Book reviews: Viz Annual The Otter’s Pocket 2016 and The Roger Mellie Telly Times

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(Trigger warning: Rude words ahead!)

Is Viz as funny as it used to be? It’s been well over thirty-five years since the teenage Chris Donald first started selling his own self-produced adult comics in Newcastle pubs as a means of escaping unemployment in 1979. By the end of the next decade, it was a massive success story selling more than almost any other periodical except the TV and Radio Times.

I started reading it myself at about that point and to me it will always seem funnier then, partly because of the novelty and danger factor (reading it at school risked confiscation) and partly because I was barely into my teens. Just the name of the story Buster Gonad and His Unfeasibly Large Testicles was enough to send me into paroxysms of chuckling mirth for minutes on end. Other comics of the time were always promising to generate this sort of reaction. Viz was the only one that did. Buster and The Dandy could only offer mild amusement.

Some of my favourite strips are long gone: Finbarr Saunders and his Double Extenders, Roger Irrelevant (“He’s totally hat-stand”) and Victorian Dad and Modern Parents. I never liked the Fat Slags (to date, the only Viz story to hit the big screen, albeit in disastrous form) which is still going.

Roger Mellie The Man on the Telly is still here too both in this annual and in this new anthology of his old strips The Roger Mellie Telly Times, both available now.

One suspects the idea of a foul-mouthed TV presenter like Mellie is less shocking now than it was in the Eighties. But in truth, he has his moments.

And yes, Viz still is funny. Even if you don’t warm to the comic stories (the long running Sid The Sexist, Ivan Jellical, Gilbert Ratchet, Raffles The Gentleman Thug most of which derive a little from the traditions of British children’s comics, try the news stories (“Donald Trump’ s World of Pumps”) or better still Letterbocks, always Viz’s funniest section. “Do you think it’s possible to train a hedgehog to walk up and down a table with cubes of cheese stuck to the end of its spikes?” asks one reader who is planning a party.

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Or maybe it’s not for you. As the editor of Punch once said when asked if his magazine was as funny as it used to be, he simply replied: “it never was”.

Or as Roger Mellie would put it: “Hello, good evening and bollocks.”

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Book reviews: Viz Annual The Otter’s Pocket 2016

The Roger Mellie Telly Times

Both published by Dennis

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Book review: Thatcher’s Secret War: Subversion, Secrecy and Government, 1974-90

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Thatcher’s Secret War: Subversion, Secrecy and Government, 1974-90

By Clive Bloom

Published by: The History Press

The Thatcher era was probably the most radically divisive in recent political history. The period is fascinating and has, of course, been well documented.

But what about the secret state? What was going on behind the scenes?

Thatcher has been out of power for almost a quarter of a century now and dead since 2013, but no one would expect all of the secrets of Britain’s espionage activity during her tenure to be revealed yet (or, indeed, ever) and Clive Bloom doesn’t claim this. This is nevertheless a fascinating and sometimes chilling read.

The book opens in 1974, at a time when Thatcher herself was still in Edward Heath’s shadow cabinet. The nation, however, was already starting to experience the intense political polarisation which would characterise her time in Downing Street. It was a time of intense paranoia with groups of retired officers plotting a coup should the nation take a sudden leftward turn. Airey Neave, Thatcher’s confidante, who would himself be assassinated by the IRA shortly before Thatcher’s victory in the 1979 General Election reportedly threatened Tony Benn with assassination if the latter ever became leader of the Labour Party. Bloom claims the chances of Benn ever becoming leader were “slim”. We now know of course that he never did. But would this have been obvious at the time? It seems doubtful: Benn might well have led his party had he stood in 1980 or had he not lost his seat in 1983. But anyway…

In 1976, Harold Wilson resigned as Prime Minister and soon began talking to journalists like this:

“I see myself as the big fat spider in the corner of the room. Sometimes I speak when I’m asleep. You should both listen. Occasionally when we meet I might tell you to go to the Charing Cross Road and kick a blind man standing on the corner. The blind man may tell you something, lead you somewhere.”

Wilson was clearly long past his best: an alcoholic and probably suffering from the early stages of dementia. But MI5 had been plotting against him when he was in power. It was a fact.

