Book review: The Sultan of Swing – The Life of David Butler

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.

Book review: Beyond The Red Wall

Once upon a time, seemingly about in about 1935, but actually only about nine months ago, there was a General Election. It seemed very important at the time, but most of us have now probably forgotten all about it.

The Conservatives, under their new leader, Boris Johnson did surprisingly well in the snap 12 December election. Having never once managed to win a substantial majority in any of the seven previous General Elections held during the previous thirty years, they won a majority of eighty, easily enough to keep them in office until 2024. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, in contrast, did very badly.

A notable feature of the results was that the Tories made substantial inroads into the so-called impenetrable ”Red Wall’ of sixty or so traditionally Labour old coal, steel and manufacturing seats stretching from the Midlands, across to the north of England and up into Wales.

In this book, pollster Deborah Mattinson interviews a range of people from within previous ‘Red Wall’ constituencies which succumbed to the Tories in December 2019. The book should make for fairly depressing reading for any Labour supporter, with many of the voters interviewed, feeling no connection at all to the party which is supposed to represent them. Predictably, the intense unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn was a major factor as was disenchantment over the party’s Brexit stance. The Tory slogan, “Get Brexit done” seems to have resonated strongly with many voters.

Some voters conclusions seems bizarre. One, depressingly seems to think the NHS was created by the Tories. In reality, of course, it was Labour’s crowning achievement. Others speak favourably of Trump or suggest Tim ‘Wetherspoon’s (the controversial businessman, Tim Martin) would make an ideal Prime Minister.

However, let us remember: no cowards should flinch from this book and no traitors should sneer at the views expressed within (apart from the one about Tim Martin). Labour has a historic mission to save the nation from the dishonesty and chicanery of the Tories. In 2019, despite a dismal Tory record in government over the past decade and a weak, lazy and all too vulnerable Tory leader in Boris Johnson, Labour completely failed to unseat them.

Only by gaining an understanding of why the election went the way it did, through reading books like this, can we hope to understand and thus begin the process of preventing this from ever happening again.

Book review: Beyond The Red Wall: Why Labour Lost, How The Conservatives Won and What Will Happen Next, by Deborah Mattinson. Published by: Biteback. September 15 2020.

Exeter 2019 General Election Hustings Debate

With the General Election just ten days away, around 300 people chose to brave the cold December Monday evening air to see four of the six candidates competing to be Exeter’s next MP answer a selection of selected questions submitted by the general public inside Exeter Cathedral.

Two of the candidates were absent: Former pantomime star Daniel Page who is running as an independent and the Brexit Party candidate, Leslie Willis did not attend.

The Liberal Democrats (who performed very poorly in the 2015 and 2017 elections in Exeter) also did not attend as they are not fielding a candidate in this election. The party agreed to step aside to the give the pro-Remain Green Party candidate Joe Levy, a clear run. The Labour candidate, Mr. Bradshaw is also very pro-EU. However, Labour’s overall position is seen as less unambiguously pro-Remain than the Greens. (This paragraph has been amended as of 8th December 2019).

None of the candidates are women: the first time this has been the case in Exeter since 1987.

After some initial sound problems, proceedings began. Although each candidate answered each question individually, I’ll deal with each candidate, one at a time:

Ben Bradshaw (Labour)

This is the seventh election in Exeter for Labour’s Bradshaw and as he won his biggest ever victory in 2017 with 62% of the vote, it must be assumed he is the favourite to win again his time. He performed strongly on questions ranging from climate change, homelessness, transport, Brexit and the party leadership. He lamented the fact that Labour’s successful record on reducing homelessness had been completely undone by the Tories since 2010 and complained that environmental targets would be threatened by us leaving the EU.

He resisted attacking the Labour leadership or predicting a heavy Tory win nationwide as he did in 2017 and provided a convincing defence of Labour’s proposed nationalisation programme. He criticised the First Past the Post system which he campaigned to reform in the 2011 referendum. He argued that the best way to stop Brexit was by electing as many Labour MPs as possible and followed Green candidate Joe Levy’s lead in deriding the notion that a Tory win would mean a quick and easy end to Brexit as a nonsense. He also asked voters to judge him on his record as MP for Exeter since 1997.

John Gray (Conservative)

The Conservative candidate began with an interesting question. How many of the audience had actually read the Conservative manifesto? Very few hands were raised. This would doubtless have produced a similar response if he had asked about the other party manifestos too. But it was a welcome piece of audience participation in an evening which generally did not involve much audience response, aside from clapping and occasional grumbling. Perhaps it would have been a different story if the pantomime man had turned up?

Elsewhere, Mr Gray gave decent, worthy answers, some of which were undermined by the government’s record. He was predictably negative about nationalisation, although not very specific on why and gave good answers on the environment. He argued, as the UKIP candidate did, that the 2016 Brexit vote represented the will of the people. His claim that an overall majority for Boris Johnson’s Tories would lead to a quick and easy end to Brexit was derided by Joe Levy and Ben Bradshaw. His portrait of a Labour government torn apart by coalitions and confusion was similar to the ‘coalition of chaos’ arguments deployed by Tories in 2015. Some in the audience might have reflected that the decade since 2010 has been spent almost entirely under Tory rule and yet has been almost entirely spent in coalition or/and hung parliaments. The last three years particularly have seen more political chaos than anyone can remember.

Later, he was laughed at by many in the audience after he asserted that “a vote for Labour is a vote for Jeremy Corbyn, while a vote for me, is a vote for a Conservative government.” Bradshaw and others were quick to note his failure to mention Boris Johnson at this point. Later, he attempted to endorse Boris Johnson again. It did not seem entirely convincing. However, in general, Mr. Gray performed well.

Joe Levy (Green Party)

As in the 2017 campaign, Joe Levy, though still in his twenties stood out as one of the most impressive figures in the debate, making a convincing case for such concepts as the introduction of a universal basic income and, of course, the urgency of the need to combat climate change.

He drew particular applause for his passionate advocacy of EU membership, arguing his grandparents had supported it for the simple primary reason that they remembered the Second World War.

He also made a mockery of the general Conservative claim that a Tory win will automatically lead to a simple straightforward Brexit. Mr Bradshaw, picked up on this, agreeing that it was one of the biggest and most persistent lies of the Tory campaign.

Duncan Odgers (UKIP)

Arriving slightly late, Mr Odgers annoyed many in the audience, by asserting early on that contrary to popular belief immigration is a major problem in Exeter, in fact, largely explaining why house prices are high. Elsewhere, he performed well on other issues, even acknowledging climate change exists. He argued against nationalisation and argued Exeter (which voted 55 to 45 to remain in the EU) should respect the will of the nation as a whole on Brexit even if the city mostly did not support it itself. He spoke of Brexit as if it was something destined never to happen now and called Jeremy Corbyn’s position of neutrality on the issue, “a disgrace”. Occasionally, he rambled slightly. He blamed overpopulation for many of our environmental problems, but did not say what could be done about it.

A persistent charge, which many would agree with, was that many people today have lost faith in the current crop of politicians. A wider issue which wasn’t addressed was whether the upper ranks of UKIP who have included the likes of Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall in the past are really any more trustworthy.

Chris Hallam has written A-Z of Exeter: People, Places, History and co-wrote the book, Secret Exeter with Tim Isaac. Both are published by Amberley and are available now

Book review: Why We Get The Wrong Politicians

Book review: Why We Get The Wrong Politicians, by Isabel Hardman. Published by: Atlantic Books.

