Over seventy years after the death of George Orwell, Richard Bradford’s new biography, convincingly argues the case for the continued importance of the author of Animal Farm and 1984 in the 21st century.
In addition to the biographical details of Orwell’s eventful life – his unhappy schooldays, his years in the Burmese police force, his genuine heroism fighting fascism during the Spanish Civil War- the book connects Orwell’s writing to the present by linking it to recent trends such as the endless distortions of the truth by the now disgraced former US President Donald Trump and by the current UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. The book also discusses the bitter antisemitism row which undermined Jeremy Corbyn’s spell as leader of the Labour Party in an intelligent book which demonstrates how Orwell today remains as relevant as ever.
Book review: Orwell: A Man of our Time, by Richard Bradford. Published by: Bloomsbury Caravel, May 13th 2021.
Five and a half years ago, Jeremy Corbyn achieved the seemingly impossible. An amiable left-wing backbencher of some thirty years standing, his victory in the contest to succeed Ed Miliband was one of the most astounding political occurrences of the past fifty years. Yet four years later, his leadership ended in bitter defeat.
This insider’s account from the talented left-wing writer Owen Jones, one of the first people to champion Corbyn’s campaign in 2015, tells the story of this failure We will all have our own views of Jeremy Corbyn. However, this is a review of Owen Jones’ book not of Corbyn himself. And Jones is frank about Corbyn’s failings. He could be stubborn and badly organised. He totally mishandled the Brexit issue and the antisemitism row, two issues which totally derailed his leadership.
On the other hand, Jones does not mince words on how Corbyn was betrayed by those within his own party and how less surprisingly he was brutally misrepresented and maligned by Britain’s conservative media. Owen Jones’ book is a thoughtful, well-written, balanced, intelligent and accessible account of a revolution which failed.
This Land: The Story of a Movement, by Owen Jones. Published by Allen Lane (2020)
Probably no one in British public life has been as unfairly reviled as Diane Abbott MP.
In the six weeks leading up to the 2017 General Election, for example, 45% of all abusive tweets directed at female MPs were aimed at her. Much of this occurred as a direct response to an LBC interview with Nick Ferrari in which she was unable to provide figures on how much 10,000 police officers would cost. As Shadow Home Secretary, this was undoubtedly an error, but the ferocity of the media response was disproportionately fierce. Abbott conducted seven interviews that morning: only the LBC one went awry.
As it happens, Prime Minister Theresa May also did a bad interview on that day. Criticism of May’s performance on the comments section of YouTube suggested that “she is not strong and stable, she is uncaring and arrogant” or that “she obviously doesn’t care about poor people.” The criticism of Abbott was notably different in tone. She was described as a “racist bint,” “a communist anti-white bitch” a “stupid racist dumb bitch” and “a retarded liberal woman.”
Twitter hostility to Abbott almost invariably has a strong racist and sexist undercurrent, often also focusing on her weight and the Cambridge graduate’s supposed lack of intelligence. Much of it spells her name wrong (for example, ‘Dianne Abbot’). Much of it threatens her with sexual violence. The print media is similarly vitriolic often obsessing about her past relationship with Jeremy Corbyn. The so-called ‘quality press’ is often no better. “It’s not racist to point out that Diane Abbott is a bungling disappointment,” Zoe Strimpel wrote in a notable personal attack in the Telegraph. “Without descending into nasty comments about her voice, her expression, or her odd mixture of seeming cluelessness and arrogance, it’s worth simply reviewing a few of the mistakes that have made her campaign such a disaster.”
We should remember: Diane Abbott has put up with this sort of thing for her entire life. Born to Jamaican parents in London in 1953, at grammar school, one English teacher refused to believe she wasn’t copying her essays from somewhere else. Although consistently bright and hardworking, she was told “she wasn’t up to it” when she enquired about applying for the Oxford and Cambridge entry exam. She was one of the few black students to attend and graduate from Cambridge in the 1970s. There are not many black students at Cambridge University even today. On arriving at the May Ball shortly before graduating, she was greeted straight away by a man who said, “oh great, you must be here to wash up.”
