Steve Richards knows his stuff.
His previous book, The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to Johnson focused on the ten most recent British occupants of 10 Downing Street.
In his new book, even the list of subjects chosen is potentially contentious as Richards has specifically chosen to focus on the ten people who he feels came closest to becoming Prime Minister in the last sixty or so years without ever quite achieving it.
The list actually includes eleven people, not ten, as Richards has judged the two Milibands to be equally worthy of a place here and are both dealt with in one chapter.
The figures included are:
Rab Butler, Roy Jenkins, Barbara Castle, Denis Healey, Neil Kinnock, Michael Heseltine, Michael Portillo, Ken Clarke, David and Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn.
It is a good selection. Of the eleven, only three were ever party leader. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband were both cruelly denied power after losing General Elections (in 1992 and 2015) which most opinion polls and most people expected them to emerge from as Prime Minister, as at the very least, the leaders of a Hung Parliament. In 2017, Jeremy Corbyn caused a major upset by wiping out Theresa May’s majority in an unnecessary election which she had expected to win by a landslide. For a short period, Corbyn seemed achingly close to power. But his last two years as Opposition leader were disastrous and in 2019, he lost far more heavily to the Tories, by then under their new leader, Boris Johnson.
Two others on the list, Rab Butler and Michael Heseltine came close to becoming leader while their parties were in power. But while supremely well-qualified for the position of PM on paper, Butler lacked the qualities necessary to secure the position in practice. He lost out three times in 1955, 1957 and 1963. He was ultimately outmanoeuvred by the far more ruthless Harold Macmillan. Amongst other things, his speech to the 1963 Party Conference was much too dull to excite the Tory Faithful.
Michael Heseltine’s party conference speeches, in contrast, were never dull but he faced a near impossible challenge in 1990 in attempting to both remove Margaret Thatcher from office and replace her. He succeeded in the first but failed to achieve the latter despite remaining a potential leadership contender until after the Tories lost power in 1997. Although he wisely avoids going down the counter-factual history route, Richards does speculate that as Prime Minister, Heseltine may well have fundamentally changed Britain forever. Alas, we will never know.
Ultimately, all eleven of the figures featured here failed to win the premiership for different reasons. Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey and Ken Clarke all attempted to swim against the opposing tides then prevailing within their own parties. Onetime heir to the Thatcherite legacy, Michael Portillo, meanwhile, was forced into such a fundamental rethink of his values by his 1997 defeat, that he seemed to have lost all his enthusiasm for leadership by the time he was finally able to contest it in 2001. Many of his original supporters by then had their doubts as to whether they still wanted him to be leader too.
Richards’ list is almost as interesting for those it misses off as for those it includes. From the outset, his position is clear: in this book, he is only interested in the reasons why people didn’t become PM. He thus wastes no time on the tragic cases of Hugh Gaitskell, Iain Macleod or John Smith, all of whom lost any chance they might have had simply as a result of their sadly premature deaths. He also wastes no time on no-hopers. Whatever qualities they might have had, nobody ever expected Michael Foot or William Hague to make the jump from Opposition leader to Downing Street, least of all the men themselves.
I am surprised by Reginald Maudling’s exclusion from the list, however. Whatever his flaws, he was widely expected to beat Edward Heath to the Tory leadership in 1965 and from there may well have led the Tories back into power as Heath himself somehow managed to do. Richards also (perhaps after some hesitation) rejects Tony Benn from the list arguing:
“Benn almost qualifies as a prime minister we never had but fails to do so because, unlike Corbyn, he was never leader of the Opposition and he never had a credible chance of becoming prime minister while Labour was in government.”
This is fair enough but it does make Barbara Castle’s inclusion as one of the ten seem a bit conspicuous. She never after all, even stood for party leader. Yet it arguably doesn’t matter. Castle was a colourful and interesting character. She might have become leader and her inclusion proves a useful entry point for discussing other female politicians of the time such as Shirley Williams and Margaret Thatcher. Richards’ writing is consistently engaging and well-argued. And rest assured, the likes of Tony Benn and Michael Foot certainly get lots of coverage here anyway.
It is a sad book, in some ways. Neil Kinnock possessed many brilliant qualities and achieved much but his nine years as Opposition leader were generally agonising. He arguably saved the Labour Party only to find that he himself had become their biggest obstacle to it ever winning power. Both Milibands were hugely talented too but ultimately found their own ambitions effectively cancelled each other out with disastrous consequences for both them and their family. Jeremy Corbyn, a man who Richards reliably assures us is almost completely lacking in any personal vanity at all ended up finding himself widely labelled as narcissistic.
It is an excellent book nevertheless confirming Steve Richards’ position as one of our finest political writers. Perhaps Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer should grab a copy and take note if only to help ensure they don’t find themselves in any future editions?
Published by: Atlantic Books.
A politician will be asked many questions during the course of their life. “Are you going to resign, Minister?” and “Did you threaten to overrule him?” are two less friendly examples. But for anyone hoping to launch their own political career, this book asks all the critical questions anyone aspiring to political office will need to answer if they are going to overcome what should be the first major obstacle to achieving power: winning an election. Never mind, “What do I believe in?” or “why do I want to do this?” These are questions you will have to answer for yourself. Mark Pack and Edward Maxfield are seasoned veterans of a number of successful and unsuccessful campaigns. There is no agenda here, other than to educate the reader as to how best to win whatever campaign they are fighting, be it for election to parliament, parish council or to the PTA. It is full of practical advice. Now on it’s third edition, it is first and foremost an essential guidebook on how to get elected. It is not primarily intended as a source of interest for geeky political bystanders like myself. Although it does fulfil that role too, it must be said.
Let us give a few examples from the text. Have you given any thought to whose votes your trying to win? If your answer to this is “everyone’s” then think again. You need to be more targeted than that. The bad news is, you’re not going to win everyone’s votes. The good news is, you don’t have to.
Are you campaigning for continuity or change? Are you trying to win new supporters or consolidate your position with existing ones? And how do you come across to the electorate? Are you, as Steve van Riel has suggested, Darth Vader (ruthless, but effective) or Father Dougal from Father Ted (caring, consensual but ineffective)?
The book tackles everything from broad strokes to the nitty gritty. How do you recruit a loyal campaign team? How should you deal with internet trolls? How do you deal with the media and get your voice heard? How do you drum home a consistent message without sounding robotic or repetitive? How do you attack your opponents without insulting and alienating potential future supporters?
It’s all here in what remains the definitive election campaign handbook of our times.
Book review: 101 Ways To Win An Election (Third Edition), by Mark Pack and Edward Maxfield. Published by: Biteback. Available: now.
How soon is too soon to write about the history of a particular time or place?