As British voters prepare to go to the polls for the fourth time this decade, it is well worth bearing in mind: the way we select our politicians is awful.

You don’t actually have to be rich to become an MP, but as Isabel Hardman’s book highlights, the process of standing for parliament is so expensive, time consuming and arduous, it’s a wonder anyone ever does it in the first place. Most candidates in the current general election campaign will never become MPs. And even if they do, the labyrinthine world of Westminster offers so little support to new members, that many of them will find themselves falling victim to alcoholism or marital breakdown. Of course, many also often find themselves subject to personal abuse, on Twitter, on nastier versions of blogs like this or in what is sometimes referred to as “the real world”.

Hardman (the Deputy Editor of The Spectator) admits to some well-intentioned sleight of hand here. Despite the book’s title, she is not actually attacking politicians as a class. She does not pander to the popular stereotype that all or even most MPs are lazy, out of touch or corrupt. Although she does not shy away from recounting examples of abuse, she reminds us that the vast majority of MPs are hardworking, dedicated people. Attending regular surgeries and hearing constituents’ problems arguably puts them more in touch with ordinary people’s problems than the average person.

Hardman’s argument is that the current system is deeply flawed, often resulting in unsatisfactory laws.

It is an excellent book and a difficult argument to refute.

What if the Brexit vote had never happened?

Today’s headlines…

Cameron To “Step Down As PM in 2020”

David Cameron's Last Day As The UK's Prime Minister

Prime Minister, David Cameron today gave his strongest hint yet that he intends to step down as Prime Minister within two years of winning the forthcoming General Election. Speculation has been mounting that Mr. Cameron is close to announcing the date of the next election as May 22nd. This would coincide neatly with the forthcoming elections to the European Parliament.

The last General Election in May 2015, resulted in a surprise overall majority of 12 for the Conservatives. This has since fallen as a result of recent by-elections although Mr. Cameron has resisted calls to strike any sort of deal with either Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats or the similarly-sized Democratic Unionist Party.

Having entered Downing Street in June 2010, Mr Cameron is now the third longest serving Prime Minister since 1945, after Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. At 52, he remains younger than Mrs Thatcher when she became Britain’s first (and to date, only) woman prime minister in 1979.

According to a report in the London Evening Standard, Mr Cameron’s cabinet colleagues, George Osborne, Boris Johnson, Theresa May and Michael Gove are expected to join the race to succeed him.

Labour’s Jo Cox has been amongst those urging unity in her own party, ahead of the expected election announcement. UKIP has, meanwhile, renewed calls for a referendum on continued UK membership of the European Union. Opinion polls currently indicate support for a UK exit from the EU, but also that it is low on the list of voter priorities at this time, ranking way below concerns over the NHS and education.

Opponents of a vote suggest it would be a colossal waste of time, money and energy, inviting economic uncertainty, political uncertainty and disunity at a time of growing prosperity.

Meanwhile, in New York, maverick billionaire and 2016 Republican Party nominee, Donald J. Trump has announced plans to challenge President Hillary Clinton for the White House in 2020. Trump, who will be 74 by the time of next year’s election has made repeated claims of foul play surrounding his 2016 defeat although no evidence has thus far emerged.

In 2017, Trump resumed his role on the US version of TV’s ‘The Apprentice’.

Campaign 2016 Debate

 

 

 

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 great 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 the ritual of 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 through 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 like a very sensible move indeed. 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.

Prime Minster’s Question Time 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, 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: Closet Queens: Some 20th Century British Politicians by Michael Bloch

Chris Hallam's World View

Closet Michael Bloch

As of May 2015, there are more openly gay members of parliament than there have ever been before. But how many are still “in the closet”? And what about those who kept their sexuality under wraps in the past, perhaps before the homosexual act itself was legalised in 1967?

Michael Bloch’s book is extremely gossipy but also highly informative revealing that far more of the British politicians who shaped the last century were gay than was commonly thought. In some cases, it was just a phase: Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland’s very intense early relationship fizzled out into mere friendship by the time both had began their careers as Labour politicians. They later became fierce rivals. The still homosexual Crosland was bitterly disappointed when the now keenly heterosexual Jenkins was appointed Chancellor in 1967. Jenkins felt the same when Crosland became Foreign Secretary seven years later. Jenkins left the Callaghan…

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Book review: Things Can Only Get Worse? by John O’Farrell

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Things Can Only Get Worse? Twenty Confusing Years In The Life Of A Labour Supporter by John O’Farrell, Published by: Doubleday

In 1998, John O’Farrell published, Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter, 1979-1997. It was an enjoyable and genuinely funny political memoir of O’Farrell’s life from his teenage defeat as Labour candidate in his school’s 1979 mock election to the happy ending of the New Labour landslide in 1997. Eighteen years is a long time: by 1997, O’Farrell was well into his thirties, balding, married with children and thanks to his work on the likes of Spitting Image and Radio 4’s Weekending, an established comedy writer.

The book was a big hit. But now twenty years have passed again since Blair’s first big win. The story of the two decades since as covered  in this sequel is rather more complex.

On the one hand, New Labour won yet another landslide in 2001 and a third big win in 2005. The Tories have never really recovered from their 1997 trouncing, winning a  majority in only one of the last six General Elections and even then a very small one (in 2015). And as O’Farrell says, things undeniably got better under Labour, with the government “writing off the debt of the world’s poorest countries…transforming the NHS by trebling health spending and massively reducing waiting lists…the minimum wage, and pensioners getting free TV licences and the winter fuel allowance…peace in Northern Ireland… equality for the gay community…all the new schools…free entry to museums and galleries…” The list goes on (and on).

John O'Farrell, Labour's prospective parliamentary candidate for Eastleigh

On the other hand, as O’Farrell admits, there are certainly grounds for pessimism too. O’Farrell often felt conflicted defending the Blair Government as a Guardian columnist in the early 2000s particularly after the build-up to the Iraq War. He had a bit of a laugh campaigning as the Labour candidate for the hopelessly Tory seat of Maidenhead in the 2001 second Labour landslide election running against a notably unimpressive Opposition frontbencher called Theresa May. But the disintegration of Labour under first Gordon Brown and then Ed Miliband was hardly a joy to behold, either for him or anyone else who backed Labour. O’Farrell’s candidature in the 2013 Eastleigh by-election in which he came fourth, was less fun too with the Tory tabloids attacking him by using out of context quotes from his first book. By 2016, with O’Farrell despairing after a year of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Brexit result and the election of Donald Trump, the celebrations of victory night in May 1997 start to seem like a very long time ago indeed.

Thankfully, O’Farrell is always a funny writer, remaining upbeat even when for others, things would only get bitter.

After all, even at their worst, Labour have never been as bad as the Tories. Yes, the Tories: a party who supported the Iraq War far more enthusiastically than Labour did (and indeed, whose support ensured it happened), a party who fiercely upheld Labour’s spending plans in the early 2000s at the time (rightly) only to attack them endlessly (and wrongly) later, a party whose membership enthusiastically chose Jeffery Archer as its choice for London mayor in 2000 and Iain Duncan Smith as their party leader in 2001. The Conservatives were, are and will always be “the Silly Party.”

This is an excellent book. And thanks to Theresa May’s calamitous General Election miscalculation, it even has a happy ending.

Sort of.

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Exeter 2017 General Election Hustings Debate

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Exeter Boat Shed, Tuesday June 6th 2017, 7pm

Which candidate will win Exeter in the General Election?

On the evidence of yesterday’s hustings debate at the new Exeter Boat Shed on the Quayside, it should be another win for Labour’s Ben Bradshaw. Bradshaw has represented the seat which was previously a Conservative stronghold for twenty years winning it five times since 1997. He may well be on course for a sixth win.

