Book review: Orwell: A Man of our Time, by Richard Bradford





Over seventy years after the death of George Orwell, Richard Bradford’s new biography, convincingly argues the case for the continued importance of the author of Animal Farm and 1984 in the 21st century.

In addition to the biographical details of Orwell’s eventful life – his unhappy schooldays, his years in the Burmese police force, his genuine heroism fighting fascism during the Spanish Civil War- the book connects Orwell’s writing to the present by linking it to recent trends such as the endless distortions of the truth by the now disgraced former US President Donald Trump and by the current UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. The book also discusses the bitter antisemitism row which undermined Jeremy Corbyn’s spell as leader of the Labour Party in an intelligent book which demonstrates how Orwell today remains as relevant as ever.

Book review: Orwell: A Man of our Time, by Richard Bradford. Published by: Bloomsbury Caravel, May 13th 2021.

Book review: The Little History of Devon

Beneath its placid, seaside resort, areas of outstanding beauty exterior, the county of Devon has had a livelier history than many.

Don’t believe me? Then pick a century at random. Try, the 16th: The heyday of many Devon-born explorers such as Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake. Piracy and smuggling were rife. The county also played major roles in the Wyatt and Prayer Book Rebellions. The 20th? Remember the wartime devastation of the air raids on Plymouth and Exeter? The booming seaside of Regency Exmouth in the early 19th century. The ten sieges of Exeter. Perkin Warbeck’s march on Devon. The critical role played by the county in the Civil War. The trials of the Bideford ‘witches.’ The history of England is fascinating and Devon has certainly played an essential role in making it so.

This new book by Suze Gardner avoids jumping around all over the place as I just did. It tells the story of Devon in 21 easily absorbable little chapters, starting with details on the county’s geology (fun fact: only a small amount of the so-called ‘Jurassic coast’ is actually from the Jurassic era) and stretching right up to the lowdown on the early 21st century sitcom, Jam and Jerusalem.

With so much potential information to impart, there are potential dangers here, of course. Any history risks being overly dense as it seeks to burden the reader with too many facts. At the other extreme, a writer might go too far to avoid doing this and end up producing something so lightweight it ends up not really telling the reader anything substantial at all.

Happily, as in her previous book, The Little Book of Devon, Suze Gardner avoids both of these traps. Whether discussing the Honiton lace trade, sinister occultist, Aleister Crowley or the Battle of Jutland, she achieves the perfect balance between being highly readable and accessible while also remaining substantial and informative. There is also plenty of good history to be learned here generally too, not just about Devon. The next time anyone says to you they want to come to see Devon’s famous ‘Jurassic Park’ or tries to claim crime writer, Jessica Fletcher lived in Greenway, toss over a copy of this book.

I should declare an interest here. I do not know Suze Gardner myself and have not met her. I have, however written the book, Secret Exeter (2018) with Tim Isaac and also wrote A-Z of Exeter: Places – People – History (2019) myself. I regularly write features on local history for the magazines, Exeter Life and Devon Life and write a weekly history column which runs in the Sidmouth Herald, Midweek Herald and Exmouth Journal. I have definitely used Suze Gardner’s works to inform my own writing. I will doubtless do the same again in the future.

I do have one or two minor niggles with the book, however. For one thing, it occasionally, just sounds a bit wrong. Consider this, on James II: “The new king was a Catholic (the last Catholic in England). Worse still, he was intent on making the country Catholic again too.” I don’t think Suze Gardner means this to sound as if it’s bad to be Catholic. But it does rather come out sounding that way. She also doesn’t mention General Buller’s youthful bravery during the Zulu Wars: the heroic side of his reputation rests entirely on this, not on his later, rather more dubious record as a General during the Boer War.

Some of the sub-headings do sound a bit Horrible History-esqe too: ‘Awful Antarctic,’ ‘Hooray Henry!’ and ‘Awful Arsenic and Monstrous Manganese’. My worst criticism would be the excessive overuse of exclamation marks throughout the entire book. Often, they just seem inappropriate: “Remarkably, many Saxon government methods are still in use today!” “Often services had to be held outside to accommodate all the worshippers!” and ‘The people of Victorian Exeter had very bad luck with their theatres as three of them burnt down!” None of these sentences needs an exclamation mark, particularly as one of the fires referred to in the last one was actually a terrible tragedy. There are many more examples of this throughout the book.

But I didn’t spot any real factual errors. And ultimately as a concise and highly accessible guide to England’s third largest county, this is basically unmissable.

Book review: The Little History of Devon, by Suze Gardner. Published by: The History Press, 2021

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

Okay: admittedly ‘The Sultan of Swing’ may sound like a rather flash title for a biography of the 20th century’s foremost election statistician: ‘Sultans of Swing’ was the name of a Dire Straits album. But David Butler was a seemingly permanent feature of the BBC’s TV election coverage for nearly thirty years. He not only largely created the science of Psephology (the study of balloting and calculating election results) almost from scratch but perhaps did more than anyone else to make the complex world of electoral science accessible and easily understandable to the general public. Although he has always been too modest to admit it, he effectively invented the familiar General Election night device of the Swingometer. He is now ninety-six years old. The long story of his life is worth telling and the veteran writer, journalist and broadcaster, Michael Crick does so very well in this biography, published in 2018.

