Over seventy years after the death of George Orwell, Richard Bradford’s new biography, convincingly argues the case for the continued importance of the author of Animal Farm and 1984 in the 21st century.
In addition to the biographical details of Orwell’s eventful life – his unhappy schooldays, his years in the Burmese police force, his genuine heroism fighting fascism during the Spanish Civil War- the book connects Orwell’s writing to the present by linking it to recent trends such as the endless distortions of the truth by the now disgraced former US President Donald Trump and by the current UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. The book also discusses the bitter antisemitism row which undermined Jeremy Corbyn’s spell as leader of the Labour Party in an intelligent book which demonstrates how Orwell today remains as relevant as ever.
Book review: Orwell: A Man of our Time, by Richard Bradford. Published by: Bloomsbury Caravel, May 13th 2021.
Okay: admittedly ‘The Sultan of Swing’ may sound like a rather flash title for a biography of the 20th century’s foremost election statistician: ‘Sultans of Swing’ was the name of a Dire Straits album. But David Butler was a seemingly permanent feature of the BBC’s TV election coverage for nearly thirty years. He not only largely created the science of Psephology (the study of balloting and calculating election results) almost from scratch but perhaps did more than anyone else to make the complex world of electoral science accessible and easily understandable to the general public. Although he has always been too modest to admit it, he effectively invented the familiar General Election night device of the Swingometer. He is now ninety-six years old. The long story of his life is worth telling and the veteran writer, journalist and broadcaster, Michael Crick does so very well in this biography, published in 2018.
It is quite eye-opening (at least, it was for me) to learn just how primitive election coverage was when Butler started out in the 1940s. Although BBC TV was established in 1936, the organisation remained extremely wary of providing decent coverage of elections or indeed any aspect of British political life for the first twenty years of its existence. Fearful that the government might accuse them of political bias and use this to restrict their powers (admittedly, a very real risk today), the broadcaster imposed strict rules on itself. The monumental 1945 General Election night was thus covered on BBC radio only: admittedly, perhaps not such a huge issue as very few people owned TVs then anyway. In 1950 again, the BBC did not allow itself to cover any election canvassing during the campaign itself. It did, however, tentatively allow a programme covering the results for the first time in which the handsome young dark-haired and very self-assured Oxford graduate, Butler made a favourable impression. He would become a fixture of the BBC’s election night coverage during the next nine General Elections held up to 1979, often appearing as part of a sort of double-act with friendly rival, the Canadian, Bob McKenzie. Butler would adopt spectacles and see his hair grow grey in the ensuing thirty years but his contribution would prove no less vital.
The book opens with a scene in 1950, in which Winston Churchill, at that point Leader of His Majesty’s Opposition and plotting his own return to Downing Street summoned the young Butler to discuss the possibilities the new science of opinion polling offered for predicting election outcomes in advance. It is a good start: the political titan nearing the end of his long career meeting the young talent at the start of his own. In general, though he seems to have been slightly left of centre politically, Butler strived to remain impartial, something which generated occasional tensions with his lifelong friend, left-wing Labour MP, Tony Benn who he met at university. Butler, in fact, had a very distinguished family background and was the cousin of the leading Tory politician, R.A. ‘Rab’ Butler.
Michael Crick chronicles the details of Butler’s many books, innovations, his travels in America and his success in exporting many of his techniques to Australia and India alongside his personal life. This includes two very sad elements\: the death of his wife, the very successful academic, Lady Marilyn Butler in 2011 after many years of happy marriage in 2011 following a struggle with Alzheimer’s disease and the death of one of their three sons, Gareth following a sudden heart attack in 2008, aged just 42.
But, in general, this is a well-researched and highly readable biography of a life well-lived.
Ernest Bevin was a towering figure in 20th century British history.
But nearly seventy years after his death, he is too easily overlooked today. The original Bevin Boy is too often remembered only as the rotund, bespectacled man pictured walking alongside Winston Churchill or Clement Attlee in photos from the 1940s. It does not help that his surname is so easily confused with that of Nye Bevan, another major figure in the Attlee government, but a completely different person.
Andrew Adonis, himself a figure in the Blair and Brown governments, corrects the balance in this thorough and well-argued biography. Without Bevin, the history of Britain in the 20th century would have been very different. Although he never led a party himself, he founded the Transport and General Workers’ Union, which by the start of the Second World War was the largest trade union in the western world. By this point, Bevin (who was born in 1881) was anticipating retirement after a life spent in the union movement. Like Churchill, his finest hour, late in life, was in fact, still to come.