A good crowd turned out at the Exeter Boat Shed, a promising venue despite the current lack of toilets and shortage of seating. Devon Live editor Patrick Phelvin was adjudicating.

All six candidates standing in Exeter were present:

Jonathan West (Independent): A single issue candidate, Jonathan West’s candidature is entirely based around securing a second EU referendum. This position may have attracted some sympathy from the audience, as 55% of Exeter voters opted to “remain” in the 2016 Brexit vote. After a short introductory statement, Mr. West by prior arrangement, did not take part in most of the debate.

Vanessa Newcombe (Liberal Democrat): A former city and county councillor, Ms. Newcombe gave a fine, if occasionally too muted performance. She connected best with the audience in advocating electoral reform and in relating her own experiences of sexism during her political career.

Ben Bradshaw (Labour): By the simple technique of standing up to answer every question, Mr. Bradshaw gained an easy advantage over his rivals. He also gave the most well informed and punchiest answers reflecting his years of experience. Noting that the very first question, supposedly on national security was neither a question nor on national security (it was, in fact, a statement opposing UK foreign aid), Mr. Bradshaw attacked UKIP for not fielding a candidate in Exeter and thus effectively helping the Conservative candidate. The questioner (who claimed some theatrical experience) had admitted to being a former UKIP member and had made several factual errors in his statement. National security is a sensitive issue currently and a second question (this time an actual question) was asked. This debate was postponed from May 23rd due to the temporary suspension in all campaigning due to the Manchester Arena bombing. Later, Mr. Bradshaw performed well, attacking Theresa May’s stance on Brexit and her decision in 2011 as Home Secretary to abolish control orders. He also advocated electoral reform. He was forced to defend his own lack of support for his leader Jeremy Corbyn, a potentially dangerous issue for him especially as Mr. Corbyn has grown more popular recently. Unusually for a Labour candidate, Mr. Bradshaw reaffirmed his view that the Conservatives are likely to win nationwide with an increased parliamentary majority.

James Taghdissian (Conservative): Although always competent and articulate, the well-spoken Mr. Taghdissian was playing to a tough crowd. His view that the Prime Minister is a better leader than Mr. Corbyn found little favour here despite the fact nationally, even after the recent slump in her personal ratings, polls indicate most Britons agree with him on this. A strong performance though Mr. Taghdissian might have benefitted from delivering punchier, less rambling answers. He fully conceded Ms. May had abolished control orders when she was Home Secretary.

Joe Levy (Green): A younger, soft spoken though always audible candidate, Mr. Levy made a good impression on the audience. Potentially a rising star, Mr. Levy could well be a man to watch in the future.

Jonathan Bishop (Independent): Although undeniably highly qualified academically, Mr. Bishop may have lost audience sympathy with his rude insistence on butting in to answer one question as he was “the only member of the panel qualified to answer it” and by his general manner and unusual views on police wages and the value of woman Labour MPs.

Currently, Exeter is a lone island of red in a sea of Tory blue in the south west. Will it stay that way? After tomorrow, we’ll find out.

October 2017 update: Results of June 2017 General Election in Exeter

Candidate/party Votes
Ben BradshawLabour 34,336
James TaghdissianConservative 18,219
Vanessa NewcombeLiberal Democrat 1,562
Joe LevyGreen 1,027
Jonathan WestIndependent 212
Jonathan BishopIndependent 67

Ben Bradshaw won his sixth victory easily with more votes, a bigger share of the vote (62%) and a wider margin of victory than ever before (his Tory opponent won 32.9% of the vote). Turnout in Exeter was 71.7%, the highest since 1997, the year of Bradshaw’s first win and higher than the average UK turnout in 2017 (68.8%).

Mr. Bradshaw’s prediction that the Tories would substantially increase their majority in parliament turned out to be wrong. The Tories have lost their majority. In fairness, he certainly wasn’t the only one to predict this incorrectly.. He has now adopted a more pro-Corbyn position.

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Six of the best fictional UK TV politicians

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Jim Hacker

In: Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister (sitcom 1980-1984, 1986-1988)

Played by: Paul Eddington

Written by: Antony Jay, Jonathan Lynn

Indecisive, bumbling but ultimately well-intentioned. Hacker is generally thwarted at every turn as Minister of Administrative Affairs by civil servant Sir Humphrey (Nigel Hawthorne) who sees his role as to block any attempt at change or reform. Despite this, Hacker (who, unusually, is never given any party affiliation by the show’s creators) succeeds in becoming Prime Minister, largely on the back of a plan to protect the British sausage from European interference.

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Michael Murray

In: GBH (drama, 1991)

Played by: Robert Lindsay

Written by: Alan Bleasdale

The charismatic far left Labour leader of an unnamed northern city council (Derek Hatton suggested the show was about him, something which creator Alan Bleasdale denied), Murray leads an unholy war of terror against Jim Nelson (Michael Palin) a teacher who refuses to take part in Murray’s headline-grabbing “Day of Action”.  Although both totally corrupt and a womaniser and prone to a nervous twitch, Murray grows more sympathetic as a character as we learn he is both the victim of a traumatic childhood prank gone tragically awry and a modern day plot by the security services to brand him a racist.

PIcture shows: Francis Urquhart (IAN RICHARDSON) WARNING: This image may only be used for publicity purposes in connection with the broadcast of the programme as licensed by BBC Worldwide Ltd & must carry the shown copyright legend. It may not be used for any commercial purpose without a licence from the BBC. © BBC 1990

Sir Francis Urquhart

In: House of Cards, To Play The King, The Final Cut (dramas 1990, 1993, 1995)

Played by: Ian Richardson

Written by: Andrew Davies (based on Michael Dobbs’ books)

A very different kettle of fish to Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood of the recent US House of Cards remake, Urquhart is an apparently charming old-fashioned upper-class Tory chief whip, who begins plotting a bloody path to Downing Street after moderate new post-Thatcherite Prime Minister Henry Collingridge (David Lyon) fails to honour a promise to promote him to cabinet. As PM himself, Urquhart continues to occasionally murder his opponents and overthrows the Prince Charles-like new king after he shows signs of developing left-wing ideas.

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Harry Perkins

In: A Very British Coup (drama, 1988)

Played by: Ray McAnally

Written by: Alan Plater and Mick Jackson (based on Chris Mullin’s book)

When former Sheffield steelworker turned Labour leader, Perkins leads his party to a dramatic surprise election victory, the establishment are thrown into a state of panic. Perkins is committed to re-nationalisation, nuclear disarmament and probable withdraw from NATO. The press barons, CIA and MI5 thus soon decide to ignore the people’s verdict and get rid of the new boy in Number 10.

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Alan B’Stard

In: The New Statesman (sitcom, 1987-1994)

Played by: Rik Mayall

Written by: Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran

A true Thatcherite to the core, Mayall’s flamboyant occasionally murderous backbench Tory MP easily lives up to his name whether engaged in blackmail, adultery or tormenting fellow backbencher Sir Piers Fletcher Dervish (Michael Troughton).

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Nicky Hutchinson

In: Our Friends In The North (drama, 1996)

Played by: Christopher Eccleston

Written by: Peter Flannery

Nicky encounters numerous politicians in this drama spanning the years 1964 to 1995 but his own bid for parliament on behalf of Labour in 1979 proves a woeful failure. Having initially been led astray in his youth by corrupt civic leader Austin Donohue (Alun Armstrong), a character based on the real life T. Dan Smith, Nicky’s campaign is sunk by press hostility, internal divisions, a right wing smear campaign and an attractive female Tory opponent. The son of a disillusioned Jarrow marcher (Peter Vaughan), Nicky rejects politics in favour of a career in photography soon after.

