Book review: Why We Get The Wrong Politicians

Book review: Why We Get The Wrong Politicians, by Isabel Hardman. Published by: Atlantic Books.

As British voters prepare to go to the polls for the fourth time this decade, it is well worth bearing in mind: the way we select our politicians is awful.

You don’t actually have to be rich to become an MP, but as Isabel Hardman’s book highlights, the process of standing for parliament is so expensive, time consuming and arduous, it’s a wonder anyone ever does it in the first place. Most candidates in the current general election campaign will never become MPs. And even if they do, the labyrinthine world of Westminster offers so little support to new members, that many of them will find themselves falling victim to alcoholism or marital breakdown. Of course, many also often find themselves subject to personal abuse, on Twitter, on nastier versions of blogs like this or in what is sometimes referred to as “the real world”.

Hardman (the Deputy Editor of The Spectator) admits to some well-intentioned sleight of hand here. Despite the book’s title, she is not actually attacking politicians as a class. She does not pander to the popular stereotype that all or even most MPs are lazy, out of touch or corrupt. Although she does not shy away from recounting examples of abuse, she reminds us that the vast majority of MPs are hardworking, dedicated people. Attending regular surgeries and hearing constituents’ problems arguably puts them more in touch with ordinary people’s problems than the average person.

Hardman’s argument is that the current system is deeply flawed, often resulting in unsatisfactory laws.

It is an excellent book and a difficult argument to refute.

Book review: Where Power Stops, by David Runciman

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

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

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

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

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

The BFJ (2016)

People all over the land have been thrilling to the antics of the huge lumbering giant BFJ, otherwise known as Boris Fucking Johnson.

“I love how he uses funny long words which nobody understands, ” says Colin, 66, from Kent. “Like ‘rambunctious’ and ‘flibbertigibbet’. I also like how he travels to lots of different countries all around the world, really fast.”

Miranda, 44, from Chelsea, also enjoys Boris Fucking Johnson’s adventures. “He’s always saying the wrong thing!” she laughs. “He blows dreams into people’s ears. Mainly dreams about the UK benefiting economically by leaving the European Union.”

Boris Fucking Johnson has definitely NOT been seen enticing young women out of their windows as some have claimed.

Other, less popular recent characters from the same stable include Danny Alexander: Champion of the World, James Brokenshire and the Giant Speech, George Osborne’s Marvellous Economic Medicine and The Fantastic Dr. Liam Fox.

What if the Brexit vote had never happened?

Today’s headlines…

Cameron To “Step Down As PM in 2020”

David Cameron's Last Day As The UK's Prime Minister

Prime Minister, David Cameron today gave his strongest hint yet that he intends to step down as Prime Minister within two years of winning the forthcoming General Election. Speculation has been mounting that Mr. Cameron is close to announcing the date of the next election as May 22nd. This would coincide neatly with the forthcoming elections to the European Parliament.

The last General Election in May 2015, resulted in a surprise overall majority of 12 for the Conservatives. This has since fallen as a result of recent by-elections although Mr. Cameron has resisted calls to strike any sort of deal with either Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats or the similarly-sized Democratic Unionist Party.

Having entered Downing Street in June 2010, Mr Cameron is now the third longest serving Prime Minister since 1945, after Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. At 52, he remains younger than Mrs Thatcher when she became Britain’s first (and to date, only) woman prime minister in 1979.

According to a report in the London Evening Standard, Mr Cameron’s cabinet colleagues, George Osborne, Boris Johnson, Theresa May and Michael Gove are expected to join the race to succeed him.

Labour’s Jo Cox has been amongst those urging unity in her own party, ahead of the expected election announcement. UKIP has, meanwhile, renewed calls for a referendum on continued UK membership of the European Union. Opinion polls currently indicate support for a UK exit from the EU, but also that it is low on the list of voter priorities at this time, ranking way below concerns over the NHS and education.

Opponents of a vote suggest it would be a colossal waste of time, money and energy, inviting economic uncertainty, political uncertainty and disunity at a time of growing prosperity.

Meanwhile, in New York, maverick billionaire and 2016 Republican Party nominee, Donald J. Trump has announced plans to challenge President Hillary Clinton for the White House in 2020. Trump, who will be 74 by the time of next year’s election has made repeated claims of foul play surrounding his 2016 defeat although no evidence has thus far emerged.

In 2017, Trump resumed his role on the US version of TV’s ‘The Apprentice’.

