Book review: Comrade Corbyn, by Rosa Prince

Book review: Comrade Corbyn by Rosa Prince. Published by: Biteback.

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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 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 or 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.

corbHe, by and large, 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 backbencher 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 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, when serving as a backbencher. He is certainly not pro-terrorism, 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, in my view. This should worry the Tories and the Tory press even more.

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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 (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 Wedgewood-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 at the fact Corbyn’s background was relatively comfortable and 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 an “unlikely radical”. Even the fact that this occurs time and time again 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 the likes of John Major, Margaret Thatcher, Richard Nixon or indeed Adolf Hitler – all from comparatively humble backgrounds – were unlikely converts to the Right.
Classics scholar Mary Beard is also described as “outspoken” while Prince seems slightly obsessed by Corbyn’s 1970s relationship with Diane Abbott. Still, Rosa Prince is a Telegraph writer. 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 Tory supporters) flaw an otherwise thorough, well-written and well researched biography of a man who may yet one day lead Britain.

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Book review: Fighters and Quitters by Theo Barclay

Book review: Fighters and Quitters: Great Political Resignations, by Theo Barclay. Published by: Biteback. Out now.

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All political careers end in failure, Enoch Powell is often quoted as saying. Not all end in dramatic frontbench resignations, however. Except for those included in this thorough and entertaining collection by barrister Theo Barclay. Fighters and Quitters fills in the blanks on some of the great ministerial resignations of the last century. In most cases, transcripts of the resignation letters (and their replies) are included in full: a nice touch.

The selection process to decide which resignations should be focused on in the book does seem to have been a bit odd though. First up is the Duchess of Atholl, who resigned over Munich: an interesting case, which I knew little about. The Duchess should not be confused with another famous Atholl who resigned too late for this book: notably the total Atholl who resigned as Foreign Secretary last month (JOKE).

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We then jump to 1963 and John Profumo: undoubtedly a massive resignation and the biggest sex scandal of the 20th century, skipping over Hugh Dalton’s “Budget leaks”, Nye Bevan’s “false teeth and spectacles” and Macmillan’s “Night of the Long Knives” in 1962, in the process (the Long Knives admittedly were more blatant sackings than resignations admittedly). Callaghan’s 1967 resignation over devaluation, George Brown’s 1968 departure as Foreign Secretary (after numerous empty threats to quit) and Reginald Maudling’s exit over the Poulson affair are all missed out.

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John Stonehouse and Jeremy Thorpe are covered. Both remain remarkable stories, but neither were particularly characterised by the resignations of the key participants.

The three big ministerial resignations of the Thatcher era (aside from the Iron Lady herself) do feature here: Heseltine, Lawson and Howe, the last two sharing a chapter. Other potentially interesting cases up to the present: Lord Carrington, John “here today, gone tomorrow” Nott, Cecil Parkinson, Jeffery Archer, David Mellor, Norman Lamont and David Blunkett are missing too. Probably I am asking far too much to expect all of these to be included. Nevertheless, the selection process does seem inconsistent.

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Despite this, if you do enjoy accounts of ministerial resignations – and let’s face it, who doesn’t? – this a solid, exhaustively researched read in which Barclay subjects the last thirty years to particularly intense scrutiny. He also redresses the balance in many cases.

Twenty years on, Welsh Secretary Ron Davies’ “moment of madness” and certainly his explanation for it seem madder than ever (overwhelmed by tiredness, he went to stretch his legs on Clapham Common in the middle of the night, met a man and agreed to go for a takeaway with him, before being robbed apparently). Edwina Currie, meanwhile “was the victim of a corporatist stitch-up, but it arose out of a crisis created by her own big mouth.” Peter Mandelson, meanwhile, seems genuinely hard done by. The general view that the late Robin Cook’s resignation over Iraq was principled and honourable (he in fact left it far too late to prevent anything) while Clare Short’s was hypocritical and self-serving (she in fact seemed very well-intentioned) is rightly reassessed.

An excellent read.

Edwina Currie launches new British Lion Code of Practice

Book review: Punch & Judy Politics by Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton

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Punch & Judy Politics: An Insiders’ Guide To Prime Minister’s Questions by Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton. Published by Biteback.

Iain Duncan Smith was terrible at it. William Hague was brilliant at it but it got him nowhere. Theresa May is not very good at it. Jeremy Corbyn is better although is a dull performer. Harold Wilson drank a bottle of whiskey, sometimes two to prepare for it. Margaret Thatcher had her notes for it, produced in large print. She felt wearing reading glasses would look like a sign of weakness.