Under Thatcher from 1979, the government’s enemies were clearly defined: the IRA, unions, the Soviet Union, British socialists and the Left, the last few often viewed as effectively in alliance. The enemy within. The government even took the view that the inner city rioting of the early Eighties could be blamed on left wing politicians stirring things up.

Covering everything from the still emerging scandal concerning high level paedophilia, to the battles with the IRA, the miners and the Soviets, to the alarming number of suspicious looking and unexplained deaths, this is the book not of a conspiracy theorist or even a polemicist but a balanced and well written insight into the world of those who lived and worked in the shadows during the most interesting decade (or so) in modern British political history.

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Six of the best fictional UK TV politicians

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Jim Hacker

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

Played by: Paul Eddington

Written by: Antony Jay, Jonathan Lynn

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

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Michael Murray

In: GBH (drama, 1991)

Played by: Robert Lindsay

Written by: Alan Bleasdale

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

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

Sir Francis Urquhart

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

Played by: Ian Richardson

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

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

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Harry Perkins

In: A Very British Coup (drama, 1988)

Played by: Ray McAnally

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

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

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Alan B’Stard

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

Played by: Rik Mayall

Written by: Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran

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

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Nicky Hutchinson

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

Played by: Christopher Eccleston

Written by: Peter Flannery

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

How To Read Opinion Polls

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Do not obsess over every poll

Reading opinion polls is like checking your weight: there really is no point fretting over every minor daily fluctuation. Tomorrow the Tories may be one percent ahead, today one percent behind. The general trend is solid: both the major parties have been basically neck and neck for months.

Just because the Tories are ahead, this does not mean they are winning

This may seem like an odd thing to say, but due to the unfair and outdated boundary system, Labour would still probably get the most seats even if both parties received an equal number of votes. Or even if Labour got a few percentage points more. It is thought that the Tories would need to be at least five percent ahead in the polls fairly consistently to even stand a chance of becoming the largest party. They aren’t doing that currently.

Don’t get paranoid

True, the press are overwhelmingly Tory. Don’t let this fool you into thinking that no poll from either Ashcroft or The Sun or The Telegraph can be trusted though. There is no obvious bias in their polling.

Ignore betting odds

Betting odds seem to b being treated almost as seriously as opinion polls in this election. Treat these with caution. They are, after all, derived from people’s opinions on who will win and these are most likely ultimately shaped by the results of opinion poll anyway. That and the press. The suspicion that Labour is heading for defeat owes more to the anti-Labour feeling in the print media than to which party people say they are intending to vote for. In short, Labour is winning but many believe the newspapers who are telling them the opposite.

Watch out for electoral upsets

Beware! Opinion polls can be wrong too! There have thus far been two great post-war electoral upsets in 1970 and 1992. Both resulted in the Tories winning unexpectedly. Both were twenty two years apart. Twenty three years on from 1992, we are about due for another one!

How NOT to call a General Election

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Thanks to the new fixed term arrangements, the days of a Prime Minister calling an election whenever the political weather seemed favourable are gone. But while Thatcher, Blair, Macmillan and Eden took full advantage of this privilege, other Prime Ministers have made a real mess of it…

Calling the election too early

June 1970 (Harold Wilson)

Few would blame Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson for calling an election almost a full year before he had to for June 1970. After a rocky few years, the economy was recovering and Labour was way ahead in the polls. The pipe-smoking northerner Wilson was always more popular than the somewhat stuffy Tory leader Edward Heath too. Many (including Tory Enoch Powell) eagerly anticipated Heath’s second defeat (he had also led the Tories to defeat in 1966) and inevitable resignation as Tory leader.

But the opinion polls turned out to be wrong. Very wrong. On election night, the Tories won a majority of thirty. The result was totally unexpected. A low turnout and unexpectedly poor trade figures did for Labour. Labour had branded the Tories “Yesterday’s Men”. Now it was their turn to be consigned to history.

