Twenty years of Our Friends In The North

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It has now been a full two decades since the start of one of the most acclaimed British dramas of all time, Our Friends In The North. Peter Flannery’s hugely ambitious nine part series depicted British life between the years 1964 and 1995, through the eyes of four Newcastle friends as they progress from youth to middle age.

Opening on the eve of the October 1964 General Election, which saw a rejuvenated Labour Party reclaim power after thirteen years of Tory misrule, the series ends in 1995, with New Labour seemingly poised to do much the same thing. In the meantime, the series touches on a whole range of issues including corruption within the police and government, the decline of the Left, the Miner’s Strike, homelessness, the failure of high rise housing and rising crime. The show includes a huge supporting cast too. Even today, it is hard to watch TV for long without seeing someone from it crop up.

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The four main players have all enjoyed huge success since, one (Christopher Eccleston) subsequently becoming Doctor Who, another (Daniel Craig), then unknown, subsequently becoming James Bond and a huge star. The other main actors Gina McKee and Mark Strong have been prolific stars of TV and film in the years since. Only Eccleston, who had appeared in Danny Boyle’s debut Shallow Grave and the TV series Cracker and Hearts and Minds amongst other things could claim any real fame at the time.

The series required the four actors, in reality then all around the thirty mark, to age from their early twenties to their fifties. It is odd to reflect that, odd as they look in the final 1995-set episode, they are actually supposed to be about the age the actors are now. Ironically, the excesses of 70s fashion mean that even when playing their own age, in the fourth and fifth episodes set in 1970 and 1974, they still look a bit odd.

This is nevertheless a classic series. If you’ve seen it, watch it again. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to seek it out.

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The most conservative candidate in US history

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“Au, H2o! Au, H2O!” may seem like an odd thing to chant (in fact, it definitely is). But in 1964, Senator Barry Francis Goldwater (Au=Gold, H2O=water on the Periodic Table) was the US Republican presidential candidate and, in truth, the science-themed chanting of his supporters was one of the least odd things about either the candidate or the campaign.

Goldwater is probably the most right wing US presidential nominee there has ever been. The Republican Party effectively jettisoned any attempt to appear moderate when it selected Goldwater as the party’s nominee instead of Nelson Rockefeller, scion of one of the richest families in world history and later the Vice President to President Gerald Ford.

Unusually, the new nominee did not even pretend to be moderate, claiming famously:

“Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice…moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

The contrast between the amiable golf playing Republican president “Ike” Eisenhower of just a few years before and the Arizona senator was striking. Goldwater was undeniably eloquent: fifty years on, few phrases from a convention address by any candidate have remained enshrined in popular memory (at least in the US) as well as the first sentence above. Only Kennedy’s “New Frontier” has proven as enduring.

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But Goldwater’s timing was awful. The US craved stability after the Kennedy assassination of the previous year. They feared Goldwater’s aggressive Cold War rhetoric. A memorable TV commercial by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign exploited this fear with a broadcast showing a little girl apparently being obliterated by a nuclear bomb. “The stakes are too high to stay home,” the advert warned. Two years after the near apocalypse of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the message was clear.

The Goldwater campaign used the slogan “Goldwater: In your heart, you know he’s right.”

But people did not, in truth, know any such thing. A common retort to the Republican slogan was: “Goldwater: In your guts, you know he’s nuts.” As with the Tory slogan in the UK 2005 General Election, “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” Goldwater had totally misread the public mood.

Ultimately, Goldwater was routed. He won only six out of fifty states and was beaten by President Kennedy’s successor, Johnson by a record margin of votes in the November 1964 election. He was one of the biggest presidential losers of the 20th century.

Fifty years on, three things stand out. On the one hand, while World War III may have been averted, the US certainly did not enjoy peace and stability under his opponent LBJ. By 1968, the nation was being ravaged by disorder and assassination, largely due to the escalation of the Vietnam War. Goldwater was at least as hawkish as Johnson in backing this war, however, so it is unlikely either candidate could have provided a peaceful future.