The Liberal Democrats: A poem

Britains-Deputy-Prime-Minister-and-leader-of-the-Liberal-Democrats-Nick-Clegg

Do you know what we are for?

We’ve no idea anymore.

Progressive change was once our mission.

Before we joined the Coalition.

Do you remember 2010?

“Cleggmania” was all the rage back then.

We soon held the balance of power.

But this was not our finest hour.

On election night, everyone failed to win,

The Tories needed us to get in,

Did Clegg thus demand safeguards for the nation?

Or to protect the NHS from “reorganisation”?

Did he do all he was able,

To get a seat at the cabinet table?

Today the record says it all,

The Lib Dems have achieved sweet sod all.

Face facts voters, to our shame,

If your library’s closed, you’re as much to blame.

The sad conclusion to our story,

Is that you might as well have voted Tory.

General Election memories 4: 1992

Peterborough,
April 9th 1992

Britain's Prime Minister John Major waves to the c

The world changed a lot between 1987 and 1992.

The Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, ending the Cold War in the process. Nelson Mandela was freed in South Africa, but a new threat emerged in the Middle East in the form of Saddam Hussein.

In Britain, there was less change. I was fifteen now, but Britain was still under the same government as it had been under when I was two years old.

But even there, there had been change. By 1990, the Tories finally recognised that Margaret Thatcher (by then intent on promoting the Poll Tax and inclined to speak about herself using the royal “we” as in “We are a grandmother”) was far more unstable than anyone on the supposed “loony left” had ever been. Keen to avoid certain defeat, they brutally dethroned her. A necessary measure, certainly, but one the party does not seem to have ever fully recovered from, even now.

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Instead, we now had John Major of Huntington, Peterborough’s neighbouring seat as Prime Minister: a far more agreeable choice. Amiable and pleasant, Major would turn out to have no aptitude for leadership whatsoever, but we didn’t know that in 1990. He hadn’t been tested. Even with a recession on, the Tories surged from a position of certain defeat under Thatcher to the point of being virtually neck and neck with Labour under Major. But this still represented Labour’s best chance in my lifetime, up to that point. Labour were about 2% ahead of the Tories throughout the 1992 campaign. At least, that’s what the opinion polls said.

Of course, as mentioned, I was now fifteen, not ten, so was undergoing a bit of change myself. My voice was wobbly and would often break at the end of sentences. I drew, swam and cycled less. I still read comics (now, arguably more grown-up ones like 2000AD: I had two letters published in the Galaxy’s Greatest comic at around this time). I was also starting to move onto “grown-up” novels like 1984 and Catch-22 although still mostly read Terry Pratchett books, meeting the great fantasy author himself during a book signing in Queensgate shopping centre. I ignored his younger friend completely: someone called Neil Gaiman. I’d also helped write a comic (“Flob”) with some friends. My contributions were I think mostly Viz-like and I doubt they have stood the test of time very well.

Margaret Thatcher and John Major in 1991

Home life had changed little. My older brother was about to get married and my sister, also now in her twenties, was close to the same situation. I was so self-absorbed at this point, I’m surprised I even noticed.

We had an Amiga computer and a Sega Game Gear. But this was 1992. Unlike teenagers today, I had never been online, sent an email, written a text or played a Wii. If you had told me I would one day be a blogger or work on a DVD magazine, I would not have not have understood what you were saying. A better, simpler life? No. It was rubbish. For one thing, if I wanted to know who directed Flight Of The Navigator, today I could find out in seconds. In 1992, I would have to go to the library (assuming it wasn’t a Sunday) and look it up in Halliwell’s Film Guide. And yes, that is the sort of thing I like to know sometimes (it’s Randal Kleiser, incidentally. He also directed Grease).

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Change was not a key feature of life in my secondary school either. The Third Year became Year 9 (my own year) but that was about it. The headmaster was very traditional. We were required to stand every time he entered the room until he told us to sit down again a few seconds later (presumably we would have got in serious trouble if we’d refused to stand? Nobody ever attempted this).

Our school’s founder Henry VIII stared down at us from his expensive Holbein portrait in the dining hall. We were not a public school but there was a boarding house nearby mostly filled with the sons of those employed on nearby airbases. These jobs mostly no longer exist. Homework was called “prep”.  The arrival of “short sleeve order” was occasionally announced in assembly. God knows what it meant. I never understood. It may have actually been called shirt sleeve order. I don’t remember getting in trouble over it anyway.

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The school was hardly very representative of Peterborough’s large Indian and Pakistani population either (the Polish influx had not yet arrived). David Lammy (later a minister in the Blair and Brown governments) had been the school’s first black head boy a couple of years earlier but he had been exceptional. There is barely a brown face in any school photos at the time.
School election: 1992.

I did not excel in my new secondary school environment doing badly early on and quite well by the Sixth Form. I was in between these two points in 1992 and was doing okay. The school Mock Election held a week before the actual one piqued my interest although I would have been far too self conscious to stand myself.
Our school was relatively small: about 750 pupils. About 600 or so voted. In reverse order of success, the candidates/parties (people’s names are changed) were, as far as I remember:

The Meritocrats: A silly novelty party fronted by the older brother of one of my friends (I don’t think the younger brother even voted for them). They had funny posters featuring identical pictures of the candidate over a statement saying: “Ian cares for the environment” or “Ian cares for babies.”But the “silly vote” was entirely swallowed up by the Revolution Party (soon to be discussed) and this one only got about 25 out of six hundred and something votes.

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Labour: The Labour candidate was actually a friend of the Tory candidate in my 1987 junior school election. I was incredibly socially awkward at this point but I attempted to hang out with her and a couple of boys who were running their campaign. I didn’t contribute anything meaningful. I attempted to submit some cartoons of John Major (about the only politician I could ever draw, then and now) but these weren’t great and understandably were not used. I couldn’t colour in and am not sure the jokes worked anyway: one was an attempt to parody the famous ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ poster from 1979.

That said, the posters they DID use – “hilarious” ones featuring a photo they had found of the school Tory candidate standing next to a wheelie bin beneath the legend “Is this man looking for a new job?” were crap too. Presumably they were suggesting he was looking for a job as a bin man? Of course, standing next to a bin wouldn’t achieve this. And he didn’t need a new job anyway? He was still at school. It didn’t work. That said, the Labour lot were an intelligent well-meaning bunch but my school was always overwhelmingly, hopelessly Tory. My younger brother who was at the school later confirms that the Conservatives even won heavily at the school in the mock election of 1997. Yes, even in 1997! I don’t think Labour got even a tenth of the vote in 1992.

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The Lib Dems: A boy from a lower year whose name I’ve forgotten. He did well as a candidate and got about 120 or so votes I think. I’m doing pretty well to the remember the campaign as well as this, to be honest. I doubt many other people can, probably not even those who were actually candidates at the time.

The Tories: Another boy from my year, a Scot, a Christian who despite my fledgling socialist and atheist tendencies, I was on friendly terms with. He came a good second and now, I believe, has a politics-related job.