It is quite eye-opening (at least, it was for me) to learn just how primitive election coverage was when Butler started out in the 1940s. Although BBC TV was established in 1936, the organisation remained extremely wary of providing decent coverage of elections or indeed any aspect of British political life for the first twenty years of its existence. Fearful that the government might accuse them of political bias and use this to restrict their powers (admittedly, a very real risk today), the broadcaster imposed strict rules on itself. The monumental 1945 General Election night was thus covered on BBC radio only: admittedly, perhaps not such a huge issue as very few people owned TVs then anyway. In 1950 again, the BBC did not allow itself to cover any election canvassing during the campaign itself. It did, however, tentatively allow a programme covering the results for the first time in which the handsome young dark-haired and very self-assured Oxford graduate, Butler made a favourable impression. He would become a fixture of the BBC’s election night coverage during the next nine General Elections held up to 1979, often appearing as part of a sort of double-act with friendly rival, the Canadian, Bob McKenzie. Butler would adopt spectacles and see his hair grow grey in the ensuing thirty years but his contribution would prove no less vital.

The book opens with a scene in 1950, in which Winston Churchill, at that point Leader of His Majesty’s Opposition and plotting his own return to Downing Street summoned the young Butler to discuss the possibilities the new science of opinion polling offered for predicting election outcomes in advance. It is a good start: the political titan nearing the end of his long career meeting the young talent at the start of his own. In general, though he seems to have been slightly left of centre politically, Butler strived to remain impartial, something which generated occasional tensions with his lifelong friend, left-wing Labour MP, Tony Benn who he met at university. Butler, in fact, had a very distinguished family background and was the cousin of the leading Tory politician, R.A. ‘Rab’ Butler.

Michael Crick chronicles the details of Butler’s many books, innovations, his travels in America and his success in exporting many of his techniques to Australia and India alongside his personal life. This includes two very sad elements\: the death of his wife, the very successful academic, Lady Marilyn Butler in 2011 after many years of happy marriage in 2011 following a struggle with Alzheimer’s disease and the death of one of their three sons, Gareth following a sudden heart attack in 2008, aged just 42.

But, in general, this is a well-researched and highly readable biography of a life well-lived.

Seven Years To Forget

2020 was rubbish, for obvious reasons. But what other years in recent history have also been generally terrible?

1914

For many people, 1914 became enshrined forever as the year the world took a permanent downward turn with the outbreak of the First World War shattering a golden age which would never return, initiating an era of global instability which would persist through a Great Depression, another world war and a new terrifying forty-year nuclear arms race confrontation after that.

Silver linings?: In truth, the world was very far from perfect in 1914 anyway and the outbreak of war undoubtedly accelerated the progress of necessary and welcome social change which would have probably occurred sooner or later anyway. Would this have been any comfort to the average young British Tommy as he stood anxiously, shivering in his trench in 1914, awaiting his turn to climb over the top into No Man’s Land though? Probably not.

1929

With America booming its merry way through the Jazz Age and even the defeated Germany finally developing into a relatively prosperous and politically moderate democracy off the back of American loans, people at last seemed to have put the horrors of the Great War behind them. Then boom: the collapse of the US stock market in October 1929, threw everything into chaos again. While the US eventually found a saviour in the form of Franklin D. Roosevelt elected in 1932, the resulting Great Depression pushed Britain and France into turmoil while Germany lurched towards Hitler and imperial Japan and Mussolini’s Italy soon became increasingly aggressive on the international stage. With the impotent League of Nations powerless to stop things. within a few years the armies of the world were soon beating the drums of war once again.

Silver linings?: From a left-wing perspective, it might seem encouraging that the Depression did push American voters away from mediocre pro-laissez faire Republican isolationist presidents into the inspiring, highly interventionist New Deal which arguably pushed the US closer to socialism than ever before and led to five consecutive Democratic presidential victories in a row. But it did lead to the rise of Hitler. Even Oswald Mosely and his Blackshirts started marching around the UK. So, generally, it wasn’t worth it.

1940

Eighty years on, talk of the ‘darkest hour,’ Vera Lynn, the Battle of Britain and the plucky, cheerful defiance of the ‘spirit of the Blitz’ have conspired to give 1940 a somewhat romantic air. The reality was surely deeply traumatic with the forces of the Third Reich overrunning western Europe,  the devastating defeat at Dunkirk and the nightly terror experienced by large swathes of the population as they suffered sustained aerial bombardment as well as prolonged separation from loved ones with men fighting overseas and countless children evacuated to the relative safety of the countryside.

Silver linings?: It’s probably true that the sense of national unity and purpose forged in the heat of war had a lasting positive effect on the post-war national political landscape. Despite this, it is only really the fact that against all odds, Hitler didn’t actually invade that redeems 1940 (as well as the arguably more horrific years of 1944 and 1945) at all. Were we looking back to 1940 from the perspective of a world after a Nazi victory, 1940 would undoubtedly now be seen as the most catastrophic year in human history.

1973

The heady highs of the 1960s had well and truly worn off by 1973.  In the US, the agonies of Watergate and the aftermath of Vietnam diminished the American image forever while in Britain, the confrontation between the Heath Government and the unions brought Britain to a shuddering strike-bound halt by the end of the year as the nation adopted the Three Day Week. Worse still, the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in the Middle East not only brought the world closer to the brink of nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, but the dramatic increase in global oil prices which resulted effectively ensured the western world would spend the rest of the 1970s and much of the 1980s in the throes of economic recession.

2001

As the 21st century dawned, the world could celebrate not just a new millennium but a state of relative peace in Northern Ireland following the Good Friday Agreement and a decade of international relations free of the East-West rivalry of the Cold War. Not everything was perfect in the world: it never is all of these summaries have necessarily been very selective. But even this couldn’t last as the terror attacks of Tuesday September 11th 2001 unleashed a new age of insecurity in western affairs which persists to this day.

