Book review: Punch & Judy Politics by Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton

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Punch & Judy Politics: An Insiders’ Guide To Prime Minister’s Questions by Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton. Published by Biteback.

Iain Duncan Smith was terrible at it. William Hague was great at it, but it got him nowhere. Theresa May is not very good at it. Jeremy Corbyn is better although is a dull performer. Harold Wilson drank a bottle of whiskey, (sometimes two) to prepare for it. Margaret Thatcher had her notes for it, produced in large print. She felt wearing reading glasses would look like a sign of weakness.

It is, in fact, Thatcher who we have in many ways to thank for the ritual of Prime Minister’s Questions in its current form. Although Prime Ministers have had a designated time slot for answering questions since the early 1960s, it was Thatcher who transformed it into a major event – or rather two events – by choosing to answer every question herself. It was also around this time – although through not her doing – that parliamentary proceedings began being broadcast on the radio from 1978 and then TV from 1989. The modern ritual of PMQs would not be the same without this.

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On taking office, Tony Blair reduced the sessions from two to one a week. Some criticised him for this, suggesting it proved his “contempt for parliament” but in fact it seems like a very sensible move indeed. Thatcher reportedly spent eight hours a week just preparing for her two weekly sessions. Something had to give.

Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton are behind this well-researched and thorough guide and clearly know their stuff. Both have experience as political advisers and spent years briefing Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband behind the scenes for their own sessions with, as they admit, somewhat mixed results.

Prime Minster’s Question Time a bizarre ritual, a genuine ordeal for the leaders on both sides and almost useless as a means to both ask and get an answer to a question, involving a lot of improvisation, preparation and second guessing. The sight of 600 paid representatives bawling and groaning at each other in a crowded chamber on a weekly basis, probably puts more people off politics than anything else.

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It does serve a function though and as the book reminds us, has provided scenes of rare humour and drama. William Hague, though a largely unsuccessful Tory leader was a master of this strange art and like the late John Smith could often be very funny.

Even Hague, could come unstuck though, as he did filling in for David Cameron when Harriet Harman stood in for PM, Gordon Brown in 2008.

“You had to explain yesterday that you dress in accordance with wherever you go – you wear a helmet to a building site, you wear Indian clothes to Indian parts of your constituency,” he began, then attempting a joke. “Presumably when you go to a cabinet meeting you dress as a clown.”

Against all expectation, Harriet Harman then wiped the floor with him:

“If am looking for advice on what to wear or what not to wear, I think the very last person I would look to for advice is the man in a baseball cap,” she said.

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By common consent, PMQs is currently going through a dull patch. Jeremy Corbyn covered up his initial experience well by using questions from the general public. Today, he is much better and no longer resorts to this clever tactic. But he is not a spontaneous performer even as he consistently outperforms Theresa May.

It was David Cameron who called for “an end to Punch and Judy politics” when he became Tory leader in 2005. He was not the first or last leader to express such sentiments and was not referring to PMQs specifically anyway, a ritual which he generally proved pretty good at.

But a few years later, he admitted the folly of this pledge. For calm down, dear! He was the future once, his Day Mayor and your Night Mayor.

And Punch and Judy politics are here to stay.

That is that. The end.

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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.

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

A century of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath

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They seemed  like total opposites.

Wilson seemed working-class to the core, Heath seemed posh. Wilson seemed jovial, dynamic and witty, Heath seemed stiff and awkward. Wilson was the family man who holidayed in the Isles of Scilly ever year, Heath was the European, conductor, champion yachtsman and lifelong bachelor.

Both men were actually more similar to each other than they seemed. Both ruled the nation for as long as Thatcher, eleven and a half years (October 1964 to April 1976) between them. And both were born a full century ago in the year 1916.

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Wilson emerged first, beating two older men George Brown and James Callaghan to win the Labour leadership following Hugh Gaitskell’s death in early 1963. Always brilliant – he had become the youngest British cabinet minister of the century at 31 – Wilson was also wily and had reinvented himself from being rather a dull figure under Attlee to a dynamic, raincoat-wearing, pipe-smoking working class hero ripe for the TV age. Wilson, like all successful politicians, was lucky: the Tory government fell foul of the Profumo Affair and Harold Macmillan gave way to the much less formidable Alec Douglas Home in October 1963. But Wilson was also a brilliant opposition leader and spoke of “the white heat of revolution” an exciting but largely meaningless term. He led Labour to a narrow victory in October 1964. It is surprising he didn’t win by a wider margin.