Following on from his earlier three excellent volumes which took us from the start of the 1970s to the dawn of the new millennium, Alwyn Turner’s new book picks up the English story at the time of New Labour’s second massive General Election victory in 2001 before dropping us off again at the time of David Cameron’s surprise narrow win in 2015. The stage is set for the divisive Brexit battles of the last five years and for the divisive leadership of the Labour Party by Jeremy Corbyn after 2015, but the narrative clearly stops before getting to either. Turner’s book is packed full of reminders of this eventful and turbulent period. Who now remembers Pastygate? Cleggmania? Russell Brand’s dialogue with Ed Miliband or Robert Kilroy Silk’s thwarted battle to take over UKIP? Viewed from the perspective of the current Coronavirus pandemic which, writing in July 2021, has thus far totally dominated the third decade of the 21st century, Turner’s social history of this busy and already seemingly historically quite distant fourteen year period already seems very welcome.
It is not all about politics, of course. As before, Turner takes a good look too at changes in society as viewed through the prism of TV, literature and other developments. No doubt he will one day have much to say about the recent Euro 2020 Finals and subsequent race row. Here, for example, we get a thorough comparison between the different styles of comedians, Jimmy Carr and Roy Chubby Brown. Both are edgy and deliberately tackle sensitive subjects for their humour. Carr, is however, middle-class and Cambridge-educated while Brown never conceals his working-class origins. Carr is frequently on TV, while Brown, although popular, is never allowed on. But, as Turner points out, it is not simply a matter of class. Carr is deliberately careful, firstly never to go too far or to appear as if he is endorsing any (or most) of the dark things he talks about. Brown is much less cautious. He frequently pushes his jokes into genuinely uneasy territory and occasionally seems to be making crowd-pleasing anti-immigration points which totally lack any comedic punchline. Whereas Carr clearly has a carefully constructed stage persona, it is unclear where the stage Chubby Brown begins and the real Chubby Brown ends.
Class comes up a fair bit in the book. Turner identifies a definite resurgence in the popularity of posher folk in public life during this period. Some are obvious: TV chefs such as Nigella Lawson, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, Chris Martin of Coldplay, the rise of Boris Johnson and David Cameron, the last becoming the first Tory leader to come from a public school background in forty years in 2005. Others are less obvious: musician Lily Allen was privately educated as were Gemma Collins and some of her other The Only Way is Essex companions. Even Labour’s Andy Burnham went to Cambridge.
The underrated Russell T. Davies 2003 TV drama, Second Coming in which Christopher Eccleston’s video shop assistant surprisingly claims to be the Son of God and indeed turns out to really be him. The phone hacking scandal. The London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony. The rise and fall of George Galloway. The 2011 London riots. The Jimmy Saville affair and other scandals. The TV show, Life on Mars. All these topics are revisited by Turner in intelligent and readable fashion.
Other interesting nuggets of information also come in the footnotes. “By 2009 over 9 per cent of Peterborough had come to the city from overseas.” Alexander Armstrong was the first man to play David Cameron in a TV drama in 2007’s The Trial of Tony Blair (aired during Blair’s final months in office). We also get reminders of some of the better jokes of the period in this manner. Frank Skinner’s “George Osborne has two types of friends: the haves and the have yachts.” Or the late Linda Smith’s take on the 2005 Tory election slogan: “Are you sinking like we’re sinking?”
We are also kept informed of the main biscuit preferences of our political leaders, an issue Gordon Brown, a brilliant man, but always uneasy with popular culture, characteristically messed up answering.
There is less about music, although Turner does at one point suggest that the Spice Girls “might have been the last group that really mattered, that meant something beyond record sales and outside their own constituency.”
Turner does well to retain a position of political neutrality here and is especially good at retracing the early machinations on the Labour Left and the Eurosceptic Right which seemed irrelevant at the start of this era but which by the end of it came to seem very important indeed. It is, indeed, a very depressing period for anyone on the liberal left. In 2001, the Lib Dems under their dynamic young leader, Charles Kennedy seemed poised to become the nation’s second party. By 2015, Kennedy was dead and the party wasn’t even registering in third place in terms of either seats or share of the vote. In 2001, Tony Blair won a second huge landslide majority, seemed to have the world at his feet and was one of the most highly regarded political leaders of recent times. Furthermore, no one serious in political life was even remotely contemplating withdrawing from the European Union.
What changed? Read this endlessly fascinating book to find out.
Book review: All In It Together, England in the Early 21st Century, by Alwyn Turner. Published by: Profile Books. Available: now.
Geoff Norcott is that rarest of breeds: a popular and funny right-wing comedian.
Whereas, even only a few years ago, most people would have struggled to name even one living British comedian with conservative views (particularly when the list is shortened further to exclude those who are not openly racist), Norcott has risen to fame largely on the basis of his appearances as the ‘token right-winger’ on the BBC’s excellent topic comedy show, The Mash Report. The show was cancelled earlier this year, largely as a result of concerns by nervous BBC execs that, Norcott’s contribution aside, it was too left-wing.
Some would doubtless challenge me for even agreeing to review this book and thus provide the oxygen of publicity to someone who is not only a self-confessed Tory voter and a Brexiteer.
To these people I would point out first that Norcott clearly represents the more acceptable face of the Right. He is clearly not racist at all and in 2019 was appointed as a member of a BBC Diversity Panel with the aim of ensuring the corporation represents a broad cross section of the public’s views. He is also, it must be mentioned, deeply sceptical about the leadership skills of Boris Johnson. This is a definite point in his favour, even if his scepticism was not quite sufficient to prevent him from helping vote Johnson back into power in the December 2019 General Election.
Secondly, I would argue strongly that we shut out voices such as Norcott’s at our peril. Nobody’s life is perfectly typical of anything, but Norcott seems to be a textbook example of the sort of voter Labour could once, perhaps complacently rely on to support them as recently as the 1990s and 2000s but who they have since lost with fatal consequences. With much of Norcott’s assessment of Labour taking the form of critical advice rather than flagrant attacks, he is certainly worth listening to.
By coincidence, me and Geoff Norcott are almost exactly the same age. He was born six days earlier than me in December 1976. Like me, his first ever experience of voting in a General Election as a twenty-year-old was for New Labour in May 1997. He describes his feeling on leaving the voting booth:
“It was probably the first and last time I ever felt total conviction about the party I voted for,” I feel the same. It was a combination of the perhaps misplaced certainties of youth. But it was also, I think, something about the political mood of 1997.
Like me, he returned, perhaps slightly less enthusiastically to voting Labour in 2001. Thereafter, our paths diverge. I came very close to voting Lib Dem in 2005, largely because of my opposition to the war in Iraq (I eventually held my nose and voted for my local Labour candidate who was anti-war, but lost her seat anyway). Norcott doesn’t mention his views on the war, but did vote Lib Dem, partly because like me, he admired their then leader, the late Charles Kennedy, but also as part of a slow journey he was undergoing towards the Tories. In the last four General Elections held since 2010, he voted Conservative. He also voted Leave in 2016.