2016

People die every day and celebrities are, of course, no different. But there was something was new about the numbers and calibre of the famous people dying, often prematurely, in 2016. David Bowie. Victoria Wood. Alan Rickman. Terry Wogan. Caroline Aherne. George Michael. Prince. Carrie Fisher. So many of these names struck a nerve (often occurring before what seemed to be their time) that it was hard for anyone not to be moved.

And then there was the Brexit vote. And Donald Trump’s victory. As a bad news year, 2016 was pretty relentless. Whatever your politics, both these elections seemed to trigger a new age of ugliness and intolerance to debate which has poisoned political discourse ever since. Unbelievable as it would have seemed at the time, the David Cameron years of austerity and coalition now seem like a bygone era of simplicity and innocence in comparison.

Silver linings?: From a conservative viewpoint, I suppose, 2016 could be seen as a year of triumph with the petty complacency of the ‘left-wing elites’ confounded by the triumph of down-to-earth working class hero types like millionaire’s son Donald Trump, ex-public schoolboy and former city stockbroker, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. From the perspective of January 2021, this interpretation is starting to look like something of a stretch.

Also rans:

1919: Another global pandemic and a botched peace settlement at Versailles which made another war inevitable within twenty years.

1945: Victory. But also a terrible escalation in violence as the war neared its end and the launch of the atomic age.

1962: The Cuban Missile Crisis brings humanity closer to destruction than ever before. Had things turned out differently, this would easily be the worst year on this list. Although I wouldn’t have written it in the first place as I would never have been born as the human race would have died out in the same month the first James Bond film was released.

2008: Another global crash.

The heroes who saved Exeter

The news was alarming, to say the least.

At just past 1am on the morning of 4th May 1942, radio operators based in Exeter, reported that forty German bombers – Junkers – had taken off from Nazi-occupied Paris and were now heading for Exeter. Although the news was not totally out of the blue –  Exeter had already been suffering as a result of the Baedeker Raids and had already experienced serious attacks late in April –  this promised to be the worst attack yet.

Thankfully, a small but valiant band of heroes were on hand to defend Exeter that night. Demonstrating incredible bravery and facing terrible odds, the 307 Polish Night Fighter Squadron went into battle despite having only four serviceable Beaufighters available. As we know, Exeter did not escape bombing that night. However, without the actions of the Polish fighters, the consequences would have undoubtedly been worse. By 2.30am, the squadron were accredited with shooting down four Junkers including one which had crashed near Topsham cricket ground.

In short, the role of the Polish Night Fighters in defending wartime Exeter, is too often overlooked.

Always faithful

The story of the Polish Night Squadron essentially begins with the German invasion of Poland in September 1939: the event which triggered British involvement in the Second World War. With Poland defeated, many Polish pilots made the hazardous journey to Britain. Eventually realising their worth, the RAF soon had the Polish pilots flying with them, initially stationed in Blackpool. In Lincolnshire, a  new division was formed under Squadron Commander Stanislaw Pietraszkiewicz. It was named the ‘307 (City of Lwow) Night Fighter Squadron’. It arrived  in Exeter in April 1941. The location was fitting. The city of Lwow, now known as Lviv is now part of the Ukraine. By coincidence, the city has the same motto as Exeter: “Semper Fidelis”: always faithful.

The division had another name too: they were known as the ‘Night Owls’ or the ‘Lwow Eagle Owls’. An owl, a plane and a crescent moon were included in their emblem.

The Night Owls remembered

The Night Owls remained  in Devon until they were moved to Swansea in April 1943. Their role in Exeter had extended way beyond the actions of May 1942. Many of the pilots suffered death, not just in combat, but often as a result of technical faults on their planes. They also came to play a vital role in city life. Some of the pilots married and had children during their time in Exeter.

2019 was the 80th anniversary of 307 Squadron and in November (14-15 November) 307 Squadron held a major exhibition at Exeter Guildhall to mark the anniversary. The Polish flag was raised on 15th November over the Guildhall as has happened every year since 2012.

Extra: What were the Baedeker Raids?

The Baedeker Blitz was a series of air raids launched during April and May  1942, in response to the RAF attack on the undefended city of Lübeck. The German high command reportedly used the 1930s edition of the Victorian Baedeker series of guidebooks to help them identify English towns which were valued primarily for cultural value, rather than for their strategic or military importance. Exeter – in fact, a city of cultural value but also not strategically insignificant either – was targeted first. The overall campaign was abandoned fairly quickly but nevertheless cost some 1,600 lives in total and destroyed many buildings.

Chris Hallam wrote the 2019 book, A-Z Exeter – Places, People, History and co-wrote, Secret Exeter (2018). Both books are available now from Amberley.

TV review: The Crown. Season 3, Episode 2

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Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) articulates an interesting theory in the second episode of the third season of Peter Morgan’s The Crown.

The theory states simply that just as there is a clear pattern of steady, reliable, generally boring Royals, such as Queen Victoria, George V, George VI and the Queen herself, there is equally a parallel lineage of wild, reckless and hedonistic rebels. Consider: Edward VII, George V’s brother Prince Eddy or the notorious Duke of Windsor. Just as the older Queen, played by Helen Mirren in Morgan’s 2006 film, famously held back from shooting a stag, the other bunch would probably have ended up riding it roughshod over the hills and far away.