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The Revolution Party: Peterborough was teetering very close towards electing a Labour MP (potentially its first woman MP too), one Julie Owens, just as the national election seemed poised to give Labour the keys to Downing Street. But my school was not very representative in this respect. A debate on banning fox-hunting in one class ended with a clear vote opposing any ban: pretty unusual for any group of urban British 1990s teenagers then, or I would suspect, now. The news that Margaret Thatcher had fallen in 1990 was greeted by concern amongst some classmates that Labour might get in by many, some fearing this would lead inevitably to a nuclear war. In short, most pupils like their parents, were Tories. But they were still teenagers (mostly) and there was a hint of rebellion in the air. The general feeling was that our traditionalist headmaster who was widely assumed – quite wrongly I later learnt – to be a Tory and would be most annoyed by a silly gimmicky party hijacking the election. This last bit probably is true.

So this is what happened. Fronted by a Sixth Former, the Revolution Party had the best election poster (which stated simply that “Lenin was a chap”) and used cheaply bought stickers featuring the dog Odie from the Jim Davis Garfield cartoon strip as their symbol. Although hardly very anti-capitalist in retrospect, this really took off as a gimmick. For about an hour or so during one lunchtime, I got slightly carried away and briefly wore an Odie sticker on my maroon lapel myself. But I didn’t repeat my 1987 betrayal.

I still voted Labour. I wasn’t that disappointed when Labour almost came last though. The real result during the school’s Easter Holidays would be different, I knew. Peterborough would fall to Labour and Neil Kinnock would lead Labour back into power.

John Major in 1992

The real election.
I did not stay up to watch all the results for some reason: a fortunate move in retrospect, although my younger brother, by now eleven but still indifferent to the result, camped out in our back garden in a tent. This wasn’t because of the election. It was just something he liked to do. Apparently some people still like to go in tents for fun today.

Like most people I expected Labour to win narrowly. While as the ITV puppet-based comedy Spitting Image pointed out, “You can’t hate John Major,” the Tory campaign seemed weak at the time. Initially Major began with staged unconvincing “informal chats” with party supporters. “What would you say to younger people to warn them of the dangers of a socialist government?” was typical of the challenging questions the PM met with. The Tories thus soon resorted to the “Major standing on a soapbox in the street” strategy. This is now remembered fondly. But even this was attacked at the time notably by Edwina Currie, in retrospect, probably vengeful after the end of her affair with Major in the Eighties. She complained Major looked more like an Opposition leader than a PM on his soap box.

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The great irony of Labour’s Neil Kinnock’s career was that having effectively saved the Labour Party from destruction in 1983, he had now become their biggest obstacle to power. John Smith, Robin Cook, Margaret Beckett, Jack Straw, Jack Cunningham, Bryan Gould, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair: the frontbench otherwise looked hugely talented in 1992. Kinnock meanwhile seemed to have greatness within him but was flawed. He was a great orator on occasion and as with Ed Miliband tabloid attempts to smear him as “devious” never really seemed convincing. But he rambled too much and basically didn’t inspire confidence.

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And the polls were wrong. The Tories won again.

Ultimately, even the news that the architect of Tory victory Chris Patten had lost his own seat in Bath (and unlike Portillo five years later had the decency to look thoroughly miserable in public about it afterwards) was no real comfort. “It’s a Tory Major-ity!” punned the pro-Tory Peterborough Evening Telegraph above a picture of grinning Brian Mawhinney who had also unexpectedly won again in Peterborough. Julie Owens would never become an MP while the father of a friend standing for the Liberal Party (which, like most people, I endlessly confused with the new Liberal Democrats) came fourth.
I was already developing an interest in US politics and switched my attention to Governor Bill Clinton’s increasingly promising campaign over there.

For Britain seemed lost. If Labour couldn’t win during a recession when could they win? I was going through changes but the nation wasn’t. The Tories seemed destined to rule forever.

But, in fact, almost the opposite would turn out to be true. I was 15 then. Now I am nearly 38. And it is the Tories not Labour who have failed to win a single General Election in the twenty or so years since.

As John Major would have said: “Who’d have thought it?”

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Book review: Roy Jenkins, A Well Rounded Life

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Roy Jenkins: A Well Rounded Life.

John Campbell.

Published by Jonathan Cape, London.

Watching Nick Clegg being soundly beaten by UKIP leader Nigel Farage n the recent radio and TV debates was a dispiriting business. Some may have felt inclined to hark back to an earlier age when the European cause had more eloquent and effective debaters on its side. For example, Roy Jenkins.

Of course, Roy Jenkins (or Lord Jenkins of Hillhead as he was by the end) died in 2003 and would doubtless be horrified to learn that our continued membership of the European Union is now in doubt once again at all. As for the current Coalition Government, this would doubtless shock him less. He was keen on coalition governments long before it was fashionable.

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There are many myths about Roy Jenkins. One is that he was “nature’s old Etonian”, posh and clubbable despite coming from a Welsh mining background. In fact, though this is true (his father was falsely imprisoned for his role in the 1926 General Strike), Jenkins’ background was much more privileged than was generally realised. His father did, after all, serve in the Attlee Government.

Another myth which Campbell convincingly dispels is that Jenkins was lazy. He most definitely was not that, combining a busy social life (including a string of extra marital affairs), with a distinguished career as a biographer and historian in addition to being  Labour’s most successful ever Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was also the first British President of the EEC and co-founder of the ultimately unsuccessful Social Democratic Party.

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During his comparatively  brief spell as Home Secretary between 1965 and 1967, Jenkins transformed more lives for the better than most Prime Ministers have succeeded in doing, sponsoring the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality. He is sometimes credited (or blamed) with launching the permissive society, an exaggeration even if one ignores the fact that the abolition of National Service and the death penalty had already been delivered not by Jenkins but by the Tories. He was no less successful as Chancellor. Sadly, like Tony Benn, the 1970 unexpected Labour General Election defeat of 1970 led his leadership prospects to fade, albeit in a wholly different way to Benn:  Jenkins alienating his then Eurosceptic party through his support for European unity. He was, in fact, perhaps too reluctant to challenge for the leadership and by 1976 when a vacancy finally arose with Wilson’s resignation, it was too late. The SDP, despite huge initial opinion poll success in 1981 and (unlike today’s UKIP) actual by election wins failed to break through although contrary to myth, probably didn’t ensure Tory victory in 1983 either.

This is a superb biography from distinguished author John Campbell. Despite being a self confessed SDP supporter (he actually wrote an earlier biography of Jenkins at the height of the party’s ascendancy), Campbell certainly isn’t blind to either Jenkins’ or the party’s failings.

It is a long book and there are a few errors, mostly ones of chronology. The SDP were formed in 1981 not 1982 as he states on page 9 (though the detailed account of SDP history later in the book makes clear Campbell obviously knows this). Jenkins was also first Home Secretary from 1965 to 1967, not 1966 to 1967 (p1). Tony Blair’s reform of Clause IV did not come “half a century” after Gaitskell’s attempt but only about thirty five years later (p208). Gaitskell attempted this in 1959-60. Blair’s more successful attempt was in 1994-95. Was Sir Stafford Cripps ever referred to as the “Iron Chancellor” as Campbell states (P310-P311)? Maybe he was. The nickname is more usually applied to Labour’s first ever Chancellor Snowdon, however, or sometimes Gordon Brown (and originally to Otto von Bismarck obviously). Finally, the Westland Affair peaked in January 1986 not January 1985 (p642).

But these are quibbles. This is a superb well rounded biography of a well rounded man. It is indeed a biography Roy Jenkins himself would have been proud to have written although he may have struggled to pronounce the title.