In 1987, she became the first ever black woman to be elected to parliament. She has been an MP for longer than any other black person and for longer than any serving woman Labour MP except for Harriet Harman and Margaret Beckett. On first arriving in the Commons, she repeatedly had to prove she was an MP to officials sceptical that a black woman could actually be a serving member of parliament.
She has been re-elected by her Hackney constituents seven times. She has spoken on and taken action frequently against poverty, austerity and racism amongst many other issues. An outsider during the Kinnock, Blair and Brown years, she stood in the 2010 leadership contest. She has served on the front bench and in 2019 became the first black person to speak at the Despatch Box in Prime Minister’s Question Time.
This thoroughly researched book by Robin Bunce and Samara Linton which completely ignores Abbott’s personal life should go some way to restoring the reputation of someone whose life should ultimately serve as a rich source of inspiration to many people.
Diane Abbott – The Authorised Biography. By Robin Bunce and Samara Linton. Published by: Biteback.
Wilson was the first Labour Prime Minister to take office during the Queen’s reign and as in Peter Morgan’s earlier play, The Audience, the two are shown approaching each other somewhat warily after Wilson wins power in 1964.
The Queen (now played by Olivia Colman) is wary of the new socialist PM, having been tipped off by Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) that he might be a Soviet agent. In reality, this was definitely untrue although this was certainly a prevalent rumour in right-wing circles at the time and to some extent still is. So it’s quite likely the Queen would have heard such rumours if not from Philip, then someone else.
Wilson is initially presented as being slightly chippy and with a social inferiority complex about meeting the monarch.
A special relationship: In time, however, this initial mutual caution transforms into something approaching a warm friendship. It is generally thought Wilson was one of the Queen’s favourite Prime Ministers and this is reflected in the series. She certainly never warms to the stubborn stuffy Edward Heath (Michael Maloney) whose unhappy spell in Downing Street interrupts Wilson’s period in office and is sorry to see Wilson go when he finally retires for good. For his own part, he essentially becomes a royalist, keeping republican elements within his own cabinet such as Barbara Castle and Anthony Wedgewood-Benn in check.
Although not physically very like Wilson, Jason Watkins brilliant captures Wilson’s distinctive voice (think Michael Parkinson) and mannerisms. A man who smokes a pipe in public, but who prefers a cigar in private, Wilson is acutely aware of the growing importance of image in the TV age and advises the slightly younger monarch accordingly. He has transformed himself from a highly intelligent but dry numbers man into a charismatic and witty, dynamic working-class hero for the 1960s in order to win power. On screen, he evolves from the greying 1960s Wilson into the snowy-haired Wilson of the 1970s very effectively.
Coup warning?: A slightly paranoid Wilson is shown phoning the Queen during her world tour to warn her that Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance) might be becoming involved in a plot to mount a right-wing coup against him. This isn’t far off the mark: Mountbatten was approached by plotters in the late 1960s and the Queen may or may not have discussed it with Wilson: we do not know. This did not coincide with her tour though.
Resignation reasons: The political world was stunned by Wilson’s sudden seemingly inexplicable resignation in 1976. It is now widely acknowledged Wilson who had a famously good memory in his heyday, probably retired when he did as he sensed he was beginning to suffer from what would turn out to be Alzheimer’s. He was already increasingly paranoid and the effects of alcoholism (not really suggested here) were dimming his abilities further. In The Crown, Wilson is shown very specifically citing Alzheimer’s as the reason for his resignation.
James Callaghan is a prime minister who tends to be overlooked by history.
The new series of The Crown doesn’t even mention him at all. skipping straight from Jason Watkins’ Harold Wilson straight to Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher. Peter Morgan’s earlier play, The Audience, which inspired The Crown made a joke of how easy it was to forget him, featuring a scene in which both Helen Mirren’s elderly Queen and her youngest prime minister, David Cameron both repeatedly missed him out when attempting to remember everyone who had been in Downing Street during her long reign.
Callaghan, an ardent royalist and prime minister for three years between 1976 and 1979, would have been sad to see himself remembered like this. Or rather, not remembered.