The Royal couple here are clearly thinking about the Queen’s own naughty little sister, Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter), glamorous and popular, but also increasingly wayward as she tours the mid-1960s USA. Viewers at home will, of course, be wondering how this theory applies to Prince Harry. And Prince Andrew.

At any rate, Margaret, at this point, gets an opportunity to restore Anglo-US relations which have been damaged by the new Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s (admirable) refusal to join America in the disastrous quagmire of Vietnam. The princess is thus dispatched to the White House in use her charms to win over President Lyndon B. Johnson (Clancy Brown) in the hope that L.B.J. will go all the way in resolving a British balance of payments crisis.

TV review: The Crown. Season 3, Episode 1

The Crown is back. We rejoin proceedings at the dawn of a new era.

For after two glorious seasons with the marvelous Claire Foy playing the Princess and young Queen in her twenties and thirties, we now give way to the new age of Olivia Colman. The transition is neatly symbolised by a tactful discussion of a new Royal portrait for a new range of postage stamps. It is 1964 and the monarch is in her late thirties, what might normally be seen as her “middle years.”

“A great many changes. But there we are,” Her Majesty reflects philosophically. “Age is rarely kind to anyone. Nothing one can do about it. One just has to get on with it.”

Other changes are afoot too. Then, as now, a general election is in progress, resulting in the election of the first Labour Prime Minister of the Queen’s reign, Harold Wilson. Jason Watkins captures Wilson’s manner perfectly, although not yet his wit. In time, we now know Wilson would become the favourite of the Queen’s Prime Ministers. At this stage, however, both figures are wary of each other: the working-class Wilson seems socially insecure and chippy while the Queen has heard an unfounded rumour from Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies – a good likeness) that Wilson is a KGB agent.

Elsewhere, another age comes to an end as the elderly Churchill breathes his last. In a rare piece of casting continuity with the first two series, John Lithgow briefly resumes his role.

Suspicion also surrounds Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, Anthony Blunt. Although not exactly a dead ringer for the art historian and Soviet spy, the always excellent Samuel West is well cast as Blunt. West is a fine actor anyway, but his lineage here is impeccable. His mother, Prunella Scales played the Queen in the Alan Bennett drama, A Question of Attribution, which was about Blunt and which parts of this episode strongly resemble. Blunt then was played by James Fox, whose brother Edward, incidentally played Churchill in The Audience, the Peter Morgan play which inspired this series. West also played the Queen’s father George VI in the (not very good) film, Hyde Park on the Hudson. His wife, the future Queen Mother was played by one Olivia Colman. West’s father, Timothy, of course, famously played George VI’s grandfather, Edward VII (and also played Churchill, several times), while Colman won an Oscar for playing the Queen’s ancestor, Queen Anne in The Favourite, earlier this year.

Fellow Oscar winner, Helena Bonham Carter is, of course, now cast as the Queen’s glamorous but troubled sister, Princess Margaret, replacing the excellent Vanessa Kirby. The makers clearly feel obliged to feature Margaret frequently in this episode, presumably because of Bonham Carter’s star status, but aside from much drinking, rudeness, singing and fretting about her wayward photographer husband Armstrong-Jones (Ben Daniels), who is pictured motorbiking about a lot, she does little of interest.

The next episode promises to be much more Margaret-orientated…

The Crown

200 years of Queen Victoria

There is now not a single person on the entire planet who was alive at the same time as Queen Victoria.

She was born two hundred years ago in May 1819. It was a different world then. Napoleon  Bonaparte and Beethoven were both still alive. The Peterloo massacre occurred in Manchester that summer.

Victoria died in January 1901. By that time her funeral procession was able to be filmed and thus seen by more people than any who had witnessed the funerals of all previous English kings and queens combined. There were 1.6 billion people alive on the Earth then. Every one of them has since died, the last of which probably in 2017. 7.7 billion others have now replaced them.

Princess Alexandrina Victoria was born in the last year of the reign of her grandfather, George III, who despite being incapacitated by madness by that point, was the longest reigning king in English history. Victoria would herself exceed his record of sixty years on the throne by the end of the century. Some of her subjects such as the composer Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan), Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stephenson and the playwright Oscar Wilde lived their lives entirely within her reign. In 1819, however, her own succession looked uncertain.

With fourteen grown-up children, George III’s legacy should have been secure. But following the sudden death of his granddaughter, the Prince Regent’s daughter, Princess Charlotte in 1817, it became apparent not one of his children had produced a legitimate heir to succeed them. Victoria, the daughter of Edward, Duke of Kent, was the result of the subsequent “baby race.” She was fifth in line to the throne at the time of her birth, but by 1837, when her uncle William IV died, Victoria became Queen at the age of eighteen.

Perceptions of the Victorian era have changed steadily as society has gradually transformed in the years since 1901. Arguably,  little really changed until 1914, but the trauma of the First World War did much to undermine the Empire and accelerate social change. One day in January 1924, the King, George V wrote in his diary. “Today 23 years ago dear Grandmama died,” he wrote. “I wonder what she would have thought of a Labour Government”. By the 1920s, women could vote, and motor cars were becoming more prevalent. In 1926, the General Strike occurred. Old traditions persisted, however. George V enjoyed a warm public response to his Silver Jubilee in 1935, an event that doubtless evoked nostalgic memories of Victoria’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee celebrations in anyone then older than their forties or fifties and thus able to remember them. Victoria, herself, had in fact, not celebrated her own Silver Jubilee, there being no tradition of celebrating them in 1862. She had at any rate been grief-stricken following the death of her beloved Prince Albert in December 1861.