He played a major role in securing the succession of Churchill in 1940 and Attlee as Labour leader in 1935 and was a key figure in ensuring Attlee survived a coup attempt immediately after the 1945 Labour General Election landslide. As the wartime Minister of Labour and as Attlee’s first Foreign Secretary, he was a crucial figure in the two greatest governments of the 20th century.
His final years, establishing Britain’s position in the new Cold War were critical.
“Bevin stood up to Stalin sooner and more effectively than any other post-war Western leader,” Adonis writes. “Better even than Churchill and far better than Roosevelt or Truman.” Whereas some such as Labour’s George Lansbury (who Adonis sees as sort of 1930s version of Jeremy Corbyn) were weak on Hitler and even Churchill had an inexcusable soft spot for Benito Mussolini early on, Bevin’s no-nonsense approach towards Stalin was vital in ensuring no unnecessary ground was conceded to the Soviets in the Cold War’s critical early stages.
This is not a slavish hagiography. Adonis does not ignore Bevin’s failings: in particular, he was short-sighted on the subject of Britain’s post-war European destiny, had a personal dislike of schoolteachers and had a muddled approach to the Middle East which actually suggests he probably harboured anti-Semitic views.
Nevertheless, at a time when statues of less worthy historical figures are being torn down, this book serves as a fitting monument to a Great British hero.
Ernest Bevin: Labour’s Churchill, by Andrew Adonis. Published by: Biteback. Out now.
The answer lies within Chris Mullin’s excellent 1982 novel, A Very British Coup. Written in the dark days of early Thatcherism, Mullin envisaged a future (the late 1980s), in which Perkins, a working-class hero and onetime Sheffield steelworker leads the Labour Party to an unexpected General Election victory on a manifesto not dissimilar to the one Labour lost on in 1983. Perkins’ Labour Party is thoroughly socialist and the new government quickly embarks on fulfilling the radical agenda it has been elected on: dismantling Britain’s nuclear deterrent and leaving NATO, breaking up the newspaper monopolies, redistributing wealth and more.
Needless to say, the establishment: the civil service, the media and the security services are horrified. They immediately begin conspiring with the US (who, viewing things through a Cold War prism, see Britain as having “gone over to the other side”) in a bid to thwart the programme of the democratically elected government. It is a great read.
Mullin was writing at a very volatile political time. In 1980, the new Thatcher government was already proving to be such a complete disaster that it seemed hopelessly doomed. For much of 1981, the SDP, not Labour, seemed set to replace them. By the post-Falklands summer of 1982, the resurgent Tories again seemed unbeatable, as indeed, proved the case, the Iron Lady having staged her own very British coup in the South Atlantic. We are in very volatile times again now. The future in the Brexit era is also very hard to foresee.
In this long-awaited sequel, Chris Mullin (now a former Labour MP himself) creates a convincing near future which cleverly not only seems sadly only too plausible but which also makes sense in the context of what has happened in the earlier book.
It is the 2020s. With Brexit having proven a miserable failure, serious consideration is being given to a humiliated Britain going crawling cap in hand and applying to rejoin the EU. Trump has left office, but has left the international situation thoroughly de-stablised. Today’s leaders have left the political stage. A King is on the throne, as he was in the earlier novel. Labour seemingly locked in perpetual opposition under an ineffectual woman leader seems poised for a takeover by the former aide of the recently deceased former Prime Minister, Harry Perkins, Fred Thompson (Mullin isn’t much of a one for glamorous character names). As so often happens, Perkins, the scourge of the status quo in life is now hailed by left and right alike as a great leader of the past, now he is safely dead. Thompson, who was played by Keith Allen in the acclaimed 1980s TV version of the book, is still middle-aged (Mullin admits to some authorial sleight of hand here: only ten years have passed since the events of the first book, not thirty or forty).
But can Fred Thompson succeed in leading Labour back to power and restoring Britain to it’s former glory? Will his family difficulties or a rising tide of violence threatening to engulf British politics get in the way?
The Daily Telegraph describes this book “preposterous.” Presumably, they mean “preposterous” in the sense that it doesn’t mindlessly back Brexit or shamelessly back Boris Johnson’s leadership bid as that newspaper did.