It’s not just Peter Morgan though. I myself was born under Callaghan’s premiership but understandably have no memory of it: I was not yet two-and-a-half when he left office. But as a teenager, I’d notice blank looks whenever I brought up Callaghan during political discussions with my school friends. The same people had all heard of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath was still a public figure. But quite a few had never heard of Callaghan at all.
There are quite a few interesting facts about Callaghan. Although not amazingly tall (6ft 1), he was, in fact, the tallest PM we ever had. He was one of only eight British prime ministers not to go to university (a list which includes Disraeli, Lloyd George and Churchill). He was married longer than any other prime minister, his wife Audrey, who he married in 1939, died in March 2005. Callaghan himself, died just 11 days later, one day before his 93rd birthday. He was also the longest-lived prime minister ever, surpassing Harold Macmillan’s record, by just 39 days.
‘Sunny Jim’ was also the only person to have held all of the great offices of state. He was Chancellor (1964-67), Home Secretary (1967-70), Foreign Secretary (1974-76) and Prime Minister (1976-79). Some people hold just one of these positions (e.g. Wilson, Heath, Thatcher, Blair, Cameron – all just PM), some two (Eden – Foreign Sec and PM, Brown – Chancellor and PM, Jack Straw – Foreign Sec and Home Sec, May – Home Sec and PM, Johnson – Foreign Sec and PM) and others three (Churchill – all except Foreign Sec, Rab Butler – all except PM, Macmillan – all except Home Sec, Major – all except Home Sec). But only Callaghan has held all four.
This book of essays is about Callaghan’s record as Prime Minister. Generally, his tenure tends not to be remembered fondly, largely because it ended badly. In late 1978, with Labour ahead in the polls, he held back from calling a General Election. His caution was actually quite understandable in the circumstances, but his decision was to prove disastrous. The next few months would witness a total breakdown in relations between the unions and the government culminating in the catastrophic ‘Winter of Discontent.’ From that point on, a Conservative election win for Margaret Thatcher was inevitable. Callaghan’s image was further harmed by TV images of him appearing complacent and out of touch when interviewed during the strikes after returning with a tan after attending a summit in the Caribbean. The appearance inspired the famous Sun headline, ‘Crisis? What crisis?’ Callaghan never used those exact words but they certainly conveyed the essence of his reaction (he did say, “I don’t accept that there is mounting chaos”). In the end, the government fell as a result of a government defeat in the Commons, not due to an election called at a time of Callaghan’s own choosing. Mrs Thatcher and the Tories won with a majority of more than forty. Memories of the Winter of Discontent would poison Labour’s electoral prospects throughout their eighteen subsequent years in opposition.
Against some pretty stiff competition, Callaghan’s election postponement must rank high on any list of the greatest missed political opportunities of all time.
Putting these disasters to one side, however (if that’s possible), Callaghan’s premiership was up until late 1978, pretty successful. He inherited a dire economic situation from Harold Wilson and was thrown into the IMF Crisis of 1976 almost immediately afterwards. But he and his Chancellor, Denis Healey thereafter handled the economy pretty well. The economy was recovering and unemployment was falling when Labour left office.
In an incredibly fractious situation, he also did very well to manage rising tensions within his own party and cabinet. Despite clashes between Right and Left and the sometimes mischievous activities of Tony Benn, there were, almost uniquely, no major cabinet resignations during his premiership.
Finally, Callaghan was consistently popular and always preferred by most to his sometimes shrill younger opponent, Margaret Thatcher. It is little wonder he came so close to re-election in the autumn of 1978.
James Callaghan – An Underrated Prime Minister? Edited by: Kevin Hickson and Jasper Miles. Published by: Biteback.
Ernest Bevin was a towering figure in 20th century British history.
But nearly seventy years after his death, he is too easily overlooked today. The original Bevin Boy is too often remembered only as the rotund, bespectacled man pictured walking alongside Winston Churchill or Clement Attlee in photos from the 1940s. It does not help that his surname is so easily confused with that of Nye Bevan, another major figure in the Attlee government, but a completely different person.