In truth, Geoff Norcott, although from a traditionally Labour family had been showing conservative instincts from a young age. He had an entirely different upbringing to me. Mine was comfortable and middle-class, his was marred by both poverty and parental divorce. He is sceptical about the welfare system based on his own family experiences and is less enthusiastic than most people are these days about the NHS. He felt endlessly patronised while at Goldsmith College, London in the mid-1990s and has come away with a lifelong scepticism about left-wing middle-class liberals, many of whom frequently serve as targets for his humour today, (for example, on the marches for a second ‘People’s Vote’ on Brexit: “The idea that loads of liberals having a day out in London with chopped kale power salads and terrible chants in some way spoke for the country was laughable”). He has had some tough battles on Twitter. Critics of his appearances on Question Time have variously attacked him for either being rich and self-interested or too common to be on TV. He now seems to be convinced Twitter is a hotbed of left-wing sentiment. I’m not sure it is.
The book takes us through his difficult early years, a brief stint in media sales, his work as a teacher, his time entertaining the troops overseas, a series of personal tragedies a few years ago through to his final success as a successful and reasonably well-known comedian and now author, settled with his family in Cambridgeshire.
Needless to say, I don’t agree with him on many things. He believes the Blair and Brown governments spent too much: I don’t think they did particularly, and even if they did, this certainly does not explain why the credit crunch happened. His main criticism of people like the Milibands and Keir Starmer seems to be largely based on the fact that they are middle-class and cannot claim any link to working-class people. In my view, this is true but is surely dwarfed by the facts that the their opponents men such as David Cameron and Boris Johnson were born into lives of such immense privilege to the extent that these leaders have no knowledge or interest in reducing poverty at all. I suspect, at root, like many right-wing people, Norcott thinks there is something hypocritical about anyone with money having a social conscience about anything, while his tolerance for rich leaders who openly don’t give a toss about society is much greater. This has never been my view. My horror at the Tory record on homelessness, unemployment and underfunding of the health service has always been sufficient to drive me away me from ever voting for them, particularly when combined with the frequent right-wing tendency (not shared by Norcott himself) to either be racist or to blame many of the weakest and poorest in the world for many of society’s ills.
Geoff Norcott is, of course, now successful enough to be considered middle-class himself and undoubtedly has many left-wing comics amongst his friendship circle. None of which should detract from this sometimes funny, enjoyable and often useful book which is packed with useful phrases such as ,”when you demonise a voter, you lose them forever” which many of us would do well to remember.
Book review: Where Did I Go Right?: How The Left Lost Me, by Geoff Norcott. Published by: Octopus. Available: now.
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.
It’s 1981 and a group of young people are on their way to embark upon a new life in London in Russell T. Davies’ new five-episode Channel 4 drama.
Escaping a fairly loveless home environment on the Isle of Wight, Ritchie Tozer (Olly Alexander) is soon having the time of his life in the capital. Good-looking and confident, he is free to enjoy the delights of the capital’s thriving gay scene at night while pursuing bit parts as an actor in the likes of Doctor Who during the day. He soon befriends Jill (Lydia West, who appeared in Davies’ previous drama, Years and Years), who is also hoping to tread the boards. Colin (Callum Scott Howells), meanwhile, is gay too, like Ritchie, but a tamer character who has moved from Wales to work at a tailor’s. He is soon being forced to politely resist unwanted sexual overtures from his married male boss. Finally, Roscoe (Omari Douglas), another live wire, has been forced to flee his family home after his family threaten to send him to Nigeria because of his homosexuality.
All of these characters and a number of others soon converge and become friends in London. As the series moves through the next decade, all also see their lives seriously impacted by the spread of AIDS.
This is clearly very serious subject matter indeed and it would be wrong to pretend that watching It’s A Sin isn’t a powerful, hard-hitting, harrowing and overall, very moving experience. At the same time, Davies doesn’t forget to show that at least initially life for these twentysomethings as they go out, get jobs, make friends, live together, go clubbing, get drunk, go on the pull and generally experience adult life for the first time is lots of fun. This is something many of us will be able to relate to regardless of whether we are young or old, gay or straight or can remember the 1980s ourselves or not. The soundtrack is also amazing. Putting 1980s songs in a TV drama is hardly an amazingly original idea but songs such as Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy, Freedom by Wham!, REM’s Everybody Hurts and yes! It’s A Sin by the Pet Shop Boys (many although not all of them performed by artists who whether we knew it or not at the time were gay themselves) are deployed very effectively.
It’s easy to forget how far social attitudes have progressed in the thirty or forty years since the show’s 1980s setting. None of the main characters feel able to tell their families they are gay with the end result that when many of them do contract AIDS their families discover that their children are both homosexual and potentially mortally ill almost simultaneously. Initially, there is a terrifying mystery about the disease. One fairly minor character goes to his grave early on, apparently at a complete loss as to why he and his partner seem to have both contracted cancer at the same time. Another is so ashamed by his condition that he won’t tell anyone he has it. Following his death, his family not only cover-up the cause of his demise but attempt to destroy any evidence that he ever existed. Even as liberal and well-intentioned character as Jill is sufficiently worried about her AIDS-infected friend drinking out of one of her mugs that she destroys it afterwards. The information simply wasn’t available then.
The myth that AIDS exclusively affected only the homosexual community persisted for far too long to, hindering progress partly because many authority figures clearly felt many victims to some extent deserved their fate simply because they were that way inclined. In one memorable sequence, talking straight to camera, Ritchie articulates his own reasons for believing the AIDS virus to be a myth dreamed up by a homophobic media. Such conspiracy theories, of course, foreshadow those who persist in claiming in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t exist today. If anything, although we know Ritchie’s argument is no less bogus than they are, Ritchie does present a better argument for his disease not existing than they do.
Ultimately, with an excellent supporting cast including Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Fry, Tracy Ann Oberman, Keeley Hawes and Shaun Dooley, It’s A Sin is a worthy companion piece to Russell T. Davies’s earlier series Queer as Folk and Cucumber. January is barely over yet this may well prove to be the best British TV drama of 2021 along with Russell T. Davies’s greatest ever masterpiece.
All episodes of It’s A Sin can be viewed now on All 4. It is also being broadcast n Channel 4 every Friday at 9pm.
They seemed like total opposites.
Wilson seemed working-class to the core, Heath seemed posh. Wilson seemed jovial, dynamic and witty, Heath came across as stiff and awkward. Wilson was the family man who holidayed in the Isles of Scilly ever year, Heath was the European, conductor, champion yachtsman and lifelong bachelor.
Both men were actually more similar to each other than they seemed. Both ruled the nation for as long as Thatcher, eleven and a half years (from October 1964 to April 1976) between them. And both were born a full century ago, in the same year, 1916.