Young and from a similar background (his father had been a carpenter) and the first grammar school boy to be Tory leader, Heath was elected in 1965 partly because he was seen (wrongly) as the Tory answer it Wilson.

Wilson trounced Heath in the 1966 election which saw Labour’s majority surge to almost 100. Both men would struggle in the next four years. Wilson was lucky to survive a sea of economic troubles especially with many of his colleagues (Brown, Jenkins, Callaghan, Healey) keen to usurp him. Heath was criticised for sacking Enoch Powell after his inflammatory 1968 Rivers of Blood speech on immigration. In fact, he was right to do so. But the press remained critical of Heath and he remained unpopular. Polls predicted another easy General Election win for Labour in 1970, Heath’s last chance. As in 1992 and 2015, the polls were wrong and the Tories got back with a majority.

As Prime Minister, Heath led Britain into the Common Market, a towering achievement the like of which neither Wilson or indeed most prime ministers ever manage. Sadly, the rest of his premiership was a disaster derailed by the oil shock, inflation and his battle with the unions.

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Asking “Who governs Britain?” Heath went to the polls early during the Three Day Week in 1974. He was overconfident. Enoch Powell urged voters to back Labour and though the Tories got more votes, Labour got slightly more seats. After an unseemly and unnecessary attempt to court the support of Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, Wilson, to his surprise, was back. A second election later in the year gave him a majority, albeit a very small one, similar in size to the one he had started as PM with a full decade earlier.

Heath was now in serious trouble. Arrogant and supremely overconfident, he never expected to be overthrown by his former Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher in February 1975. Few had done. He never forgave her and remained a plausible rival to her leadership until the early 1980s. The Incredible Sulk had begun.

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Wilson had problems too. Inflation was sky-high, the pound was low, Labour’s majority was vanishing fast and the party was at odds over Europe. Wilson was also drinking heavily, well past his best politically and possibly already suffering from the dementia which would blight his old age. He resigned very suddenly in 1976, damaging his reputation with his botched Resignation Honours list. Wilson was consumed by paranoia. It is true these were paranoid times; many of Wilson’s colleagues DID want his job. Sections of the MI5 were also convinced he was a Soviet agent who had poisoned his predecessor Hugh Gaitskell. (They were wrong: Wilson had not been favourite to succeed Gaitskell at the time of his death anyway, so aside from anything else, he had no real motive). But Wilson’s own paranoia nevertheless got out of hand.

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Neither man has been served well by posterity. Heath looks worse than Thatcher in most Tory eyes (she did win three large victories after all, he lost three and won one). Although the abuse allegations raised in 2015 seem unsubstantiated at this time, Heath was most likely gay and suppressed his homosexuality in favour of a political career (his contemporary Jeremy Thorpe attempted to pursue both: the results were disastrous). He remained a visible and vocal public figure until his death in 2005. Now eleven years on, his most cherished achievement: our place in Europe is under threat.

Wilson’s tenure saw some major changes: the legalisation of abortion, homosexuality and the abolition of the death penalty and reform of the divorce laws. Neither Wilson nor Heath can be described as a total success. But their decade or so in power, undoubtedly changed Britain.

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

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

By Clive Bloom

Published by: The History Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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DVD review: An Inspector Calls

BBC Worldwide release date: September 21st 2015

Starring:  David Thewlis, Miranda Richardson, Ken Stott, Sophie Rundle, Kyle Soller

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It’s 1912 and all is well with the world. The Titanic is about to set sail and there most definitely isn’t about to be a global world war in two years, as the well-to-do Birling family settle down for a dinner to celebrate the engagement of their daughter. The only trouble is someone claiming to be a police inspector (Thewlis) is at the door with news of a death. He is about to blow the complacent world of the Birlings and their selfish “everyone for themselves” philosophy apart forever.

The victim is a local girl: one Eva Smith, a working-class factory worker who has committed suicide. The tragedy initially appears to have no connection to the Birlings at all. Or does it? We soon learn gradually that every member of the family has, in their own way known Eva and through their actions, somehow contributed to her death. The Birlings soon learn that their actions have consequences, not just in this case, but in a wider world on the brink of being torn apart by two world wars and a global depression.

But, there are further questions too. Who exactly is Inspector Goole? And is he really what he claims to be?

Screened earlier this month, this is an excellent BBC version of J.B. Priestley’s classic Attlee-era, socialist play. All the cast, particularly David Thewlis are superb and the introduction of flashbacks invigorates proceedings immeasurably, bringing the action vividly to life.