This is perhaps – like Thompson himself – not quite the equal of its illustrious predecessor. But it is a fine sequel and an excellent, short-ish read.
There is now not a single person on the entire planet who was alive at the same time as Queen Victoria.
She was born two hundred years ago in May 1819. It was a
different world then. Napoleon Bonaparte
and Beethoven were both still alive. The Peterloo massacre occurred in
Manchester that summer.
Victoria died in January 1901. By that time her funeral
procession was able to be filmed and thus seen by more people than any who had
witnessed the funerals of all previous English kings and queens combined. There
were 1.6 billion people alive on the Earth then. Every one of them has since
died, the last of which probably in 2017. 7.7 billion others have now replaced
Princess Alexandrina Victoria was born in the last year of
the reign of her grandfather, George III, who despite being incapacitated by
madness by that point, was the longest reigning king in English history.
Victoria would herself exceed his record of sixty years on the throne by the
end of the century. Some of her subjects such as the composer Arthur Sullivan
(of Gilbert and Sullivan), Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stephenson and the
playwright Oscar Wilde lived their lives entirely within her reign. In 1819,
however, her own succession looked uncertain.
With fourteen grown-up children, George III’s legacy should have been secure. But following the sudden death of his granddaughter, the Prince Regent’s daughter, Princess Charlotte in 1817, it became apparent not one of his children had produced a legitimate heir to succeed them. Victoria, the daughter of Edward, Duke of Kent, was the result of the subsequent “baby race.” She was fifth in line to the throne at the time of her birth, but by 1837, when her uncle William IV died, Victoria became Queen at the age of eighteen.
Perceptions of the Victorian era have changed steadily as society
has gradually transformed in the years since 1901. Arguably, little really changed until 1914, but the
trauma of the First World War did much to undermine the Empire and accelerate
social change. One day in January 1924, the King, George V wrote in his diary. “Today
23 years ago dear Grandmama died,” he wrote. “I wonder what she would have
thought of a Labour Government”. By the 1920s, women could vote, and motor cars
were becoming more prevalent. In 1926, the General Strike occurred. Old
traditions persisted, however. George V enjoyed a warm public response to his
Silver Jubilee in 1935, an event that doubtless evoked nostalgic memories of
Victoria’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee celebrations in anyone then older than
their forties or fifties and thus able to remember them. Victoria, herself, had
in fact, not celebrated her own Silver Jubilee, there being no tradition of
celebrating them in 1862. She had at any rate been grief-stricken following the
death of her beloved Prince Albert in December 1861.
November 1936 saw the destruction by fire of the Crystal Palace
constructed for the Great Exhibition in 1851. The timing seemed apt: the
monarchy was now in its most serious crisis of the post-Victorian era. George V
had died in January, his son Edward VIII abdicated in December: a major trauma
for the Royal Family, the wounds of which would not heal for decades.
1937 was thus a coronation year with the reluctant George VI being crowned, a century after his great-grandmother had started her long reign. The line of succession now strongly suggested, Britain would have a new Queen one day. That was assuming the King’s wife, Queen Elizabeth didn’t now give birth to a son. This was quite possible: she was only 36 at the time of the coronation and until the 21st century, a son always overtook a daughter (in this case, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret) in the line of succession. But this didn’t happen.
Incidentally, the year 1937 also saw the release of Victoria
the Great starring Anna Neagle. Although very reverent in its portrayal of the
monarch’s early years, the Lord Chamberlain initially banned the play it was
based upon as it used a member of the Royal Family for its subject matter.
The years ahead would see more change. Although the war,
reinforced notions of patriotism and led to a rise in support for the monarchy,
by the half way point of the century with the empire fast unravelling,
Britain’s Victorian heritage was increasing looking like a thing of the past,
perhaps unsurprisingly fifty years after Queen Victoria’s death.
But then in 1952, her great-great granddaughter succeeded to
the throne, accompanied by her husband, himself one of Victoria’s great-great-grandsons.
Elizabeth II was only the sixth ruling female monarch in English history. Any
Briton in his fifties or over would have seen five new kings or queens come to
the throne in the previous fifty years. As we know, this has not happened again
in the nearly seventy years since. At the start of the Queen’s reign, both the
Prime Minister and Opposition leaders, Churchill and Attlee had been young men
at the time of Victoria’s death.