Wilson emerged first, beating two older men George Brown and James Callaghan to win the Labour leadership following Hugh Gaitskell’s death in early 1963. Always brilliant – he had become the youngest British cabinet minister of the 20th century at 31 – Wilson was also wily and had reinvented himself from being a clever but dull young rising star under Attlee to a dynamic, raincoat-wearing, pipe-smoking working-class hero ripe for the TV age. Wilson, like all successful politicians, was lucky: the Tory government fell foul of the Profumo Affair and Harold Macmillan gave way to the much less formidable Alec Douglas-Home in October 1963. But Wilson was also a brilliant opposition leader and spoke of “the white heat of revolution,” an exciting but largely meaningless term. He led Labour to a narrow victory in October 1964. It is surprising he didn’t win by a wider margin.
Young and from a similar background (his father had been a carpenter) and the first grammar school boy to be Tory leader, Heath was elected in 1965 partly because he was seen (wrongly) as the closest thing to a Conservative version of Wilson.
Wilson trounced Heath in the 1966 election, which saw Labour’s majority surge to almost 100. Both men would struggle in the next four years. Wilson was lucky to survive a sea of economic troubles especially with many of his colleagues (Brown, Jenkins, Callaghan, Healey) keen to usurp him. Heath was criticised for sacking Enoch Powell after his inflammatory 1968 Rivers of Blood speech on immigration. In fact, he was right to do so. But the press remained critical of Heath and he remained unpopular. Opinion polls predicted another easy General Election win for Labour in 1970, an election which effectively presented Heath with his last chance to win power. However, as in 1992 and 2015, the polls were wrong and the Tories got back with a majority.
As Prime Minister, Heath led Britain into the Common Market, a towering achievement the like of which neither Wilson or indeed most prime ministers ever manage. Sadly, the rest of his premiership was a disaster, derailed by the oil shock, inflation and his battle with the unions.
Asking “Who governs Britain?” Heath went to the polls early, during the Three Day Week in 1974. He was overconfident. Enoch Powell urged voters to back Labour and though the Tories got more votes, Labour got slightly more seats. After an unseemly and unnecessary attempt by Heath to court the support of Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, Wilson, to his surprise, was back. A second election later in the year gave him a majority, albeit a very small one, similar in size to the one he had started as PM with a full decade earlier.
Heath was now in serious trouble. Arrogant and supremely overconfident, he never expected to be overthrown by his former Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher in February 1975. Few had seen this coming, but it happened. He never forgave her and remained a plausible rival to her leadership until the early 1980s. The Incredible Sulk had begun.
Wilson had problems too. Inflation was sky-high, the pound was low, Labour’s majority was vanishing fast and the party was at odds over Europe. Wilson was also drinking heavily, well past his best politically and possibly already suffering from the dementia which would blight his old age. He resigned very suddenly in 1976, damaging his reputation with his botched Resignation Honours list. Wilson was consumed by paranoia. It is true these were paranoid times; many of Wilson’s colleagues DID want his job. Sections of the MI5 were also convinced he was a Soviet agent who had poisoned his predecessor Hugh Gaitskell. (They were wrong: Wilson had not been favourite to succeed Gaitskell at the time of his death anyway, so aside from anything else, he had no real motive). But Wilson’s own paranoia nevertheless got out of hand.
Neither man has been served well by posterity. Heath looks worse than Thatcher in most Tory eyes (she did win three large victories after all, he lost three and won one). Although the abuse allegations raised in 2015 seem unsubstantiated at this time, Heath was most likely gay and suppressed his homosexuality in favour of a political career (his contemporary Jeremy Thorpe attempted to pursue both: the results were disastrous). He remained a visible and vocal public figure until his death in 2005. Now eleven years on, his most cherished achievement: our place in Europe is under threat.
Wilson’s tenure saw some major changes: the legalisation of abortion, homosexuality and the abolition of the death penalty and reform of the divorce laws. Neither Wilson nor Heath can be described as a total success. But their decade or so in power, undoubtedly changed Britain.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
It is easy to forget amidst all the current Labour leadership hoo-hah, that it is fifty years this month since the very first Conservative leadership contest. Generally more unpredictable than their Labour equivalents, let’s recall this and every such contest since…
1963: Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan resigns on the eve of the party conference. The resulting chaos convinces most that the “magic circle” process of consultation needs to be replaced by an election of MPs. Macmillan’s successor Alec Douglas-Home resigns as Tory leader after losing the 1964 General Election and begins devising the mechanism for the first Conservative leadership contest to be held amongst MPs.
Edward Heath beats the favourite, former Chancellor, Reginald Maudling to win the leadership. Enoch Powell comes third.
The right choice?: Probably. Heath at least won the 1970 General Election. ‘Reggie’ Maudling ultimately fell foul of his business connections and resigned as Home Secretary. Powell with his inflammatory 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech (and his 1974 pre-election decision to urge voters to support Labour) proved ill-suited to frontbench politics.
Former Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher unexpectedly deposes Heath (now back in Opposition) and proceeds to beat Geoffrey Howe, Willie Whitelaw, Jim Prior, Hugh Fraser and John Peyton for the top job. Heath descends into “the incredible sulk” for the next thirty years.
The right choice?: Undoubtedly. Whatever else she may have been, Thatcher was a boon to the Tory party, ultimately delivering them three landslide election victories. This wasn’t obvious in 1975, however, and Heath’s popularity with the public continued to outstrip hers until the early Eighties.
Unknown pro-European back-bencher Sir Anthony Meyer (dubbed “Sir Nobody” by the press) mounts a “stalking horse” challenge to Prime Minister Thatcher’s leadership. He loses, but the number of abstentions is high, a fact largely overlooked at the time.
The right choice?: Could the brutality of Thatcher’s departure have been averted had she gone a year earlier? Who knows?
In a hugely dramatic coup, Margaret Thatcher is challenged by her former defence secretary, Michael Heseltine. She technically wins but not by a wide enough margin and reluctantly resigns. Little-known Chancellor John Major beats Heseltine and Foreign Secretary Douglas “too posh” Hurd in the second round.
The right choice?: In the short run, yes. Major replacing Thatcher saved the Tories from certain defeat in 1992. In the long run? Perhaps not. Thatcher – a woman with no interests outside politics – became a perpetual thorn in Major’s side and the scars of the contest took many years to heal.
By now perpetually embattled PM Major pre-empts ongoing leadership controversy by resigning as leader and inviting people to “put up or shut up” and challenge him. He defeats former Welsh secretary John Redwood but only narrowly beats the own private target set by himself below which he would have resigned. Bigger guns Ken Clarke, Michael Portillo and Heseltine again, thus do not enter the contest, as might have been expected otherwise.
The right choice?: It seems doubtful anyone could have saved the Tories from electoral disaster in 1997 by that stage.