Bonus features include one short introduction to the play and one longer one.

Downton Abbey this ain’t. It’s better.

Bonus features

An Inspector Calls – An Introduction

The Enduring Power of An Inspector Calls

Book review: I Never Promised You A Rose Garden by John Crace

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If, as is often said, a week is a long time in politics, then ten months must be a lifetime. For back in November 2010, when this humorous book was published, Ed Miiband was not just the unshaven backbencher he is today, but a party leader widely reckoned to have a real shot at being Prime Minister. What’s more, the Tories, then in something called “a coalition” with a party, apparently the third party in Britain back then, called the Liberal Democrats, were looking quite vulnerable. Many still had high hopes for Nigel Farage and UKIP back then too. They don’t now. Fewer expected the post-referendum SNP surge to last, perhaps not even their new leader elected in that month, Nicola Sturgeon. What’s more such luminaries as Douglas Alexander, David Laws, Vince Cable, Charles Kennedy, Danny Alexander and Ed Balls were all still members of parliament. The last figure, indeed, had reasonable hopes of becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Jeremy Corbyn? He is not mentioned here at all.

How times have changed! This is not to criticise this funny, informative and still highly enjoyable book. Guardian writer John Crace must have known this book would always have a brief shelf life but this is still well worth a read. Crace is funniest in constructing imaginary conversations between political figures and is refreshingly even handed. He is as harsh on Miliband’s automaton type ways as he is on Cameron’s gaffes (why on Earth did he appoint Andy Coulson? What on Earth was Andrew Lansley’s health care reforms supposed to be about? Why do Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith have to exist?).

Excellent.

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I Never Promised You A Rose Garden: A Short Guide to Modern Politics, the Coalition and the General Election. Published by: Corgi, 2014 by John Crace

Book review: The Eye of the Storm: The View From The Centre of A Political Scandal by Rob Wilson

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What is it like to be at the centre of a political scandal? We are all keen enough to criticise our politicians when they fall into difficulties, but how many of us would have the strength of character to withstand the ensuing media storm which usually follows?

Although never the victim of such a scandal himself, Tory MP Rob Wilson is well placed to provide an insight into the behind the scenes action which has provided the backdrop to a number of the scandals which have been endured by a number of his colleagues in the last decade. It is a well written and well researched book which goes some way to redressing the balance towards the currently much maligned political class,

Wilson’s political leanings occasionally show, however. Andrew Mitchell of Plebgate in a chapter on the scandal called “Andrew Mitchell’s heartbreak” is described as being “now viewed sympathetically across the political spectrum as the victim of a dangerous conspiracy”. This isn’t true. There is definitely a lot of murkiness surrounding the police allegations about Mitchell but his reputation has certainly been at least as tainted as the Met’s by the affair. Terrible as his ordeal may well have been, a cloud still hangs over Mitchell’s character. The book was published before Mitchell lost his libel case against News Group Newspapers in November 2014, however, so on this Wilson can perhaps be excused.

It is frequently clear, however, where his sympathies lie. Labour MP Tom Watson is labelled as a “witch-finder general” for his perfectly legitimate and necessary investigations into the phone hacking scandal. Lib Dem Vince Cable is portrayed as “never lacking in self confidence in his own ability”. Tory Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, meanwhile, who somehow survived suggestions of improper collusion with the Murdoch press presumably because his Prime Minister felt vulnerable on the same ground himself, escapes the same criticism even though he was assured enough to say goodbye to another promising colleague on leaving university with the words, “see you at Westminster!” Both did indeed become MPs before long.

In fairness most of the chapters in here though are thoroughly researched and compelling reading. Anyone interested to know more about the falls of Liam Fox, Chris Huhne or Jacqui Smith should check it out.

But the inclusion of “William Hague’s four-year ordeal” as Opposition leader seems dubious in a book about scandal. Hague undoubtedly had a hard time as everyone does as Opposition leader and was not a great success. But despite the inclusion of some now forgotten gossip about his relationship with his special advisor when he first became Foreign Secretary in 2010, Hague has never yet been at the centre of a major scandal. Hague certainly has experience of being at “the eye of the storm” but so has every major politician. He should not have been included in this otherwise decent book.

Published by: Biteback, 2014

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10 reasons why the last Labour Government was great

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The Blair-Brown government achieved a lot of good, so why are Labour politicians so afraid of defending it in public? Here are ten reasons why it was a success…

  1. A lasting peace in Northern Ireland

By 1997, the peace process began under John Major had stalled, partly because the Tories were reliant on the Ulster Unionists to prop up the Tories in parliament during the Major Government’s final days. It took a new government, a new Prime Minister (Tony Blair) and a dynamic new Northern Ireland Secretary (the late Mo Mowlam) to deliver the Good Friday Agreement and the enduring peace which continues to this day. Blair and Mowlam succeeded where thirty years of previous governments had failed.