November 1936 saw the destruction by fire of the Crystal Palace constructed for the Great Exhibition in 1851. The timing seemed apt: the monarchy was now in its most serious crisis of the post-Victorian era. George V had died in January, his son Edward VIII abdicated in December: a major trauma for the Royal Family, the wounds of which would not heal for decades.

1937 was thus a coronation year with the reluctant George VI being crowned, a century after his great-grandmother had started her long reign. The line of succession now strongly suggested, Britain would have a new Queen one day. That was assuming the King’s wife, Queen Elizabeth didn’t now give birth to a son. This was quite possible: she was only 36 at the time of the coronation and until the 21st century, a son always overtook a daughter (in this case, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret) in the line of succession. But this didn’t happen.

Incidentally, the year 1937 also saw the release of Victoria the Great starring Anna Neagle. Although very reverent in its portrayal of the monarch’s early years, the Lord Chamberlain initially banned the play it was based upon as it used a member of the Royal Family for its subject matter.

The years ahead would see more change. Although the war, reinforced notions of patriotism and led to a rise in support for the monarchy, by the half way point of the century with the empire fast unravelling, Britain’s Victorian heritage was increasing looking like a thing of the past, perhaps unsurprisingly fifty years after Queen Victoria’s death.

But then in 1952, her great-great granddaughter succeeded to the throne, accompanied by her husband, himself one of Victoria’s great-great-grandsons. Elizabeth II was only the sixth ruling female monarch in English history. Any Briton in his fifties or over would have seen five new kings or queens come to the throne in the previous fifty years. As we know, this has not happened again in the nearly seventy years since. At the start of the Queen’s reign, both the Prime Minister and Opposition leaders, Churchill and Attlee had been young men at the time of Victoria’s death.

Harold Macmillan who was Prime Minister at the start of the sixties, was the last PM to be born during Victoria’s reign. The Sixties, more than any other decade, for good or ill, would see much of the residual spirit of the Victorian age vanish forever.

Probably, it was inevitable. Even by the early Sixties, only people of retirement age could remember the closing years of Victoria’s reign at all. Even then, these memories were likely to have been eclipsed by memories of bigger events since, such as the two World Wars and Great Depression.  But even allowing for that, with the rise of tower blocks, the Beatles, free love, the contraceptive pill, decolonisation and the liberalisation of laws on divorce, and homosexuality – the pace of change was too great for any Victorian sensibility to survive.

Today, we view the Victorian age with mixed feelings: a golden age of literature and change undoubtedly although our other opinions might well be determined by our political outlook, However, what cannot be denied is that it was a decisive, transformative and crucial period in British history.

We would not be the same people without it.

The Crown

Preview, gratefully reproduced from Bingebox magazine (2016).

The Crown Season 1

It is sometimes described as one great soap opera: the longest running drama in British history. So why not make a big TV drama based around the Royal family? Indeed, why not make one based in the life of Queen Elizabeth II herself, a person whose image adorns either a stamp, coin or banknote on the person of nearly everyone reading this? Well, Left Bank Pictures have produced just such a series, a ten-part epic available on Netflix since November 4th 2016. Indeed, they have big plans. The first series covers the period from the young Princess’s marriage in 1947 to the first few years of her reign following her ascension to the throne in 1952. But five more series are planned. If all goes well, in a few years’ time we should have sixty hours of drama covering the Queen’s sixty or seventy years on the throne.

REIGN OF THRONES

Dramas about the royals are, of course, nothing new – Victoria, Henry V, The Madness of King George are just three examples of historical monarchs who have seen their lives dramatised. But until Stephen Frears’ 2006 film The Queen, scripted by Peter Morgan, which focused on the potential public relations disaster which almost engulfed the monarchy following Princess Diana’s death in 1997, dramas about the current monarch were almost unheard of. The King’s Speech, which features the future Queen as a young girl, was another successful Oscar-winning stab at comparatively recent royal history. But it is Morgan – the author of The Queen as well as the play The Audience which also starred Helen Mirren as the Queen who has brought his formidable writing powers to The Crown. Stephen Daldry, famed for Billy Elliott and The Hours directs.

The Crown’s credentials are impeccable. The casting was always going to be controversial, however. Few are likely to gripe about Claire Foy in the role of HRH but as with Victoria which saw former Doctor Who companion Jenna-Louise Coleman cast in the main role, the producers have turned to the Tardis for the role of Prince Philip. Recent Doctor Who Matt Smith is not an obvious choice for the role, but then who is? James Cromwell and David Threlfall have both played the Duke of Edinburgh before but as a much older man. Smith is a fine actor and delivers a first-class performance. However, time will inevitably become an issue. Both he and Foy are in their thirties and are likely to be replaced at least once if the show is to cover the Queen’s entire reign.

The choice of American ‘Third Rock From The Sun’ actor, John Lithgow to play Churchill, the Queen’s first Prime Minister might also raise a few eyebrows in some quarters. Yet Lithgow is an accomplished actor experienced way beyond the realm of comedy and thanks in part to some due some modifications to alter his appearance (Lithgow is nearly a foot taller and slimmer than Winnie was) he is great in this. And Churchill was half-American anyway. What’s the problem?

MONARCHY IN THE UK

“I have seen three great monarchies brought down through their failure to separate personal indulgences from duty,” says Eileen Atkins’ Queen Mary at one point, warning her granddaughter Elizabeth, “you must not allow yourself to make similar mistakes. The Crown must win.”

