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Labour Co-op Percy Holman 6,669 57.3 10.4
Liberal Percy Harris 4,213 36.2 -16.9
National Liberal O. Howard Leicester 750 6.5 n/a
Majority 2,456 21.1 27.3
Labour gain from Liberal Swing +13.6
Bethnal Green in London 1950
1950 general election: Bethnal Green [14][15]
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Labour Percy Holman 20,519 63.3 n/a
Liberal Percy Harris 9,715 30.0 n/a
Conservative Dorothy E. Welfare 1,582 4.9 n/a
Communist Jeffrey J. Mildwater 610 1.9 n/a
Majority 10,804 33.3 n/a
Turnout 31,816 76.9 n/a
Labour win


  1. ^ a b c Malcolm Baines (1998) "Sir Percy Harris" in Brack et al. (eds.) Dictionary of Liberal Biography; Politico's
  2. ^ a b c 'HARRIS, Rt Hon. Sir Percy Alfred', Who Was Who, A & C Black, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing plc, 1920–2016; online edn, Oxford University Press, 2014 ; online edn, April 2014 accessed 26 April 2016[permanent dead link]
  3. ^ BBC NEWS | Magazine | The search for the 'political' gene
  4. ^ List of members of London County Council 1889–1919
  5. ^ List of members of London County Council 1919–37
  6. ^ a b Percy Harris (1947) Forty Years In and Out of Parliament; Andrew Melrose
  7. ^ Chris Cook (1975) The Age of Alignment: Electoral politics in Britain, 1922–1929, Macmillan. pp. 40-41
  8. ^ "No. 33791". The London Gazette. 19 January 1932. p. 419.
  9. ^ 'Bethnal Green: Local Government', A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 11: Stepney, Bethnal Green (1998), pp. 190–202. URL: Date accessed: 13 March 2008.
  10. ^ Liberals Unite; The Origins Of Liberal International
  11. ^ Historic England. "Tombstone to Sir Percy Harris, Bart, St Nicholas Churchyard (1096142)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 28 November 2018.
  12. ^ a b c British Parliamentary Election Results, 1885–1918 FWS Craig
  13. ^ a b c London Municipal Notes – Volumes 18–23, London Municipal Society
  14. ^ British Parliamentary Election Results, 1950–1973, FWS Craig
  15. ^ Richard Kimber. "UK General Election results February 1950". Political Science Resources. Archived from the original on 25 November 2011. Retrieved 10 April 2016.


External linksEdit

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by Member of Parliament for Harborough
Succeeded by
Preceded by Member of Parliament for Bethnal Green South West
Succeeded by
Party political offices
Preceded by Liberal Chief Whip
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Post vacant
Previous incumbent: Archibald Sinclair
Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party
Succeeded by
Post vacant
Next incumbent: Megan Lloyd George
Baronetage of the United Kingdom
New title Baronet
(of London)
Succeeded by