Page last updated at 20:59 GMT, Saturday, 24 April 2010 21:59 UK

Hilda or Leonard? What's in a name?

By Richard Warry
BBC News

Gordon Brown
James Gordon Brown

Any idea who James Brown, James Wilson and Leonard Callaghan are?

No, not the Godfather of Soul and his backing band, but the names three of the last four Labour prime ministers were given by their parents.

Opting to use your middle name - as each of these party leaders did - is nothing new, and in Hollywood has been almost de rigueur at times, with notable examples including William Clark Gable and Edward Montgomery Clift.

But is there any significance in the fact that in recent times the only Labour leader to stick to the name on his birth certificate was one Anthony Charles Lynton Blair?

Wilson, for one, is said to have preferred Harold over James because he felt it emphasised his middle class roots.

Oddly, the tendency to use one's middle name seems to run through Labour Party history, right back to founding father J(ames) Keir Hardie.

And it's a tendency not confined to those of a socialist bent: the Liberal Democrat's high-profile Treasury spokesman was born not Vince, but John Cable.

Among prominent Labour figures who have stuck with their first name was former Chancellor Denis Healy, but given that his parents chose his middle name, Winston, in honour of Churchill, perhaps that is not so surprising.

But messing around with names seems to be widespread in politics.

Former Tory leader Michael Howard was born Hecht, but in his case he was just six when his father took the decision to Anglicise the family name to help smooth the culture shock of re-locating from Transylvania to Llanelli.

John Major, another former Tory leader, opted to keep it simple - possibly to emphasize his everyman ordinariness - unlike his older brother, who preferred to be known as Terry Major-Ball.

Changing fashion

Political fashion for names changes too. Tory dissenters disparagingly referred to Margaret Thatcher by her middle name of Hilda, keen to emphasise her lower-middle class roots, and the fact that she was emphatically not "one of them".

Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher was often known as Hilda - behind her back

But fast forward 20 years, and the current shadow chancellor chose to drop the name by which he was known as a child, Gideon, in favour of the more prosaic George.

"Life was easier as a George," Mr Osborne has said. It also fits more easily with current political thinking that a privileged background plays poorly with the voter.

In the same vein Tony Blair opted for the informal diminutive, as, it is said, does the current Tory leader, dubbed by sections of the media "Call Me Dave" Cameron.

Could it be that Iain Duncan Smith was undone in the opinion polls by a double barrel, or that William Hague was just too stuffily formal for the voters?

Certainly some have been keen to ditch their aristocratic titles. Labour stalwart Viscount Stansgate famously gave up not only his peerage, but also his name - Anthony Wedgwood Benn, announcing on BBC radio in 1973 that he wished to be known as plain Mr Tony Benn.

Meanwhile, Michael Andrew Foster Jude Kerr, 13th Marquess of Lothian, has recently been causing angst in Tory ranks under his adopted name of Michael Ancram.

Maybe the strangest choice was made by former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell, who opted against using his birth name, Walter, and for a lifetime of mispronunciation.

But in his case the reason was decidedly unpolitical.

A spokeswoman said: "Ming's mother used to call him Menzies rather than Walter, then, when the young Menzies played rugby, he was so fast that his team-mates called him 'Ming the Wing' - and it stuck."

All about perception

Dr Peter Bull, a specialist in social and political psychology based at the University of York, said it was clear that names do matter.

George Osborne
George Osborne dropped the name Gideon

He said: "Plenty of businesses invest a lot of time and money in brand names, and you can think of a politician's name as a kind of brand name.

"There is undoubtedly a belief that a name can influence the way politicians are perceived, and some will try anything they can to encourage the public to perceive them more favourably.

"But it is all about perception. It would be hard to produce concrete evidence of the impact of changing a political name, because there are usually so many other things going on at the same time."

For Dr Bull the most compelling example of a telling name change in recent years wasn't that of an individual politician, but of a party.

"Tony Blair made a great deal of New Labour. In this case the change in name was an extremely important part of his intention to attract people who would never have considered voting for the old Labour Party."

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