Let’s say you’re a fiction writer, looking to write about power in mid-20th century Britain. What kind of character would you create? Your lead would have to straddle the two major spheres of influence – public office and private enterprise – and they might have contacts in the counterculture for a bit of swinging ’60s colour. A modern Zelig, the character would hold great influence over many fields, but having them be an actual hypnotist would surely be too literal.
And yet this character, hypnosis and all, existed. Wilf Proudfoot, born in Crook, County Durham, was elected as a Conservative MP by the people of Cleveland in 1959. When he died on July 19th 2013, the obituaries remembered him as “larger-than-life” (Daily Telegraph) and “colourful” (The Northern Echo) though his major controversy was incredibly tame: he was overheard calling a porter at Seamer railway station a “nit”.
Most obituaries recorded the facelift that he underwent in 1977 in the forlorn hope that it might help his election chances. Few tied this quirky story to his wider political beliefs, but it is quite in keeping with a lifelong passion for modernisation.
British politicians of Wilf’s generation didn’t place much stock in looking good. At the time of his facelift the two most recent former Prime Ministers – Edward Heath and Harold Wilson – might as well have been chosen to make newspaper caricaturists’ jobs easier. In America it was rapidly becoming political orthodoxy, particularly after Richard Nixon sweated and scowled his White House chances away in the 1960 TV debates. It’s likely Wilf knew about this, since so many of the ideas he advanced had their roots in America.
On a visit to the States Wilf visited a Piggly Wiggly supermarket and was struck by their self-service checkout. He believed British customers would value this innovation, and in 1959 he opened the first Proudfoot Supermarket in Scarborough town centre. Today, it is a McDonalds.
Even after his election, supermarkets were a key issue for Wilf. The Telegraph describes him using his maiden speech to “forecast a ‘retailing revolution’ that would close 50,000 grocers’ shops in a decade, with greengrocers disappearing altogether.”
Hard to imagine a modern politician launching their career boasting about how many small businesses their policies would close down, but the 1950s were a different time. Huge changes were made to British life, and often they were fiercely opposed, but it was generally assumed that a brighter, technologically advanced future was within our grasp.
As the Conservatives listened to Harold Wilson talk about the “white heat of technology” they must have feared they were losing this future to Labour. Wilf was briefly considered to be the man who could claim the territory for his party, but he lost his seat at the 1964 election.
In the meantime, Wilf found himself in a world he can’t have envisaged being part of – pirate radio. A businessman named Don Robinson was in the early stages of setting up a pirate station off the coast of Scarborough, and Wilf approached Robinson to see if the new station would carry adverts for Proudfoot supermarkets. After meeting Don, Wilf became an investor in the station; by the time it launched as Radio 270 he had risen to the post of Managing Director.
Proudfoot was not, to put it mildly, at home in the pop scene. He tried with little success to increase Radio 270’s current affairs output, and had little time for those who considered DJs and the music they played to be artistic endeavours. In an interview for offshoreradio.co.uk, Radio 270 DJ Paul Burnett recalls that Wilf “didn’t have much regard for disc jockeys […] He was saying things like ‘Anyone can be a DJ’. There was a young spotty lad there, delivering groceries. Proudfoot turned to him and said ”Ere, lad, do you fancy being a disc jockey?’ The boy rather hesitantly said that he did, so Proudfoot hired him and sent him out to the ship to do the Breakfast Show!”
When the Marine Offences Act outlawed pirate radio in 1967, Wilf regretted that Radio 270 was a year away from turning a profit. He may have been making a self-deprecating quip: other sources recall the station making its money back. And pirate radio would do Wilf another favour three years later. In a history of the politics of pirate radio in Lobster magazine, Simon Matthews notes the frequently right-wing character of this counterculture icon, from the early experiments by Conservative MP Leonard Plugge, through the abortive attempt by Oswald Mosley to start his own pro-fascist station, to the Radio Church of God’s Luxembourg-based operation – from which they warned listeners that a united federal Europe was more of a threat to world peace than the Cold War.
The Radio Church of God’s operation eventually became Radio Luxembourg, and they tried to involve themselves with Radio Caroline, though the station’s founder Ronan O’Rahilly rebuffed them. Not that O’Rahilly was above politics. When Harold Wilson began making moves to outlaw the pirate stations, O’Rahilly threatened to broadcast a tape he referred to as ‘The Secret Life of Harold Wilson’ which he claimed would destroy the Prime Minister’s career. It was never played. O’Rahilly did campaign for Edward Heath in the 1970 election, though, and Matthews suggests this may have contributed to his surprise victory. Among the Conservative MPs elected alongside Heath was Wilf Proudfoot, this time as MP for Brighouse and Spenborough.
Despite this second act, Wilf’s political career was never as remarkable as his business one. The Northern Echo’s Mike Amos noted, perhaps with a little schadenfreude, that he once made a speech in the Commons imploring that newspaper to nationalise in the same way that the Manchester Guardian just had. The speech lasted from 2:30 am to 3:30 am. It would be fair to say he had not grasped the art of gaining his fellow MPs’ attention.
After losing his seat Wilf developed an almost evangelical passion for hypnotherapy, founding the UK Guild of Hypnotist Examiners in 1983. The real proof of his influencing abilities, though, is shown by how thoroughly he got the nation to accept his pet campaigns. He fought for decimalised currency, supermarket chains and commercial radio. Not only are these things now thought of as apolitical, the fact that they were ever a source of any controversy is almost forgotten. Wilf Proudfoot’s causes are like old battlegrounds that have long since been paved over and built on – perhaps by a supermarket.