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Thirty years of Spitting Image

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John Major was entirely painted in grey. Home Secretary Kenneth Baker was a slug. Future Prime Minister Tony Blair was portrayed as a wayward child while Edwina Currie was characterised as a malevolent Cruella Deville figure. The puppet-based comedy Spitting Image first appeared on our screens thirty years ago in 1984 and ran until 1996. There had never been anything like it before and there has been nothing like it on British TV since. It made its mark on the times in a way that no other comedian, TV show or satirical cartoon of the time could ever have managed.

Perhaps it could only have started in 1984, a time when the forces of conservatism seemed perilously close to absolute victory. Margaret Thatcher, simultaneously the most loved and loathed Prime Minister of all time, had won a second landslide election victory the year before and was now taking on the miners, a battle she would ultimately win. The unions were in revolt, unemployment was sky high. People were angry and yet the Opposition, which was split between Neil Kinnock’s Labour and the Liberal-SDP Alliance, had never looked weaker.

There was something of a political comedy void too. Mike Yarwood, a huge star in the Seventies, was far too gentle (and troubled) an impressionist to continue throughout the Eighties. By 1984, his career was in freefall, partially because he was unable to convincingly “do” Margaret Thatcher. Yes Minister, meanwhile, was a brilliant political comedy, but it was set in a fictional and non-partisan political landscape (its main character, Jim Hacker MP was never identified as belonging to any existing party). Meanwhile, Not The Nine O Clock News which had lampooned many public figures during the early Eighties (while rarely actually impersonating them) had ended in 1982. Smith and Jones had begun their own largely non-political sketch show while Rowan Atkinson was now in Blackadder. NTNOCN producer John Lloyd would be instrumental in launching Spitting Image for the ITV franchise, Central in 1984.

The project was hugely ambitious: it was the most expensive light entertainment show of the time. In retrospect, we should be less surprised that the results were patchy (and they were) than by the fact the show worked at all. Peter Fluck and Roger Law’s puppets were nearly always easily recognisable. To ensure topicality, Spitting Image was produced close to transmission time (some scenes were even broadcast live). The show was often on the mark and frequently very funny.

Some public figures will be forever linked with their puppet counterparts. To some, Norman Tebbit will always be a leather jacketed yob, Michael Heseltine a swivel-eyed loon vocally denying any intention of standing against Thatcher for the Tory leadership while simultaneously wearing a sign saying “Vote for Heseltine” on his back while, for many, Kenneth Baker, as mentioned, will always be a slug on a leaf.

Some caricatures required less imagination,  however, with US president Ronald Reagan (voiced by Chris Barrie, later of Red Dwarf and The Brittas Empire fame) always portrayed as a moron, as in this fireside chat with Soviet premier Gorbachev (whose distinctive birthmark always took the form of a Soviet hammer and sickle):

Gorbachev: Ron, do you know what I see when I see when I look into those flames? I see our two nations living in peace and harmony… what do you see?

Reagan: I see a little doggy, a bunny wunny and a big hippo on a broomstick. Hell, this is fun!

Margaret Thatcher herself, meanwhile, was usually portrayed (in a rather sexist fashion) in a man’s suit, something which may actually have helped her image.. John Major, her successor, initially appeared as a robot who was being secretly controlled by Thatcher, before becoming the totally grey figure he is now remembered as, complementing wife Norma on her peas (“Very tasty”) while secretly nursing a childish crush on colleague Virginia Bottomley (prompting Major’s cabinet colleagues to taunt him by chanting “John loves Ginny!”).  Major’s earlier affair with Edwina Currie was, of course, at this stage not known to the general public or to Spitting Image’s writers.

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Currie, in fact, undeniably benefited from the publicity her puppet generated. She was, after all, a junior minister and never served in the cabinet. How many junior ministers can you name today? This was not solely Spitting Image’s doing, but it surely helped. The same is true with Labour frontbencher Gerald Kaufman. He was never exactly a household name but got attention simply because Spitting Image claimed he went around saying creepy things such as (inexplicably) “sweaty palms”.

Others liked the attention less, though many like to pretend otherwise. Liberal leader David Steel  openly claimed that his image was harmed by the impression he was in SDP leader David Owen’s pocket. It is doubtful Roy Hattersley (who has a genuine speech impediment) enjoyed his depiction spluttering spit everywhere, notably spitting out the words “Spitting Image” during the title sequence, either.

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It wasn’t just the politicians, of course. The portrayal of the Royals was always controversial. An early episode saw the Queen “christening” Prince Harry (who had an unflattering puppet from birth) by smashing a bottle against the side of his pram. Elsewhere,  Jeremy Paxman (one of the few figures still in the public eye both now and then) memorably began every broadcast with a sneering “yeeeeeeeeeeeeesss” while the late newsreader Alistair Burnett was seen as being in love with the Queen Mother. Rupert Murdoch, meanwhile, was seen as a crude figure constantly breaking wind while all journalists were routinely portrayed as pigs.

It had to end one day, of course, and in 1996, it did. Tony Blair was initially portrayed as a schoolboy because of his relative youth. He was soon being depicted as a super hyperactive figure on becoming Labour leader in 1994. But while both he and successor Gordon Brown had puppets, the show didn’t get to see New Labour in power.

The programme never received much critical acclaim but effectively launched a thousand careers with Ian Hislop, Clive Anderson, John O’Farrell, Ben Elton and Red Dwarf’s Rob Grant and Doug Naylor (authors of The Chicken Song) amongst the numerous writers and Chris Barrie, Steve Coogan, Harry Enfield, John Sessions, Rory Bremner, John Culshaw, Alistair MacGowan, John Thompson, Steve Nallon and Hugh Dennis all amongst the vocal talent.

Could it happen today? Animated copycats like 2DTV and Headcases both proved failures although Round The Bend, almost a kids’ version of the show with puppets by Fluck and Law enjoyed some success in the Nineties.

But in the age of Boris Johnson and Nigel Forage, perhaps we need a Spitting Image now more than ever?

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A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s book review

A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s.

Alwyn W. Turner.

Published: Aurum.

RRP: £25

Some might think it a bit soon to be writing histories of the 1990s. Perhaps they should think again. This volume, the third and final part of Alwyn W. Turner’s trilogy takes Britain up to the General Election of June 2001. It was a sleepy campaign, enlivened only by the celebrated “Prescott Punch” when the Deputy PM John Prescott was filmed punching a voter.

Turner argues the 2001 election saw Britain winding down after the industrial unrest of the 1970s (chronicled in his earlier Crisis? What Crisis?) and the battles and mass unemployment of the 1980s (detailed in his second volume Rejoice! Rejoice!). 2001 was at any rate still a considerable time ago. E-readers, iPods, the Iraq War and Credit Crunch were still in the future. But the book starts with Thatcher’s fall in November 1990. Twenty-four years ago, this is definitely the stuff of history.

In 1990, Britain was preparing to go to war over Kuwait (a much less controversial war than the Iraq conflict which began twelve years later) as the nation licked its wounds from the ordeal of Thatcherism. It is arguable that Britain has not fully recovered from her leadership even today and certainly the Tory Party don’t seem to have done so.

Mrs Thatcher’s successor was John Major who Turner reminds us, was at the time the youngest Prime Minister of the 20th century. We have got used to younger leaders since. Major was 46, Blair who would succeed him would be 44. Cameron in 2010 was younger still and all three major party leaders today are under 50. Major, at any rate did what no Tory leader has achieved in the 22 years since, winning his party an overall majority in the General Election of April 1992. Thereafter, it proved to be a very bad decade to be a Tory.

