Book review: Edward Heath: A Singular Life

Edward Heath: A Singular Life by Michael McManus

Poor old Edward Heath. This year is the centenary of his birth and how has Britain chosen to honour it? By rejecting the one crowning achievement of his premiership: by choosing to reject our membership of what is now known as the European Union. As Gyles Brandreth (who once happened to be sick on Heath’s shoes) has said: “were Ted still alive, it would kill him”.

Last year, was an even worse year for the former prime minister’s posthumous reputation with the emergence of a number of allegations emerging against Heath: specifically that he had sex with underage boys in retirement. Despite the fact these seem to have very little foundation, (Heath seems to have been homosexual by inclination but not in practice) the damage to Heath’s reputation seems to have been done. Thankfully, he never knew of them, having  died in 2005.

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This is a slightly odd book. There seems to have been a  proofing error in it (one chapter is described as covering “1950-1959” when it actually covers “1950-1970”). It claims to be “not a biography” when to all intents and purposes, it is. McManus’s website describes as “an acclaimed collection of essays, tributes and anecdotes about the former Prime Minister.” It isn’t. It is a biography featuring extensive quotes and recollections of Heath. As the introduction explains, something was lost in the journey from conception to completion.

This is still an excellent read, however, providing a real sense of Heath’s character over the years. It is easy to forget now just what a supremely able person he seems to have been in his early years, impressing many with his qualities diligence and leadership both during the war and as a rising MP. He practically kept the nation going as Chief Whip during the 1956 Suez Crisis, when the real prime minister, Sir Anthony Eden was often either overseas or ill or both.

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Real leadership does not seem to have brought out the best in Heath, however. On the one hand, joining the Common Market was a major personal triumph owing much to his endurance and diplomacy. He also acted courageously and correctly, quickly isolating Enoch Powell from mainstream Tory politics, following his racist “Rivers of Blood” speech in  1968. On the other hand, his was a disappointing premiership low on achievement and quickly derailed from its initial ambitions by inflation and industrial action. Having been brought down by the two General Elections of 1974, (having come to power after a surprise election win in June 1970), he was overthrown as Tory leader by his old Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher in February 1975.

Heath’s defensiveness in the face of media attacks, plus his rather odd manner and sense of humour gave rise to the rather stuffy awkward image of Heath which prevails to this day: that of the “incredible sulk”.

It is not wholly unjustified. But his morally courageous attacks on the excesses of Thatcherism in later life, demonstrate that he was perhaps a better man than he was a Prime Minister.

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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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When General Election campaigns go wrong… (1945-1983)

1945: Churchill’s “Gestapo” speech

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It was not his finest hour.

In the summer of 1945, the wartime coalition broke up and the parties campaigned in the first General Election campaign in nearly ten years.

Most expected Winston Churchill, rightly hailed as the nation’s wartime saviour, to lead the Tories to victory. But if this had ever been going to happen, Churchill did himself and the party serious harm with a vicious attack on Labour in a radio broadcast:

But I will go farther. I declare to you, from the bottom of my heart, that no Socialist system can be established without a political police. …No Socialist Government conducting the entire life and industry of the country could afford to allow free, sharp, or violently-worded expressions of public discontent. They would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo…

The attack backfired. Voters were aghast that Churchill would level such a charge at gentle timid men such as Clement Attlee, who until recently had been working well alongside Churchill in coalition. The attack seemed to demonstrate the difference between Churchill the great war leader and Churchill the party politician and probably at least partly explains the scale of the Labour landslide which followed. And, no. Nothing anything like a “gestapo” was ever introduced.

1970: Benn attacks Enoch.

In 1968, Enoch Powell provoked a huge controversy with his inflammatory “rivers of blood” speech. Tory leader Edward Heath immediately sacked Powell from the Opposition front bench. As Labour went into the 1970 election, senior Labour campaigners were instrucyted not to mention Powell who still commanded significant support amongst many white vvoters.

Unfortunately, Tony Benn broke ranks with an attack almost as inflammatory in its own way as Powell’s had been. Benn declared: “The flag of radicalism which has been hoisted in Wolverhampton (Powell’s seat) is beginning to look like the one that fluttered 25 years ago over  (the concentration camps) Dachau and .Belsen“. Benn regretted saying it, almost immediately.

Powell, like Benn was a Second World War veteran and there is some evidence Benn’s gaffe galvanised white support in Powellite areas. The Tories won a surprise victory in 1970. Benn’s remarks don’t entirely explain  this but they didn’t help.

February 1974: Enoch backs Labour.

By 1974, many white voters still wanted Enoch Powell to be Prime Minister. With Edward Heath’s Tories facing a knife edge election, Powell’s speech declaring that Tories who oppose Common Market membership should vote Labour as he had done was hugely damaging.