Harold Macmillan who was Prime Minister at the start of the sixties, was the last PM to be born during Victoria’s reign. The Sixties, more than any other decade, for good or ill, would see much of the residual spirit of the Victorian age vanish forever.
Probably, it was inevitable. Even by the early Sixties, only
people of retirement age could remember the closing years of Victoria’s reign
at all. Even then, these memories were likely to have been eclipsed by memories
of bigger events since, such as the two World Wars and Great Depression. But even allowing for that, with the rise of
tower blocks, the Beatles, free love, the contraceptive pill, decolonisation
and the liberalisation of laws on divorce, and homosexuality – the pace of
change was too great for any Victorian sensibility to survive.
Today, we view the Victorian age with mixed feelings: a
golden age of literature and change undoubtedly although our other opinions
might well be determined by our political outlook, However, what cannot be
denied is that it was a decisive, transformative and crucial period in British
Preview, gratefully reproduced from Bingebox magazine (2016).
It is sometimes described as one great soap opera: the longest running drama in British history. So why not make a big TV drama based around the Royal family? Indeed, why not make one based in the life of Queen Elizabeth II herself, a person whose image adorns either a stamp, coin or banknote on the person of nearly everyone reading this? Well, Left Bank Pictures have produced just such a series, a ten-part epic available on Netflix since November 4th 2016. Indeed, they have big plans. The first series covers the period from the young Princess’s marriage in 1947 to the first few years of her reign following her ascension to the throne in 1952. But five more series are planned. If all goes well, in a few years’ time we should have sixty hours of drama covering the Queen’s sixty or seventy years on the throne.
REIGN OF THRONES
Dramas about the royals are, of course, nothing new – Victoria, Henry V, The Madness of King George are just three examples of historical monarchs who have seen their lives dramatised. But until Stephen Frears’ 2006 film The Queen, scripted by Peter Morgan, which focused on the potential public relations disaster which almost engulfed the monarchy following Princess Diana’s death in 1997, dramas about the current monarch were almost unheard of. The King’s Speech, which features the future Queen as a young girl, was another successful Oscar-winning stab at comparatively recent royal history. But it is Morgan – the author of The Queen as well as the play The Audience which also starred Helen Mirren as the Queen who has brought his formidable writing powers to The Crown. Stephen Daldry, famed for Billy Elliott and The Hours directs.
The Crown’s credentials are impeccable. The casting was always going to be controversial, however. Few are likely to gripe about Claire Foy in the role of HRH but as with Victoria which saw former Doctor Who companion Jenna-Louise Coleman cast in the main role, the producers have turned to the Tardis for the role of Prince Philip. Recent Doctor Who Matt Smith is not an obvious choice for the role, but then who is? James Cromwell and David Threlfall have both played the Duke of Edinburgh before but as a much older man. Smith is a fine actor and delivers a first-class performance. However, time will inevitably become an issue. Both he and Foy are in their thirties and are likely to be replaced at least once if the show is to cover the Queen’s entire reign.
The choice of American ‘Third Rock From The Sun’ actor, John Lithgow to play Churchill, the Queen’s first Prime Minister might also raise a few eyebrows in some quarters. Yet Lithgow is an accomplished actor experienced way beyond the realm of comedy and thanks in part to some due some modifications to alter his appearance (Lithgow is nearly a foot taller and slimmer than Winnie was) he is great in this. And Churchill was half-American anyway. What’s the problem?
MONARCHY IN THE UK
“I have seen three great monarchies brought down through
their failure to separate personal indulgences from duty,” says Eileen Atkins’
Queen Mary at one point, warning her granddaughter Elizabeth, “you must not
allow yourself to make similar mistakes. The Crown must win.”
Rather like Maggie Smith’s character in Downton Abbey, The Crown’s Queen Mary seems to specialise in saying controversial and sometimes prophetic things in this. Presumably, the three monarchies she means are Victoria (who arguably indulged herself by grieving over Prince Albert’s death excessively), Edward VII (who basically drank, ate and womanised his way to death) and her own son Edward VIII, who abdicated. Although as a heavy drinker and smoker, Elizabeth’s father George VI (also Mary’s son) was hardly free of personal indulgence either.
The excellent Alex Jennings incidentally crops up as the Duke of Windsor, whose abdication in 1936 (as Edward VIII) ensured Elizabeth would be Queen. Jennings also played Prince Charles in the film The Queen.
