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 died before their first birthday.
Prince George’s age (2014).
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).
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Charles I only able to walk and talk from this age onward (c.1605).
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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).
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13
Jodie Foster appears in Bugsy Malone and Taxi Driver (1976).
Edward V (1483) one of the “Princes in the Tower” probably 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).
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19
Joan of Arc burnt at the stake (1431).
Gavrillo Princip 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
Justin Bieber’s age (2014).
Princess Diana marries (1981).
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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 nThe 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).
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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 William’s age (2014).
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).
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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).
Penelope Cruz current age (2014).
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).
44
Ed Miliband’s current age (2014).
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 (1950).
Nick Clegg’s age (2014).
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David Cameron’s current age (2014).
49
50
Margaret Thatcher ousts Heath as Tory leader (1975).
Boris Johnson’s current age (2014).
Brad Pitt’s current age (2014).
Michael Jackson dies (2009).
51
Johnny Depp current age (2014).
Napoleon dies (1821).
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53
Margaret Thatcher elected first UK woman Prime Minister (1979).
54
Oscar Wilde dies in Paris (1900).
55
Julius Caesar is assassinated (44BC)
Morrissey age (2014).
Thomas Hardy’s last novel Jude The Obscure is published (1895).
56
Richard Nixon becomes US president (1969).
Hitler dies (1945).
57
58
Charles Dickens dies (1870).
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60
61
Tony Blair and Michael Portillo’s age (2014).
62
63
64
Nixon resigns as US president (1974).
Gordon Brown’s age (2014).
65
66
Winston Churchill assumes office as PM (1940).
Prince Charles’ age (2014).
67
Hillary Clinton’s age (2014).
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s current age (2014).
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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.
72
Age of US Vice President Joe Biden (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)
Cliff Richard age (2014).
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76
77
Reagan, the oldest US president to date, leaves office (1989).
Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman’s current age (2014).
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79
80
Jessica Tandy becomes the oldest Best Actress winner for Driving Miss Daisy (1989).
Brigitte Bardot’s age (2014).
81
Queen Victoria dies (1901)
Churchill, the oldest PM of the 20th century, steps down (1955).
82
83
84
William Gladstone steps down as the oldest ever Prime Minister (1894). He dies, age 88 (1898)
85
86
87
Thomas Hardy dies (1928).
88
The present age of Queen Elizabeth II (2014). She is the oldest British monarch ever.
Charlie Chaplin dies (1977).
Fidel Castro’s current age (2014).
89
90
Winston Churchill dies (1965).
Age of former US presidents Jimmy Carter and George HW Bush in 2014.
Doris Day’s current age (2014).
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92
93
Richard Gordon, author of the Doctor books age (2014).
Jake Le Motta, boxer, subject of Raging Bull age (2014).
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96
97
Zsa Zsa Gabor current age (2014, in a coma).
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Current age of veteran Labour politician Lord Denis Healey (2014)
Current age of Gone With The Wind actress Olivia de Haviland (2014)
99
100
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).

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DVD review: Tony Benn: Will and Testament

Benn DVD cover

Director: Skip Kite
Cert: 12
Running time: 95 minutes
Praslin Pictures

Labour politician Tony Benn was many things to many people. To many on the Right (many of whom are clearly far more class obsessed than Benn or anyone on the Left has ever been) he was the ultimate hypocrite: a peer of the realm who dared to turn on his own class and embrace socialism. In fact, Benn famously renounced his hereditary peerage as soon as he could after a monumental battle with the Establishment in the early sixties. A father of three and barred from the Commons, Benn was frequently left dejected and depressed by a battle which despite public support, often didn’t seem to be going his way.
To others within his own party, he was sometimes a hindrance. Harold Wilson, Labour leader during most of the relatively short period Benn held office (about eleven years) famously remarked that Benn “immatures with age”.
But to everyone Benn was something of a phenomenom, the longest serving Labour MP ever and a man who dutifully recorded the events of the second half of his life.
Skip Kite begins this film, made with Benn’s cooperation during the final two years of his life with the old man reciting Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be” speech from Hamlet. And though, it jumps around a little (being thematic rather than strictly chronological in order) and features an odd recurring Narnia-like lamp post visual motif, it does accurately portray the Seven Ages of Benn (my own idea, not the director’s):
The schoolboy who once met the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Ramsay MacDonald (and who, in later life, would never stop reminding people of this).
The wartime pilot.
The young ambitious Labour MP of the fifties diverted by the battle with the Lords.
The modern technocrat of the sixties. Widely seen as the future of the party and perhaps Benn at his best.
The increasing leftist “Most dangerous man in Britain” of tabloid infamy. Agitator but always respectful and good natured.
Switching remarkably quickly from youthful rising star, to the lisping white haired veteran of the Kinnock and Blair years: increasingly less powerful but never less interesting.
The old man we mostly see here, still in genuine mourning for Caroline his wife of nearly fifty years and increasingly a much loved national institution (whether he liked it or not).
This is an excellent documentary and a fitting monument to one of the greatest British politicians of the 20th century.
Bonus features include a Christmas message from the elderly Benn, a selection of photos (mostly covering his early life) and Benn’s final interview.
He will be missed.