Rather like Maggie Smith’s character in Downton Abbey, The Crown’s Queen Mary seems to specialise in saying controversial and sometimes prophetic things in this. Presumably, the three monarchies she means are Victoria (who arguably indulged herself by grieving over Prince Albert’s death excessively), Edward VII (who basically drank, ate and womanised his way to death) and her own son Edward VIII, who abdicated. Although as a heavy drinker and smoker, Elizabeth’s father George VI (also Mary’s son) was hardly free of personal indulgence either.

The excellent Alex Jennings incidentally crops up as the Duke of Windsor, whose abdication in 1936 (as Edward VIII) ensured Elizabeth would be Queen. Jennings also played Prince Charles in the film The Queen.

As with any good drama, there is the potential for controversy. Though the Queen no longer has the power to put people who annoy her in the Tower, there will still be a desire not to cause offence.

WINDSOR CHANGE

If The Crown proves a success, five more series could be in the offing. The opening episode which begins in 1947, clearly lays out the framework for what is to come. The King (Jared Harris, son of the late Richard Harris and perhaps best known for his role as the token Brit in Mad Men) has a bad cough and is clearly not long for this world. His daughter Princess Elizabeth is about to marry Prince Philip and though the couple are happy, there are hints of awkwardness to come. Philip is giving up a lot for “the greatest prize on Earth” including his love of smoking and Greek nationality. “Not a single person supported the match,” warns Queen Mary.

The action then jumps forward four years to 1951 during which time, the King’s health has deteriorated further and Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage has yielded two children, Charles and Anne. There are also allusions to trouble brewing with Elizabeth’s younger sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), notably the strong suggestion of an affair with dashing equerry Group Captain Peter Townsend (Ben Miles), a married man. With a title sequence, reminiscent of Game of Thrones, there are also political manoeuvrings afoot. Returning Prime Minister Winston Churchill soon knows more about the true state of the King’s health than the monarch does himself.  And Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam) is already assessing the great war leader’s vulnerabilities: as Tory heir apparent in effect, he is clearly eyeing up the elderly Churchill’s job.

Ultimately The Crown is essential viewing. It is as much about how Britain has changed in the last seventy years as the monarchy has. There is certainly plenty of material.

The Crown

AND WHAT DO YOU DO…?
Three stars of The Crown…

Claire Foy as Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth II

Foy has played royalty before and was the ill-fated mother of the Queen’s Tudor namesake (Elizabeth I) Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall.  She sprung to fame in the title role in the BBC’s Little Dorrit in 2008.

Matt Smith as Prince Philip

Best known for playing the last Doctor Who but one, the thirty-four -year-old Smith plays the young Duke of Edinburgh, a man struggling in the traditionally feminine role of partner to the monarch.

John Lithgow as Winston Churchill

Although often associated with comedy roles such as Bigfoot and the Hendersons and Dick in the sitcom Third Rock From The Sun, veteran US star Lithgow is an acclaimed and prolific dramatic actor.

Fifty years of Tory leadership contests

Margaret Thatcher and John Major in 1991

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.

1965

Heath 65

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.

1975

Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher

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.

1989

Margaret Thatcher resigns, Guardian front page 23 November 1990

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?

1990

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 9:  British Prime Minister John Major (L)  and  his deputy  Michael Heseltine answer questions at the morning election conference, 09 April in London,  as sleaze promised to dominate the 22 days left to May 1 elections after local party bosses thumbed their noses at the national leadership and retained   MP Neil Hamilton accused of taking bribes. Mr Major said that Mr Hamilton had the full support of the Conservative Party and hoped he would return to the House of Commons to carry out his work,    and he called on the voters of Tatton to stand behind    Hamilton and elect him as their MP at       elections.  (Photo credit should read JOHNNY EGGITT/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

1995

John Major PM talking to journalists in Downing Street before leaving for Waterloo.

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.

1997

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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.

2001

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.

2005

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.

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The race of life

Wolfgang-amadeus-mozart_1Life is a race. How are you doing compared to this bunch?