Campaign 2016 Debate

 

 

 

Book review: People Like Us: Margaret Thatcher and Me, by Caroline Slocock

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In 1989, Boris Johnson, then aged 25, reported on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s press conference performance in which she committed Britain to joining the Exchange Rate Mechanism. According to him, the 63-year-old premier was looking: “distinctly sexy, with a flush about her cheeks as though she were up to something naughty.” Alan Clark, Tory MP, diarist and notorious womaniser was another fan. “I never came across any other woman in politics as sexually attractive in terms of eyes, wrist and ankle,” he wrote, rather oddly. Paul Gascoigne, the footballer, also seemed keen, embracing her eagerly on meeting her in 1990. “I was right there and could see that she just loved it,” observes her private secretary, Caroline Slocock observes. “What he thought he was doing, I don’t know.”

Others, such as her longest serving chancellor, Nigel Lawson, were less keen. “I think she could turn it on if she wanted to,” says the father of the TV chef, Nigella Lawson, “but sexiness wasn’t the most obvious thing about her. She was also extremely headmistressy.” For the record, if Microsoft could detect sexism, the last sentence would have a line underneath it now on my computer.

As it is only the word ‘headmistressy’ is underlined because the spelling and grammar check has noticed ‘headmistressy’ is technically not actually a word. If it was, it would mean, “like a headmistress or someone in charge.”

In other words, Lord Lawson is saying. “She acted like she was in charge. Which she was. She was the Prime Minister. But I didn’t like it because I was a man and wanted to be Prime Minister myself and anyway wasn’t used to having a woman tell me what to do.”

In 1989, Caroline Slocock became the first female private secretary to any British Prime Minister. She was – and is – a bright spark and a valuable eyewitness to Margaret Thatcher’s final year in office and subsequent overthrow. Best of all, unlike Thatcher herself, she was both a socialist and a feminist. That’s right! She’s one of us.

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This is an excellent, highly readable memoir which really does shed new light on the “Iron Lady”. Slocock like many people, was somewhat repelled by Thatcher’s artificial sounding voice, the product, first, of childhood elocution lessons intended to purge the Grantham out of her and later softened by the tutoring of Saatchi and Saatchi spin doctors.

As Slocock points out though, the political environment in the Commons both then and now, clearly favours male speakers. Were this not the case, would all those years of speech work have been necessary? One suspects not.

As Norman Tebbit puts it: “One of the problems of being a woman in politics is that men can shout, but if a woman increases the volume of her voice, she tends to squawk.”

Slocock actually lets Lawson off the sexism charge (even after some bizarre distasteful comments from him, which suggest she sat on her knickers, rather than her skirt) but it is a fact that while she got on with many men: Dennis Thatcher himself, Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Cecil Parkinson,  she certainly didn’t, others: Nigel Lawson, Michael Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe. Her utterly contemptuous treatment of Howe, a decent man who she humiliated through her public bullying and shaming of him, ultimately brought her down. Deservedly so.

Equally unforgivable as Slocock notes, is Thatcher’s near total failure to promote other women. Thus, the big expanse in women MPs didn’t come until the age of Blair. The first woman Foreign Secretary? Under Blair. First woman Home Secretary? Under Blair, again.

I spotted only one mistake that should have been proofed out on p119:

“(Chris Smith) was appointed as the first openly gay person in the Cabinet in 1997, nine years after Margaret Thatcher had left power.”

Nine years? Really? After November 1990? Not six and a half?

But my own pedantry aside, this is an excellent read.

THATCHER-PARTY

Book review: People Like Us: Margaret Thatcher and Me, by Caroline Slocock. Published by Biteback. Out: now.

British Public Take BFJ To Their Hearts

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People all over the land have been thrilling to the antics of the huge lumbering giant BFJ otherwise known as Boris Fucking Johnson.

“I love how he uses funny long words which nobody really understands, like rambunctious and flibbertigibbet,” says Colin, 66, from Kent. “I also like how he travels to lots of different countries all around the world really fast.”

Miranda, 44, from Chelsea, also enjoys Boris Fucking Johnson’s adventures. “He’s always saying the wrong thing!” she laughs. “He blows dreams into people’s ears. Mainly dreams about the UK benefiting economically from leaving the European Union.”

Boris Fucking Johnson has definitely not been seen enticing young women out of their windows as some had claimed.

Less popular recent characters from the same stable include George Osborne’s Marvellous Economic Medicine and The Fantastic Dr. Liam Fox.

10 things which would have astonished you about 2014 had you known about them at the Millennium

1. Britain’s leading astronomer is now someone from D:Ream.
2. The US president is black. And the next one may well be a woman.
3. Onetime rising Tory star Michael Portillo is now best known for hosting a TV series about railways.
4. Rolf Harris is in prison.
5. Edwina Currie and Ann Widdecombe are now stars of reality TV.
5. Slavery and piracy are major international problems.
6. Doctor Who is one of the BBC’s biggest shows (it was not on between 1989 and 2005).
7. Take That, Peter Andre, Noel Edmonds and Ant and Dec are rarely off our screens.
8. Tony Blair is best remembered for joining former President Bush’s son in starting a war with Iraq.
9. The Euro is widely seen as a failure. Britain never joined the Euro and is now seriously considering leaving the European Union.
10. Boris Johnson is seriously being considered as a likely possible future Prime Minister.