A century of George Brown

Brown Streisand

September 2014 marks the centenary of the birth of one of the most eccentric Labour politicians in British political history. George Brown was a leading figure in Harold Wilson’s government and deserves to be remembered as more than just a drunk. He was, however, an erratic sometimes aggressive figure who will always be associated with Private Eye’s famous euphemism ” tired and emotional”.
Like the “unwell” in “Jeffrey Bernard is unwell”, tired and emotional was usually taken to mean “pissed again”.
Although he rose to be Foreign Secretary and almost became party leader, Brown’s career was blighted by his tendency to get drunk on very small amounts of alcohol. Ironically, Harold Wilson, Brown’s chief rival who ultimately bested him by becoming party leader and then PM is now known to have been effectively an alcoholic while in office. But he concealed it much better than Brown did.
Here are some of the highs and lows of Brown’s career (he is no relation to Gordon Brown):

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1914: Brown is born in Lambeth. He will prove one of the few genuinely working class figures in Harold Wilson’s Labour cabinet of 1964-70. His father is a van driver who is beaten up during the 1926 General Strike.
1945: Is elected MP for Belper in the post-war Labour landslide.
1956: Has a row with Soviet leader Khrushchev during a special private dinner in honour of the Soviet leader’s visit. Khrushchev is later quoted as saying that if he were British he would vote Tory.
1950s: Brown launches a physical assault on colleague Richard Crossman after the latter criticised him in the press. Crossman is physically larger than Brown and ends the assault by sitting on him.
1963: Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell (a Brown ally) dies suddenly. Writing in his diary, Tony Benn expects Brown to be elected as his successor. In the end, he is beaten by Harold Wilson, something Brown never gets over, partly because if concerns about Brown’s private behaviour. Some see the choice as between “a crook and a drunk”.
Brown famously humiliated himself on the evening of President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. https://chrishallamworldview.wordpress.com/2013/11/20/the-strange-case-of-eli-wallach-george-brown-and-the-death-of-jfk/
1964: Labour return to power with Brown as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economic Affairs in charge of the National Plan.
Brown’s car breaks down on one occasion as he attempts to transport the only copy of the Plan. He flags down a bearded man and a pretty young girl in a Mini (leaving his driver behind) ordering them to take him to Whitehall, rudely insisting that he is on “important government business”. Rather surprisingly, they agree to do so. On being dropped off, Brown realises he has left the Plan in the backseat of the Mini. Luckily, for him the couple return it before morning.
1968: Brown finally resigns as Foreign Secretary. During his tenure, he has threatened to resign eighteen times, a post-war record. He attempts to retract his resignation but fails, effectively marking the end of his political career. He remains Deputy Prime Minister until 1970.
1970: Brown goes down fighting in the 1970 General Election, his defeat after 25 years in Belper inevitable, not because of his behaviour but actually due to boundary changes (Labour unexpectedly lose power in the election anyway, returning in 1974).
During one speech in Norfolk, a pretty girl in the audience shouts “Never!” Brown breaks off to say:
“My dear girl, there are some big words which little girls should not use and “never” is one of them.
Later in an early version of the 2001 “Prescott punch” Brown punches a long haired student heckler to the ground. Bizarrely, a number of journalists assist Brown. “I left one long-haired young man…very surprised indeed…” Brown later wrote “when he found himself lying on the floor as the result of the accidental collision of his chin with my fist.”
Brown loses Belper and never returns as an MP. He changes his surname to George-Brown to ensure that on receiving a peerage both names are included in the title Lord George-Brown.
1976: Brown resigns from the party. The Times reports “Lord George-Brown drunk is a better man than Harold Wilson sober. Brown falls over during the announcement, widely assumed, wrongly in fact, due to drunkeness.
By coincidence, Wilson resigns suddenly as PM only a few days later.
1981: Like many right wing pro-European Labour politicians, Brown joins the fledgling SDP.
1982: Brown, aged nearly seventy, leaves his wife after thirty five years, to move in with his personal assistant, then in her thirties. He does not change his will, however, and Lady George-Brown inherits the estate on his death.
1985: Brown converts to Catholicism shortly before his death from cirrhosis of the liver, aged 71.