Little-known 36-year old former Welsh secretary William Hague beats Clarke, Peter Lilley, Redwood and Michael “something of the night about him” Howard after the party’s devastating election defeat. Heseltine’s heart condition rules him out. Portillo famously loses his seat, preventing him from participating in the contest.
The right choice?: Probably not. Hague proved an inexperienced and inadequate leader. Voters would have preferred the more effective and experienced Ken Clarke.
Iain Duncan Smith beats Clarke in a ballot of party members. Michaels Portillo (now back in parliament) and Ancram all lost out early on in a ballot of MPs as did David Davis.
The right choice?: Definitely not. IDS was a disaster as leader and was deposed in favour of an un-elected Michael Howard in 2003. Any of the other candidates would have been better. Clarke’s election as Tory leader might also have prevented UK involvement in the Iraq War after 2003.
In the year of Ted Heath’s death, David Cameron beats David Davis for the leadership. Liam Fox and an ageing Clarke lose out early on.
The right choice?: Probably, yes. Cameron finally delivered victory this year. their smallest post-war majority, yes. But a win is a win.
1945: Churchill’s “Gestapo” speech
It was not his finest hour.
In the summer of 1945, the wartime coalition broke up and the parties campaigned in the first General Election campaign for nearly ten years.
Most expected Winston Churchill, rightly hailed as the nation’s wartime saviour, to lead the Tories to victory. But if this had ever been going to happen, Churchill did himself and the party serious harm with a vicious attack on Labour unleashed during a radio broadcast:
But I will go farther. I declare to you, from the bottom of my heart, that no Socialist system can be established without a political police. …No Socialist Government conducting the entire life and industry of the country could afford to allow free, sharp, or violently-worded expressions of public discontent. They would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo…
The attack backfired. Voters were aghast that Churchill would level such a charge at gentle, timid men such as Clement Attlee, who until recently had been working well alongside Churchill in the coalition government. The attack seemed to perfectly demonstrate the difference between Churchill the great war leader and Churchill the party politician and probably at least partly explains the scale of the Labour landslide which followed. And, no. Nothing anything like a “gestapo” was ever introduced under Labour.
1970: Benn attacks Enoch
In 1968, Enoch Powell provoked a huge controversy with his inflammatory “rivers of blood” speech. Tory leader Edward Heath immediately sacked Powell from the Opposition front bench. As Labour went into the 1970 election, senior Labour campaigners were instructed not to mention Powell who still commanded significant support amongst many white voters.
Unfortunately, Tony Benn (then known as Anthony Wedgwood Benn) broke ranks with an attack almost as inflammatory in its own way as Powell’s had been. Benn declared: “The flag of radicalism which has been hoisted in Wolverhampton (Powell’s seat) is beginning to look like the one that fluttered 25 years ago over (the concentration camps) Dachau and .Belsen“. Benn regretted saying it, almost immediately.
Powell, like Benn, was a Second World War veteran and there is some evidence Benn’s gaffe galvanised white support in Powellite areas. The Tories won a surprise victory in 1970. Benn’s remarks don’t entirely explain this but they certainly didn’t help Labour.
February 1974: Enoch backs Labour
By 1974, many white voters still wanted Enoch Powell to be Prime Minister. With Edward Heath’s Tories facing a knife-edge election, Powell’s speech declaring that Tories who oppose Common Market membership should do so by voting Labour was hugely damaging.
The result? Labour won slightly more seats than the Tories (though fewer votes) and were soon able to lead a Hung Parliament. Powell’s intervention may have actually made all the difference between victory and defeat. That said, Labour then held a referendum on Common Market membership in 1975. People overwhelmingly voted “yes” then so Britain remained within.
1983: Thatcher gets a grilling
The 1983 election was by and large a very good one for Mrs Thatcher’s Tories aside from this one supremely awkward phone-in with teacher Diana Gould. This centred on the sinking of the General Belgrano, during the 1982 Falklands conflict.
Gould: Mrs Thatcher, why, when the Belgrano, the Argentinian battleship, was outside the exclusion zone and actually sailing away from the Falklands, why did you give the orders to sink it?
Thatcher: But it was not sailing away from the Falklands — It was in an area which was a danger to our ships, and to our people on them.
Lawley: Outside the exclusion zone, though.
Thatcher: It was in an area which we had warned, at the end of April, we had given warnings that all ships in those areas, if they represented a danger to our ships, were vulnerable. When it was sunk, that ship which we had found, was a danger to our ships. My duty was to look after our troops, our ships, our Navy, and my goodness me, I live with many, many anxious days and nights.
Gould: But Mrs Thatcher, you started your answer by saying it was not sailing away from the Falklands. It was on a bearing of 280 and it was already west of the Falklands, so I’m sorry, but I cannot see how you can say it was not sailing away from the Falklands.
Thatcher: When it was sunk ..
Gould: When it was sunk.
Thatcher: .. it was a danger to our ships.
Gould: No, but you have just said at the beginning of your answer that it was not sailing away from the Falklands, and I am asking you to correct that statement.
Thatcher: But it’s within an area outside the exclusion zone, which I think is what you are saying is sailing away ..
Gould: No, I am not, Mrs Thatcher.
Sue Lawley: I think we are not arguing about which way it was facing at the time.
Gould: Mrs Thatcher, I am saying that it was on a bearing 280, which is a bearing just North of West. It was already west of the Falklands, and therefore nobody with any imagination can put it sailing other than away from the Falklands.
Thatcher: Mrs – I’m sorry, I forgot your name.
Lawley: Mrs Gould.
Thatcher: Mrs Gould, when the orders were given to sink it, when it was sunk, it was in an area which was a danger to our ships. Now, you accept that, do you?
Gould: No, I don’t.
Thatcher: I am sorry, it was. You must accept ..
Gould: No, Mrs Thatcher.
Thatcher: .. that when we gave the order, when we changed the rules which enabled them to sink the Belgrano, the change of rules had been notified at the end of April. It was all published, that any ships that were are a danger to ours within a certain zone wider than the Falklands were likely to be sunk, and again, I do say to you, my duty, and I am very proud that we put it this way and adhered to it, was to protect the lives of the people in our ships, and the enormous numbers of troops that we had down there waiting for landings. I put that duty first. When the Belgrano was sunk, when the Belgrano was sunk, and I ask you to accept this, she was in a position which was a danger to our Navy.
Lawley: Let me ask you this, Mrs Gould. What motive are you seeking to attach to Mrs Thatcher and her government in this? Is it inefficiency, lack of communication, or is it a desire for action, a desire for war?
Gould: It is a desire for action, and a lack of communications because, on giving those orders to sink the Belgrano when it was actually sailing away from our fleet and away from the Falklands, was in effect sabotaging any possibility of any peace plan succeeding, and Mrs Thatcher had 14 hours in which to consider the Peruvian peace plan that was being put forward to her. In which those fourteen hours those orders could have been rescinded.
