Book review: Where Power Stops, by David Runciman

Book review: Where Power Stops: The Making and Unmaking of Presidents and Prime Ministers, by David Runciman. Published by: Profile Books.

The premise is simple enough. David Runciman takes a look at some of the most interesting recent British and American leaders and sees what we can learn from their experiences of leadership. His choice of subjects is in itself fascinating.

Lyndon B. Johnson: a huge, cajoling, powerful figure, the choice of LBJ nevertheless seems slightly odd, simply because his tenure (1963-69) was so much earlier than everyone else included here. Runciman also inevitably relies on Robert Caro’s masterful biography of the 36th US president. Still unfinished, Caro’s magnum opus has barely touched on Johnson’s years in the White House yet. Let’s hope he gets to finish it.

Runciman has a talent for shedding new light on potentially over-familiar topics. All manner of leader is included here. Amongst others, the list includes: exceptional men who fell slightly short of the high hopes they raised on the campaign trail (Barack Obama), good leaders who trashed their own reputations on leaving office (Tony Blair), the highly intelligent and flawed (Bill Clinton and Gordon Brown), the decent but narrow (Theresa May) and the ultimate narcissist, the abominable showman (Donald Trump). The last of these should never have got close to power in the first place. Unhappily, he is the only one included here who is still there.

The fascinating story of the implosion of John Edwards’ 2008 presidential campaign will doubtless make a great film one day. As he never made it to the presidency, however, it doesn’t really belong here. But, overall, Runciman does an excellent job. The book is manna for political geeks like myself.

Book review: Five Year Mission: The Labour Party under Ed Miliband by Tim Bale

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Five Year Mission: The Labour Party under Ed Miliband by Tim Bale

The Miliband years are never likely to be viewed with much nostalgia by Labour supporters.
The rot began early with the reaction of David Miliband’s supporters to their candidate’s surprise defeat by his younger brother Ed in September 2010:
“Rather than pulling themselves together or else walking away and sulking in silence, they would begin badmouthing ‘the wrong brother’, telling anyone who would listen, that his victory was illegitimate, that it had been won only by cosying up to the unions and telling the party what it wanted to hear, and that Labour had made a terrible mistake…”
Thus the legend of the “wrong Miliband” was born. David’s reputation became grossly overinflated. most commonly by the Tory newspapers who would undoubtedly have savaged him every day had he become leader.
As Tim Bale notes in this excellent account of Ed Miliband’s leadership “anyone who thinks David Miliband would have proved a model of decisiveness and a master of political timing probably did not work very closely with him in the Brown government.”
Nor did it seem to matter that Ed had been elected wholly legitimately, David suffering from an arrogant tendency not to take his brother seriously. The next five years would be a struggle. Ed Miliband’s spell as Opposition leader was probably the most difficult since Iain Duncan Smith’s disastrous tenure a decade before.
It certainly wasn’t all bad: Ed enjoyed successes during the phone hacking scandal and in the battle of energy prices. He also fought a generally good election campaign (although this book stops before then). Before the exit poll on election night, Cameron and his entourage were gloomy, almost universally anticipating some form of defeat.
But Miliband undoubtedly failed to convince the public he was up to the job of national leadership. This was partly the fault of the hostile media but he must take a fair amount of the blame for this failure himself.
His worst failing was his almost total failure to defend the generally good record of the Blair-Brown years. As Bale notes:
“…it is certainly true that Brown, with the help of his Chancellor, Alistair Darling, actually handled the truly terrifying possibilities thrown up by the global financial meltdown as well as – maybe even better than – any other world leader”.
But Miliband, keen to distance himself from the past allowed the reputation of one of the most successful governments since the war to be wrecked.
The Labour Party will live with the consequences of this for some time to come.

Published by: Oxford University Press

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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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The myth of Obama’s hatred for the British

Have you heard the one about US President Barack Obama being fiercely anti-British?

For that’s what it is: a joke. But for many of Britain’s Right (persecuted and deluded fools that they are), Obama’s anti-UK credentials are a reality, marking a decisive shift in Anglo-US relations. Daily Telegraph scribe, Nile Gardiner recently even recently claimed “Mr. Obama has been by far the most anti-British president in modern American history”.

On what are they basing this argument? Well, let’s consider the evidence (such as it is)…

1. Obama’s grandfather’s third wife says so: Amongst other things, the elderly Mrs Onyango claims Obama’s position has been shaped by stories of how his grandfather suffered under British brutality in Kenya. According to her “he has never believed the British do anything for a common good, rather than their selfish interests…He said the whole act sounded barbaric. He wondered why the British never respected African culture.” The problem is, if this were true, we might expect it to be reflected in his words and actions. Has this been the case? Let’s take a look…


2. Obama doesn’t support Britain over the Falklands: “Two of our friends, the United Kingdom and Argentina, confront each other in a complex disagreement which goes back many generations. Because they’re both our friends, I’ve offered our help in an effort to bring the two countries together”. Pretty neutral stuff eh? Except that’s not Obama but Reagan after the Argentine invasion of 1982. Obama, contrary to conservative myth, has never failed to support the British presence on the islands.


3. Obama had a bust of Winston Churchill removed from the Oval Office: This might sound like the most absurd one of all but in fact it may well be true. What hasn’t been proven is that it had anything to do with any hostility to either Churchill or the British themselves. Indeed, it may have had more to do with the fact that the bust was installed by Obama’s disastrous predecessor, George W. Bush. Obama even quoted Churchill during his 2011 State visit to the UK stating “Above all, among the English-speaking peoples, there must be the union of hearts based upon convictions and common ideals.” Hardly what one would expect of a committed enemy of Churchill or Brit-hater is it?


4. Obama got very anti-British after the BP oil spill: if ever there was a time to lay into BP it was after their role in the 2010 oil spill. Much has been made of the fact Obama repeatedly labelled BP “British Petroleum” (this was, of course, originally its name. BP has never stood for anything else). Yet look at the actual speech he made. Despite the many claims of Brit-bashing in the UK press, there is nothing anti-British in it at all. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-nation-bp-oil-spill.


5. Obama never refers to the “special relationship”, visits or praises Britain. An odd one bearing in mind the then Senator Obama actually (very unusually for an unelected candidate) visited the UK during his 2008 election campaign. He has visited twice since and is one of only two US presidents to be accorded the status of a state visit. And he praised the UK extensively stating: “From that day to this, you have been our closest partner in the struggle to protect our people from terrorist attacks and violent extremism around the world, despite very heavy sacrifices here. And allow me to pay tribute to the contributions of your military forces, which have stood shoulder to shoulder with us for decades.” He has also used the term “special relationship” in speeches and asserted: “We meet to reaffirm one of the greatest alliances the world has ever known,”

Why on Earth does this silliness persist? Purely because the Right love to feel persecuted and because they hate the fact Obama, a liberal, remains such a much-loved figure. But their views should be treated with the contempt they deserve.

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