As with any good drama, there is the potential for
controversy. Though the Queen no longer has the power to put people who annoy
her in the Tower, there will still be a desire not to cause offence.
If The Crown proves a success, five more series could be in the offing. The opening episode which begins in 1947, clearly lays out the framework for what is to come. The King (Jared Harris, son of the late Richard Harris and perhaps best known for his role as the token Brit in Mad Men) has a bad cough and is clearly not long for this world. His daughter Princess Elizabeth is about to marry Prince Philip and though the couple are happy, there are hints of awkwardness to come. Philip is giving up a lot for “the greatest prize on Earth” including his love of smoking and Greek nationality. “Not a single person supported the match,” warns Queen Mary.
The action then jumps forward four years to 1951 during which time, the King’s health has deteriorated further and Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage has yielded two children, Charles and Anne. There are also allusions to trouble brewing with Elizabeth’s younger sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), notably the strong suggestion of an affair with dashing equerry Group Captain Peter Townsend (Ben Miles), a married man. With a title sequence, reminiscent of Game of Thrones, there are also political manoeuvrings afoot. Returning Prime Minister Winston Churchill soon knows more about the true state of the King’s health than the monarch does himself. And Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam) is already assessing the great war leader’s vulnerabilities: as Tory heir apparent in effect, he is clearly eyeing up the elderly Churchill’s job.
Ultimately The Crown is essential viewing. It is as much
about how Britain has changed in the last seventy years as the monarchy has.
There is certainly plenty of material.
AND WHAT DO YOU DO…?
Three stars of The Crown…
Claire Foy as Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth II
Foy has played royalty before and was the ill-fated mother
of the Queen’s Tudor namesake (Elizabeth I) Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall. She sprung to fame in the title role in the
BBC’s Little Dorrit in 2008.
Matt Smith as Prince
Best known for playing the last Doctor Who but one, the
thirty-four -year-old Smith plays the young Duke of Edinburgh, a man struggling
in the traditionally feminine role of partner to the monarch.
John Lithgow as Winston Churchill
Although often associated with comedy roles such as Bigfoot
and the Hendersons and Dick in the sitcom Third Rock From The Sun, veteran US
star Lithgow is an acclaimed and prolific dramatic actor.
Book review: Comrade Corbyn by Rosa Prince. Published by: Biteback.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has divided opinion like no other British political leader since Margaret Thatcher. To his admirers, he is above reproach, the flawless, bearded, living embodiment of socialist perfection: any criticism of him can only suggest insidious bias by the right-wing mass media. His detractors, in contrast, see him, in the words of Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun as “a friend of terrorists who’s ready to open our borders and hike up taxes.” In short, they portray him as an unpatriotic, unprincipled, malevolent, Marxist bogeyman. Neither characterisation is accurate and neither does the real Corbyn any favours. The reality, of course, lies somewhere in between these two extremes. Jeremy Corbyn has now led Labour for three years, a period exceeding that of John Smith and Gordon Brown. Rosa Prince’s biography, Comrade Corbyn: A Very Unlikely Coup was the first comprehensive biography of Corbyn to emerge, appearing in 2016. Rosa Prince is online editor for the Daily Telegraph and many thought she was an odd choice to write about the Labour leader. But as Prince herself says, this is “not a hagiography but nor is it a hatchet job”. She is right. The Guardian attacked the book as “spiteful” which is entirely unfair. The book has its problems, but judging by this third edition (two supplemental epilogues update us of events since Corbyn became leader), this is a thorough and fair account of the Opposition leader’s life so far.
By and large, he comes across as a decent and principled man, an eternal campaigner, who genuinely seemed to have no ambitions or expectations beyond being an apparently excellent constituency MP for Islington North and a back bencher even as recently as the 2015 General Election. The story of his astonishing triumph in the 2015 Labour leadership contest (partly, though certainly not entirely, a consequence of disastrous campaigns by the three other contenders, particularly a chronically indecisive Andy Burnham) is thoroughly and vividly recreated. There is nothing at all to suggest any anti-Semitism in Corbyn: quite the opposite. Corbyn has speculated openly in the past that he himself might have some Jewish heritage. The worst that can be said of him is that he has been too relaxed about meeting various dubious figures with terrorist connections in the past, mainly in the 1980s, He is certainly not pro-terrorist, however and these past acts are unlikely to cause serious issues in the future. Another valid charge against Corbyn is that he has also grown so used to constant media hostility that he can no longer tell whether any criticisms of him have any validity or not. The press is indeed relentlessly unfairly brutal towards him, as one would expect they would be towards anyone on the Left. Corbyn has a genuine element of greatness within him, for all his failings. This should worry the Tories and the Tory press even more.