Major’s economic record was much better than Thatcher’s. But he was a poor leader and after the election win the party went into freefall, alienating any group who might have potentially supported them. The number of Tory MPs fell by more than half during John Major’s leadership of the party between 1990 and 1997.

Had he not died, another John, John Smith would surely have won power in 1997. Sadly, we will never know how a Smith premiership might have turned out (Turner is certainly harsh on the Blair Government) and it will remain forever one of the great pondering points of post-war party politics.

This isn’t just about politics though, far from it. As before, Turner covers seemingly every aspect of British life in the decade including Lad Culture, the comedy scene, the recovery of the British film industry, the rise of Britpop to the death of Diana, in massively comprehensive detail.

I wouldn’t share all his emphasises. Much as I love the sitcom Drop the Dead Donkey, Turner quotes from it a bit too much. It is odd also that he devotes time to mediocre TV offerings like Waiting For God and Root Into Europe too while never mentioning memorable dramas House of Cards or GBH. I wouldn’t have described Alan Rickman as “fresh from his triumph in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves” in 1999 either. The film came out in 1991, eight years before the point  Rickman was touted as a possible London Mayoral candidate.

(For the record, Michael Foot became Labour leader in 1980 not 1981. And William Hague was never the youngest Cabinet Minister of the 20th century. Harold Wilson was only 31 when he was appointed by Attlee in 1947).

But these are minor quibbles in a book spanning well over 600 pages. Alwyn W. Turner has triumphed yet again. His three volumes on the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties should be required reading for all students of popular culture, politics and history during the period between the grinning smiles of the grumpy bachelor Mr. Heath and that nice Mr. Blair.

Book review: Shirley Williams The Biography, by Mark Peel

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Baroness Shirley Williams appeared as a guest on BBC Question Time last Thursday. To say that the Liberal Democrat peer, at eighty-three, is universally admired throughout all parties for her good nature and superior intellect is true but sounds a little patronising. Giving sharp, concise and well thought-out answers, she is still clearly  a force to be reckoned with suggesting fellow panellist TV chef Anthony Worrall Thompson “go back to the kitchen” after the TV chef had unleashed a rambling anti-Liberal Democrat tirade.

But how different history could have been…

Back in 1981, Williams was one of the founders of the ‘Gang of Four’ who broke away from Labour to form the Social Democratic Party. The SDP’s early triumphs make UKIP’s recent “success” look all the more risible. The SDP actually won by-elections and had MPs sitting in parliament. By the end of 1981, (before Thatcher’s 1982 post-Falklands War comeback) they commanded over 50% in the opinion polls, way ahead of the two traditional parties, both then at the extremes under Margaret Thatcher and Michael Foot.

Before that, Williams was a leading figure in the Wilson and Callaghan Governments, frequently talked of as a possible first woman Prime Minister.

But this never happened. Margaret Thatcher born to a much humbler background five years before her beat her to it in May 1979. On the same day, Williams lost her Hertford and Stevenage seat as an MP, an upset similar in terms of prompting widespread surprise to Michael Portillo’s defeat in 1997.

What went wrong?

Williams was undeniably from a privileged background. She was born in 1930 as Shirley Vera-Brittain-Caitlin, the daughter of an academic and frustrated politician and Vera Brittain, the author of the celebrated First World War memoir, Testament of Youth. With her parents both vocal left-wing critics of the Nazi regime before the war (they were later revealed to be on a Nazi “Death List” and thus would have been in extreme danger had Hitler invaded Britain), Shirley and her brother spent most of the war in the United States. Throughout her early life and at Oxford, she seems to have dazzled and impressed almost everyone she met with her charm and precocious intellect. An early serious relationship was with the future four-minute-mile champion Roger Bannister. Despite her many qualities, she faced a struggle to enter parliament winning only after four attempts in 1964.

Did Williams’ privileged background count against her?

Margaret Thatcher certainly made play of it in a Conference speech made when Williams was in government and the Tory was Opposition leader in 1977:  “People from my sort of background needed grammar schools to compete with children from privileged homes like Shirley Williams and Anthony Wedgwood Benn.”

But in truth, it is unlikely Williams’ background did her serious harm. She has always possessed a classless quality which has broadened he appeal to the electorate

Was she then a victim of sexism? Peel mentions here that despite a good relationship with Jim Callaghan, she was never offered any of the major offices of state. Yet this no less true of Thatcher who, like Williams, was in charge of Education, in Thatcher’s case under Heath. Neither woman was a huge success in this role. Williams regards her promotion of comprehensive education as her proudest achievement but it remains controversial. Thatcher, in contrast, was reportedly embarrassed for herself that she closed more grammar schools than anyone else in that post.

Was Shirley Williams just unlucky? Was, as some have suggested, just in the wrong party at the wrong time? Luck does of course play a part in anyone’s political destiny. Labour were in fact in power for more than half of Williams’ thirties and forties. This is again similar to Thatcher and the Tories (in fact, Thatcher spent longer as an Opposition MP before 1979 than Williams did). And Thatcher raised the Tories from a very low ebb indeed in 1975.

Shirley Williams was, however, less lucky in her marriage than Margaret Thatcher. This is not to be sexist. A good marriage can be as crucial to male political success as female. Only Edward Heath has made it to Downing Street since the war while still unmarried and only Sir Anthony Eden became Prime Minister with a divorce behind him. Shirley’s first marriage to philosopher Bernard Williams ended in 1974. She married presidential historian Richard Neustadt in 1987 (both men in fact died very close together in 2003). She thus lacked a soul mate at a critical juncture in her career.

Biographer Mark Peel cites a certain scattyness and lack of political courage at crucial moments (notably her failure to stand in the Warrington by-election a decision perhaps fatal to her own career and to that of the SDP) which did for her.

Journalist Robin Oakley summarised her thus: “she really is one of the warmest, nicest people in politics, ever open to reason… She has a first rate-brain and a burning sense of justice… But the great drawback is her fatal indecisiveness…The flaw, some say, is that she likes being liked and making decisions makes enemies.”

Few of the tributes to Lady Thatcher earlier this year cited her warmness, niceness, first-rate brain or sense of justice. Clearly, the late Prime Minister totally lacked these qualities.

And maybe Shirley Williams lacked the necessary harshness and killer instinct to be Prime Minister. But she is perhaps the better person for that.

Why Labour can win

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Many in the media recently have dismissed Labour’s chances of winning the next General Election.

Most of this speculation is nonsense. Labour are still far more likely to lead the next government than anyone else.

Consider…

Labour are ahead in the polls.

Much has been made of Labour’s apparently small opinion poll leads recently. Yet Labour is currently (according to the UK Polling Report), a full six percent ahead of the Tories. With the parliamentary boundary system favouring Labour this would lead to a Labour majority of 76, bigger than Tony Blair’s majority in 2005 (66) or Margaret Thatcher’s in 1979 (43). Labour would have to do substantially worse than this to be anything other than the largest political party.

Things look much better than they did last time.

Labour are much more popular than they were in 2010 and Ed Miliband is far more popular than Gordon Brown was. And let us remember: in 2010, the Tories didn’t even manage to win a majority. How badly will they do this time?

The Tories haven’t won a General Election in 21 years.

All the evidence suggests the electorate do not like the Tories much. They have not won a General Election since John Major led them to a surprise win in April 1992. A child born on the day of that result, had time to grow up and be old enough to vote in the last election which despite Gordon Brown’s unpopularity and a global economic slump, the Tories still failed to win yet again! They have been behind in the polls almost constantly for the last three years. The public clearly don’t like them.

The Liberal Democrat factor.