February 1974 (Edward Heath)

Under different circumstances, Prime Minister Heath fell into the same trap as Wilson during the Three Day Week crisis a few years later. With a six percent lead in the polls, Heath called a surprise early election on the issue “Who Governs Britain?” The government or the unions? An election didn’t have to be called until June 1975, but Heath wanted the issue resolved immediately and was confident of victory.

Instead, the result was very inconclusive and a disaster for Heath personally. The Tories got more votes but slightly fewer seats. The Tories had lost their majority needlessly. Edward Heath, who didn’t even have a house to move into after Downing Street (a friend put him and his piano up) moved out after Hung Parliament negotiations with Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe failed. Harold Wilson was back and he was returned to power again with a small majority in a second election in October. Heath’s leadership of the Tories ended with his shock removal by Margaret Thatcher in February 1975.

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Clinging to power

October 1964 (Alec-Douglas Home)

Just as calling an election too early can be calamitous, a leader clinging to power until the very last minute hardly inspires great confidence either. Alec-Douglas Home did indeed lose narrowly for the Tories after holding out for a full five years until October 1964. With Home focusing heavily on Labour’s apparent inexperience in foreign policy during the election campaign, however, Home may have, in retrospect, wished the election had been held a day later. With news of China exploding its first H-bomb and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev suddenly being toppled breaking on the day after polling, the new international uncertainty might well have persuaded voters to stay in the Tory camp had news of these two troubling international events come to light slightly earlier. As it was, Labour won with a majority of just four.

Leader of Britain's ruling Labour Party,

Pretending to be about to call an election and then not doing so (James Callaghan, 1978. Gordon Brown 2007)

“Can’t get away to marry you today, my wife won’t let me!” Labour PM James Callaghan surprised everyone at the TUC Conference in September 1978, by not calling an election and singing this ancient music hall ditty instead (he had been born in 1912). Although leading the less popular Mrs. Thatcher’s Tories in the polls, the cautious Callaghan feared a 1978 election might end in a dead heat and preferred to wait until 1979. The decision was a disaster.

Over the winter, relations between government and unions broke down completely. Memories of the so-called “Winter of Discontent” with rubbish left uncollected and some isolated cases of the dead being left unburied, would poison Labour’s prospects not just in 1979 but for years to come.

Gordon Brown’s attempts to capitalise on the short-lived “Brown bounce” just after he became Prime Minister in 2007 backfired horribly too. Brown’s dithering ensured that the party never recovered from “the election that never was” and led to its actual defeat in 2010.

Book review: Seasons In The Sun – The Battle for Britain 1974-1979

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Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979.

Dominic Sandbrook.

Penguin, 2011.

£10.99.

There is probably a great play to be written about the filming of the first Star Wars film.

Admittedly, there would probably be legal issues, perhaps insurmountable ones. But imagine! The tensions between the rising young American stars: ex-carpenter Harrison Ford and the highly intelligent but vulnerable Carrie Fisher. And the older, distinguished English co-star Sir Alec Guinness, a man with an Oscar and years of experience but little understanding of the script.

This might sound like an odd place to begin a review of a book about Britain in the late Seventies. But this is exactly where the book itself begins. The film was after all, mostly filmed in Britain with much of the cast drawn from the likes of those previously best known for appearances on Poldark or later to appear in Brookside. A key point is that Guinness had managed to secure a generous two percent of the entire profits for a film that was to become one of the most commercially successful of all time. Another is that under the tax regime of the time, Inland Revenue trucks were soon pulling up to claim 83 pence out of every pound Guinness had made.

This was, of course, not a happy spell in British modern history. Sandbrook suggests the 1974-76 Wilson Government was the worst in British history. “Wilson was one of the cleverest and kindest men ever to occupy Number 10 but also one of the weakest,” he writes. In fairness, he inherited a mess (the Three-Day-Week and an economic crisis from Heath) and left the situation little better. This is odd because the government which included Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins and Anthony Crosland amongst its members was far from extreme (for the most part) and certainly not lacking in talent. Probably the main problem was Wilson himself, who had not expected to return to power in 1974 and thanks to alcoholism and probable early Alzheimer’s, was a shadow of his sharp-witted, wily mid-1960s self. Jim Callaghan, at any rate, though close to being a watered down Thatcherite himself, did better. At least until the Winter of Discontent.