Thatcher: One day, all of the facts, in about 30 years time, will be published.
Gould: That is not good enough, Mrs Thatcher. We need ..
Thatcher: Would you please let me answer? I lived with the responsibility for a very long time. I answered the question giving the facts, not anyone’s opinions, but the facts. Those Peruvian peace proposals, which were only in outline, did not reach London until after the attack on the Belgrano—that is fact. I am sorry, that is fact, and I am going to finish—did not reach London until after the attack on the Belgrano. Moreover, we went on negotiating for another fortnight after that attack. I think it could only be in Britain that a Prime Minister was accused of sinking an enemy ship that was a danger to our Navy, when my main motive was to protect the boys in our Navy. That was my main motive, and I am very proud of it. One day all the facts will be revealed, and they will indicate as I have said.
Lawley: Mrs Gould, have you got a new point to make, otherwise I must move on?
Gould: Just one point. I understood that the Peruvian peace plans, on a Nationwide programme, were discussed on midnight, May 1st. If that outline did not reach London for another fourteen hours, ..
Lawley: Mrs Thatcher has said that it didn’t.
Gould: .. I think there must be something very seriously wrong with our communications, and we are living in a nuclear age when we are going to have minutes to make decisions, not hours.
Thatcher: I have indicated what the facts are, and would you accept that I am in a position to know exactly when they reached London? Exactly when the attack was made. I repeat, the job of the Prime Minister is to protect the lives of our boys, on our ships, and that’s what I did.
The Tories still won the election handsomely, but Thatcher refused to do any live TV phone-ins or to appear on anything presented by Sue Lawley ever again.
Roy Jenkins: A Well Rounded Life.
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.
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.
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.
Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979.
There is probably a great play to be written about the filming of the first Star Wars film.
Admittedly, there would probably be legal issues, perhaps insurmountable ones. But imagine! The tensions between the rising young American stars: ex-carpenter Harrison Ford and the highly intelligent but vulnerable Carrie Fisher. And the older, distinguished English co-star Sir Alec Guinness, a man with an Oscar and years of experience but little understanding of the script.
This might sound like an odd place to begin a review of a book about Britain in the late Seventies. But this is exactly where the book itself begins. The film was after all, mostly filmed in Britain with much of the cast drawn from the likes of those previously best known for appearances on Poldark or later to appear in Brookside. A key point is that Guinness had managed to secure a generous two percent of the entire profits for a film that was to become one of the most commercially successful of all time. Another is that under the tax regime of the time, Inland Revenue trucks were soon pulling up to claim 83 pence out of every pound Guinness had made.
This was, of course, not a happy spell in British modern history. Sandbrook suggests the 1974-76 Wilson Government was the worst in British history. “Wilson was one of the cleverest and kindest men ever to occupy Number 10 but also one of the weakest,” he writes. In fairness, he inherited a mess (the Three-Day-Week and an economic crisis from Heath) and left the situation little better. This is odd because the government which included Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins and Anthony Crosland amongst its members was far from extreme (for the most part) and certainly not lacking in talent. Probably the main problem was Wilson himself, who had not expected to return to power in 1974 and thanks to alcoholism and probable early Alzheimer’s, was a shadow of his sharp-witted, wily mid-1960s self. Jim Callaghan, at any rate, though close to being a watered down Thatcherite himself, did better. At least until the Winter of Discontent.
It was a strange time in many ways. There was intense paranoia on all sides as if the neuroses of Wilson and US President Richard Nixon had infected the general population. The right-wing host of TV’s Opportunity Knocks, Hughie Green appealed live on air: “For God’s sake Britain, wake up!” in 1975. Many worried about a coup from the Left perhaps led by Tony Benn while others began preparing for a coup from the Right, perhaps led by Lord Mountbatten. Right-wing journalist Peregrine Worsthorne hoped the United States would come to the aid of a socialist Britain just as they had “helped” Allende’s Chile by replacing him with the murderous General Pinochet in 1973. This scenario later inspired Chris Mullin’s 1982 thriller A Very British Coup in which a democratically elected Labour Prime Minister is overthrown by a combination of the CIA, British security services and the Establishment.
This is the fourth of Dominic Sandbrook’s superb series of four books which thus far have chronicled Britain’s progress (or decline) from the era of Suez to the coming of Thatcher (the others are Never Had It So Good, White Heat and State of Emergency). As before, Sandbrook does a superb job of describing not just the political and economic scene but the minutiae of seemingly almost every aspect of British life, for example, the details of the Sex Pistols’ notorious TV appearance with Bill Grundy. “Who knows what Grundy thought he was s doing?” Sandbrook rightly asks after Grundy goaded his guests into swearing on live TV and thus ensuring his own downfall.
Mike Yarwood. Malcolm Bradbury. Butterflies. The Good Life. Quadrophenia. John Stonehouse. Lord Lucan. The Bee Gees. All are here. It is a fascinating read. Along with Alwyn W. Turner and David Kynaston, Dominic Sandbrook remains at the forefront among chroniclers of our nation’s recent history.
Crisis What Crisis?: Britain in the 1970s.
Alwyn W. Turner.
“Crisis, what crisis?” The words were famously spoken by Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan in 1979 as he returned tanned and complacent from a tropical summit to learn that Britain had shuddered to a wintry strike bound halt in his absence.
Except of course, Callaghan never actually said these words. Like Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” and George W. Bush’s “Yo Blair!” the phrase actually came from somewhere else, in this case The Sun’s headline from the following day. In fact, as Alwyn W. Turner points out in this updated version of his well-researched 2008 book, the phrase predates The Sun’s usage and indeed even Callaghan’s premiership and was first used during the similarly troubled tenure of Tory Edward Heath a few years before. Turner even reveals its usage in the 1973 film version of the thriller, The Day of the Jackal.
How different things could have been! For The Sun, in fairness, captured the essence of Callaghan’s reaction. “I don’t believe that people around the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos.” It was not his finest hour. For this was what would become known as the “Winter Of Discontent”, the series of strikes which would haunt Labour for decades. In the short run, the piles of uncollected rubbish and occasional disgraceful scenes of bodies being lefty unburied by striking gravediggers wrecked Labour’s chances in the 1979 election and propelled Mrs Thatcher to power.
As Turner reminds us, victory might easily have been Callaghan’s. Labour had actually been ahead in the opinion polls in late 1978 but Callaghan hesitated at the last minute, reasoning (not unreasonably): “Why run the risk of a very doubtful victory in October 1978, if we could convert it into a more convincing majority in 1979?”
But like Gordon Brown in 2007, Callaghan made a colossal error in postponing the election. He was always a more popular leader than Thatcher, who would doubtless have been ditched by the Tories had she lost in 1979, perhaps being replaced by Peter Walker or William Whitelaw. It is worth remembering that there were very few ardent Thatcher enthusiasts before 1979. Even Enoch Powell proclaimed voters “wouldn’t put up with those hats and that accent.” The hats went and the accent changed. But Callaghan blew his chance to lead Britain into the Eighties. Had he had the chance, he might perhaps, have led the nation through a much less brutal version of Thatcherism in her place.