  1. The economy…stupid!

There are countless Tory myths about the last government’s economic record. Did Labour overspending cause the slump? Clearly not, there was a severe recession throughout the western world: Britain would have been hit anyway. Only the effort to bail out the banks (supported by the Tories) once the slump was in progress put the economy in debt. Should Labour have regulated the markets more tightly? Yes, but again the Tories at the time were arguing for LESS regulation of the markets not more. Did Brown’s actions prevent a recession becoming a depression? Undoubtedly yes. Brown stopped the UK entering the Euro as Chancellor and as PM, his quantative easing policy was widely credited with saving the global banking system. Historians are likely to judge Labour well for dodging the recession which hit many countries at the start of the century and coping well with the global deluge when it came. Should Labour have prepared a “rainy day fund” to prepare the economy during the boom times? In retrospect, yes. Has any other government ever done this? No!

  1. Tough on crime…

The crime rate fell by 44% between 1997 and 2010. Will this continue under Cameron with police numbers being slashed? It seems doubtful. Even Cameron in 201 admitted crime had fallen under Labour making a mockery of his “broken Britain” slogan.

  1. Labour saved the NHS

A disaster area in 1997, Labour bailed the NHS out, leaving it in a good state and with record user approval ratings by 2010. Once again, the Tories have squandered this inheritance and the NHS is in crisis again.

  1. Education, education, education

The period saw huge strides in education. By any measure, standards rose dramatically.

  1. A minimum wage

Fiercely opposed by the Tories at the time on the grounds that it would lead to mass unemployment (wrong!), the minimum wage introduced by Labour is now universally accepted by everyone. The living wage promoted by Ed Miliband is the next step.

  1. Things did get better

Homelessness fell dramatically (under both Thatcher, Major and Cameron it rose dramatically). Civil partnerships were introduced. The House of Lords was reformed. Devolution was introduced for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The gay age of consent was equalised. Britain got better.

  1. Less social division

Labour were never affected by the endless wrangling over the EU that has blighted both of the last Tory Governments. Nor did the government actively seek to turn the public against itself as the Tories have with the public and private sectors.

  1. What will Cameron be remembered for?

Compare his achievements with those listed above. What springs to mind?  Austerity. The Bedroom Tax. Gay marriage – a real achievement but only accomplished with Labour’s help. The massive rise in student tuition fees. Cameron’s record has been abysmal.

  1. Win. win, win

If Labour were so bad in office, why did the public elect them three times? The Tories were hated in 1997, leading to the biggest majority achieved by either party being won by Labour (179). After four years in power, the people wanted more. Labour’s 167 seat majority in 2001 was second only to their 1997 one in post-war scale. Neither Attlee or Thatcher ever won such big majorities. In 2005, their majority fell to 66. Even then, this was a big majority, the eighth largest win of the 19 elections held since 1945. No disgrace at all. Even in 2010 under the unpopular Gordon Brown and during a major slump, Labour still did well enough to deny the Tories a majority.

It is a record to be proud of. Labour should not shy away from defending it.

Book review: Jeremy Thorpe by Michael Bloch

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Since the Second World War, two third party leaders have been in a position to determine the balance of power in a Hung Parliament. Five years ago, Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg secured his party a position in government but ultimately failed to achieve a proper cabinet position for himself or any of his party’s aims in office.

Liberal leader Jeremy Throrpe in February and March 1974 antagonised his Liberal colleagues (notably Chief Whip David Steel) by negotiating with Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath without consulting them first. Thorpe ultimately rejected the trappings of office and emerged with his reputation enhanced.

Few politicians would wish to emulate Jeremy Thorpe today, however, as Michael Bloch’s excellent biography reminds us. Indeed one wonders if the real reason future Liberal Democrat leader Jeremy Ashdown changed his name to “Paddy” was to avoid comparisons with the earlier Liberal? Today Thorpe, who died last December, is chiefly remembered for scandal and for being accused and found not guilty in a notorious murder plot. It was one of the biggest political stories of the Seventies and totally destroyed Thorpe’s career. Although only fifty in 1979, he was practically invisible for the last thirty-five years of his life which were also made worse by Parkinson’s disease.