Andrew Adonis, himself a figure in the Blair and Brown governments, corrects the balance in this thorough and well-argued biography. Without Bevin, the history of Britain in the 20th century would have been very different. Although he never led a party himself, he founded the Transport and General Workers’ Union, which by the start of the Second World War was the largest trade union in the western world. By this point, Bevin (who was born in 1881) was anticipating retirement after a life spent in the union movement. Like Churchill, his finest hour, late in life, was in fact, still to come.
He played a major role in securing the succession of Churchill in 1940 and Attlee as Labour leader in 1935 and was a key figure in ensuring Attlee survived a coup attempt immediately after the 1945 Labour General Election landslide. As the wartime Minister of Labour and as Attlee’s first Foreign Secretary, he was a crucial figure in the two greatest governments of the 20th century.
His final years, establishing Britain’s position in the new Cold War were critical.
“Bevin stood up to Stalin sooner and more effectively than any other post-war Western leader,” Adonis writes. “Better even than Churchill and far better than Roosevelt or Truman.” Whereas some such as Labour’s George Lansbury (who Adonis sees as sort of 1930s version of Jeremy Corbyn) were weak on Hitler and even Churchill had an inexcusable soft spot for Benito Mussolini early on, Bevin’s no-nonsense approach towards Stalin was vital in ensuring no unnecessary ground was conceded to the Soviets in the Cold War’s critical early stages.
This is not a slavish hagiography. Adonis does not ignore Bevin’s failings: in particular, he was short-sighted on the subject of Britain’s post-war European destiny, had a personal dislike of schoolteachers and had a muddled approach to the Middle East which actually suggests he probably harboured anti-Semitic views.
Nevertheless, at a time when statues of less worthy historical figures are being torn down, this book serves as a fitting monument to a Great British hero.
Ernest Bevin: Labour’s Churchill, by Andrew Adonis. Published by: Biteback. Out now.
Book review: Comrade Corbyn by Rosa Prince. Published by: Biteback.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has divided opinion like no other British political leader since Margaret Thatcher. To his admirers, he is above reproach, the flawless, bearded, living embodiment of socialist perfection: any criticism of him can only suggest insidious bias by the right-wing mass media. His detractors, in contrast, see him, in the words of Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun as “a friend of terrorists who’s ready to open our borders and hike up taxes.” In short, they portray him as an unpatriotic, unprincipled, malevolent, Marxist bogeyman. Neither characterisation is accurate and neither does the real Corbyn any favours. The reality, of course, lies somewhere in between these two extremes. Jeremy Corbyn has now led Labour for three years, a period exceeding that of John Smith and Gordon Brown. Rosa Prince’s biography, Comrade Corbyn: A Very Unlikely Coup was the first comprehensive biography of Corbyn to emerge, appearing in 2016. Rosa Prince is online editor for the Daily Telegraph and many thought she was an odd choice to write about the Labour leader. But as Prince herself says, this is “not a hagiography but nor is it a hatchet job”. She is right. The Guardian attacked the book as “spiteful” which is entirely unfair. The book has its problems, but judging by this third edition (two supplemental epilogues update us of events since Corbyn became leader), this is a thorough and fair account of the Opposition leader’s life so far.
By and large, he comes across as a decent and principled man, an eternal campaigner, who genuinely seemed to have no ambitions or expectations beyond being an apparently excellent constituency MP for Islington North and a back bencher even as recently as the 2015 General Election. The story of his astonishing triumph in the 2015 Labour leadership contest (partly, though certainly not entirely, a consequence of disastrous campaigns by the three other contenders, particularly a chronically indecisive Andy Burnham) is thoroughly and vividly recreated. There is nothing at all to suggest any anti-Semitism in Corbyn: quite the opposite. Corbyn has speculated openly in the past that he himself might have some Jewish heritage. The worst that can be said of him is that he has been too relaxed about meeting various dubious figures with terrorist connections in the past, mainly in the 1980s, He is certainly not pro-terrorist, however and these past acts are unlikely to cause serious issues in the future. Another valid charge against Corbyn is that he has also grown so used to constant media hostility that he can no longer tell whether any criticisms of him have any validity or not. The press is indeed relentlessly unfairly brutal towards him, as one would expect they would be towards anyone on the Left. Corbyn has a genuine element of greatness within him, for all his failings. This should worry the Tories and the Tory press even more.