Brown and JFK

Maggie vs Tony Benn

Politics - Anthony Wedgwood Benn
Two giants of the post-war political stage have died within the last year. Margaret Thatcher and Tony Benn were both born in the year 1925 and both died within twelve months of each other.

Benn’s influence was enormous and wide ranging and he is rightly hailed as one of the great British statesmen of the last century.

But the reaction to Lady Thatcher’s death was both greater and more enduring. For there is no denying it: in the Game of Thrones battle of post-war British politics, she was the victor.

A betting man (or woman) observing the two rising stars at almost any point before the late Seventies would doubtless have favoured the young Anthony Wedgewood Benn to succeed over the young Margaret Roberts. Benn was both the son and the grandson of former MPs. Roberts was of humbler stock and had to overcome both the snobbery and sexism of the times. Thatcher’s biographer John Campbell speculates that the two must have met at Oxford University where both were active in student politics. Neither ever mentioned having done so.

After serving in the RAF, Benn entered parliament at 25. He had already been an MP for almost a decade when the now married Thatcher managed to secure the Finchley seat in October 1959.

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Then things shifted, while the young Thatcher impressed many as a junior minister under Macmillan, the death of Benn’s father threatened to end his political career forever. It took three years for Benn to renounce his peerage, a struggle he did not always seem likely to win.

Once back as an MP in 1963, the rest of the decade saw Benn in power achieving most of his political successes as the rising modern technology-obsessed minister in the Wilson Government. Thatcher, in opposition from 1964 to 1970 struggled, her marriage to Denis even wobbling in the mid-Sixties.

The surprise return of the Tories in 1970, however, saw her as the Education Secretary demonised as the “milk snatcher” and alongside Barbara Castle and Shirley Williams becoming one of the most high profile women in politics.

It was at this point, Benn shifted to the Left, dropping the “Anthony Wedgewood” from his name and increasingly angering many of his colleagues on the Left and Right as unlike say, Michael Foot, he increasingly began to favour principles and “ishues” (as he  himself would have put it) over party unity and consensus. He became the source of intense media interest. The Sun dubbed him “the most dangerous man in Britain”. Benn claimed he once witnesses a man emptying one of his dustbins and taking it to a nearby limo. It would be amazing if he had not been under security service surveillance.

Thatcher’s victory in becoming Tory leader in 1975, owed itself partly to bravery, partly to luck. Ex-minister Keith Joseph had destroyed his own chances with a desperately inflammatory speech about the working classes and birth control. Thatcher stood in his stead. Few expected her to stand. Few expected her to win (least of all Ted Heath). Few expected her to become PM even after she had become Opposition leader.

Benn faced a much more crowded field in his first Labour leadership contest in 1976. He came fourth but was pleased to do as well as he did.

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Thatcher struggled against Callaghan in Opposition. But the Winter of Discontent changed everything and in 1979 she won the election and became the first woman Prime Minister. Benn remained likely to face her as Opposition leader. But he as contrary enough to sit out the 1980 contest (ultimately between Denis Healey and Michael Foot) on the grounds that the leadership contest rules were soon to change anyway. Benn felt any leader would be a lame duck.

The years 1981 and 1982 would settle the battle once and for all. Benn mounted his hugely divisive bid against Healey and the Deputy leadership in 1981. Many in his own never forgave him. He came very close to winning yet Healey survived. Thereafter Benn’s influence which had peaked steadily started to wane.

Thatcher was already deeply unpopular until the Falklands War in 1982 boosted her with a momentum which would propel her through two more landslide election victories and to the end of the decade.

The 1983 election underlined Thatcher’s triumph. She won the biggest post-war Tory election victory of the post-war era achieving a majority of 144. Benn, after twenty years, lost his seat. In fact, his defeat was largely a result of boundary changes. Benn had loyally refused to switch seats. But the result was largely blamed on an overly Bennite manifesto anyway. In retrospect, his defeat was total.

He would return as MP for Chesterfield in 1984. But Labour was now moving inexorably towards a “New Labour” direction. Benn had missed the 1983 leadership contest won by Neil Kinnock. Thatcher would beat Kinnock soundly in the 1987 General Election. Kinnock would soundly beat Benn in his last unnecessary challenge in 1988.