0
Henry VI becomes King of England and France (ten months old, 1422).
1
60% of the human race have died before  their first birthday.
2
3
Mozart watches his older sister playing a piece of music, gets up and plays the same piece perfectly. C. 1759.
Shirley Temple begins acting (1931).
4
5
Charles I only able to walk and talk from this age onward (c.1605).
6
7
Michael Jackson begins performing with The Jackson Five (1965).
8
Lisa Simpson’s age.
9
Edward VI becomes King (1547).
10
Bart Simpson’s age.
Orson Welles had read the Complete Works of Shakespeare by this age (1925).
Macaulay Culkin is in Home Alone (1990).
Tatum O’Neal wins an acting Oscar for Paper Moon (1974), the youngest ever actor to receive one.
11
Anna Paquin wins a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Piano (1993).
12
13
Jodie Foster appears in Bugsy Malone and Taxi Driver (1976).
Edward V (1483) one of the “Princes in the Tower” dies around this age.
14
Emperor Tutankhamun dies.
15
Anne Frank dies (1945).
Britney Spears releases “Baby One More Time” (1999).
Billie Piper releases Number One hit “Because We Want To” (1998).
16
Edward VI dies (1553).
17
Boris Becker wins Wimbledon (1985).
18
19
Joan of Arc burnt at the stake (1431).
Gavrillo Princip is this age when he assassinates Archduke Franz Ferdinand effectively triggering the outbreak of the First World War (1914).
Peter Cook writes the “One Leg Too Few” sketch (c. 1956).
Nigel Short World Chess Grandmaster (1984).
20
Princess Diana marries (1981).
21
22
Jesse Owens appears at the Berlin Olympics (1936).
23
Buddy Holly dies (1959).
Lee Harvey Oswald is arrested for the killing of JFK before being shot dead himself (1963).
River Phoenix dies (1993).
24
William Pitt the Younger becomes the youngest ever British Prime Minister (1783).
Zadie Smith sees White Teeth published (2000).
James Dean dies in a car crash (1955).
John Singleton nominated Best Director for Boyz N The Hood (1991), the youngest such nominee.
25
Orson Welles directs Citizen Kane (1941).
Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II both become Queen (1558 and 1952).
Ian Hislop becomes editor of Private Eye (1985).
John Keats dies (1821).
26
Charles Dickens writes Oliver Twist (1838).
Stephen King’s Carrie (1974) published.
Matt Smith is the youngest ever Doctor Who (2009).
Andy Murray wins Wimbledon (2013).
27
A notorious age for musicians to die:
Kurt Cobain dies (1994).
Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones dies (1969).
Jimi Hendrix dies (1970).
Janis Joplin dies (1970).
Jim Morrison dies (1970).
28
Steven Spielberg sees Jaws released (1975).
29
John Lennon’s age when The Beatles split up (1970).
John Cleese’s age when Monty Python begins (very nearly 30, 1969).
30
31
Harold Wilson becomes the youngest cabinet minister of the 20th century (1947).
32
Alexander the Great dies (332BC).
Robert De Niro’s age on the release of Taxi Driver (1976).
Fidel Castro wins power in Cuba (1959).
Prince Charles (1981) marries Diana at this age.
33
Tolstoy begins writing War and Peace (1861). It is published eight years later.
Approximate age of Jesus Christ on his death.
John Belushi dies (1982).
George Lucas directs Star Wars (1977).
34
Ayrton Senna dies (1994).
Hitler attempts Munich Beer Hall Putsch (1923).
35
The minimum age requirement to run for US president.
Mozart dies (1791).
Napoleon becomes Emperor of France (1804).
Anne Boleyn beheaded (1536, approx. age).
36
William Hague becomes Tory leader (1997).
Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana both die (1962 and 1997).
37
38
Neil Armstrong walks on the moon (1969).
Martin Sheen suffers a heart attack while filming Apocalypse Now (1978).
39
David Cameron elected Tory leader (2005).
George Osborne becomes Chancellor (2010).
Cleopatra dies after being bitten by an asp (30BC).
40
John Lennon is shot and killed (1980).
Ed Miliband is elected Labour leader (2010).
41
Tony Blair and Neil Kinnock are both elected leader of the Labour Party (1994 and 1983).
42
Theodore Roosevelt becomes the youngest ever US president (1901).
Bobby Kennedy runs for US president and is assassinated (1968).
Christopher Columbus sails the ocean blue (1492). (He was around this age).
Elvis Presley dies (1977).
Adolf Hitler becomes German Chancellor (1933).
43
John F. Kennedy is elected president, the youngest to be elected president although not the youngest ever (1960).
David Cameron becomes PM (2010).
John Candy, actor, dies (1994).
45
Orwell writes 1984 (1948).
Napoleon loses the Battle of Waterloo (1815).
46
President Kennedy is assassinated (1963).
Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are both elected president (1992 and 2008).
Leonardo da Vinci paints The Last Supper (1498).
George Orwell dies.
50
Margaret Thatcher ousts Heath as Tory leader (1975).
Michael Jackson dies (2009).
51
Napoleon dies (1821).
53
Margaret Thatcher elected first UK woman Prime Minister (1979).
54
Oscar Wilde dies in Paris (1900).
55
Julius Caesar is assassinated (44BC)
Thomas Hardy’s last novel Jude The Obscure is published (1895).
56
Richard Nixon becomes US president (1969).
Hitler dies (1945).
58
Charles Dickens dies (1870).
64
Nixon resigns as US president (1974).
66
Winston Churchill assumes office as PM.
69
Ronald Reagan is elected US president (1980).
70
Mary Wesley sees her first novel published.
71
John Major, former Prime Minister’s age in 2014
73
Reagan is re-elected (1984). Bob Dole (1996) and John McCain (2008) run unsuccessfully for US president.
74
Clint Eastwood wins Best Director (the oldest ever recipient) for Million Dollar Baby (2004).
77
Reagan, the oldest US president to date, leaves office (1989).
80
Jessica Tandy becomes the oldest Best Actress winner for Driving Miss Daisy (1989).
81
Queen Victoria dies (1901).
Churchill, the oldest PM of the 20th century, steps down (1955).
84
William Gladstone steps down as the oldest ever Prime Minister (1894). He dies, age 88 (1898)
87
Thomas Hardy dies (1928).
88
Charlie Chaplin dies (1977).
90
Winston Churchill dies (1965).
91
92
93
Richard Gordon, author of the Doctor books age (2014).
Jake Le Motta, boxer, subject of Raging Bull age (2014).
101
The Queen Mother dies (2002)
104
Kennedy clan matriarch Rose Kennedy dies (1995).
111
Harry Patch dies, the last British fighting Tommy of the First World War dies (2009).

Winston_Churchill

Book Review: Tony Benn A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine. The Last Diaries

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“All political careers, unless cut off in mid-stream, end in failure,” wrote Enoch Powell. Margaret Thatcher was famously and dramatically driven from Downing Street by her own party and her own intense unpopularity. Others go more gently into the night and more gradually.

