General Election memories 6: 2001

POLITICS Blair 8

Peterborough, June 7th 2001

One of the big myths Tories that like to make up about the Blair-Brown years is that they were an unholy period of tyranny in which the nation was held to ransom by a debauched and malevolent cabal of godless devils and perverts.

Or at least this is what Michael Gove says.

There are a few problems with this theory, however. Namely:

  1. Barely anybody seems to have felt this way at the time.
  2. Secondly, if the government was so horrible, why on Earth did the people re-elect the government not once but twice by fairly hefty margins?

Take 2001, usually considered a fairly dull General Election. Labour were re-elected with a majority of 166! This is only slightly less than their famous victory in 1997 and still more than any other victory achieved since 1945, including those won by Thatcher, Attlee or anyone else.

2001 poster 2

This was partly the Tories’ own fault. No one had had time to forget the balls up they’d made of attempting to run the country under Major. They had also foolishly rejected the popular and experienced Ken Clarke as their leader, opting instead for the foolish and inexperienced young William Hague. These days, Mr Hague is held in high regard after his stint as Foreign Secretary. But he was viewed as geeky and weak when he was party leader. The best that can be said of his leadership is that he was slightly better than his successor Iain Duncan Smith. The main Tory complaint at this time was that Labour was crippling the stock markets with unnecessary restrictions. The Tories would give the markets all the power they wanted. What could go wrong?

Blair 2001 small

But, it should be said, the first Blair Government was a big success too. If I was largely politically inactive for a Politics student at this time, perhaps it’s because I had little to complain about. The government achieved a lasting peace in Northern Ireland, introduced the minimum wage, reformed the Lords, introduced devolution, steered us away from the recession which engulfed most of the world at the start of the century and launched a well meant intervention in Kosovo. To quote the film, The Wild One if asked: “What are you rebelling against?” I too, would have replied: “what have you got?” as it turns out, not much. Labour were barely even behind in the polls for a whole decade.

Not everything was perfect, of course. I disliked the introduction of tuition fees even though they were nowhere near the obscene levels the Cameron-Clegg coalition hiked them up to. I was lucky to be unaffected by them (I started my degree at Aberystwyth in 1996). My four older nephews and nieces were all born while I was at university during this time. Thanks to Cameron AND Clegg, any of them who go to university will pay a far greater price than I or indeed Cameron and Clegg themselves would have done themselves.

John-Prescott-2v1.jpg 2001

I was nearing the end of my academic career in 2001 anyway. I was 24 and about to return to Aberystwyth for the summer to finish my final Masters dissertation on the historiography of the Cold War (zzzzz). In the meantime, I was working part-time at home in the privatised section of Peterborough Passport Office (woeful). I had enough free time to see William Hague entering the Bull Hotel on a campaign visit. His visit was ineffective. Helen Brinton (later Clark) beat the Tory candidate Stewart Jackson to win the seat for Labour for a second time. As the late  Simon Hoggart reporting on Hague’s Peterborough visit put it: “The local Labour MP is Helen Brinton, whom I like personally but whose wide mouth, always slathered with scarlet lipstick, makes me long to post a letter in it.”

2001 poster

2001 is the only election I stayed up all night to watch to date (2017 update: this is no longer true). My parents must have been on holiday as I camped out downstairs with a female friend (not in a rude way) in the living room and watched the whole thing why she mostly slept. I don’t entirely blame her. Compared to 1997, it was a fairly dull night even if the “Prescott punch” during the campaign is still one of the best things to happen in the world ever.

Boris Johnson, David Cameron and David Miliband all became MPs for the first time that year. My old Head Boy David Lammy was already an MP. September 11th was just around the corner. The 2001 campaign already seems to belong to a more innocent bygone age.

Hague 2001

 

 

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Book review: Clement Attlee: The Inevitable Prime Minister

Attlee

Clement Attlee: The Inevitable Prime Minister.

Michael Jago.

Published by Biteback.

Few great political leaders have been so frequently underestimated as Clement Richard Attlee. In his early years, he showed little sign of becoming anything special or indeed of developing a socialist outlook. As Jago explains, for a Victorian boy of Attlee’s background born in 1883, there was simply no means of becoming a socialist. The teenage Attlee once argued that the working classes could not be expected to appreciate museums and art galleries in a school debating society. Attlee would later be embarrassed by these views, although as a lifelong champion of both the monarchy and the public school system, a conservative strain to Attlee’s thinking always remained.

Attlee And Bevan

Attlee seemed set for a fairly unpromising legal career until a period of voluntary work which started before the First World War transformed his outlook and which in the 1920s launched him towards politics. He continued to be underestimated, however. The first ever Oxford graduate to become a Labour MP, his rise to the leadership in 1935 surprised many. Most assumed he would be a temporary stop gap leader. In fact, he would be the longest serving Labour leader there has ever been, lasting twenty years until 1955 (Ed Miliband will need to last until 2030 to do as well! )

Churchill underestimated him too describing him as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing” despite witnessing his competence working alongside him in the wartime coalition in which Attlee eventually became the first ever Deputy Prime Minister. Churchill invited him to the first half of the critical post-war Yalta Conference on the off chance that Attlee might win the 1945 election and thus need to attend the rest as Prime Minister. But this was a formality. Churchill didn’t expect him to win. Neither did Stalin or his foreign minister Molotov, who, apparently not quite grasping how democracy works, had expected Churchill to fix the result.

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Labour’s spectacular 1945 General Election victory gave them their first ever majority. It was also a  huge one:  146. Only Tony Blair in 1997 and 2001 has won bigger victories since. The new intake of Labour MPs included most of the key Labour figures of the next forty years: Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson, George Brown, Denis Healey, Michael Foot with Tony Benn and James Callaghan soon to follow.

Attlee’s government did so well that every government since has been disappointing in comparison. Despite walking an economic tightrope throughout, Attlee ensured the return of full employment, a house building boom, the establishment of the post-Cold War foreign policy, independence for India, the nationalisation programme and the creation of the NHS and the welfare state.

Even now, nearly fifty years after his death in 1967, Attlee remains a somewhat underappreciated figure; his success often attributed more to his hugely talented cabinet (Cripps, Bevin, Bevan, Dalton and Morrison) than to the man himself. Jago’s excellent biography contains a couple of errors (a chapter entitled From Lord Haw Haw to Burgess and Maclean does not actually mention Lord Haw Haw aka William Joyce once) but is a masterly piece of work and goes some way to redressing the balance.

Thirty years after Margaret Thatcher shamelessly savaged Attlee’s cherished post-war legacy, it remains a shame that there is no one of Attlee’s stature around in Britain today.

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