There are a few errors in the book. Harold Wilson did not call a General Election in October 1966 (p29), Ed Miliband was not elected “under the electoral college system which had been in place since 1980” – it had been reformed in the meantime, notably under John Smith (p192) while Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup was about a Sheffield steelworker who is unexpectedly elected Prime Minister and was not “inspired” by the career of Anthony Wedgwood-Benn (p71 and p308). By far the worst flaw in the book, however, occurs in its early stages. Like many on the Right, Rosa Prince seems incapable of comprehending the fact that anyone who has any wealth might aspire to work towards improving society as a whole, rather than simply to consolidate their own position. Prince thus marvels endlessly over the not unusual fact Corbyn’s background was relatively comfortable but that he nevertheless became a left-winger. She simply can’t get over it. Indeed, every time someone privileged appears in the story, we are told “they were not an obvious socialist” or that they were an “unlikely radical”. Even the fact that this occurs time and time again in the narrative, does not seem to provide her with any sort of clue. Prince seems completely unaware that there has always been a large cohort of middle and upper-class support for the Left in general and for Labour specifically. Think of: the Milibands, Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Clement Attlee, Shirley Williams, Hugh Gaitskell, George Orwell and others. They were no more “unlikely” socialists than those from relatively humble backgrounds such as John Major, Margaret Thatcher, Richard Nixon or indeed Adolf Hitler – who became figures on the Right, were “unlikely conservatives”. Classics scholar Mary Beard is also described as “outspoken” (she isn’t) while Prince seems slightly obsessed by Corbyn’s 1970s relationship with Diane Abbott. Still, we should remember: Rosa Prince writes for the Telegraph. Perhaps we should be grateful there is only one mention in the entire book of the Duchess of Cambridge? These blind spots (admittedly common to many Conservative Party supporters) flaw an otherwise thorough, well-written and well researched biography of a man who may yet one day lead Britain.
Things Can Only Get Worse? Twenty Confusing Years In The Life Of A Labour Supporter by John O’Farrell, Published by: Doubleday
In 1998, John O’Farrell published, Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter, 1979-1997. It was an enjoyable and genuinely funny political memoir of O’Farrell’s life from his teenage defeat as Labour candidate in his school’s 1979 mock election to the happy ending of the New Labour landslide in 1997. Eighteen years is a long time: by 1997, O’Farrell was well into his thirties, balding, married with children and thanks to his work on the likes of Spitting Image and Radio 4’s Weekending, an established comedy writer.
The book was a big hit. But now twenty years have passed again since Blair’s first big win. The story of the two decades since as covered in this sequel is rather more complex.
On the one hand, New Labour won yet another landslide in 2001 and a third big win in 2005. The Tories have never really recovered from their 1997 trouncing, winning a majority in only one of the last six General Elections and even then a very small one (in 2015). And as O’Farrell says, things undeniably got better under Labour, with the government “writing off the debt of the world’s poorest countries…transforming the NHS by trebling health spending and massively reducing waiting lists…the minimum wage, and pensioners getting free TV licences and the winter fuel allowance…peace in Northern Ireland… equality for the gay community…all the new schools…free entry to museums and galleries…” The list goes on (and on).
On the other hand, as O’Farrell admits, there are certainly grounds for pessimism too. O’Farrell often felt conflicted defending the Blair Government as a Guardian columnist in the early 2000s particularly after the build-up to the Iraq War. He had a bit of a laugh campaigning as the Labour candidate for the hopelessly Tory seat of Maidenhead in the 2001 second Labour landslide election running against a notably unimpressive Opposition frontbencher called Theresa May. But the disintegration of Labour under first Gordon Brown and then Ed Miliband was hardly a joy to behold, either for him or anyone else who backed Labour. O’Farrell’s candidature in the 2013 Eastleigh by-election in which he came fourth, was less fun too with the Tory tabloids attacking him by using out of context quotes from his first book. By 2016, with O’Farrell despairing after a year of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Brexit result and the election of Donald Trump, the celebrations of victory night in May 1997 start to seem like a very long time ago indeed.