Perhaps he was right to be wary of the opinion polls. The Seventies were an unpredictable and unstable decade. The keys to Downing Street changed hands four times between 1970 and 1979. They have only changed hands four times again in the thirty-five years since. The 1970 election saw Labour brutally and unexpectedly ejected in an electoral upset. Labour’s Harold Wilson buoyed by good opinion polls, had called the election a year earlier than he had to. But the polls were wrong. Edward Heath won a majority of thirty for the Tories instead. But Heath too fell foul of the polls three and a half years later when his crisis “Who Governs Britain?” election unexpectedly ended with a Labour led Hung Parliament in March 1974. Labour went onto under-perform electorally again, winning only a small majority of three in October of that year. By the time James Callaghan took over in the spring of 1976, Labour’s majority had almost vanished and a pact with the Liberals (ultimately a disaster for the smaller party, as it so often is) was just around the corner.
Turner reminds us though that the decade was defined less by the politics of Wilson, Heath and Callaghan than by those of mavericks Enoch Powell and Anthony Wedgwood Benn. He is brilliant on the intense paranoia on both sides of the political spectrum about both men (Powell, particularly, was portrayed in fictional form in books and on TV several times).
But this is not purely a political account, far from it. As in his later books Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s and A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s, Turner is brilliantly thorough on all aspects of high and low culture as he is on affairs of state. Sometimes these are linked (as he does cleverly with the TV series I, Claudius and the machinations of the 1976 Labour leadership contest), sometimes they are not (football, music and sitcom are all covered thorough. The chapter on “Violence,” for example, covers The Troubles as well as A Clockwork Orange).
But this is another excellent history from Turner. As strong on Tom and Barbara as it is on Maggie and Jim. As thorough on Doctor Who as it is on Dr David Owen. Or as insightful on Mr. Benn as it is on the career of Mr. Tony Benn. It is well worth a read.
A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s.
Alwyn W. Turner.
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.
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.
George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury makes a bold claim on the back of this book. “Brian Mawhinney is one of the truly outstanding politicians of his generation.”
Bearing in mind, Dr Brian Mawhinney was born in 1940 putting him in the same mediocre vintage as Lord Archer, John Selwyn Gummer, Jonathan Aitken and Neil Hamilton, perhaps this is faint praise. But what about John Smith? Ken Clarke? Chris Patten? Robin Cook? No, Carey’s claim is ridiculously over the top. One suspects Mawhinney would be embarrassed by it himself.
It’s probable Mawhinney’s intense religious fervour swayed Carey. Dr Brian Mawhinney was the Tory MP for Peterborough from 1979 until 1997 (I grew up there during that period myself). Before his selection as candidate, Mawhinney, like Joan of Arc, heard voices. Specifically a voice in Peterborough Cathedral saying: “I need you here”. Mawhinney may have imagined it or overheard somebody instructing a choir boy. Either way, Mawhinney remained MP for Peterborough for eighteen years. Presumably another voice then told him: “Labour are going to win your seat! Peterborough’s too full of lefties these days! Ditch them. Switch to North West Cambridgeshire!”. Mawhinney did so, remaining MP there until 2005. He was appointed Chairman of the Football League in 2003.
On paper, Mawhinney’s record isn’t sparkling. He was Minister of State for Northern Ireland under Margaret Thatcher. Unlike under Major and especially Blair, no progress was made in the Troubles under Thatcher at all. He moved to Health, at a time of intense strife for the NHS (the Thatcher/Major years remain the historical nadir of the Health Service). Now in the Cabinet, he oversaw the disastrous farce of rail privatisation as Transport Secretary. As Tory Party Chairman he presided over the party’s largest ever 20th century defeat in 1997.
To be fair, none of these things were wholly Mawhinney’s fault. The Tories were clearly heading for a big fall in 1997 already. It is doubtful any non-Cabinet minister could have secured peace in Northern Ireland in the Eighties. Mawhinney is wrong about many things (gay marriage, Tony Blair) but his dedication cannot be faulted.
The book is not very well written and was almost completely overshadowed on its April release date by the reaction to Lady Thatcher’s death. But Mawhinney is clearly a genuine and dutiful public servant and fundamentally decent in a way one suspects many modern Tories are not.
I would have changed the book’s name though.”A Simple Belfast Boy” stinks of false modesty. The book barely focuses on Mawhinney’s childhood anyway. ’Life of Brian’ is probably out due to his religious convictions. How about “Doctor in the House”? Or “God Told Me To Do It”?
Myth 1: Margaret Thatcher “saved Britain”
Whatever else you may think about Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, David Cameron and the Daily Mail are clearly wrong. While Lord Nelson and Winston Churchill arguably saved Britain from invasion and President Kennedy’s actions may have saved us from nuclear destruction over Cuba in 1962, Thatcher cannot claim this. Without her, you might argue we might have lost the Falklands, still be strike-bound or a poorer nation than we are currently. Or alternatively, you might think, we would have a fairer, wealthier society, fewer homeless people, less crime and free prescription charges. Either way, Britain would still exist.
Myth 2: Margaret Thatcher “won the Cold War”
Thatcher famously identified Mikhail Gorbachev as “a man she could do business with” early on (in 1984) and this is to her credit. But the thaw in East-West relations had little to do with US President Ronald Reagan, even less to do with Thatcher and everything to with the liberalism of Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev. It’s very hard to envisage any realistic scenario where a different British Prime Minister would have made any real difference whatsoever.
Myth 3: Margaret Thatcher, “Milk Snatcher”
She did cut free school milk as Education Secretary, yes. But her Labour predecessors had already done so too. The name “milk snatcher” only stuck because a) she’s a woman and b) it rhymes with “Margaret Thatcher”.
Myth 4: She enjoyed warm relations with US President Ronald Reagan
This is certainly generally true. But they almost fell out in 1982 when the US threatened to remain neutral in the Falklands dispute. They almost fell out again in 1983, when the US invaded the Commonwealth nation of Grenada without even warning the UK in advance.
Myth 5: Thatcher was consistently anti-European
Not so! As Opposition leader, she enthusiastically campaigned for the successful Yes campaign in the 1975 EEC Referendum ensuring continued membership. In power, the Single European Act passed in 1986, went very much further towards pushing the UK towards European integration than the later Maastricht Treaty ever did.
Myth 6: Delusions of grammar
As Education Secretary, she closed more Grammar Schools than anyone before or since.
She was Britain’s first woman prime minister: Okay, this is true!