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Book review: Sex, Lies & The Ballot Box

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Sex, Lies & The Ballot Box: 50 Things You Need To Know About British Elections
Edited by: Philip Cowley and Robert Ford
Published by Biteback Books

People who vote Tory are rubbish at sex. Okay, perhaps that’s not fair. But they are worse than at sex than normal people are. Sorry if that offends anyone, but it’s apparently true. If this troubles you, perhaps defecting to UKIP might help? Or marry someone else.
That’s actually the only real revelation about sex contained within this book of fifty short political essays about elections and the imminent 2015 General Election penned by the leading political academics throughout the land.
The title was worth a try though. After all, one suspects simply calling it 50 Things You Need To Know About British Elections might not have attracted fewer readers.
Which would be a shame as the book does address important, interesting if non-sexy questions:
Does canvassing for votes actually make any difference to an election result at all? Why is Wales traditionally so anti-Conservative? Why are there still so few women MPs? Are ethnic minorities really more likely to support Labour? And who lost their party the most support: Blair or Brown?
This is an interesting book then and a useful one. Just don’t go in expecting there to be lots of sex. There isn’t.

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Book review: Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion

Wounded LeadersBook review of Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion: A Psychohistory by Nick Duffell (Lone Arrow Press)

Wounded Leaders

What if the public school boarding system is poisoning the quality of Britain’s political leadership? This is the intriguing question posed by Nick Duffell’s sequel to his earlier The Making Of Them. With Tony Blair a product of this system, along with David Cameron and possible future leaders like Boris Johnson, this is a concern. Cameron in particularly is flawed in his attitude to women, Europe
“By any analysis the last 50 years in Britain have produced a remarkable lack of noteworthy political leadership.”
But while I went to a (admittedly somewhat elitist) state school and am no great fan of David Cameron, I have little time for Duffell’s argument.
He argues we have had poor leadership in the last fifty years? Since 1964 then? Maybe so. But Blair and Cameron were the only ex-public schoolboys to enter Downing Street during this time. Only fourteen out of these fifty years have been spent under boarding school poshos. The remaining thirty six years were spent under Wilson, Callaghan, Heath, Thatcher, Major and Brown. Surely if there has been poor leadership during the time, these oiks should take the blame too?
Most of the arguments collapse if we compare Cameron, to Blair, who did attend boarding school and Margaret Thatcher who didn’t. I actually don’t think Cameron does struggle to form relationships with women or anyone else. There were few women in his government and still are, but this is more due to the Tory Party’s historic paucity of women in general. And even if this were so, why was Tony Blair’s government so successful in promoting women? Public school shows little sign of messing Blair up. Contrast this with Gordon Brown, flying into rages and striking me as tremendously difficult to work with despite (or perhaps because of) his intellectual superiority. Or compare them all to Thatcher, who despite being a woman herself, does not seem to have liked other women much at all to the extent of never promoting them, generally avoiding them and forgetting to include her mother in Who’s Who? But Thatcher and Brown didn’t go to boarding school.
The same applies to Thatcher’s jingoistic flag waving and attacking Europe at every opportunity. Different leaders have different strengths and weaknesses. David Cameron is a weak leader who wants to be Tony Blair but is turning out more like John Major.
But the fact he went to a boarding school is largely irrelevant.

David-Cameron

This is the future: 2013-2030.

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I am certainly no Nostradamus (although let’s face it: neither was Nostradamus). Had I written this a few years ago, I would probably have predicted David Miliband would now be Prime Minister and Hillary Clinton in power in the White House. But just for fun, let’s see what the next few years up to 2020 might have in store…

Scotland will vote to remain within the UK (2014).

The next General Election will have almost as the same outcome as the last one (2015).
I am fully aware this prediction will please no one. But while Labour are currently projected to win a substantial majority, I would expect this to change simply because Ed Miliband remains relatively unpopular and is hated by the press. At the same time, Tory hopes of winning an outright majority seem like overly optimistic wishful thinking. And if no one wins a majority, the Lib Dems in their current form seem unlikely to go with anyone other than the Cons simply because the Lib Dem leadership is basically Tory. So, sorry folks. We may be in for more of the same until 2020. Although there will be a new and slightly amended Coalition agreement, for all the difference that makes. Maybe Nick Clegg will remember to ask for a proper government department this time.