The result? Labour won slightly more seats than the Tories (though fewer votes) and were soon able to lead a Hung Parliament. Powell’s intervention may have actually led to the difference between victory and defeat. That said, Labour held a referendum on Common Market membership. People voted “yes” so Britain remained within.

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1983: Thatcher gets a grilling.

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The 1983 election was by and large a very good one for Mrs Thatcher’s Tories aside from this one supremely awkward phone-in with teacher Diana Gould. This centered on the sinking of the General Belgrano, during the 1982 Falklands conflict.

Gould: Mrs Thatcher, why, when the Belgrano, the Argentinian battleship, was outside the exclusion zone and actually sailing away from the Falklands, why did you give the orders to sink it?

Thatcher: But it was not sailing away from the Falklands — It was in an area which was a danger to our ships, and to our people on them.
Lawley: Outside the exclusion zone, though.
Thatcher: It was in an area which we had warned, at the end of April, we had given warnings that all ships in those areas, if they represented a danger to our ships, were vulnerable. When it was sunk, that ship which we had found, was a danger to our ships. My duty was to look after our troops, our ships, our Navy, and my goodness me, I live with many, many anxious days and nights.
Gould: But Mrs Thatcher, you started your answer by saying it was not sailing away from the Falklands. It was on a bearing of 280 and it was already west of the Falklands, so I’m sorry, but I cannot see how you can say it was not sailing away from the Falklands.
Thatcher: When it was sunk ..
Gould: When it was sunk.
Thatcher: .. it was a danger to our ships.
Gould: No, but you have just said at the beginning of your answer that it was not sailing away from the Falklands, and I am asking you to correct that statement.
Thatcher: But it’s within an area outside the exclusion zone, which I think is what you are saying is sailing away ..
Gould: No, I am not, Mrs Thatcher.
Sue Lawley: I think we are not arguing about which way it was facing at the time.
Gould: Mrs Thatcher, I am saying that it was on a bearing 280, which is a bearing just North of West. It was already west of the Falklands, and therefore nobody with any imagination can put it sailing other than away from the Falklands.
Thatcher: Mrs – I’m sorry, I forgot your name.
Lawley: Mrs Gould.
Thatcher: Mrs Gould, when the orders were given to sink it, when it was sunk, it was in an area which was a danger to our ships. Now, you accept that, do you?
Gould: No, I don’t.
Thatcher: I am sorry, it was. You must accept ..
Gould: No, Mrs Thatcher.
Thatcher: .. that when we gave the order, when we changed the rules which enabled them to sink the Belgrano, the change of rules had been notified at the end of April. It was all published, that any ships that were are a danger to ours within a certain zone wider than the Falklands were likely to be sunk, and again, I do say to you, my duty, and I am very proud that we put it this way and adhered to it, was to protect the lives of the people in our ships, and the enormous numbers of troops that we had down there waiting for landings. I put that duty first. When the Belgrano was sunk, when the Belgrano was sunk, and I ask you to accept this, she was in a position which was a danger to our Navy.
Lawley: Let me ask you this, Mrs Gould. What motive are you seeking to attach to Mrs Thatcher and her government in this? Is it inefficiency, lack of communication, or is it a desire for action, a desire for war?
Gould: It is a desire for action, and a lack of communications because, on giving those orders to sink the Belgrano when it was actually sailing away from our fleet and away from the Falklands, was in effect sabotaging any possibility of any peace plan succeeding, and Mrs Thatcher had 14 hours in which to consider the Peruvian peace plan that was being put forward to her. In which those fourteen hours those orders could have been rescinded.
Thatcher: One day, all of the facts, in about 30 years time, will be published.
Gould: That is not good enough, Mrs Thatcher. We need ..
Thatcher: Would you please let me answer? I lived with the responsibility for a very long time. I answered the question giving the facts, not anyone’s opinions, but the facts. Those Peruvian peace proposals, which were only in outline, did not reach London until after the attack on the Belgrano—that is fact. I am sorry, that is fact, and I am going to finish—did not reach London until after the attack on the Belgrano. Moreover, we went on negotiating for another fortnight after that attack. I think it could only be in Britain that a Prime Minister was accused of sinking an enemy ship that was a danger to our Navy, when my main motive was to protect the boys in our Navy. That was my main motive, and I am very proud of it. One day all the facts will be revealed, and they will indicate as I have said.
Lawley: Mrs Gould, have you got a new point to make, otherwise I must move on?
Gould: Just one point. I understood that the Peruvian peace plans, on a Nationwide programme, were discussed on midnight, May 1st. If that outline did not reach London for another fourteen hours, ..
Lawley: Mrs Thatcher has said that it didn’t.
Gould: .. I think there must be something very seriously wrong with our communications, and we are living in a nuclear age when we are going to have minutes to make decisions, not hours.
Thatcher: I have indicated what the facts are, and would you accept that I am in a position to know exactly when they reached London? Exactly when the attack was made. I repeat, the job of the Prime Minister is to protect the lives of our boys, on our ships, and that’s what I did.