The contrast with Thorpe’s earlier days could not be more striking. Thorpe was a dazzling figure who seems to have charmed almost everyone he met . Born in 1929, he joined the Liberals at the time of their great post-war crisis when they came close to extinction around 1950. Thorpe nevertheless determined to one day be Prime Minister, used his boundless energy to secure a seat in parliament in 1959 and obtained the party leadership while still in his thirties in 1967. As leader, he was always popular with the public (seeing the party through blows the 1970 election which coincided with the death of his first wife Caroline in a car accident) and highs (almost getting into government in 1974).

Ultimately, it was Thorpe’s compulsive risk-taking and his numerous homosexual liaisons which proved his downfall.

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Jeremy Thorpe

Michael Bloch

Published by: Little Brown

The Tories: A poem

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We’re the Tories; hear us sing!

Blame Labour for everything.

The last thing we’d do is confess,

That we’re to blame for this whole mess!

Ten years past, our chief complaint,

Was that the markets faced constraint,

We’d have made the markets stronger,

The recession harsher, deeper, longer.

Never mind the crash elsewhere,

It’s easier to blame Brown and Blair.

Our public services are now a mess,

We’re iffy about the NHS,

Shall we “reorganise” it again? Well, we may,

But we won’t say a thing about that before May,

The press is safe from real reform,

While Rupert’s Sun keeps us all warm,

“Vote Tory” stories every day and

Silly pictures of Ed Miliband.

Frankly, we’ll do what it takes to win,

Even invite old UKIP in,

We’ll attack the scroungers, play the race card,

Kick the weakest good and hard,

Our leader Cameron’s liberal underneath,

A bit like Major or Ted Heath,

But like them he’s weak, you’ll see what we mean,

He’ll even sacrifice the European dream.

So if you don’t care about the national health,

Care only really about yourself.

We really are the party for you!

(Though we’ve not won since 1992).

Don’t get us wrong: we love the UK,

We just wish all the people would go away.

A century of George Brown

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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. He 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 the title of the play, “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 Prime Minister is now known to have been effectively an alcoholic while in office. But the fact is, Wilson seems to have been able to hold his drink. He certainly concealed his condition much better than Brown did.

I’ve no idea, incidentally, why he is with Barbara Streisand in the above picture.

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 to be 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, Anthony Wedgwood (Tony) Benn expects Brown to be elected as his successor: this is the general view at the time. In the end, he is beaten by Harold Wilson, something Brown never gets over, partly because of concerns about Brown’s private behaviour. Less than sympathetic observers 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 (see this link, for a full account): https://chrishallamworldview.wordpress.com/2013/11/20/the-strange-case-of-eli-wallach-george-brown-and-the-death-of-jfk/
1964: After 13 years, 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 own personal driver behind) ordering them to take him to Whitehall, rudely insisting that he is on “important government business”. Rather surprisingly, the couple 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 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!” in response to something he has said. 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 of his resignation. He is widely assumed to be drunk. In fact, for once, he isn’t.
By coincidence, Wilson resigns suddenly as Prime Minister 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

Dear Nigel Farage…

 

 

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Well done Nigel Farage. You have fooled some of the people all of the time so far. But, in future, you might want to remember the following things…

Some people argue Ed Miliband looks bad on TV but frankly he looks like Brad Pitt next to most of UKIP’s motley crew. Seriously, are you the only one who really supports UKIP or do no vaguely normal looking UKIP supporters actually exist?

Stop pretending to be a victim

You claimed victory for UKIP at the weekend despite “everyone being against us”. This is total nonsense. UKIP received a hugely disproportionate amount of media coverage and could hardly have received a more favourable treatment from TV, radio and the press. Like many on the Right, such as the BNP, you like to pretend you are part of an unfairly persecuted minority. You are not.

Stop pretending to be a rebel

You often speak of the “elitist establishment” as if you are not somehow not part of it. In fact, as a public school educated ex-stockbroker, you are about as establishment as you can get. Indeed, you are exactly the sort of person who caused the recession in the first place. You will not be able to carry this off much longer.

Answer questions properly

So far, your typical response to tricky questions has been to:

a)      laugh them off,

b)      deny that certain controversial policies are in your manifesto,

c)        pretend you don’t know what’s in your manifesto

d)      claim you don’t have a manifesto.

Some people find this refreshing. It’s increasingly looking amateurish.

