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!)

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Advertisements

Thirty years of A Very British Coup

Written during the gloomy days of the early Thatcher era, Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup has since inspired two Channel 4 dramas series: a 1988 series adapted by Alan Plater and the current  The Secret State starring Gabriel Byrne..

The second of these has so far has shown only a slight resemblance to Chris Mullin’s novel. But thirty years after it was first published, A Very British Coup remains one of the finest political novels ever written.

The story is set in what was then the future: the year 1989. The General Election has ended with an amazing shock result: the Labour Party led by former Sheffield steelworker Harry Perkins has been swept to power in an unexpected popular landslide. The result is a clear mandate for a truly radical agenda which proposes “consideration to be given” to withdrawal from NATO, an end to the nuclear deterrent and to UK membership  of the then Common Market, abolition of the House of Lords, an end to public schools and much more.

Little wonder the establishment react with alarm. The story of A Very British Coup is essentially of how the security services (with US help), the media and civil service all conspire to thwart the new government’s agenda and ultimately subvert democracy.

Some might scoff at the premise. 1989 after all, turned out to be the high watermark of Thatcherism in reality. And how likely is it that the Tories and SDP would form an alliance or that Labour would beat them with a manifesto which makes Labour’s real “longest suicide note in history” from 1983 look mild in comparison?

In fact, it’s not so far-fetched. Since 2010, we have been living under something very close to a Tory-SDP “Government of National Unity”. Labour also won an unexpected landslide on a very socialist agenda in the “khaki” election of 1945 and again, won unexpectedly (though much more narrowly) on a hard left manifesto in 1974.

There are also similarities between Harry Perkins and Harold Wilson, another Yorkshire-born Labour Prime Minister who resigned very unexpectedly in 1976. Even their names are similar. Wilson often talked of MI5 plots against him and it is easy to dismiss his talk now as an early manifestation of the Alzheimer’s disease which would blight his old age.

Except… it has since emerged: elements of MI5 were genuinely actively plotting against Wilson. Maybe not at the very top of the service, but some more eccentric right-wing agents apparently genuinely believed Wilson was a KGB agent who had assassinated his predecessor as Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell who died in 1963. In reality, this conspiracy theory is unlikely as Wilson was not even favourite to succeed Gaitskell at the time of the latter’s death, George Brown was. There is talk at the end of the novel of a book being written which would tell the true story of “what happened to the government of Harry Perkins. There must, however, be some doubt as to whether it will ever be published.”

Such talk should only go so far though. The book is a novel. Chris Mullin, later a Labour MP and now an acclaimed political diarist would not actually have expected events to turn out exactly as he wrote them, any more than George Orwell would have expected the horrors of his vision of 1984 to be fully realised. Harry Perkins is not Harold Wilson: he is far more left-wing than Wilson ever was. Mullin’s vision of the pernicious effects of Thatcherism in the Eighties is highly prescient. He may not have anticipated the peaceful end of the Cold War (virtually nobody did in 1981) but nor did he predict a Labour election landslide for Michael Foot or a limited nuclear war started by President Ted Kennedy as Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta which also appeared in 1982 did.

Perhaps more by coincidence, Mullin did foresee a Labour Foreign Secretary being revealed to have had an extramarital affair soon after a landslide election win. This is exactly what happened to the late Robin Cook in 1997 although he didn’t resign and the affair thankfully ended more happily than it does for the fictional Tom Newsome. On the other hand, Mullin was somewhat off in predicting the age of King Charles III and Queen Diana would have begun by 1989.

My copy of A Very British Coup features the quote “A delicious fantasy” by The Observer on the cover. I’m not so sure. It’s certainly delicious but it clearly isn’t entirely rooted in fantasy. Remember, the first ever Labour Government was brought down at least in part by the faked “Zinoviev Letter” distributed by MI5 in 1924. Think about how ungracious the response to Obama’s re-election has been amongst some on the US Right (such as Donald Trump). Or how the UK establishment might react to an unexpected Ed Miliband win in 2015.

Consider finally, this real life quote by the noted right-winger Peregrine Worsthorne in the Daily Telegraph from 1979 with which Mullin begins the novel: “When treason can be right”, it explains: “I could easily imagine myself being tempted into a treasonable disposition under a Labour government dominated by the Marxist left . . . Suppose, in these circumstances, one were approached by the CIA who sought to enlist one’s help in seeking to ‘destabilise’ this far-left government. Would it necessarily be right to refuse co-operation?”

No wonder A Very British Coup also features a villain called Peregrine.