Thankfully, O’Farrell is always a funny writer, remaining upbeat even when for others, things would only get bitter.
After all, even at their worst, Labour have never been as bad as the Tories. Yes, the Tories: a party who supported the Iraq War far more enthusiastically than Labour did (and indeed, whose support ensured it happened), a party who fiercely upheld Labour’s spending plans in the early 2000s at the time (rightly) only to attack them endlessly (and wrongly) later, a party whose membership enthusiastically chose Jeffery Archer as its choice for London mayor in 2000 and Iain Duncan Smith as their party leader in 2001. The Conservatives were, are and will always be “the Silly Party.”
This is an excellent book. And thanks to Theresa May’s calamitous General Election miscalculation, it even has a happy ending.
Which candidate will win Exeter in the General Election?
On the evidence of yesterday’s hustings debate at the new Exeter Boat Shed on the Quayside, it should be another win for Labour’s Ben Bradshaw. Bradshaw has represented the seat which was previously a Conservative stronghold for twenty years winning it five times since 1997. He may well be on course for a sixth win.
A good crowd turned out at the Exeter Boat Shed, a promising venue despite the current lack of toilets and shortage of seating. Devon Live editor Patrick Phelvin was adjudicating.
All six candidates standing in Exeter were present:
Jonathan West (Independent): A single issue candidate, Jonathan West’s candidature is entirely based around securing a second EU referendum. This position may have attracted some sympathy from the audience, as 55% of Exeter voters opted to “remain” in the 2016 Brexit vote. After a short introductory statement, Mr. West by prior arrangement, did not take part in most of the debate.
Vanessa Newcombe (Liberal Democrat): A former city and county councillor, Ms. Newcombe gave a fine, if occasionally too muted performance. She connected best with the audience in advocating electoral reform and in relating her own experiences of sexism during her political career.
Ben Bradshaw (Labour): By the simple technique of standing up to answer every question, Mr. Bradshaw gained an easy advantage over his rivals. He also gave the most well informed and punchiest answers reflecting his years of experience. Noting that the very first question, supposedly on national security was neither a question nor on national security (it was, in fact, a statement opposing UK foreign aid), Mr. Bradshaw attacked UKIP for not fielding a candidate in Exeter and thus effectively helping the Conservative candidate. The questioner (who claimed some theatrical experience) had admitted to being a former UKIP member and had made several factual errors in his statement. National security is a sensitive issue currently and a second question (this time an actual question) was asked. This debate was postponed from May 23rd due to the temporary suspension in all campaigning due to the Manchester Arena bombing. Later, Mr. Bradshaw performed well, attacking Theresa May’s stance on Brexit and her decision in 2011 as Home Secretary to abolish control orders. He also advocated electoral reform. He was forced to defend his own lack of support for his leader Jeremy Corbyn, a potentially dangerous issue for him especially as Mr. Corbyn has grown more popular recently. Unusually for a Labour candidate, Mr. Bradshaw reaffirmed his view that the Conservatives are likely to win nationwide with an increased parliamentary majority.
James Taghdissian (Conservative): Although always competent and articulate, the well-spoken Mr. Taghdissian was playing to a tough crowd. His view that the Prime Minister is a better leader than Mr. Corbyn found little favour here despite the fact nationally, even after the recent slump in her personal ratings, polls indicate most Britons agree with him on this. A strong performance though Mr. Taghdissian might have benefitted from delivering punchier, less rambling answers. He fully conceded Ms. May had abolished control orders when she was Home Secretary.
Joe Levy (Green): A younger, soft spoken though always audible candidate, Mr. Levy made a good impression on the audience. Potentially a rising star, Mr. Levy could well be a man to watch in the future.
Jonathan Bishop (Independent): Although undeniably highly qualified academically, Mr. Bishop may have lost audience sympathy with his rude insistence on butting in to answer one question as he was “the only member of the panel qualified to answer it” and by his general manner and unusual views on police wages and the value of woman Labour MPs.