Yvette Cooper will be elected leader of the Labour Party following Ed Miliband’s resignation (2015)

Hillary Clinton will win the US presidential elections (2016).
She will beat Republican Paul Ryan in a close contest. She will be the first woman US president.

The UK will stay in the European Union throughout this decade (2010-2020).
UKIP will do well in the 2014 European elections but will fail to win a single seat in the 2015 General Election. Cameron will somehow dodge having the promised in-out referendum. The issue will contribute to his downfall in 2018.

Boris Johnson will become Prime Minister (2018).
Yes! Horror of horrors! This could actually happen. Start packing your suitcase now!

King Charles III will attempt to disestablish the Church of England (before 2030).
I don’t want to make morbid predictions about the likely mortality of the Queen. But I would guess Charles would be on the throne before the end of the next decade and some move towards reform from him in this quarter.

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.

The rise and fall of Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo

ImageAs Michael Portillo approaches his 60th birthday this weekend, it’s easy to forget that this gentle, amiable TV presenter was not only the fierce young embodiment of a resurgent Thatcherite Right and also a prospective Prime Minister. But flashback to twenty years ago and it was a very different story…

With the possible exceptions of Boris Johnson and Michael Heseltine, Portillo excited Tories more than any other post-Thatcher politician. The son of a left-wing refugee from the Spanish Civil War, Portillo was an unlikely Tory hero. Like William Hague, he was vulnerable to charges of teenaged political geekery. But it was Labour’s Harold Wilson, Portillo idolised, not Thatcher. He even had a picture of the four time election winner pinned inside his school locker. This only changed when he began experimenting with conservatism at university.

By the time of John Major’s surprise victory in 1992, Portillo’s Thatcherite credentials were impeccable. He had been close to the lady herself since the Seventies. Although not yet forty and as Chief Secretary of the Treasury, the most junior cabinet minister, Portillo began being touted as a possible successor to the already troubled Major. He was younger and healthier than Heseltine and more agreeably Eurosceptic than the other apparently most likely successor, the Chancellor, Ken Clarke.

Portillo was certainly a mischief-maker and a party conference rabble rouser even if his absurd “Who dares wins” speech was poorly received. A panel of disillusioned Tory voters on Newsnight who had never seen him before, universally backed him as exactly the sort of leader they would like to see. On Spitting Image, the puppet of Jeremy Paxman was endlessly distracted by Portillo’s “nice hair”. Malicious rumours flew elsewhere that he was having a gay affair with colleague Peter Lilley (untrue). Portillo was appointed Employment Secretary, a decision likened to “putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank” by some. Portillo was undoubtedly one of the Eurosceptic “bastards”, John Major complained that he could not sack, in comments that were accidentally caugh ton air. There seemed to be no stopping him.

That said, in 1995, when Major resigned, inviting opponents to “put up or shut up” and stand against him, Portillo dithered just as David Miliband did over whether to challenge Gordon Brown a decade or so later. Portillo came off badly – telephone wires were seen being installed at his potential campaign HQ, presumably as a preparatory measure in case Major fell suddenly. John Redwood, another Rightist, boosted his profile immeasurably by standing against Major and losing. But Redwood, unlike Portillo, had never stood a chance. Portillo was given the post of Defence Secretary, a tricky position to cause mischief in (Thatcher had appointed her nemesis, Heseltine to the same position in 1983). Portillo was surely sensible to wait until the Tories lost in 1996 or 1997(a defeat which was almost universally expected, by this point) and then stand for leader then?

Few had anticipated the Tories would lose quite as heavily as they did, however. The opinion polls were actually quite accurate but even Labour’s leaders, cautious after the 1992 shock, only expected a majority of about 40. They in fact achieved 179, the largest majority achieved by any party since the war.

Portillo certainly wasn’t expecting to lose his Enfield seat although had steeled himself by the time the result was aired on TV, a clip later voted one of the “best TV moments ever.” Unlike the disgraced former Heritage Secretary, David Mellor who had a public row with Referendum Party leader Sir James Goldsmith when he lost his seat in Putney, Portillo maintained an air of dignity. But Portillo’s defeat to Labour’s young Stephen Twigg was a total surprise. He had been widely expected to be elected as the next Tory leader. In a night of big Tory scalps (Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, ex-Chancellor Norman Lamont) Portillo’s was the biggest. “Were you up for Portillo?” became the big question of the next day. Subsequent elections threatened to have “Portillo moments” – Peter Mandelson almost fell in 2005, Ed Balls came close in 2010. But none delivered. Blair, born in the same month as Portillo had proven to be his political nemesis.