Tony Benn’s influence has been on the wane since his narrow defeat in the 1981 Labour Deputy Leadership contest. The party changed under Kinnock, then Smith, then Blair, then Brown but the former Viscount Stansagate did not change himself. He just grew older. These final diaries find him in his eighties, a widower and out of parliament as the successful Blair era gives way to the more calamitous leadership of Gordon Brown.

Benn seems increasingly a sad figure by this point, increasingly relishing the prospect of death (the sentiment, “I do actually feel as if I am coming to the end of my life” recurs frequently). But the eighth and final volume of his diaries nevertheless remains compelling. He remains friends with the actress Saffron Burrows and the newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky and his political insights remain as sharp as ever whether one agrees with them or not.

Sadly, a bout of ill health in 2009 brought his diaries – which he had written on and off since his wartime childhood and consistently since his return to the Commons in 1963 – to an end. Benn summarises the last five years (which have been dominated by the formation of the Tory-Liberal Democrat Coalition) in the few final pages, a much less satisfying read than the diaries themselves.

But who can complain? Benn’s legacy, in addition to his political achievements (and failings) will undoubtedly be these diaries which have chronicled his own long political career and indeed all political life during the last half century.

The nearly men: Ken Clarke

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Some reacted with alarm to the news that Ken Clarke had been appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1993. Some were simply worried that he wasn’t up to it. He had been a bad gaffe-prone Health Secretary and had been little better in Education. Others were simply worried about Clarke’s seemingly unstoppable rise to power. Had John Major, like Sir Anthony Eden promoting Macmillan in 1955, unwittingly appointed his successor?

In fact, neither group need have worried. Ken Clarke (he had previously been Kenneth but like Anthony Wedgewood Benn and Anthony Blair, this was seen as too posh) was a successful Chancellor as he had been a successful Home Secretary in the year before 1993. It is true, the Tories never regained their reputation for economic competence under him, but this was hardly his fault. The shambles of Black Wednesday in 1992 during which interest rates rose fifteen times in one day put paid to that. Major was very lucky to survive.

Why then didn’t Clarke become Tory leader after the 1997 General Election defeat? His two main rivals had disappeared after all, young Michael Portillo losing his seat in the electoral deluge, old Michael Heseltine declared unfit after an angina attack soon after. Ken Clarke was surely the obvious choice, the most popular, experienced and credible candidate?

The simple answer is that the Tories had been driven to eccentric extremes by their 1997 defeat and were prepared to follow whatever their elderly former leader Lady Thatcher said. And she endorsed the former Welsh Secretary, William Hague.

William Hague might well make a good Prime Minister today. But he was an appalling choice in 1997, only 36, little known to the public, gaffe-prone and looking and sounding weird. He never shook off the fallout from the blunder of wearing his baseball hat at the Notting Hill Carnival (a desperate attempt to look cool) or the memory of his teenage appearance at the Tory Party Conference in the 1970s. His error in letting through Blair’s Lords reform measures and his over-enthusiastic endorsement of Lord Archer as London’s 2000 mayoral candidate, all testified to his poor judgement. He was redeemed slightly by strong performances at Prime Minister’s Questions. But even this merely strengthened the impression that he was a political geek. Little wonder the Tories made only one net gain in 2001, a disastrous follow up to their worst election defeat of the 20th century.

Hague, had however, been anti-European and endorsed by Lady Thatcher. Even more crazily, this was enough to push Tories towards Iain Duncan Smith instead of Clarke in 2001. This proved an even more eccentric choice than Hague had been. IDS totally lacked the charm of his predecessor and was turned out in favour of a temporary caretaker leader, Michael Howard in 2003.

In their desperation for unity, the Tories had appointed Howard without an election, something they would vilify Labour for with Gordon Brown just two years later. Howard had also been a disaster as Home Secretary in government and had come last in the 1997 leadership contest in which Hague had beaten Clarke. He did perform more effectively in 2005, reducing Blair’s majority to a still substantial 66.

Determined not to see his irritable colleague David Davis succeed, Howard postponed his resignation as leader until later in 2005. Clarke on his third run as leader seemed to stand a good chance at first but was ultimately harmed by revelations of his business links with British tobacco. He was at any rate, now too old. Tories probably made the right choice in selecting David Cameron, still not yet forty in 2005 and only an MP for four years.

Today, old Ken Clarke remains in government. In earlier, less youth-fixated times (all three party leaders are now in their forties), he might still stand a chance.

His misfortune was to be in the ascent during a decade when the Tories had rarely been more eccentric.

Other nearly men…

RA  (“RAB”) Butler:  The founder of the famous Butler Education Act. Why not PM?: Betrayed by colleague Harold Macmillan in both 1957 and again in 1963.

Tony Benn: Long standing Labour MP and diarist. Why not PM? Went ultra-left wing after 1973 and was probably too unpalatable even for 1970s/1980s Labour after that. Might have led Labour had he not lost his seat in 1983. Kinnock won instead.

Neil Kinnock: The longest serving Opposition leader since World War II (1983-1992). Why never PM? Came close in 1992, but the public and especially the press never warmed to him. Arguably saved Labour from destruction though.

David Davis: Briefly the front runner in the 2005 Tory leadership contest but notoriously moody. Cameron triumphed when Davis’s electoral address fell flat.

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Book review: Shirley Williams The Biography, by Mark Peel

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

But how different history could have been…

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

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

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

What went wrong?

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

Did Williams’ privileged background count against her?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thatcher didn’t save Britain: and other myths of the era dispelled

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!

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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