It was a strange time in many ways. There was intense paranoia on all sides as if the neuroses of Wilson and US President Richard Nixon had infected the general population. The right-wing host of TV’s Opportunity Knocks, Hughie Green appealed live on air: “For God’s sake Britain, wake up!” in 1975. Many worried about a coup from the Left  perhaps led by Tony Benn while others began preparing for a coup from the Right, perhaps led by Lord Mountbatten. Right-wing journalist Peregrine Worsthorne hoped the United States would come to the aid of a socialist Britain just as they had “helped” Allende’s Chile by replacing him with the murderous General Pinochet in 1973. This scenario later inspired Chris Mullin’s 1982 thriller A Very British Coup in which a democratically elected Labour Prime Minister is overthrown by a combination of the CIA, British security services and the Establishment.

This is the fourth of Dominic Sandbrook’s superb series of four books which thus far have chronicled Britain’s progress (or decline) from the era of Suez to the coming of Thatcher (the others are Never Had It So Good, White Heat and State of Emergency). As before, Sandbrook does a superb job of describing not just the political and economic scene but the minutiae of seemingly almost every aspect of British life, for example, the details of the Sex Pistols’ notorious TV appearance with Bill Grundy. “Who knows what Grundy thought he was s doing?” Sandbrook rightly asks after Grundy goaded his guests into swearing on live TV and thus ensuring his own downfall.

Mike Yarwood. Malcolm Bradbury. Butterflies. The Good Life. Quadrophenia. John Stonehouse. Lord Lucan. The Bee Gees. All are here. It is a fascinating read. Along with Alwyn W. Turner and David Kynaston, Dominic Sandbrook remains at the forefront among chroniclers of our nation’s recent history.

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Book review: Crisis ? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s

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Crisis What Crisis?: Britain in the 1970s.

Alwyn W. Turner.

Published: Aurum.

RRP: £9.99

“Crisis, what crisis?” The words were famously spoken by Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan in 1979 as he returned tanned and complacent from a tropical summit to learn that Britain had shuddered to a wintry strike bound halt in his absence.

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Except of course, Callaghan never actually said these words. Like Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” and  George W. Bush’s “Yo Blair!” the phrase actually came from somewhere else, in this case The Sun’s headline from the following day. In fact, as Alwyn W. Turner points out in this updated version of his well-researched 2008 book, the phrase predates The Sun’s usage and indeed even Callaghan’s premiership and was first used during the similarly troubled tenure of Tory Edward Heath a few years before. Turner even reveals its usage in the 1973 film version of the thriller, The Day of the Jackal.

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How different things could have been! For The Sun, in fairness, captured the essence of Callaghan’s reaction. “I don’t believe that people around the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos.” It was not his finest hour. For this was what would become known as the “Winter Of Discontent”, the series of strikes which would haunt Labour for decades. In the short run, the piles of uncollected rubbish and occasional disgraceful scenes of bodies being lefty unburied by striking gravediggers wrecked Labour’s chances in the 1979 election and propelled Mrs Thatcher to power.

As Turner reminds us, victory might easily have been Callaghan’s. Labour had actually been ahead in the opinion polls in late 1978 but Callaghan hesitated at the last minute, reasoning (not unreasonably): “Why run the risk of a very doubtful victory in October 1978, if we could convert it into a more convincing majority in 1979?”

But like Gordon Brown in 2007, Callaghan made a colossal error in postponing the election. He was always a more popular leader than Thatcher, who would doubtless have been ditched by the Tories had she lost in 1979, perhaps being replaced by Peter Walker or William Whitelaw. It is worth remembering that there were very few ardent Thatcher enthusiasts before 1979. Even Enoch Powell proclaimed voters “wouldn’t put up with those hats and that accent.”  The hats went and the accent changed. But Callaghan blew his chance to lead Britain into the Eighties. Had he had the chance, he might perhaps, have led the nation through a much less brutal version of Thatcherism in her place.