The subsequent 1997 Tory leadership contest must have been especially galling for Portillo as had he been an MP, he would have surely won easily. Heseltine, Portillo’s main prospective rival, did not stand due to health concerns. Clarke, the most popular and well-known candidate was rejected by Tories as too pro-Europe. Lady Thatcher’s endorsement and the support of Tories went to a young right-winger, William Hague. At thirty-six, Hague was eight years younger than Portillo, little-known, inexperienced and unpopular. On the other hand, with such a huge Labour majority to overturn, the likelihood of anyone, even Portillo, leading the Tories to victory within a decade looked slim. The job was a poisoned chalice.

Had Portillo stayed where he was ideologically, he would probably have succeeded Hague as leader. He won a by-election in Alan Clark’s old rock solid Kensington and Chelsea seat in 1999 and quickly moved to Hague’s front bench. The Tories barely gained any ground in the 2001 General Election and Hague quit. Surely now was Portillo’s time?

But Portillo was no longer the right-winger he had once been. He had genuinely had a rethink during his time out of parliament and had re-positioned himself basically as a “compassionate conservative” similar to David Cameron today. This and revelations about homosexuality in his student days, harmed his standing with the notoriously homophobic Tory Party. In a notoriously eccentric decision, Tories plucked for Iain Duncan Smith over the more popular, experienced and well-known Portillo and Ken Clarke. Smith turned out to be the worst Opposition leader in living memory and was ditched in 2003. Not yet fifty, Portillo grew disillusioned, concentrating instead on a career in the media. He stood down in 2005 and is no longer a Tory Party member today.

Perhaps Portillo’s misfortune was simply timing. Portillo would probably never have overthrown Major in 1995 but had more Tories voted for Redwood, Major might have fallen and Portillo, slightly hampered by his youth (he was then only forty-two) might have succeeded him. But would he have wanted to be PM for just two years with New Labour’s ascent in 1997 so inevitable by that point anyway? He would surely have been blamed forever for the Tory defeat.

Alternatively, had Labour won by a smaller margin in 1997, Portillo would have maintained his seat and probably won the leadership. But the “what if…?” scenario does not help. Although a leading member of the government, the scale of the defeat was largely beyond Portillo’s control.

Portillo’s third chance in 2001 was effectively wrecked by his new moderate position. This was quite sincere and not a cynical tactic. Besides Portillo was not to know just how eccentric the Tories would be by 2001. A shallower politician would have become leader. It seems unlikely but not impossible he could have beaten Blair in 2005 anyway.

Perhaps he could have stayed on and won the leadership in 2005 instead of Cameron? Or maybe, had he become leader in 2001, he would have done well enough in 2005 to stay on as leader and then won in 2010? He would still have been two years’ younger than PM, Gordon Brown.

But one senses his heart was no longer in it. Ultimately, Portillo’s failure to become Prime Minister was not wholly down to ill-judgement. He was also unlucky.

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Labour can win without David Miliband

Rebuilding Peace and Stability in Afghanistan: David Miliband

Poor David Miliband.

In some quarters, he was seriously considered as a possible successor to Tony Blair in 2007. But he was barely forty then. The general consensus then was that he was too young and inexperienced for the top job.

However, now only six years later and having come within a whisker of the Labour leadership in 2010, he seems to be leaving British politics forever. He is standing down as MP for South Shields and leaving for a job with a leading charity in New York. As Michael Foot once said of another notable David (Owen): “He’s passed from rising hope to elder statesman without any intervening period whatsoever.” The problem is not, of course, the former Foreign Secretary’s age – he is a year younger than the Tories’ “rising hope” Boris Johnson – but the fact that he lost, however  narrowly in 2010, and worse, lost to his brother.

The sibling rivalry element to the story complicates everything and probably explains why David Miliband’s chosen to leave the political scene now. There is no reason at all why a defeated candidate cannot seek the leadership again – Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and Michael Foot all became leader on their second attempt – but this now seems unlikely to happen.

There is an element of mythmaking about the Miliband Saga, however. The Tory press will tell you, Labour made a historic mistake in September 2010 akin to their error in electing Michael Foot over Denis Healey in October 1980.

This is absurd. We are not now in a spring 1983 scenario. Labour has not split or plunged into the civil war which traditionally plagues it after being ejected from government. Ed Miliband is not obviously leading Labour to a crushing defeat as Foot was by this point in his ill fated leadership.

The truth is David Miliband is no Denis Healey nor is Ed Miliband, Michael Foot.

Ed Miliband vanquished fears that he might be in thrall to the trade unions in his 2010 acceptance speech. The “Red Ed” nickname did not last. He responded to the News International Scandal well. His “One Nation” speech last autumn won widespread plaudits from the public and media. And perhaps most importantly, thanks in no small measure to UKIP, Labour are likely to be in power (perhaps as the lead party in another Coalition) in a little over two years time.