Having consistently been betrayed by their party leadership since 2010, the evidence suggests many disillusioned Lib Dems will be fleeing the party in droves. Where are they going to go? It is in Labour’s interests to capitalise on their disaffection.

The UKIP factor.

By splitting the right wing vote, UKIP are making a Labour victory ever more likely.

Leadership.

It is true Ed Miliband is less popular than David Cameron, presumably largely a consequence of unsophisticated attacks from the Tory press. Yet, this isn’t a presidential election. Clement Attlee led Labour to a huge victory in 1945 despite facing the far more popular Winston Churchill. And Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979 was achieved despite the fact that voters consistently expressed a personal preference for Labour’s Prime Minister Jim Callaghan. It also should be remembered that the election is nearly two years away and voters have responded well to Miliband’s One Nation message.

Economic recovery won’t benefit the Tories.

As in 1997, there is little sign the electorate will be grateful to a government that has consistently got it so wrong over the economy. Even if there are signs of economic resurgence by 2015, there is little sense the Tories deserve any credit for it or that they will receive it. The same was true in 1997, when Labour won its largest ever victory despite an economic recovery which totally failed to vanquish memories of Tory incompetence on Black Wednesday five years earlier.

The Tories are desperate.

Ultimately, this is a shambolic weak government with next to no achievements to its name and more prone to division, u-turns and excuses than anything else. Compare this to Labour’s period in office which witnessed a decade of prosperity, a dramatic fall in crime, peace in Northern Ireland finally achieved and massive improvements in education and the NHS.

Complacency is dangerous, but Labour are still far more likely to be victorious in 2015 than any other party.

Top 5 finest British political TV dramas

Political thriller Secret State has now come to an end. But what other series deserve a place amongst the best British TV political dramas of all time?

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The Deal

Year: 2003

The plot:  It’s 1983 and when a newly elected young Labour MP Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) finds himself sharing an office with a hardworking Scot, Gordon Brown (David Morrissey), he soon recognises his dour companion could one day be a future Prime Minister. But as the next decade rolls on it is Blair, not Brown whose populist instincts gradually put him ahead and by 1994, the two friends are forced to make a tough decision concerning their own, their party and their nation’s future.

The series: The first of Peter Morgan’s “Blair Trilogy” starring Sheen, before the film The Queen and the later (somewhat inferior) Special Relationship. At the time, critical attention focused more on David Morrissey’s uncanny portrayal of Brown than on Sheen’s Blair. Other interesting casting included Dexter Fletcher as Charlie Whelan and Frank Kelly (Father Ted’s drunken Father Jack) as Labour leader John Smith.

Remade?: No. Peter Morgan’s next project The Audience will focus on the different relationships the Queen has had with her various PMs during her long reign.

Basis in reality?: Clearly based on reality. Although Blair and Brown have both denied any deal (namely that Blair agree in advance to stand down in favour of Brown after an agreed time lapse) was ever made.

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A Very British Coup

Year: 1988

The plot: Former Sheffield steelworker Harry Perkins (Ray McAnally) has been elected Labour Prime Minister in a landslide. The Establishment (the Civil Service, media, MI5 as well as the CIA) do not like this one bit and soon conspire together in the hope of triggering Perkins’ downfall.

The series: Based on the novel by onetime Labour MP Chris Mullin and discussed more thoroughly in my recent blog entry. The excellent McNally tragically died soon after playing Perkins.

Remade?: In the UK as The Secret State starring Gabriel Byrne. Author Chris Mullin enjoyed a brief cameo as a vicar but the plot – which centred on the aftermath of the disappearance of a Prime Minister as his plane flew over the Atlantic – was very different.

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GBH

Year: 1991

The plot: Charismatic Trotskyite Labour politician Michael Murray (Robert Lindsay) has taken over the council of a northern city and soon calls for a “Day of Action”. This soon turns into a very personal battle with local schoolteacher Jim Nelson (Michael Palin) who resists. But Murray has more than a few skeletons in his closet, notably a traumatic childhood incident and various figures on the Right are soon seeking to frame him for a series of racial attacks.

The series: Alan Bleasdale’s series initially portrayed Murray as a clear villain, then a figure of fun (a sequence in which a twitchy, over-stressed Murray attempts to acquire condoms is hilarious) before ultimately becoming a very sympathetic and somewhat tragic figure. Julie Walters, who played Lindsay’s wife in their next Alan Bleasdale drama Jake’s Progress, here plays his elderly Irish mother. In reality, Walters is slightly younger than Lindsay.

Basis in reality?: Derek Hatton, the former Militant deputy leader of Liverpool  City Council criticised the series claiming it was based on him, a charge Bleasdale fiercely denied. Although ultimately an attack on the Right and the extreme Left, many critics at the time seemed to think (wrongly) that Bleasdale had turned his fire on the Kinnock Labour Party.

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House of Cards

Year: 1990

The plot: When scheming Chief Whip Francis Urquhart (the late Ian Richardson) is passed over for promotion by the lightweight new post-Thatcher Tory PM Henry Collingridge, he soon decides to use his own insider knowledge and an attractive young journalist Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) to plot for the leadership himself. A gripping story which benefits hugely from Richardson’s brilliant performance and his character’s tendency to speak directly to the camera as well as elements of Shakespearian drama incorporated into the action.

The series: Adapted from Tory insider Michael Dobbs’ novel (which ends differently to the TV version) by Andrew Davies, this spawned two slightly inferior sequels, To Play The King, in which Urquhart clashes with a Prince Charles-like monarch (Michael Kitchen) and The Final Cut.

Remade?: A US TV remake starring Kevin Spacey will appear early in 2013.

Basis in reality?: The timing of the first series was uncanny, with Margaret Thatcher being challenged and overthrown by her old rival Michael Heseltine and being replaced by John Major almost exactly in parallel to the progress of events in the four-part series on TV. Later series got so popular that Urquhart’s evasive catchphrase, “You might very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment,” was soon being quoted in parliament. The last outing was criticised by some for featuring Lady Thatcher’s funeral, many years before she had actually died in reality.

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Our Friends In The North

Year: 1996

The plot: Four friends travel from youthful optimism to middle age over thirty years from the era of Harold Wilson’s first victory and the Beatles in 1964 to the advent of New Labour and Oasis in 1995.

Nicky (future Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston), a keen Labour supporter drops out of University to assist local politician Austin Donohue (Alun Armstrong), but becomes implicated in civic corruption, then later counterculture terrorism before enduring a horrendous stint as a Labour candidate in 1979.

Geordie (future James Bond Daniel Craig, then largely unknown), flees a broken home only to find an ill chosen surrogate father figure in East End gangland boss Benny (Malcolm McDowell).

Tosker (Mark Strong), seeks pop stardom, has an unhappy marriage before becoming, despite being in many ways the stupidest and least likeable of the four,  the most successful, establishing himself as a keen Freemason and Thatcherite.

Mary (Gina McKee, who is also in The Secret State), is caught up in an awkward love triangle between the unsuitable Tosker and true love Nicky. She later becomes a New Labour MP.

The series: A wonderful sprawling series this had a long gestation period, originally as a play with the action only going up to 1979.

Remade? No, although there has been talk of a US remake.

Basis in reality?: Although fictional, this drew heavily on real events. Austin Donohue’s character was based on real-life city developer T. Dan Smith, while a character played by future Downton Abbey author Julian Fellowes owed a lot to Tory Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling. Revelations concerning police corruption, 1970s anarchist movements and events during the Miner’s Strike of 1984 also played a major part in the story.