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Perhaps he was right to be wary of the opinion polls. The Seventies were an unpredictable and unstable decade. The keys to Downing Street changed hands four times between 1970 and 1979. They have only changed hands four times again in the thirty-five years since. The 1970 election saw Labour brutally and unexpectedly ejected in an electoral upset. Labour’s Harold Wilson buoyed by good opinion polls, had called the election a year earlier than he had to. But the polls were wrong. Edward Heath won a majority of thirty for the Tories instead. But Heath too fell foul of the polls three and a half years later when his crisis “Who Governs Britain?” election unexpectedly ended with a Labour led Hung Parliament in March 1974. Labour went onto under-perform electorally again, winning only a small majority of three in October of that year. By the time James Callaghan took over in the spring of 1976, Labour’s majority had almost vanished and a pact with the Liberals (ultimately a disaster for the smaller party, as it so often is) was just around the corner.

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Turner reminds us though that the decade was defined less by the politics of Wilson, Heath and Callaghan than by those of mavericks Enoch Powell and Anthony Wedgewood Benn. He is brilliant on the intense paranoia on both sides of the political spectrum about both men (Powell, particularly, was  portrayed in fictional form in books and on TV several times).

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But this is not purely a political account, far from it. As in his later books Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s and A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s, Turner is brilliantly thorough on all aspects of high and low culture as he is on affairs of state. Sometimes these are linked (as he does cleverly with the TV series I, Claudius and the machinations of the 1976 Labour leadership contest), sometimes they are not (football, music and sitcom are all covered thorough. The chapter on “Violence,” for example, covers The Troubles as well as A Clockwork Orange).

But this is another excellent history from Turner. As strong on Tom and Barbara as it is on Maggie and Jim. As thorough on Doctor Who as it is on Dr David Owen. Or as insightful on Mr. Benn as it is on the career of Mr. Tony Benn. It is well worth a read.

Prime Minister James Callaghan with Harold Wilson

Michael Heseltine: the best Tory Prime Minister we never had?

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Before: it began with an envelope. As a schoolboy, the young Michael Heseltine mapped out his future. In his 20s, he would become a millionaire. In his 30s, he would become an MP. In his 40s, he would be on the Tory frontbench. By his 50s – between 1983 and 1993 – he would enter Downing Street.

Today, eighty-year old Lord Heseltine claims not to remember this incident which comes from his friend, the late Julian Critchley, who also later served as a Tory MP. But his ambition was unquestionable. By the 1970s, Heseltine had achieved almost all of these ambitions. He was a multimillionaire and already a popular favourite at Tory Party Conferences.

“The government should go and if it had a shred of pride it would go today,” he raged in one 1976 speech about the Callaghan Government. “The reality…a one-legged army limping away from the storm they have created. Left, left – left, left, left!”

The audience roared as Heseltine limped across the stage.

It was all going so well. And then the career of Margaret Thatcher got in the way.

Heseltine Speaks At Conference

“Tarzan” as he became known, maintained a high profile in the Eighties, first as Environment Secretary then as Secretary of State for Defence. He espoused an early form of “compassionate conservatism” (a term that did not exist at the time) on touring Liverpool and on another occasion combated CND protesters in a bomber jacket. Both were good for publicity. However, both these and a 1970s incident in which he picked up the mace in the House of Commons, contributed to the Spitting Image stereotype of him as a swivel-eyed loon.

The 1986 Westland affair precipitated a fatal personality clash with Thatcher. He stormed out so suddenly, that many present did not even know he had resigned. Some thought he had gone to the loo. But he had quit. The next four years would be spent in the wilderness, waiting for Maggie to grow vulnerable enough for him to strike against her.

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Thatcher recovered from Westland, saved in part by a misjudged, long-winded attack in the Commons by Labour’s Neil Kinnock. She won a third victory in 1987 but by 1990, Thatcher was acutely unpopular over the Poll Tax and mounting European divisions. Nigel Lawson, her Chancellor had resigned in 1989. When Geoffrey Howe followed in 1990 and unleashed an incredibly damaging resignation speech, Heseltine knew it was his time.

Opportunity 1: “He, who wields the dagger, rarely wears the crown”.