Would they be doing better under David Miliband? Probably. The older brother comes across better on TV, a fact not insignificant in the media age. But let’s not get carried away. Like his friend Hillary Clinton in 2008, he fatally supported the Iraq War and acted as if the leadership was his almost by divine right in 2010. He also has mild image problems too and dithered fatally over whether to support Gordon Brown at the height of his leadership troubles in office.

Make no mistake: the same Tory press which heaps praise on David Miliband now would be lambasting him were he actually Opposition leader.

It is sad to see him go, yes. But he is not Denis Healey. Labour can win without him.Image

Boris Johnson: the man who won’t be King

Don’t get me wrong. There is undoubtedly much to like about Boris Johnson.

He is, after all, by some way, the most colourful and popular figure in early 21st century British politics.  He is undeniably highly intelligent, his buffoonish to some extent a façade presented to entertain the electorate. He has been generally successful as Mayor of London.

But the recent speculation that Boris might one day succeed his fellow old Etonian David Cameron as Tory Prime Minster should be a cause for concern.

Currently, this prospect seems some way off. Johnson’s second term as mayor – assuming he sticks to his word and serves it out in full – will end in 2016, soon after the next General Election. Returning to parliament in a by-election after that, should be easy enough. The next step would be to unseat whoever is party leader by then (it might, of course, still be Cameron). I am assuming the Tories will be in Opposition by then. It is then not hard to envisage a scenario in which Boris Johnson, by then in his late fifties (a similar age to Gordon Brown when he came to power) could be leading the Tories back into power circa 2020.

For all his charm, however, there is a cloud over Johnson’s character. At the risk of seeming po-faced, he has behaved badly in his private life in the past. His stance on the Leveson Report suggests he is more compromised even than Cameron by his close ties to the sometimes dubious forces which run the British press. His buffoonish is not entirely an act either. He is genuinely gaffe-prone.

Most worrying is the sense that many people want Boris to get into power because “it’ll be a laugh”. At the risk of sounding boorish, that is not a reason to elect a Prime Minister. This isn’t The X Factor. It’s a serious job. It matters. And the fact is: Boris Johnson is not a serious enough figure to occupy Number 10.Image

Cameron’s cowardly decision

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Eurosceptic Tories have been falling over themselves to praise David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on EU membership if the Tories win the next election. London Mayor Boris Johnson described the Prime Minster as “bang on” while Mark Pritchard said the PM’s speech was “well considered, thoughtful and long overdue”.

It was anything but.

Cameron’s speech does two things. Firstly, it diminishes the (much exaggerated) threat to the Tories presented by UKIP. Secondly, it gives Cameron the opportunity to curry favour with his own backbenchers. Cameron does not want Britain to leave the EU and indeed knows it would be very damaging for us to do so.

He has blatantly put his own party political interest above that of his country. It is a shameful decision.

The trouble with satire

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It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that political satire only tends to truly thrive under Tory Governments.

This has been true ever since the birth of the first modern satire boom of the early Sixties. Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Beyond the Fringe, Private Eye and That Was The Week That Was all prospered during the dying days of the Tory regime of Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas Home. Likewise, although rarely overtly political, Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-74) enjoyed its true heyday under the government of Ted Heath (1970-1974). Then came Thatcher and Major. Margaret Thatcher’s election in May 1979 coincided almost exactly with the birth of alternative comedy. But it wasn’t just that. Not The Nine O Clock News, Spitting Image, Have I Got News For You, Bremner, Bird and Fortune, If…, Dear Bill, The New Statesman, The Friday Night Armistice and Drop the Dead Donkey undeniably got a boost from their being a Tory Government in power.

Why should this be the case? Partly, it’s because true satire rails against the Establishment and the Tories embody the Establishment better than Labour ever can.

It’s also because, in general, right wing people tend not to be very funny. Lady Thatcher, despite inspiring great satire herself, famously had virtually no sense of humour. Boris Johnson’s buffoonery amuses but he rarely says or writes anything which is deliberately funny. Jeremy Clarkson, meanwhile, is quickly out of his depth in the world of politics (as opposed to motoring) and rarely gets beyond saying anything shocking or childish when he venture into the political arena.

The myth that the politically correct Left lack a sense of humour is ill founded. It’s actually hard to think of anyone funny who isn’t on the Left. Ask anyone for a list of funny right wingers, meanwhile, and most likely their list will solely consist of the obscure, the racist or the dead.

After the 2010 General Election something clearly went wrong, however. We now have a Tory Prime Minister again. So why are we not enjoying a new satire boom?