It is, in fact, Thatcher who we have in many ways to thank for Prime Minister’s Questions in its current form. Although Prime Ministers have had a designated time slot for answering questions since the early 1960s, it was Thatcher who transformed it into a major event – or rather two events – by choosing to answer every question herself. It was also around this time – although not her doing – that parliamentary proceedings began being broadcast on the radio from 1978 and then TV from 1989. The modern ritual of PMQs would not be the same without this.

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On taking office, Tony Blair reduced the sessions from two to one a week. Some criticised him for this, suggesting it proved his “contempt for parliament” but in fact it seems very sensible. Thatcher reportedly spent eight hours a week just preparing for her two weekly sessions. Something had to give.

Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton are behind this well researched and thorough guide and clearly know their stuff. Both have experience as political advisers and spent years briefing Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband behind the scenes for their own sessions with, as they admit, somewhat mixed results.

It is a bizarre ritual, a genuine ordeal for the leaders on both sides and almost useless as a means to both ask and get an answer to a question, involving a lot of improvisation, preparation and second guessing. The sight of 600 paid representatives bawling and groaning at each other in a crowded chamber on a weekly basis also probably puts more people off politics than anything else.

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It does serve a function though and as the book reminds us, has provided scenes of rare humour and drama. William Hague, though a largely unsuccessful Tory leader was a master of this strange art and like the late John Smith could often be very funny.

Even Hague, could come unstuck though, as he did filling in for David Cameron when Harriet Harman stood in for PM, Gordon Brown in 2008.

“You had to explain yesterday that you dress in accordance with wherever you go – you wear a helmet to a building site, you wear Indian clothes to Indian parts of your constituency,” he began, then attempting a joke. “Presumably when you go to a cabinet meeting you dress as a clown.”

Against all expectation, Harriet Harman then wiped the floor with him:

“If am looking for advice on what to wear or what not to wear, I think the very last person I would look to for advice is the man in a baseball cap,” she said.

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By common consent, PMQs is currently going through a dull patch. Jeremy Corbyn covered up his initial experience well by using questions from the general public. Today, he is much better and no longer resorts to this clever tactic. But he is not a spontaneous performer even as he consistently outperforms Theresa May.

It was David Cameron who called for “an end to Punch and Judy politics” when he became Tory leader in 2005. He was not the first or last leader to express such sentiments and was not referring to PMQs specifically anyway, a ritual which he generally proved pretty good at.

But a few years later, he admitted the folly of this pledge. For calm down, dear! He was the future once, his Day Mayor and your Night Mayor.

And Punch and Judy politics are here to stay.

That is that. The end.

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Book review: Citizen Clem – A Biography of Attlee by John Bew


Published by Riverrun

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.

Great political myths of our time

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  1. “The chief problem with MPs today, is that too few of them have held a job outside politics”.

Saying this sort of thing is an easy way to get a big applause on BBC’s ‘Question Time’. But is it really such a problem? Anyone who wants to get on in politics is surely well-advised to start pursuing their ambitions early. Even in the past, many of those who did pursue other careers first (Margaret Thatcher was briefly a chemist, Tony Benn was a pilot and worked for the BBC) ultimately seem to have been biding their time until they got into parliament anyway, just like David “PR exec” Cameron and Tony “lawyer” Blair. But why is it assumed that MPs who have done other jobs first are necessarily of better quality? Remember: for every Winston Churchill or Paddy Ashdown, there’s a Jeffery Archer, Robert Kilroy-Silk, Neil Hamilton (an ex-teacher), a Robert Maxwell or an Iain Duncan Smith. All of these last five had other careers before politics. None seem to have been better MPs as a result.

2. “The Labour Party today has been taken over by the middle classes who have moved it to the right.”

Again, this isn’t the problem. Labour has always had lots of poshos in it from Clement Attlee to Hugh Gaitskell to Shirley Williams. It’s wrong to assume people from wealthier backgrounds are necessarily more conservative anyway. Anthony Wedgewood Benn and Michael Foot, after all came from better off families and they were hardly pseudo-Tories. Nor were James Callaghan or David Blunkett, exactly rampant lefties despite being of working class stock.

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3. “Labour is obsessed with class”.

Actually, if you look at the tabloid press, it is clear the Right are far more intent on class war, attacking anyone on benefits as a “scroungers” and anyone not to their political liking with money as “hypocrites” or “champagne socialists”. Ignore them!

4. “Rupert Murdoch is nor right wing: he just likes to back a winner.”

Wrong! Murdoch will only back those who share his own right wing outlook. Hence why he backed losers like John McCain and Mitt Romney in the US and still backed the Tories even as they appeared to be heading for defeat in May 2015. Remember this, next time you pick up The Times!

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