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Heseltine challenged Thatcher. His own campaign was undermined by a somewhat arrogant attitude towards his fellow backbenchers. But the Thatcher camp made errors too. Thatcher won the first ballot but was two votes short of the number needed to win outright.

A second ballot was inevitable. Foolishly, Thatcher pledged to fight on. Soon she was forced to resign.

Surely now was Hezza’s time? He had overthrown Thatcher just as she had overthrown Ted Heath in 1975. But Tories were shocked and angry at what had happened. The wounds have not entirely healed even today. An unofficial “Stop Heseltine” movement was formed. Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and Chancellor John Major were drafted to fight Heseltine. The little known John Major emerged triumphant. He was 47: ten years younger than Heseltine.

Opportunity 2: Major catastrophe?

British Prime Minister John Major (L) and his de

Heseltine returned to the Cabinet under Major as Environment Secretary. It was the same position he had held when Thatcher came to power in 1979. Eleven years on, he had toppled Thatcher but was back where he started. It must have been a bitter time.

However, the Major leadership soon proved vulnerable. Although Heseltine remained loyal throughout this period, opportunity never seemed far away. First, there was the 1992 General Election. Heseltine fought hard for the Tories and to his credit, he showed no signs whatsoever of wanting Labour to win.

Yet if they had, Heseltine would undeniably have been the frontrunner to succeed. And the Tories were widely expected to lose.

But the opinion polls were wrong. The Tories had won a fourth successive victory. Heseltine was awarded with the position of President of the Board of Trade, the job he had coveted almost as much as Prime Minister.

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But Major was not out of the woods yet. His premiership would soon prove an almost  total disaster as the Tories lost their record for economic competence after Black Wednesday and fell into open civil war over the Maastricht Treaty. Sleaze would soon rear its ugly head too. Worst of all for the Tories, Labour started to get its act together first under John Smith and then after 1994, under Tony Blair.

Although a likeable character, Major proved a weak and decisive Prime Minister. His leadership remained under almost perpetual threat from the autumn of 1992 until the May 1997 General Election.

But who would succeed? Heseltine still looked strong but several points counted against him.

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Firstly, Heseltine had courted unpopularity by overseeing the pit closures at the end of 1992. Also, many Tories still blamed him for Thatcher’s removal (she was now, at least in the House of Lords). But if it was Major’s pro-Europeanism that was giving him problems, Heseltine offered no solution. He was, if anything, more pro-European than his leader.

Even worse, Heseltine’s health soon became an issue. Heseltine suffered a heart attack in the summer of 1993. His father had died the same way and though Heseltine soon made a full recovery, his age (he was now entering his sixties) was now a concern. The sudden death of John Smith, the Labour leader following a heart attack in May 1994 did not help.

Heseltine also now faced rivalry from Chancellor Ken Clarke and rising star of the Right, Michael Portillo. But all had “issues” in the same way Heseltine did. Portillo (then in his early forties) was seen as too young. Clarke was too pro-European too. And Heseltine was too old. Perhaps this is why Major survived as long as he did even after openly inviting a leadership contest in 1995.

Major had expected his disgruntled ex-Chancellor Norman Lamont to stand against him. Instead, the Eurosceptic John Redwood did, having first resigned as Welsh Secretary. Major won easily, removing the possibility that any of the big three leadership contenders would run. Heseltine was rewarded for his loyalty with the position of Deputy Prime Minister.

Perhaps Tory defeat was inevitable whoever the leader was by 1995. At any rate, John Major led the Tories to their biggest defeat of the century in May 1997. He resigned soon after.

Opportunity 3: Last chance?

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The Tory defeat in May 1997 was devastating. Labour won a majority of 179, a bigger victory than any achieved by Thatcher, Attlee or any other post war leader.

Unexpectedly, Michael Portillo also lost his seat. The way seemed clear now for Heseltine. A number of candidates stood: William Hague, Ken Clarke, Stephen Dorrell, Peter Lilley and Michael Howard. But Clarke was the only serious contender.

And yet, it was this point fate played a cruel trick. It was now that Heseltine suffered an attack of angina and announced he would not stand.

It was the end. He would never serve on the front bench again. Boris Johnson would succeed him as the MP for Henley on Thames in 2001.