Expect tougher questions

On BBC Question Time recently, you laughed off questions about UKIP members’ expenses claims by saying you weren’t going to take any advice from the Tories on it. In fact, UKIP’s record is far worse than the Tories on this. Yet you got off the hook. This won’t always be the case. Remember when Andrew Neil and Nick Robinson humiliated you on TV on separate occasions recently? Expect more of this.

People aren’t that fussed about the EU either way

True, most polls show most people want to leave the EU. But it is way down the list of priorities. Frankly, the issue bores most people. David Cameron doesn’t seem to have realised this either. People voted for you primarily because they wanted to rebel against the main parties. The Lib Dems no longer fulfil this function.

Some people do want to leave the EU, yes. And some people who voted for you were racist. But more than half of UKIP voters from last week have already indicated they won’t vote UKIP in the General Election next year.

So it seems then, this is your peak. Like the SDP in 1981. Enjoy it while it lasts.

John Smith: Twenty-five years on

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The Labour leader John Smith died suddenly of a heart attack, twenty-five years ago this month, on May 12th 1994. Had he lived, he would now be eighty. He would also, no doubt, be remembered a former Prime Minister, rather than an Opposition leader whose tragic premature death prevented him from getting to the top.

Smith only led the Labour Party for two years. I don’t recall much popular excitement about his election as leader in July 1992. The contest against the perfectly decent left-winger Bryan Gould (who subsequently returned to his native New Zealand) was a foregone conclusion and a dull affair.

There was also some feeling that after losing for the fourth time in a row in April 1992, Labour might never win again. After all, if Labour couldn’t win during a Tory recession when could it win? Surely the economy would have recovered by 1996 or 1997 ensuring yet another win for the Tories? Satirical show Have I Got News For You… meanwhile pointed out, Labour was electing the very man whose tax plans had arguably led to their recent defeat in the first place.

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Such fears proved misplaced. Simply by electing Smith, Labour had made an important step towards recovery. In the month of Smith’s election as leader, Labour gained a poll lead over the Tories which it would maintain for the next decade. The April 1992 election result in fact turned out to be the last Tory General Election win achieved until 2015.

John Smith is sometimes accused of laziness and complacency: of being happy to let the Tories lose the election for themselves. In fact, during the Major years, this was the perfect tactic to adopt. Within months of their victory, the Major Government virtually disintegrated amidst a sea of divisions over Europe, sleaze allegations, and perhaps worst, the total economic incompetence exhibited by Prime Minister John Major and his Chancellor Norman Lamont on Black Wednesday in September 1992. Labour had double digit poll leads from the autumn onward. Hopelessly divided and weak, torn apart by self-inflicted wounds, the Major Government never recovered.

This is not to deny John Smith any credit for Labour’s recovery. Although he did not launch any “New Labour” style revolution, he was certainly not lazy either. For one thing, he proved the finest performer as Opposition leader in the Commons of the post-war era. Only Harold Wilson in 1963-64, William Hague in 1997-2001 or perhaps Tony Blair in 1994-97 have come close to matching him. “No wonder we live in a country where the Grand National doesn’t start and hotels fall into the sea!” he derided Major in 1993 (referring to two recent news events which, of course, the hapless John Major, for once, could not really be blamed for). More seriously, he attacked “the devalued Prime Minister of a devalued government” after Black Wednesday.

Then there was the One Member One Vote reform to end the union block vote in autumn 1993. Smith privately planned to resign if the party voted “no”.  They did not, partly thanks to  a spirited Conference defence of the OMOV proposals from John Prescott. As it turned out, this would ensure Prescott would defeat Smith’s Number Two Margaret Beckett in the then entirely unforeseen Deputy Leadership contest the following year.

Ultimately, Smith’s strength was a self-assurance which both his predecessors the terminally un-telegenic Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock as well as his successors Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband all lacked. True, the party experienced a huge surge in support following Tony Blair’s election as leader and a decisive move to the right for the party. But, in retrospect, Labour was already clearly heading for victory under John Smith. Maybe not the 179 seat majority achieved by New Labour but a substantial win nevertheless. There was no need for the creation of New Labour or the campaign to win over the Murdoch press. Labour had a 20% lead over the Tories in May 1994.

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Counter-factual history is a risky business. Would the Blair-Brown rivalry have taken new form in a Smith Cabinet? Would the Tories have fared well enough in 1997 for Michael Portillo to escape the humiliating loss of his seat and thus succeed Major instead of Hague?  Would Blair, Brown, Cameron and May still have become Prime Minister anyway? Would the Good Friday Agreement have still happened? The 2001 and 2005 Labour victories? Devolution? Kosovo? Afghanistan? Iraq? Brexit?