A lasting consequence of the campaign was also that the actor Ronald Reagan first made his mark with a speech for Goldwater. Reagan had been a Democrat as late as 1962. By 1966, he was Governor of California and by 1981, president himself. Reagan had a charm which Goldwater lacked but had it not been the ascent of Gorbachev in the USSR his aggressive Cold War stance which echoed Goldwater’s, Reagan’s anti-Soviet position might have ended as disastrously as Goldwater’s threatened to do.

Ironically, in old age, Goldwater who died in 1998, came to retreat from his earlier extremism. He attacked Reagan over the Iran-Contra scandal and in 1996, with parallels being drawn between presidential contender Pat Buchanan and the Goldwater of 1964, Goldwater, by then an old man, made clear he supported Buchanan’s moderate opponent Senator Bob Dole (the eventual nominee although not the ultimate victor).

Fifty years on, many today still sympathise with Goldwater’s creed. But his policies were decisively rejected by the electorate and ultimately by Barry Goldwater himself.

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Five worst US presidential candidates ever

Okay! So it’s becoming horrendously clear Mitt Romney is an unusually poor presidential candidate. But he’s not the first disaster area to be nominated by a major US political party. Here are a few others:

5. Richard M. Nixon (Rep. Lost 1960, won 1968, 1972). It might seem odd to choose a candidate who was victorious twice to go in a list of bad presidential candidates. But Nixon’s success if anything exposes the flaws in the system. In 1968, with Nixon’s poll lead narrowing, the Nixon team used an insider to actively sabotage Vietnam peace talks fearing a sudden breakthrough would give his opponent Hubert Humphrey a last minute boost. Interestingly, the Humphrey campaign learned of Nixon’s chicanery at the time but chose not to expose him as they expected to beat him anyway. They were wrong. Four years later, the Nixon team again used all manner of dirty tricks to crush their most feared Democratic opponent Ed Muskie in the primaries releasing mice into a Muskie press conference and smearing Muskie’s wife as an alcoholic. Break-ins later in the campaign ultimately led to the Watergate scandal. Nixon would win heavily in 1972 but his victory would be short lived. He must rank amongst the most corrupt post-war presidential candidates.

4. Michael Dukakis (Dem. Lost 1988). What went wrong for Duke? In the summer of 1988, having beaten seven rivals to the nomination, his soaring Kennedy-esque rhetoric gave him a 15% lead over his Republican opponent Vice President George HW Bush. But in the last months of the campaign, Dukakis, who like Romney was a Governor of Massachusetts barely put a foot right. He unwisely refused to respond to any attacks the Bush campaign launched upon him and was soon irretrievably tainted as a tax and spend liberal (a bad thing in the US). Even his principled opposition to the death penalty in the TV debates went against him.  Despite being quite a bland candidate himself, Bush ended up romping home to a forty state victory.

3. John McCain (Rep. Lost 2008) An ex-Vietnam POW, McCain may have been a fine candidate in, say, 1992, but by 2008, he was much too old and grumpy for the task. His repeated attempts to distract attention from his opponent’s superior campaign by repeated references to “Joe the plumber” proved a failure. His worst decision, however, was undeniably his poorly researched choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as running mate. Initially boosting the flagging McCain effort, the decision backfired horribly once Palin’s many shortcomings became all too apparent. McCain soon had his chips.

2. Barry Goldwater (Rep. Lost 1964). Although the GOP occasionally flirts with extremism, they rarely embrace it. The moderate Senator Bob Dole saw off Pat Buchanan in 1996 for example while Mitt Romney beat the even more odious and unprincipled Rick Santorum earlier this year. 1964 was different however. In the year after President Kennedy’s assassination, they rejected the moderate future Vice President Nelson Rockefeller in favour of the alarmingly pro-nuclear Senator Goldwater. “Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice,” Goldwater (sometimes nicknamed Au H2O by science geeks) would opine. He also advocated a form of racial apartheid. The result? The Johnson team produced one of the best campaign ads ever (showing a little girl being blown to smithereens by a nuclear attack). Ex-actor Ronald Reagan was moved to defect from the Democrats to the Republicans. Everyone else went the other way. President Johnson beat Goldwater by a record margin.

1. Mitt Romney (Rep. 2012). Okay! So it’s not over yet. Things may improve for the hapless Mr Romney. But as it stands, this looks like the only poll Romney’s going to come top of this autumn…