London Tony Benn

Benn became an increasingly avuncular and much loved figure in old age. His diaries will prove an invaluable historical resource. He remained active well into his eighties. One senses he was a much happier and well rounded figure than Lady Thatcher and had a happier family life. Thatcher, in contrast, had no interests outside politics, no real sense of humour and was unlucky enough to be struck down by dementia. It is thought that she never had a good day after leaving Downing Street in November 1990 until her death last year.

But the Britain we live in today, of a diminished welfare state, high unemployment, strong markets, privatised utilities, a pro-US foreign policy, a modernised Labour Party and a Murdoch-dominated press is recognisably hers and not Benn’s.

Benn achieved much, more than many Prime Ministers have. But this was a battle he could not win.

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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.

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

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

As Turner reminds us, victory might easily have been Callaghan’s. Labour had actually been ahead in the opinion polls in late 1978 but Callaghan hesitated at the last minute, reasoning (not unintelligently): “Why run n 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 harts and that accent.”  The hats went and the accent changed. But Callaghan blew his chance to lead Britain into the Eighties, perhaps guiding the nation through a much less brutal version of Thatcherism in her place.

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

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

But this is not purely a political account, far from it. As in his later books Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s and A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s, Turner is brilliantly thorough on all aspects of high and low culture as he is on affairs of state. Sometimes they are linked (as he does cleverly with the TV series I, Claudius with 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.

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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 Kaplinskyand 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 sincehis 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 a few final pages of summary, 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 but indeed all political life during the last half century.

Book Review: Tony Benn A Biography by Jad Adams

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Few people who have ever lived can claim to have enjoyed as long and diverse a political career as Tony Benn.

Today, Benn is a socialist lion in winter, bearded, in poor health and approaching his ninetieth year. He ceased writing his celebrated diary four years ago. He has been a widower for some thirteen years now and has been out of parliament for almost that entire period. With the notable exception of Denis Healey, almost all of the other leading political figures of the Sixties and Seventies (Wilson, Callaghan, Heath, Jenkins, Whitelaw, Thatcher) are now gone.

There is more to Benn than longevity although his endurance is certainly worth dwelling on for a moment. Benn was born in 1925 and as a child was introduced to the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Ramsey MacDonald, David Lloyd George and even Sir Oswald Mosley by his father, a Secretary of State for India in the second Labour Government. Benn himself first entered parliament during the last days of Clement Attlee’s hugely successful government during the reign of George VI. Benn would never be Father of the House: his spell in parliament was interrupted twice, first by the battle to renounce his peerage between 1960 and 1963 and again for a year following the loss of his seat largely due to boundary changes in the 1983 General Election. But he would still be in parliament during the age of Tony Blair and William Hague. And from 1963 onwards (and intermittently from the Forties), he kept a diary.

The young Anthony Wedgewood Benn, as he then was, is easy to like. Dynamic, energetic and youthful, he made his mark through regular appearances on Any Questions?, a major role in condemning the 1956 Suez Crisis and a position on Hugh Gaitskell’s front bench. But it could so easily have ended in 1960 with his father’s death.

His father had slightly thoughtlessly accepted a peerage assuming Benn’s older brother who was bent on a career in the church would eventually inherit the title which would forbid the holder from serving as an MP. But his brother, Michael, died during the war, a personal tragedy that affected the future politician deeply. But there was also now a practical problem. Benn would inherit the title Viscount Stansgate and when he did so would no longer be able to serve as an MP. Fortunately, on his father’s death, despite the obstruction of the likes of Macmillan and Rab Butler as well as some in his own party, Wedgewood Benn was only able to renounce his peerage after an epic three year battle to change the law. An odd side effect was that Lord Home was thus able to renounce his peerage a few months later. Anthony Wedgewood Benn was thus inadvertently responsible for the brief premiership of Tory Sir Alec Douglas Home.

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Benn enjoyed perhaps his most productive period in government as Postmaster General during the first Wilson Government. He opened the Post Office Tower, facilitated the creation of the giro scheme, the flight of Concorde and put the postal service firmly into profit despite intense resistance from a conservative (and often Conservative) civil service. Less happily, he introduced the ban on pirate radio stations (something he later regretted) and a scheme to remove the Queen’s head from the British stamp was thwarted despite Benn getting the impression (falsely) that the Queen herself was happy to go along with it.

A change undoubtedly overcame Benn after Labour lost office in 1970. The experience of power seemed to make him more keenly socialist, not less (Harold Wilson claimed he “immatures with age”). Certainly, there was a change in attitude with Benn valuing the educational benefits of the politician’s role more highly. It was also at this point that he went officially from being Anthony Wedgewood Benn to just Tony Benn.