We will, of course, never know these things. While I would not wish to romanticise Smith’s leadership (every Labour leader before or since has, after all, been accused of “betraying socialism”. Smith, unfairly or not, would doubtless been accused of this just the same, had he lived) there seems little doubt that John Smith would have led Britain into the 21st century had he survived.

His death remains a great tragedy. The question of what a Smith-led Britain would have turned out like remains a fascinating mystery, twenty-five years on.

b

Book review Revolt On The Right by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin

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Revolt On The Right: Explaining Support For The Radical Right In Britain

Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin

Published by: Routledge

It’s official: the right-wing really are revolting.

Once upon a time, it was the Left who were most effective at endlessly shooting themselves in the foot in this way. In 1983, for example, the combined Labour/SDP alliance vote in the General Election was almost 68%. However, as these parties were a) not working together and b) hampered by the first past the post system, the end result was actually the biggest ever post-war win for Mrs. Thatcher’s Tories and a majority of 144.

Little wonder then, that there was plenty of ambitious talk at the time of the Millennium of this being “the progressive century” with Lib Dems and New Labour working together.

How dated such talk looks now! For now, it is the Right who are split. Under normal circumstances, one would expect a moderate Tory leader like Cameron presiding over an economic recovery and facing an unpopular Labour leader to be cruising to an easy win similar to Sir Anthony Eden in 1955.

This isn’t happening. Current polls give Labour a smallish poll lead of about 4%. This isn’t huge, but would give Miliband a win on a similar scale to Tony Blair’s third victory in 2005. This is partly due to the outdated boundary system which currently favours Labour (the Tories would actually need to be several points ahead of Labour even to get the same number of seats as them).

It’s also largely down to UKIP: currently in third place and polling somewhere between 11 and 15%.

Ford and Goodwin’s book is good on the twenty year history of UKIP. Mired by division and infighting, they briefly threatened to become significant a decade ago before the support of has-been daytime TV personality Robert Kilroy Silk descended into a bitter  and acrimonious power struggle. With much of UKIP support coming from a similar uneducated, elderly working-class base, the BNP also threatened to eclipse them before Nick Griffin’s party effectively imploded at the end of the last decade.

The leadership of Nigel Farage, a man who somehow manages to be both posh and blokey at the same time, has generally been a boon to the party, gaffe-prone though they remain. I am not at all convinced that much UKIP support comes from disillusioned Labour supporters. People who want to leave the EU or who are preoccupied by immigration haven’t generally been supporting Labour for a long time now, if ever. People with such views were either BNP supporters or Tories.

Much of UKIP’s support is based on ignorance. “In the days of Clement Attlee,” UKIP spokesman Paul Nuttall argues,”the Labour MPs came from the mills, the mines and the factories. The Labour MPs today… they go to private school, they go to Oxbridge… and they become an MP.”(P136). This is palpably nonsense. Middle class Labour support is nothing new. Clement Attlee himself went to a public school and to Oxford. For all that it matters, a large number of Labour MPs have always come from privileged backgrounds. There is also a nasty side to UKIP who, in the words of one UKIP activist appeal to those who (supposedly) “lost their job in the pub because of a nice looking girl from Slovakia” (P96).

But let’s not be too harsh. If UKIP succeed as they seem to be doing in denying the Tories a parliamentary majority next year, they will undoubtedly have (quite unintentionally) done this nation a great service.

Book review: Roy Jenkins, A Well Rounded Life

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Roy Jenkins: A Well Rounded Life.

John Campbell.

Published by Jonathan Cape, London.

Watching Nick Clegg being soundly beaten by UKIP leader Nigel Farage n the recent radio and TV debates was a dispiriting business. Some may have felt inclined to hark back to an earlier age when the European cause had more eloquent and effective debaters on its side. For example, Roy Jenkins.

Of course, Roy Jenkins (or Lord Jenkins of Hillhead as he was by the end) died in 2003 and would doubtless be horrified to learn that our continued membership of the European Union is now in doubt once again at all. As for the current Coalition Government, this would doubtless shock him less. He was keen on coalition governments long before it was fashionable.

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There are many myths about Roy Jenkins. One is that he was “nature’s old Etonian”, posh and clubbable despite coming from a Welsh mining background. In fact, though this is true (his father was falsely imprisoned for his role in the 1926 General Strike), Jenkins’ background was much more privileged than was generally realised. His father did, after all, serve in the Attlee Government.