There are a few errors in the book. Harold Wilson did not call a General Election in October 1966 (p29), Ed Miliband was not elected “under the electoral college system which had been in place since 1980” – it had been reformed in the meantime, notably under John Smith (p192) while Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup was about a Sheffield steelworker who is unexpectedly elected Prime Minister and was not “inspired” by the career of Anthony Wedgwood-Benn (p71 and p308). By far the worst flaw in the book, however, occurs in its early stages. Like many on the Right, Rosa Prince seems incapable of comprehending the fact that anyone who has any wealth might aspire to work towards improving society as a whole, rather than simply to consolidate their own position. Prince thus marvels endlessly over the not unusual fact Corbyn’s background was relatively comfortable but that he nevertheless became a left-winger. She simply can’t get over it. Indeed, every time someone privileged appears in the story, we are told “they were not an obvious socialist” or that they were an “unlikely radical”. Even the fact that this occurs time and time again in the narrative, does not seem to provide her with any sort of clue. Prince seems completely unaware that there has always been a large cohort of middle and upper-class support for the Left in general and for Labour specifically. Think of: the Milibands, Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Clement Attlee, Shirley Williams, Hugh Gaitskell, George Orwell and others. They were no more “unlikely” socialists than those from relatively humble backgrounds such as John Major, Margaret Thatcher, Richard Nixon or indeed Adolf Hitler – who became figures on the Right, were “unlikely conservatives”. Classics scholar Mary Beard is also described as “outspoken” (she isn’t) while Prince seems slightly obsessed by Corbyn’s 1970s relationship with Diane Abbott. Still, we should remember: Rosa Prince writes for the Telegraph. Perhaps we should be grateful there is only one mention in the entire book of the Duchess of Cambridge? These blind spots (admittedly common to many Conservative Party supporters) flaw an otherwise thorough, well-written and well researched biography of a man who may yet one day lead Britain.
Uncharismatic, underwhelming and a bit posh, Clement Attlee might seem an unlikely hero. But he’s certainly one of my heroes. And he should probably be one of yours too.
He came from a privileged background, the sort of background many on the Right see as inappropriate for someone on the Left. In fact, Attlee’s origins are very typical of many on the Left: Tony Benn, Michael Foot, Hugh Dalton, Shirley Williams, Hugh Gaitskell and many others. But Attlee, unlike most right wingers was intelligent enough to recognise the realities of poverty and sought to rectify them, rather than either seeking to blame the poor for their own misfortunes or obsessing about the social background of those attempting to alleviate poverty as the Right tend to do.
Attlee retained a certain conservatism. He never moved against the royal family or the House of Lords. He never attacked public schools either, having enjoyed his own schooldays.
His relationship with Winston Churchill, the other political giant of his era is fascinating. As a young man, Attlee watched the top hatted Home Secretary as he attended the 1911 Sidney Street Siege. He didn’t blame Churchill for the disastrous 1915 Gallipoli landings even though he took part in them himself. He served loyally as Churchill’s wartime deputy. He trounced Churchill in the 1945 General Election.
As John Bew’s extremely well researched and thorough Orwell award winning book reminds us, Attlee probably did more than any other 20th century British Prime Minister to transform Britain for the better. This is a great book about a great man.
“All political careers, unless cut off in mid-stream, end in failure,” wrote Enoch Powell. Margaret Thatcher was famously and dramatically driven from Downing Street by her own party and her own intense unpopularity. Others go more gently into the night and more gradually.
Tony Benn’s influence has been on the wane since his narrow defeat in the 1981 Labour Deputy Leadership contest. The party changed under Kinnock, then Smith, then Blair, then Brown but the former Viscount Stansagate did not change himself. He just grew older. These final diaries find him in his eighties, a widower and out of parliament as the successful Blair era gives way to the more calamitous leadership of Gordon Brown.