The Seventies and early Eighties were certainly Benn’s heyday. The levels of media interest in him were huge. A substantial amount of effort was put into unsuccessful efforts to find evidence that either Benn or his American wife Caroline were super rich and thus supposedly hypocrites (they were not). At one point, Benn’s children were verbally abused by photographers as they went to school. On another occasion, Benn witnessed his rubbish being taken away by a man in a limousine.

Benn was clearly viewed by much of the media and security services as a socialist bogeyman: “the most dangerous man in Britain”. Many on his own side fell out with him too. Leftists such as Michael Foot were more interested in establishing agreement within the party than Benn was and his unsuccessful bid for the Deputy leadership in 1981 was seen by many as hugely divisive.

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It is possible to view Benn’s career as a long and unsuccessful campaign to become PM. But this is probably misleading. Even allowing for the fact that they were being written for posterity, Benn’s diaries reveal little interest in power for power’s sake. At any rate, he never came close. He scored well in the 1976 leadership contest but didn’t come close to Foot or the victor Callaghan. He refused to stand in 1980 when he might well have won as the leadership contest ballot rules were being changed imminently. He felt any leader elected under the old system would quickly become irrelevant. He might have beaten Kinnock in 1983, had he not lost his Bristol seat in the 1983 election. He was returned as MP for Chesterfield in 1984. His bid for the leadership against Kinnock in 1988 was never likely to succeed and was more to promote his own arguments than anything else.

The last thirty years have inevitably been ones of declining influence for Benn even as the gradual publication of his diaries has boosted his reputation. He had little time for Kinnock or Blair was notable for his opposition to Iraq and became a familiar elder statesman-like figure whether appearing on Question Time, meeting up with the likes of Billy Bragg or his friend the actress Saffron Burrows or being duped by Ali G.

This updated version of Jad Adams’ excellent biography from Biteback, jumbles chronology a little in the updated chapters. But it remains a worthy companion piece to Benn’s own diaries (the final volume of which A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine will be reviewed here shortly) and is a comprehensive tribute to one of the great political lives of the last century.

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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 within the party 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. Jenkins advised Tony Blair on electoral reform  as a Lib Dem peer in old age (Blair ignored him) and wrote numerous biographies of Gladstone and Asquith amongst others.

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 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 untelegenic 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 during elections 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.

Book Review: Modernity Britain Opening The Box 1957-59 by David Kynsaton

ImageThe Fifties are often remembered as a serene and peaceful, even slightly boring time, but as David Kynaston’s book reminds us, it wasn’t all like that.

The Notting Hill riots of 1958, for example, were amongst the most serious racial disturbances of the century.  British football reeled from news of the Munich air disaster which seemed to have robbed English football of the talented names that had seemed set to dominate the Sixties. The Wolfenden Report, meanwhile, recommended decriminalisation of homosexual behaviour. This wouldn’t actually happen until 1967.

The beauty of David Kynsaton’s book, the first of two making up Modernity Britain covering 1957-1962 (his previous volumes Austerity Britain and Family Britain detailed the period from 1945 to Suez) is how they seem to cover nearly everything that happened in the UK at the time. On the one hand, we get the big, obvious events: Macmillan pulling the Tories back after the disaster of Suez to a landslide victory in 1959, the emergence of CND, the moves towards the major town planning projects which would dominate the Sixties.

But we also get welcome snippets of popular culture. Paddington Bear made his first steps onto the literary scene, Nigel Pargetter is born in The Archers and Pete Murray introduced the first episode of Six-Five Special in the following manner:

“We’ve got almost a hundred cats jumping here, some real cool characters to give us a gas, so just get with it and have a ball”.

Elsewhere, almost sixty years’ perspective enables us to identify the national institutions of the future, making their first cautious steps into public life. Vanessa Redgrave and Judi Dench graduate from Drama College although the latter’s Ophelia is poorly received by some. Thirty year old Bruce Forsyth took over hosting of Sunday Night At The London Palladium after Tommy Trinder is sacked. Meanwhile, rising Labour star Anthony Wedgewood Benn (still quite moderate at this point) helps with an early Party Political Broadcast and the young Margaret Thatcher secures the Tory candidacy for Finchley and ultimately wins the seat. A teenager called Cliff Richard also started making waves threatening the musical domination of Tommy Steele.

We know now which buds will grow and prosper and which will wither away, making this fascinating stuff. Roll on the second half of Modernity Britain which will doubtless feature the emergence of the satire boom, the end of National Service and perhaps a little more about the promising teenaged Liverpool skiffle band, The Quarrymen, mentioned fleetingly once or twice here.