Currently, Exeter is a lone island of red in a sea of Tory blue in the south west. Will it stay that way? After tomorrow, we’ll find out.
October 2017 update: Results of June 2017 General Election in Exeter
Vanessa NewcombeLiberal Democrat
Ben Bradshaw won his sixth victory easily with more votes, a bigger share of the vote (62%) and a wider margin of victory than ever before (his Tory opponent won 32.9% of the vote). Turnout in Exeter was 71.7%, the highest since 1997, the year of Bradshaw’s first win and higher than the average UK turnout in 2017 (68.8%).
Mr. Bradshaw’s prediction that the Tories would substantially increase their majority in parliament turned out to be wrong. The Tories have lost their majority. In fairness, he certainly wasn’t the only one to predict this incorrectly.. He has now adopted a more pro-Corbyn position.
Imagine history had panned out differently. Alan Johnson might have become Labour leader in 2010. Labour might have won power in 2015 and the disaster which is Brexit might not now be happening. The pound would be strong, Ed Balls would be in government, Corbyn still on the backbenches while the Foreign Secretary might actually be someone who is capable of doing the job. Perhaps without Brexit to inspire him, Donald Trump would have lost in the US. We can dream anyway…
Perhaps this was never likely. Johnson never ran for the leadership and lost unexpectedly to Harriet Harman when he ran for Deputy. But as this, the third volume of his celebrated memoirs reminds us, Labour’s last Home Secretary is that rarest of things. Like Chris Mullin, he is a politician who can write.
All politicians are supposed to have a hinterland: a realm of interest and experience beyond the Westminster Bubble, which they typically in Britain, inhabit. The late former Labour Chancellor Denis Healey, for example, with whom the term is often associated, had a huge range of experience and cultural and classical knowledge outside the political sphere and was much the better and more rounded a figure for it. Margaret Thatcher, in contrast, although in many ways more successful than him politically, had almost no interests outside politics and thus had a boring and miserable retirement, often spent making a nuisance of herself.
Chris Mullin shouldn’t have this problem. Though his twenty three years as an MP for Sunderland South are now over, he entered parliament late in life (age 39) and as this memoir confirms, he did much before, during and since. He achieved ministerial rank under Blair and has perhaps subtly shifted from a position once regarded derisively as the “loony left” to a not uncritical position of support for Blair. He is rightly a cheerleader for the underrated Blair-Brown Government’s achievements, achievements unsung often by the governments themselves, particularly former members such as Ed Miliband.
“Loony MP Backs Bomb Gang” was The Sun’s unhelpful angle on his campaign to free the Birmingham Six. His three volumes of diaries on his political career make for fascinating reading as does his novel A Very British Coup, a tale of a Corbyn-esque leader elected to power (it was published in 1982)) who is ultimately destroyed by the conservative political establishment. The book has been dramatised for TV twice, the second time, massively altered as The Secret State.
This is another fine book: a compelling story of a life well led.
Honestly. What a missed opportunity. The comic possibilities of a potential title for former Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls were seemingly almost endless.
Here are just a few: Balls Revealed, Balls Exposed, Balls Up, Balls Out, Iron Balls, New Balls Please!, Strictly Come Balls, Golden Balls, Better Ed Than Dead.
Instead, this book published by Hutchinson has the extremely dull title, Speaking Out: Lessons in Life and Politics. One just hopes when the time comes for his wife, Yvette Cooper MP to reflect on her political career, she is more imaginative.
May I suggest, It Shouldn’t Happen To Yvette?
Perhaps Ed didn’t want to look stupid. He was a serious contender for national leadership as recently as last year after all. Labour’s defeat and the loss of his own seat were a big personal shock to him. As with the late John Smith, he is probably one of the most capable post-war Shadow Chancellors never to make it to the position of Chancellor Of the Exchequer itself.