Part of the problem might be that because New Labour were arguably almost as conservative as the Tories, satire never really went away under Blair and Brown. The Thick of It owes its origin to these times and in fairness, is still great. But Have I Got News For You and Mock The Week are clearly past their best and 10 O’Clock Live has never really got off the ground.

I blame the politicians. Whereas in the Eighties, politics was filled with colourful characters ranging from the Bennite ultra-Left to the uncaring Thatcherite Right, the Blairisation of British politics has been fatal to satire. Blair was the most successful politician of recent times: little wonder everyone wants to be like him, elect a party leader like him and fight for the centre ground like him. Cameron, Miliband and Clegg are all essentially Blair wannabes: posh, PR friendly men in suits. Miliband would never wear a donkey jacket, Cameron would never drive in a tank. From a comedic point of view, this is bad news.

The Coalition confuses things further. Try as we might to pretend Cameron’s lot are the new Thatcherites, this is only partly true. They are occasionally uncaring, more often incompetent, sometimes liberal and, yes, sometimes actually Liberal as in Democrat.

The global scene doesn’t help. The idiotic George W Bush was satirical gold, just as President Reagan had been two decades before. But Barack Obama, an intelligent, moderate, slightly disappointing but well meaning black president is hardly the stuff great satires are made of as the failure of the novel O demonstrates. In this respect alone, perhaps Governor Mitt Romney would be better.

British politics seems to lack the colour of the past too. But perhaps I am wrong to blame the political set up. Take the former Tory Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd. He is a decent man, yes. An exciting man? No. Trust me: I have seen him speak. And yet in the hands of Spitting Image, voiced by Harry Enfield, with his hairstyle strangely coiled, his puppet was frequently hilarious.

There is surely enough material in the current political class – Michael Gove, Boris Johnson’s eternal rivalry with David Cameron, Ed Balls, the never ending evil that is Rupert Murdoch – to inspire great satire? Perhaps it’s simply a case of “could do better, must try harder.”

Why this clumsy Coalition of clots isn’t working

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The oddest thing about Britain’s Coalition Government is that so few people saw it coming.

Coalitions are quite rare in the UK, it’s true. No party has won more than 50% in a General Election since 1931 but the First Past the Post system is designed to almost guarantee big majorities. Yet occasionally, as in 1974, this doesn’t happen. It happened again in 2010.

I’m not blaming anyone but it also seems odd that so few people anticipated the eventual Conservative/ Liberal Democrat Coalition. Most people seemed to assume either that the Tories would win outright or that the third party would fulfil its usual role of backing Labour. Until the 1920s, Labour would generally support the larger Liberal Party in Hung Parliament situations. When their roles were reversed, the Liberals generally did the same for Labour as with the 1977-79 Lib-Lab Pact.

This wouldn’t have made sense in 2010. The arithmetic did not favour it. The right decisions were made. The problem is that the current situation pleases nobody.

Tory supporters are just frustrated that they didn’t win outright. The Conservative agenda is frustrated by the fact that the people clearly didn’t really want them back in power. Every u turn is blamed on the Lib Dems. In truth, David Cameron is starting to look like a weak leader anyway.

Labour supporters aren’t happy either. They are glad not to be part of the Coalition. But they are still denied power.

The Lib Dems are also unhappy. The party leadership is guilty of treachery in many supporters’ eyes. The party has failed to fulfil any of its own desires (such as electoral reform or changes to the House of Lords). Nor is it adequately restraining the usual excesses of a Tory Party in power. The Lib Dems more than anyone else risk annihilation in 2015. Nick Clegg looks increasingly vulnerable as leader.

But who is to blame? Normally the wishes of the electorate can be summarised in one sentence e.g. 1979 people had grown weary of strikes and slow growth and wished to give Mrs Thatcher a chance or  1997 with the Tories hopelessly split and damaged by sleaze, the public flocked to New Labour.

But what verdict did the 2010 result send out? People don’t like Gordon Brown but don’t really want the Tories back either?

Ultimately, the country was ready for change in 2010, but even after thirteen years in Opposition, the Tories had still failed to transform themselves into an appealing alternative government.

The Tories have failed democracy and failed Britain too.

The Tory Olympics

The London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony was a huge success. With normal people, that is. Tories, by and large, don’t seem to have liked it.

For despite the fact, Danny Boyle’s ceremony had presumably been formally approved both by Tory Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson, many on the Right still found much to complain about. Tycoon Rupert Murdoch tweeted that the ceremony was “politically correct” while the Tory MP Aiden Burley whinged that it was “leftie multiculturalist crap”.