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Conclusions

Could Michael Heseltine have ever been Prime Minister?

Clearly, yes although several points went against him.

He would probably have won the Tory leadership had he been able to stand in May 1997. But would he have wanted it? The Tories had just been routed. Most estimates suggested it would take at least two elections to overturn the Labour majority (in fact it took three). Heseltine would have been close to seventy even before the next national contest in 2001 or 2002.

Perhaps 1995 would have been a better chance? But no. Heseltine would not have relished bringing down another Prime Minister. And a General Election defeat in 1997 seemed inevitable even then. Even had he won in 1995 (by no means a sure thing), he would only have been Prime Minister for two years. Although even this was longer than he ultimately got.

Perhaps Heseltine’s best chance would have been not to have overthrown Thatcher at all. Thatcher would then have lost to Labour in 1992 leaving the leadership free for him.

But with Michael Heseltine close to sixty by then, it would have been a risky strategy. Perhaps like Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins and Tony Benn, he was just unfortunate that his political heyday coincided with that of Margaret Hilda Thatcher.

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The best (Labour) Prime Ministers we never had

Who should have been Prime Minster but never got the chance?

(A Tory list is to follow shortly!)

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Hugh Gaitskell

(Life: 1906-1963. Chancellor of the Exchequer: 1950-51. Labour leader: 1955-1963)

The case for: With the exception of Neil Kinnock, no post-war politician has done the hardest job in British politics (Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition) for as long as Hugh Gaitskell did: over seven years. A youthful Chancellor during Attlee’s last days, Gaitskell had already made an enemy of the unofficial leader of the party’s Left, Nye Bevan. Always a right-winger in the party, Gaitskell struggled to prevent full blown civil war both before and after their heavy 1959 General Election defeat despite a tearful conference address in which he pledged to “fight and fight again” to save the party he loved. Tragically, just as Labour seemed to be finally pulling together, Gaitskell suddenly fell ill and died in early 1963. His successor Harold Wilson, boosted by Tory chaos after the Profumo Affair, led Labour back into power in October 1964. Many, particularly acolytes like George Brown and Roy Jenkins felt it should have been Hugh. Or failing that, them.

The case against: To be fair, the public never loved Gaitskell. He led Labour to defeat in 1959 and might have done again in 1964. As an adulterer himself (he was having an affair with James Bond creator Ian Fleming’s wife – some even suspected Gaitskell was poisoned by the KGB) he might have lacked moral authority during the Tories’ Profumo sex scandal. Wilson himself, indeed, only won power himself very narrowly after his election as leader prompted a surge in Labour popularity. Would Gaitskell have done the same?

The verdict: We will never know.

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Roy Jenkins

(Life: 1920-2002. Home Secretary 1965-1967. 1974-1976. Chancellor of the Exchequer: 1967-1970. EEC President: 1977-1981. SDP leader: 1982-1983)

The case for: Jenkins’ spell as Home Secretary must rank as one of the most successful ministries ever. In just a few short years, he oversaw the abolition of capital punishment, ended the death penalty, legalised homosexuality and liberalised the abortion and divorce laws. Few politicians changed British life as much as he did.

The case against: With his posh manner, liking for the fine things in life and speech impediment, “Woy” Jenkins was often described as “nature’s old Etonian” even though unlike his colleagues Michael Foot, Denis Healey and Tony Benn, he was actually from genuine working class stock, in fact a Welsh mining community. But his position as a right-wing pro-European was unfashionable at the time. He scored poorly in the 1976 leadership contest following Wilson’s resignation and after a spell as President of the EEC returned as a founder member of the breakaway Social Democratic Party in 1981. The SDP really did seem set to win power for a period in 1981, but a combination of internal feuding, Thatcher’s Falklands victory and an unfair electoral system saw them perform badly in 1983, scoring almost as many votes as Labour but scarcely any seats. In old age, Jenkins advised Tony Blair on electoral reform  as a Lib Dem peer (Blair ignored him) and wrote numerous biographies of historical figures such as Gladstone and Asquith.

