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.

James Bond vs Doctor Who

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Two great national institutions celebrate their fiftieth anniversaries this year and next: James Bond and Doctor Who. On the face of it, the two franchises could not be more different. One is a sci-fi TV series arguably aimed at children, the other a serious of sexually charged action films. But beneath the surface, the two are more similar than they seem. Consider:

  1. Both began at a very similar time. The first Bond film Dr No was released in October 1962, the same month as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Doctor Who first graced British TV screens on November 23rd 1963: the day after President Kennedy’s assassination.
  2. Both fizzled out in 1989: Timothy Dalton’s second Bond film License to Kill turned out to be the last for a while. Some blamed the end of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall had fallen: who should Bond fight now? In fact, the success of Die Hard raised the stakes as far as action film budgets were concerned and with the British film industry then in the Thatcher-era doldrums, Bond couldn’t compete. Doctor Who’s end, meanwhile, is sometimes blamed on the malice of BBC controller Michael Grade. Grade freely admits he disliked the series. But in truth, like Bond, Doctor Who had been in a state of decline for some time.
  3. Both came back in the mid-Nineties (sort of):  Bond returned in style with Goldeneye in 1995 and a new Bond, Pierce Brosnan.  Brosnan would star in three more Bond films. Doctor Who’s “comeback” in a 1996 TV movie starring Paul McGann was widely seen as a flop. Although ironically the show did see the Doctor behaving more like James Bond.
  4. Both came back AGAIN about six years ago: Brosnan was replaced with Daniel Craig and the whole franchise got a reboot with Casino Royale in 2006. The year before Russell T. Davies finally re-launched Doctor Who properly with Christopher Eccleston enjoying a one series run as the Doctor and ex-teen pop star Billie Piper as assistant Rose Tyler. The Doctor has regenerated twice since then but has been with us ever since.
  5. Both franchises replace their star every few years: The Doctor famously regenerates whenever the lead actor fancies calling it quits, something that first occurred when the elderly first Doctor William Hartnell left early in the series’ life in 1966 and transformed into the physically dissimilar Patrick Troughton. The “regeneration” device has proven very handy over the years. Matt Smith became the Eleventh Doctor in 2010. As there is no obligation for the Doctor’s different personas to physically resemble each other, this has led to some wide ranging choices. Generally the actors seem to have got gradually younger over time, although all have been male. Bond, in contrast, doesn’t regenerate and is supposed to be the same character. Casting directors have generally gone for reasonably well known but never exactly famous thirty something British actors for the role: Craig is more different than any of the others, simply because he’s blonde. There is only a slight sci-fi element to Bond, of course, but it is odd that we are expected to believe the same man has stayed roughly the same age for fifty years.
  6. Doctors on average change at a faster rate than Bonds. Assuming Matt Smith is still Doctor in one year, there will have been on average one doctor for every four and a half years. Bond actors usually last for an average of just over eight years. There have been six so far.
  7. Iconic music and title sequences: The haunting Who theme has changed gradually over time as the floating head has (until recently) changed from one Doctor’s into another during the title sequence. The main Bond theme has remained unchanged through the decades although each film has, of course, seen a range of different themes by artists as diverse as Nancy Sinatra, Duran Duran, Tom Jones and (on three occasions) Shirley Bassey. The Bond title sequences have also grown increasingly imaginative and, at times, eccentric.
  8. Girls: Bond girls have ranged from Ursula Andress, Barbara Bach, Kim Basinger and Halle Berry. The Doctor, in dramatic contrast seems almost completely asexual. Yet his “companions” (who are occasionally male) have included Bonnie Langford, Katy Manning and many others.
  9. Taking the piss: Bond has been parodied extensively. The 1967 Casino Royale (an overblown mess starring Orson Welles, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen) mocked Bond from within. Since then Austin Powers and Johnny English have done so more effectively. Rowan Atkinson interestingly has parodied both Bond (in Johnny English and the TV ads which spawned it) and played a comic Doctor Who in a Comic Relief spoof alongside Julia Sawalha. Filmed in 1999, it was “The Curse of Fatal Death” was the closest thing to a new Doctor Who anyone had seen in years.
  10. The Cleese connection: At the height of his late 70s post Life of Brian/Fawlty Towers fame, John Cleese appeared in the Tom Baker Doctor Who saga City of Death in 1979 (Cleese’s friend Douglas Adams was Script Editor on the story). Much later, Cleese appeared as “R” assistant to “Q” in the Bond film The World Is Not Enough. He actually took over for another “hilarious” turn as the new Q in Die Another Day in 2002. He hasn’t appeared in any Bond films since.
  11. Our Friends in the North: As author Alwyn W. Turner has pointed out, the groundbreaking Nineties BBC drama Our Friends in the North saw both future James Bond Daniel Craig and future Dr Who Christopher Eccleston playing side by side. Eccleston played Nicky Hiutchence, a bearded University drop-out who during the course of the series ran for parliament in a bid to become a Labour MP before becoming a photographer. Craig played his childhood friend “Geordie” Peacock, who falls in with the London criminal element and ultimately faces a bitter struggle with alcoholism and homelessness.

Daniel Craig - New James Bond movie Casino Royale