So what would they have done instead? Well, here if you can think of a single right wing British film director at all (does Michael Winner still count?) here are some ideas on how it could have been done Right…

1) Forget all that Mary Poppins stuff! Instead have an army of Lady Thatcher lookalikes march into the arena, each armed only with a handbag and a magic wand.

2) In a symbolic recreation of 1979, one Margaret could walk past a version of the famous Saatchi and Saatchi Labour Isn’t Working poster depicting a huge queue of unemployed. One wave of her wand from Maggie and the unemployed people could magically come to life and climb out of the poster! They would then clamber onto a bike each and cycle off looking for work as Norman Tebbit’s famous words echo around the stadium: “when my dad was unemployed he didn’t riot. He got on his bike and he looked for work!” Quite right Norman!

3) The Maggies proceed into a hospital packed with children. The children remain but after the Maggies wave their wands, the hospital beds magically disappear.

4) A huge replica of Enoch Powell’s head could roll onto the stage. In a horrific scene, a river of blood could symbolically pour out of it onto the stage in a scene reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Just as Powell predicted would happen in the aftermath of mass Commonwealth immigration. And nothing like what actually happened in real life.

5) The Maggies could be joined on stage by an army of David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Rupert Murdoch lookalikes who parachute in. The quartets could then all dance a merry jig on stage while images from The Sun’s glorious past (“Gotcha!” “Stick it up your Junta!” “Freddie Starr ate my hamster” “It was The Sun Wot Won It!”) flash up behind them.

6) Note: On no account should any non-white or gay people appear on stage at all. We wouldn’t want anyone thinking we are a tolerant multicultural nation after all would we?

Welcome to London 2012: Britain in its Olympic year.


The first time London played host to the modern Olympic Games back in 1908, the British Empire bestrode the world like a colossus. At its peak, the Empire oversaw a fifth of the world’s population. Yet for all its wealth and size, there was a sense that the Empire was morally on less strong ground. The British had run concentration camps during the Boer War (1899-1902). At home much of the population lived in desperate poverty.

By the time of the next London Olympics in 1948, Britons had more reason than before to hold their heads up high. Britain had played a vital role in vanquishing Nazism during the Second World War. What was more, the socialist Labour Government of Clement Attlee elected in 1945 was delivering on its election campaign promises of full employment, a new welfare state and a National Health Service. But the war had come at a price. The years to come would underline Britain’s post-war near economic bankruptcy. The days of the British Empire were numbered.

Where does Britain stand as the nation is poised on the threshold of London 2012? The picture is undoubtedly mixed. Britain still has a Royal Family. The elderly Queen Elizabeth II will attend the Olympics in the year of her Diamond Jubilee just as she did as a young Princess in 1948. The Royals in Britain are still generally popular and attract plenty of tourists.

But Britain no longer has an Empire but a Commonwealth and a Commonwealth that is much smaller than the Empire, already in retreat, was in 1948. Britain remains the sixth largest economy in the world but any influence it wields on the global stage comes only with the approval of the United States. The only post-war Prime Ministers to achieve widespread fame in the wider world – Churchill, Thatcher and Blair – all recognised this, even when support for the US in Iraq ultimately crippled Blair’s leadership after 2003.

Despite this, Tony Blair has good claim to being Britain’s best post-war leader after Attlee. By the 1970s, the post-war consensus which had produced the NHS and welfare state was coming under attack. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government (1979-1990) attacked both, privatised much of British industry and launched a major assault on the nation’s public services. Britain has never been quite the same since. Like many leaders, Thatcher achieved a high profile on the international stage but weakened her country at home.

As Britain’s new Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair in 1997, inherited an economy which had recovered from the high unemployment and excesses of Thatcherism. Under his watch, Britain enjoyed an unprecedented decade of sustained prosperity, falling crime levels, largely improving services and (at least until the Al Qaida attacks on London of July 2005 which by coincidence occurred one day after London’s 2012 Olympic status was announced) a respite from thirty years of terrorism.

Since then, largely thanks to the global economic meltdown, things have gone rather less well. The government of David Cameron elected in 2010 was, unusually for Britain, a coalition although one that is primarily Conservative. Unemployment had already returned. Now under Cameron, so have spending cuts and austerity. Crime seems likely to rise again. Cameron, a Tory (Conservative) from a wealthy background has consciously modelled his leadership on Blair’s. Yet his government and the results of it more seem likely to end up as a pale echo of Thatcher’s.

Still, the British love to moan and the truth is there have been huge improvements in British society, too many and numerous to mention here. Britain is a less class conscious and far more interesting, pleasant and culturally diverse nation than it has been in the past. It is far more pleasant to live in Britain today than it was in either 1908 or 1948. And Britons await their third Olympic Games with enthusiasm.