Benn seems increasingly a sad figure by this point, increasingly relishing the prospect of death (the sentiment, “I do actually feel as if I am coming to the end of my life” recurs frequently). But the eighth and final volume of his diaries nevertheless remains compelling. He remains friends with the actress Saffron Burrows and the newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky and his political insights remain as sharp as ever whether one agrees with them or not.
Sadly, a bout of ill health in 2009 brought his diaries – which he had written on and off since his wartime childhood and consistently since his return to the Commons in 1963 – to an end. Benn summarises the last five years (which have been dominated by the formation of the Tory-Liberal Democrat Coalition) in the few final pages, a much less satisfying read than the diaries themselves.
But who can complain? Benn’s legacy, in addition to his political achievements (and failings) will undoubtedly be these diaries which have chronicled his own long political career and indeed all political life during the last half century.
Whatever else you may think about Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, David Cameron and the Daily Mail are clearly wrong. While Lord Nelson and Winston Churchill arguably saved Britain from invasion and President Kennedy’s actions may have saved us from nuclear destruction over Cuba in 1962, Thatcher cannot claim this. Without her, you might argue we might have lost the Falklands, still be strike-bound or a poorer nation than we are currently. Or alternatively, you might think, we would have a fairer, wealthier society, fewer homeless people, less crime and free prescription charges. Either way, Britain would still exist.
Myth 2: Margaret Thatcher “won the Cold War”
Thatcher famously identified Mikhail Gorbachev as “a man she could do business with” early on (in 1984) and this is to her credit. But the thaw in East-West relations had little to do with US President Ronald Reagan, even less to do with Thatcher and everything to with the liberalism of Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev. It’s very hard to envisage any realistic scenario where a different British Prime Minister would have made any real difference whatsoever.
Myth 3: Margaret Thatcher, “Milk Snatcher”
She did cut free school milk as Education Secretary, yes. But her Labour predecessors had already done so too. The name “milk snatcher” only stuck because a) she’s a woman and b) it rhymes with “Margaret Thatcher”.
Myth 4: She enjoyed warm relations with US President Ronald Reagan
This is certainly generally true. But they almost fell out in 1982 when the US threatened to remain neutral in the Falklands dispute. They almost fell out again in 1983, when the US invaded the Commonwealth nation of Grenada without even warning the UK in advance.
Myth 5: Thatcher was consistently anti-European
Not so! As Opposition leader, she enthusiastically campaigned for the successful Yes campaign in the 1975 EEC Referendum ensuring continued membership. In power, the Single European Act passed in 1986, went very much further towards pushing the UK towards European integration than the later Maastricht Treaty ever did.
Myth 6: Delusions of grammar
As Education Secretary, she closed more Grammar Schools than anyone before or since.
She was Britain’s first woman prime minister: Okay, this is true!
Sudden deaths in front-line British politics are mercifully quite rare. In 1970, Iain Macleod died suddenly a month after becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer, a desperate blow to Edward Heath’s new Tory Government. In 1994, Opposition leader John Smith died suddenly of a heart attack. Had Smith lived, it seems virtually certain he would have led Labour back into power in 1997, instead of Tony Blair.
Although he had been leading Labour for seven years at the time of his death fifty years ago, (he led the Opposition for longer than any other post-war leader except Neil Kinnock) it is less certain Hugh Gaitskell would ever have enjoyed the trappings of Downing Street even had he survived what turned out to be his final illness. True, Labour did win power again in October 1964. But this was only after Gaitskell’s successor Harold Wilson had immeasurably boosted the party. And even then it was a narrow win. Gaitskell had lost the 1959 election heavily and might well have led the party to defeat again. We will never know.
The youthful, combative Harold Wilson was undoubtedly the right choice for the party at the time, even though his subsequent leadership after the Labour landslide of 1966 would ultimately prove disappointing. George Brown, who came second in the race, was to prove a notoriously erratic figure and later that year appeared drunk on TV (having just provoked a fight with US actor Eli Wallach) on a TV programme on which he was being interviewed about President Kennedy’s assassination which had occurred earlier that day. James Callaghan, who came third in the 1963 leadership, would eventually lead Labour and the UK himself between 1976 and 1979.
Alas, Hugh Gaitskell famous for his two conference speeches in which he tearfully pledged to “fight and fight again to save the party we love” and another in which he declared that European integration threatened to end “a thousand years of British history,” would never get this opportunity to lead his country. After years spent fighting the Left and working to keep the party alive, he died just as things were finally falling into place.