The verdict:  He never led Britain but undoubtedly changed the nation more than many who have.

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Denis Healey.

(Born: 1917. Defence Secretary: 1964-1970. Chancellor of the Exchequer: 1974-1979. Deputy Labour leader: 1981-1983).

The case for: Healey was a familiar figure on TV in the Seventies and Eighties, famed not only for his distinctive eyebrows and sense of humour but also for his formidable intellect, debating power and competence. An ex-communist and (like Jenkins) a Second World War veteran, Healey oversaw the British military disengagement “East of Suez”  in the Sixties and endured a rocky ride as Chancellor during the 1976 IMF Crisis, famously turning his car away from the airport where he was planning a conference trip abroad when the crisis grew too severe. In fact, the loan was later recognised as unnecessary and due to a treasury error. After Labour’s 1979 defeat, many were astonished when the elderly, scruffy and un-telegenic left winger Michael Foot beat the only slightly younger but far more popular Healey for the Labour leadership in 1980. Did the members planning to defect to the SDP vote for Foot in the hope of strengthening their cause? A few votes would have made all the difference. At any rate, Foot, though a decent and highly intellectual man proved a disastrous leader. The party split, the new SDP rejecting Labour’s new anti-nuclear and anti-EEC positions. Healey himself fought off a serious left-wing challenge for the Deputy leadership from Tony Benn in 1981. Both Labour and the SDP performed disastrously in the 1983 election. But Healey, to his credit, never deserted Labour.

The case against: Healey would have almost certainly fared better as Labour leader than Foot did after 1980 and may well have prevented the damaging SDP split. But whether even he could have prevented Margaret Thatcher being returned in the post-Falklands 1983 election (winning a majority of 144) is open to question. Particularly as Healey could sometimes be quite gaffe-prone himself during election campaigns, accusing Thatcher of “glorifying in slaughter” in 1983 and suggesting the Russians wanted a Labour victory before the 1987 contest.

The verdict: The best Prime Minister we never had? Perhaps. Lord Healey has now outlived virtually all of his ex-colleagues and rivals. He is ninety-six.

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John Smith

(Life: 1938-1994. Labour leader: 1992-1994).

The case for: Labour was at a very low ebb indeed when John Smith was elected leader in July 1992. Labour had just suffered her fourth defeat, this time during a recession. Many doubted Labour would ever win again. As leader, Smith projected an air of competency which Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock had always lacked. Though his election as leader generated less excitement than Blair’s did in 1994, his strong often witty Commons performances, his success in abolishing the union block vote and the total Tory collapse after Black Wednesday, the pit closures, Back to Basics, the Maastricht Tory civil war and Tory sleaze made a Labour victory in 1996 or 1997 inevitable. His sudden death following a heart attack in May 1994 triggered a period of genuine mourning.

The case against: As the architect of Labour’s unpopular tax plans, Shadow Chancellor Smith is sometimes blamed for Kinnock’s 1992 election defeat. He was also accused of being too laidback as leader and effectively hoping victory would fall into his lap. However, despite no New Labour-esque attempts to woo business or the press, in 1994 Smith’s strategy seemed to be working.

The verdict: The Tory disintegration was so total under John Major that had Smith lived it is almost inconceivable that he would not have become Prime Minister. Had he lived, he would now be seventy-five.

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David Miliband

(Born: 1965. Foreign Secretary: 2007-2010).

The case for: Despite being the more experienced, better known and older of the two Miliband brothers, David narrowly lost the 2010 leadership contest to his brother Ed despite winning more votes from MPs and party members.

The case against: Although probably better on TV than his brother, David has endured image issues too (notably the “Banana Incident”) and lacked the killer instinct to take a stance for or against Gordon Brown at critical times in government. But ultimately his Blairism and (like Hilary Clinton in 2008) his support for the Iraq War and somewhat arrogant manner probably cost him victory.

The verdict: Unproven. Ed Milband seems neither as bad as his detractors say, nor his brother as good. And with David Miliband still under fifty, he could yet make a comeback. True, he’s not an MP. But then neither is Boris Johnson (who is the same age). The tragedy is that as brothers neither can easily serve under the other.

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.