Another myth which Campbell convincingly dispels is that Jenkins was lazy. He most definitely was not that, combining a busy social life (including a string of extra marital affairs), with a distinguished career as a biographer and historian in addition to being  Labour’s most successful ever Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was also the first British President of the EEC and co-founder of the ultimately unsuccessful Social Democratic Party.

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During his comparatively  brief spell as Home Secretary between 1965 and 1967, Jenkins transformed more lives for the better than most Prime Ministers have succeeded in doing, sponsoring the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality. He is sometimes credited (or blamed) with launching the permissive society, an exaggeration even if one ignores the fact that the abolition of National Service and the death penalty had already been delivered not by Jenkins but by the Tories. He was no less successful as Chancellor. Sadly, like Tony Benn, the 1970 unexpected Labour General Election defeat of 1970 led his leadership prospects to fade, albeit in a wholly different way to Benn:  Jenkins alienating his then Eurosceptic party through his support for European unity. He was, in fact, perhaps too reluctant to challenge for the leadership and by 1976 when a vacancy finally arose with Wilson’s resignation, it was too late. The SDP, despite huge initial opinion poll success in 1981 and (unlike today’s UKIP) actual by election wins failed to break through although contrary to myth, probably didn’t ensure Tory victory in 1983 either.

This is a superb biography from distinguished author John Campbell. Despite being a self confessed SDP supporter (he actually wrote an earlier biography of Jenkins at the height of the party’s ascendancy), Campbell certainly isn’t blind to either Jenkins’ or the party’s failings.

It is a long book and there are a few errors, mostly ones of chronology. The SDP were formed in 1981 not 1982 as he states on page 9 (though the detailed account of SDP history later in the book makes clear Campbell obviously knows this). Jenkins was also first Home Secretary from 1965 to 1967, not 1966 to 1967 (p1). Tony Blair’s reform of Clause IV did not come “half a century” after Gaitskell’s attempt but only about thirty five years later (p208). Gaitskell attempted this in 1959-60. Blair’s more successful attempt was in 1994-95. Was Sir Stafford Cripps ever referred to as the “Iron Chancellor” as Campbell states (P310-P311)? Maybe he was. The nickname is more usually applied to Labour’s first ever Chancellor Snowdon, however, or sometimes Gordon Brown (and originally to Otto von Bismarck obviously). Finally, the Westland Affair peaked in January 1986 not January 1985 (p642).

But these are quibbles. This is a superb well rounded biography of a well rounded man. It is indeed a biography Roy Jenkins himself would have been proud to have written although he may have struggled to pronounce the title.

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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 Wedgwood Benn to succeed in life, 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. It is likely neither remembered.

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 Mrs. Thatcher impressed many as a junior minister under Macmillan, the death of Benn’s father in 1960 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, modernising, technology-obsessed minister in the Wilson Government. Thatcher, in contrast, 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 become the Education Secretary, demonised as the “milk snatcher.” Alongside Barbara Castle and Shirley Williams she was now one of the most high profile women in politics.

It was at this point, Benn shifted to the Left, dropping the “Anthony Wedgwood” 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 witnessed 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.

Margaret 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 run. Fewer still 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 which followed Wilson’s resignation in 1976. He came fourth but was pleased to do as well as he did.

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Thatcher struggled against Prime Minister James 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 seemed 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 party 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 leadership 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 been out of parliament during 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 more satisfactory 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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A song for UKIP

(Actually, more of a poem than a song…)

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Right wing chumps of the world unite!

It’s time to take a stand and fight,

It’s time to desert the sinking ship,

Leave the Tories: join UKIP!

Follow your heart and not your head,

Maggie would back us (were she not dead,)

Listen to the Mail, Telegraph and Express,

Say no to EU bureaucracy and excess!

Are you racist to a small degree?

We’re less scary than the BNP!

If the PC liberals had their way,

Everyone in the world would be gay.

The EU is far too large.

Vote for an Englishman named Farage.

Join the UKIP throng as we march today,

Towards a glorious yesterday!

The rest of us on Planet Earth,

Should cheer on UKIP for all our worth,

For like in 1983,

They’re splitters like the SDP.

For Farage and his doltish band,

Are giving Labour a helping hand,

The bigger the split grows on the Right,

The better things look on election night.

So if you are a lefty liberal type like me,

And value the NHS and BBC,

And don’t blame the poor for being poor,

Or lay all our ills at the immigrant’s door.

If you don’t want to make life a misery,

For the poorest and weakest in society,

Then pray that UKIP win some seats,

And help Labour into Downing Street.

Chris Hallam.