The Tories still won the election handsomely but Thatcher refused to do any live tv phone-ins or to appear on anything presented by Sue Lawley ever again.

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

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Crisis What Crisis?: Britain in the 1970s.

Alwyn W. Turner.

Published: Aurum.

RRP: £9.99

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prime Minister James Callaghan with Harold Wilson

Book Review: Tony Benn A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine. The Last Diaries

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“All political careers, unless cut off in mid-stream, end in failure,” wrote Enoch Powell. Margaret Thatcher was famously and dramatically driven from Downing Street by her own party and her own intense unpopularity. Others go more gently into the night and more gradually.

Tony Benn’s influence has been on the wane since his narrow defeat in the 1981 Labour Deputy Leadership contest. The party changed under Kinnock, then Smith, then Blair, then Brown but the former Viscount Stansagate did not change himself. He just grew older. These final diaries find him in his eighties, a widower and out of parliament as the successful Blair era gives way to the more calamitous leadership of Gordon Brown.

Benn seems increasingly a sad figure by this point, increasingly relishing the prospect of death (the sentiment, “I do actually feel as if I am coming to the end of my life” recurs frequently). But the eighth and final volume of his diaries nevertheless remains compelling. He remains friends with the actress Saffron Burrows and the newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky and his political insights remain as sharp as ever whether one agrees with them or not.

Sadly, a bout of ill health in 2009 brought his diaries – which he had written on and off since his wartime childhood and consistently sincehis return to the Commons in 1963 – to an end. Benn summarises the last five years (which have been dominated by the formation of the Tory-Liberal Democrat Coalition) in a few final pages of summary, a much less satisfying read than the diaries themselves.

But who can complain? Benn’s legacy, in addition to his political achievements (and failings) will undoubtedly be these diaries which have chronicled his own long political career but indeed all political life during the last half century.

Book review: Dominion by C.J. Sansom

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Britain 1952 and the nation should be enjoying the fruits of the end of post-war austerity and a new Elizabethan age.

But history has taken a horrendous wrong turn in C.J. Sansom’s all too plausible novel. For this is a world in which the appeaser Lord Halifax became Prime Minister instead of Winston Churchill in 1940. Instead of “fighting in the fields and in the streets”, Halifax and his Cabinet opted to sue for peace with the Nazis in the face of apparently certain defeat after Dunkirk. Hitler’s terms seem generous. As in 1938, the people are delighted as full blown war seems to have again been averted. Only over time, does the true cost of British capitulation become clear.

By 1952, Britain is emotionally and physically drained by the strain of Nazi domination and a seemingly endless war with the Soviet Union. The government is an unholy coalition of appeasers and racists some of whom (like Rab Butler and Enoch Powell) were actually in office in the Fifties. Others were not. The British Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley was in reality a political pariah by 1952. Here he is Home Secretary and fast growing in influence. After a spell under the inexcusably pro-Hitler former Prime Minister David Lloyd George (who once described the Fuehrer as “the greatest living German” in old age), the Prime Minster is now the unscrupulous newspaper tycoon, Lord Beaverbrook.

But there are grounds for optimism. David Fitzgerald, the conflicted civil servant hero of this novel finds himself involved in a resistance movement apparently led by a rebellious Churchill and Attlee, the two having walked out of parliament after the 1950 General Election was apparently fixed. With Eisenhower no longer a famous war hero in this reality, Democrat Adlai Stevenson has instead won the US presidency and is notably less keen on the Third Reich than his predecessor Robert Taft (in reality, a non-interventionist beaten for the 1940 Republican nomination) has been.

Does David’s troubled ex-university colleague Frank Muncaster hold the key to the regime’s downfall? Can David keep his resistance work from his already suspicious wife? Do the rumours that Hitler has finally died, have any truth in them?

Sansom’s book follows on from Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and Robert Harris’s Fatherland in imagining a victory for the Axis powers. But it succeeds where most such novels fail in creating compelling characters and a gripping storyline to go alongside its chillingly plausible scenario. It also doesn’t shirk from reminding us of the attractions that an Anglo-German deal in 1940 might have held. At one point, we are reminded that Coventry’s 15th century cathedral (and thus, presumably the city itself) have escaped the 1939-40 War entirely intact.

C.J. Sansom has described Robert Harris’s Fatherland as “the best alternative history novel ever written.” He is too modest. With this book, a splendidly vivid portrait of a nightmare reality that could so easily have occurred, Dominion can now claim this accolade for itself.

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?