The book is not in chronological order but linked thematically. He talks frankly about his stammer, the hard years under the brilliant but volatile Gordon Brown, his eventual falling out with Ed Miliband, his support for Norwich City (yawn!) and his running. He has a sense of humour too. Let us not forget his response to George Osborne’s claim in 2012 that the Chancellor had delivered a “Robin Hood Budget”. Balls charged that on the contrary, Osborne “couldn’t give a Friar Tuck.”
A good book then, but what a shame about the title! After all, if he really doesn’t want to look stupid why is he currently appearing on Strictly Come Dancing, attracting more attention than ever before?
As Lord Heseltine once said: it’s not Brown’s fault. It’s Balls.
There is no point pretending this has been an easy week for Labour. The Lib Dems may be quailing in the face of electoral Armageddon while many Tories still resent Cameron for both failing to win in 2010 and probably leading them to defeat now.
But it is Ed Miliband and Labour who have been making headlines this week.
Is this fair?
Ed Miliband has never had tremendously high personal ratings. Until this year, however, few people had a good answer as to why this was. Miliband’s stance on press and energy reform were well received.
There have been gaffes in recent months though, notably missing mention of the deficit from the conference speech. Holding a copy of The Sun in public was also an error as was the decision to allow himself to be photographed eating. Miliband looks no weirder eating than anyone else. But the press are not Labour’s friend. Pictures can always be selected to look bad. Nobody looks good when they are half blinking.
Does any of this really matter? Well, no. They are presentation issues essentially.
Would David Miliband now be going through the same ordeal were he now leader? There is no doubt. Look at the fuss that was made over him holding a banana in public (not even really a gaffe).
Unlike the Tories, Labour have a number of potential future leaders lined up: Andy Burnham, Chuka Umunna. Yvette Cooper.
But this isn’t the time.
Let us remember:
Ed Miliband is substantially older and more experienced than Caneron and Clegg were in 2010. Miliband has cabinet experience. They did not.
Ed Miliband has adopted a respectable policy on press reform rather than Cameron’s cowardly dishonorable one. Unfortunately, this is why the press hate him more than most other Labour leaders.
Cameron has proven extremely gaffe-prone appointing Andy Coulson despite a rising tide of evidence against him, introducing the absurd bedroom tax and u-turning on everything from the pasty tax to the privatisation of national parks.
The Tories simply cannot be trusted on the NHS. Labour can.
Britain needs to stay in the EU. Only Labour can ensure this.
And Labour are, despite everything, still set to win, probably with an overall majority.
The party must remain united in these crucial last six months.
Sudden deaths in front-line British politics are mercifully quite rare. In 1970, Iain Macleod died suddenly a month after becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer, a desperate blow to Edward Heath’s new Tory Government. In 1994, Opposition leader John Smith died suddenly of a heart attack. Had Smith lived, it seems virtually certain he would have led Labour back into power in 1997, instead of Tony Blair.
Although he had been leading Labour for seven years at the time of his death fifty years ago, (he led the Opposition for longer than any other post-war leader except Neil Kinnock) it is less certain Hugh Gaitskell would ever have enjoyed the trappings of Downing Street even had he survived what turned out to be his final illness. True, Labour did win power again in October 1964. But this was only after Gaitskell’s successor Harold Wilson had immeasurably boosted the party. And even then it was a narrow win. Gaitskell had lost the 1959 election heavily and might well have led the party to defeat again. We will never know.
The youthful, combative Harold Wilson was undoubtedly the right choice for the party at the time, even though his subsequent leadership after the Labour landslide of 1966 would ultimately prove disappointing. George Brown, who came second in the race, was to prove a notoriously erratic figure and later that year appeared drunk on TV (having just provoked a fight with US actor Eli Wallach) on a TV programme on which he was being interviewed about President Kennedy’s assassination which had occurred earlier that day. James Callaghan, who came third in the 1963 leadership, would eventually lead Labour and the UK himself between 1976 and 1979.
Alas, Hugh Gaitskell famous for his two conference speeches in which he tearfully pledged to “fight and fight again to save the party we love” and another in which he declared that European integration threatened to end “a thousand years of British history,” would never get this opportunity to lead his country. After years spent fighting the Left and working to keep the party alive, he died just as things were finally falling into place.