Ooh! Naughty BBC Radio 4! Apparently they’ve been producing approximately five times as many jokes about the Tories as they have about Labour! It seems the Daily Mail were right about the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation all along! Go back to Moscow, commies! If you love China so much (or indeed anywhere that’s actually communist these days. such as er… Laos?) why don’t you go and live there? Why don’t you marry Raul Castro? Come on BBC! We know you want to.
Well, no. Actually the BBC have an excuse and to be honest it’s a pretty good one. It seems that there are not enough comedians of a conservative ilk around. Caroline Raphael, Radio 4’s comedy commissioner admits they have trouble recruiting comics from the Right. And before anyone splutters at this, think about it. It may well be true.
I’ve bored Chortle readers on the subject of the dearth of conservative comedy talent before (http://www.chortle.co.uk/correspondents/2011/12/02/14451/clarkson_has_taught_us_one_thing%3A_right-wingers_arent_funny) and do not intend to repeat myself. But last time I did not really seriously consider why there are so few famous funny Tories about.
The obvious explanation is that the Tories are the leading party in government. Were Labour in power there would clearly be more jokes about them as indeed I am sure there were, were a similar study to be have been commissioned before 2010. This also explains why the Sunday Telegraph (who conducted this recent count) also found a larger than expected number of jokes about the Lib Dems.
This doesn’t fully explain why there are five times as many jokes about the Tories than Labour though. That is a wide margin, after all.
Could it be that Labour are less inspiring comedy targets than the Tories are? This too seems plausible. But it also seems odd. If the Opposition is struggling, they would surely provide ripe targets for satirical bullseyes. Spitting image, after all, didn’t let Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party off the hook in the Eighties. Is the public really so enamoured with Ed Miliband as in the days of early Blair or Obama, no satirical barbs can touch him? I very much doubt it.
Is the Beeb itself the problem? It would actually seem not. The issue extends way beyond the BBC. As I’ve discussed before, the entire comedy circuit inclines to the Left, not just the studios of Radio 4.
The Telegraph suggests that the left-wing environment of many comedy clubs might be preventing right wing comedy talent getting through. But why should the comedy world be any more left-wing than anywhere else?
Telegraph writer Dominic Cavendish suggests this might be because the circuit tends to favour younger comics. But even assuming older people are more likely to be conservative (something I don’t necessarily accept anyway), this doesn’t explain why older comics tend to be more left-wing. Even assuming that they have any viewpoint at all.
It’s not hard to imagine a conservative comedian. The tabloid-sequel views of Jeremy Clarkson would fit the bill even though he’s not technically a comedian. Are we ever likely to see a popular comic who defends the bankers and the Tories and who rails against the unemployed, benefit “scroungers”, the EU and asylum seekers? I don’t know. I’m also disinclined to think many comedians deliberately stifle their conservative views for public consumption. I don’t think they ever had those views in the first place.
Perhaps it’s simply the case that the bohemian creative world of the arts will always spawn more socialist firebrands than conservative cheerleaders.
Or to risk an old joke myself, if you really want to see a bunch of conservative comedians, take a look at the government.
Make no mistake: 1979 was a very long time ago. Let’s not have any of this “it seems like yesterday” nonsense. If 1979 really does seem like yesterday, there is something seriously wrong with you.
Despite its name, this book actually begins in 1979. It is now 2013. The same amount of time has passed since 1979 as had passed between it and the end of the Second World War in 1945. When the same amount of time has passed again, it will be 2047. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find things have changed a fair bit. In 1979, you wouldn’t have been reading a blog on your phone, a laptop or anywhere else,
Consider: in 1979, the Labour Prime Minister (a man born before the First World War) was still at ease sitting round the Downing Street table with leading trade union figures. This was a time when some such union leaders spoke openly of Marxist revolution in Britain and believed this was apparently a realistic prospect. Leading Labour figures like Tony Benn spoke of nationalising almost all of British industry to enthusiastic, mostly male, smoke-filled Labour conferences.
Flash forward to 1990 when this book ends and things start to seem a lot more familiar. Not the same but a lot more like now. Seventies fashions had lost their grip. Nobody had iPods yet but they had Walkmans at least and CDs were already replacing vinyl. Mobile phones were still rare and huge, but they did at least exist. Channel 4 was now on air and a small minority could now watch BSkyB (although a common joke of the time was that the average person was more likely to get BSE – the human form of mad cow disease- than BSkyB). EastEnders was on.
Meanwhile, strikes were a rarity. The SDP had been and gone. The Labour Party, although still firmly out of power were also a lot more recognisable. Behind the scenes, Peter Mandelson was hard at work. The smoke-filled conference halls were gone. Neil Kinnock, although never a popular figure with the public, was smartly dressed and in command, a far cry from the decent but scruffy Michael Foot. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, then in their late thirties were advancing fast up the Labour ranks. New Labour was on its way.
In my view, the 1980s transformed Britain more than any other peacetime decade in the last 150 years, except perhaps for the 1960s.
Much of this is doubtless due in no small measure to the personality and politics of Margaret Thatcher, who Stewart seems rather a fan of. I am rather less keen. The Lady was undeniably a fine war leader and by the Eighties, union power clearly needed curtailing.
But this was a bad decade for the British economy. Before the ‘Winter of Discontent’ wrecked Labour for more than a decade, the Callaghan Government had been doing a fine job of pulling the UK back from the oil shock, the ‘Barber Boom’ and the errors of Wilson’s final two years. But Callaghan’s gains and those made by the discovery of North Sea oil were squandered by Thatcher’s Monetarist experiment. Soon more than a fifth of the nation’s industrial base had been wiped out forever and high unemployment hung over the rest of the decade like a curse.
This was also the decade where the unrestrained power of the markets took hold and Rupert Murdoch was permitted unprecedented media power by the Thatcher Government. Both of these problems should have been addressed later by Major, Blair or Brown. But the Lady (as the late Alan Clark would lovingly refer to her) is the original source of responsibility here. Crime soared, the health service suffered and homeless levels rose unforgivably under Thatcher. A simple comparison of how the UK fared under her watch and that during Tony Blair’s decade (1997-2007) is damning.
By 1990, she had grown tremendously in confidence to the point of mental instability. Having seen off the ‘Argies’, the miners and Labour (three times: under Callaghan, Foot and Kinnock), she seemed convinced of her own infallibility. She even began speaking about herself using the royal “we” (famously: “we are a grandmother”).
But when she linked her destiny to that of the hated and ultimately unfair Community Charge (or “Poll Tax”) even the Tories recognised she had to go. John Major secured one more win for the Tories in 1992. But twenty-three years on, the Tories have not recovered from her fall. No Tory leader since Major has won a General Election.
This is a slightly badly structured book with hard going chapters about monetarism rubbing shoulders with those about pop music and the singles of Madness. But it’s a story worth retelling especially if you want to terrify your left-leaning children before they go to sleep.
Just remember: don’t have nightmares.