Book review: Kind of Blue by Ken Clarke

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Published by: Macmillan, 2016

Ken Clarke sits today on the backbenches. He is seventy six years old and since the death of Gerald Kaufman last month is the Father of the House, having served as MP for Rushcliffe since entering the House of Commons as one of Edward Heath’s new intake of fresh  young Tories in June 1970. He can look back on almost a half century in parliament, one of only four men alive to have held two of the four great offices of state: he has been Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. The other three men are Douglas Hurd, Gordon Brown and John Major.

But unlike the last two, Clarke was never Prime Minister. We all must wonder what might have been, as he surely does.

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However, in many ways it’s hard to see how this could have happened. In other ways, it seems bizarre that it didn’t. Look at a list of recent Conservative leaders.The names that are there (Major, Hague, Duncan Smith, Howard) are almost as surprising as those who are not (Heseltine, Portillo, Clarke himself).

Although he is defensive about it in this readable autobiography, Clarke did not excel as either Secretary of State of Health or Education during the later Thatcher, early Major years. But neither of these were ever strong areas for the 1979-90 Tory government, or indeed any Tory government. Clarke was never truly a Thatcherite. But when Clarke became Home Secretary after the 1992 April election and then Chancellor following Norman Lamont’s unceremonious departure in 1993, speculation mounted that the troubled Prime Minister John Major might have unwittingly appointed his own future successor to the Number Two job as Sir Anthony Eden and Harold Wilson (and indeed Thatcher) had before him.

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Although inclined to gaffes before and since, Ken (previously “Kenneth”) Clarke, known for his Hush Puppies, cigars and occasional pints of lager was a surprisingly competent Chancellor overseeing the UK’s recovery from the early Nineties recession. “Go home,” he once bellowed at an under-prepared Robert Maclennan of the SDP in the Commons, “lie down in a dark room and keep taking the pills.” He was popular, well known and a big hitter. But like another clubbable former Tory Chancellor Reggie Maudling, he never got the top job.

The reason was simple: Europe. Clarke was and is a keen supporter of the EU. With so many of John Major’s problems caused by his signing of the Maastricht Treaty, the increasingly Eurosceptic Tories were never likely to replace Major with him.

In 1997, following the colossal May 1st defeat, Clarke’s path to leadership should have been clear. His main rivals Michaels Portillo and Heseltine were out of the race, Portillo having famously lost his Enfield seat, while Tarzan apparently had heart issues. Clarke was far more popular and well known than his main rival, the thirty six year old, much less experienced former Welsh secretary William Hague. Polls indicated that if party members had had a vote, Clarke would have won easily. But the increasingly eccentric parliamentary party was happy to take the increasingly elderly Lady Thatcher’s advice. “Hague! Have you got that? H-A-G-U-E,” the Baroness spelt out to reporters, having just privately been told of the correct spelling herself.

The result? Another massive defeat in 2001. This time, party members too followed the increasingly frail Thatcher’s endorsement again choosing Iain Duncan Smith over Clarke. It was clearly an absurd decision from the outset. IDS was ditched in favour of an unelected Micheal Howard in 2003. Following the third consecutive Tory General Election defeat in 2005, Clarke, now ageing himself and harmed by his business dealings with Big Tobacco lost his third leadership bid to amongst others, a youthful David Cameron. A rare survivor of the Major era, Clarke served as Justice Secretary under the Coalition. In recent years, he has become increasingly gaffe prone. His wife Gillian died in 2015.

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Although it is unlikely Ken Clarke could have overturned the massive Labour majorities won by Blair in 1997 and 2001, had he become leader instead of the pro-war Duncan Smith, it seems likely a Clarke led Tory Party would have opposed the Iraq War, voted with Labour rebels to prevent UK involvement and forced Blair’s resignation. It was not to be. IDS’s Tories misjudged the situation and slavishly backed the war.

As Clarke himself reflects in this readable but unsurprising autobiography, his long parliamentary career has almost exactly coincided with the period of British membership of what used to be called the Common Market.

Ken Clarke is undoubtedly one of the better more decent breed of Tories, a far better man than the Boris Johnsons, Michael Goves, Stewart Jacksons, Jeremy Hunts and George Osbornes of this world. Politically incorrect though he is, one suspects he is liked far more by many of those outside his own party than he is by many of those within it.

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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 was once sick on Heath’s shoes) has said: “were Ted still alive, it would kill him”.

Last year, was an even worse year for his posthumous reputation with the emergence of a number of allegations made against Heath, 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 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 with the real premier Sir Anthony Eden often overseas or ill or both.

heath2Real leadership does not seem to have brought out the best in him, however. On the one hand, joining the Common Market was a major personal triumph owing a lot to his endurance and diplomacy. He also acted courageously and correctly to isolate Enoch Powell from mainstream Tory politics, following the racist “Rivers of Blood” speech in  1968. But on the other hand, his was a disappointing premiership low on achievement and derailed 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 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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Book review: Order, Order! by Ben Wright

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Alcohol has long been the fuel which has powered the engine of our nation’s political life. Sometimes the results seemed to be beneficial. Margaret Thatcher generally found it difficult to relax and enjoyed a whisky or two most evenings during her long stint in Number 10. Winston Churchill also seems to have been improved incredibly by the astonishing amounts of alcohol he drank during his premiership. One has to wonder if we would have won the war, as BBC Political Correspondent Ben Wright does here, had he not drank.

Sometimes the results were less positive. During the 1970s, both Harold Wilson and Richard Nixon both saw their powers dim partly as a result of excessive alcohol consumption.Much earlier, William Pitt the Younger went through the same thing.

Occasionally, the results have been funny. Wilson’s famously erratic Foreign Secretary George Brown experienced numerous embarrassments as the result of his frequently “tired and emotional” state while Tory MP Alan Clark was famously exposed by Labour’s Clare Short as being drunk in the House on one occasion, or at least did so as far as Commons protocol allowed.

Often,  of course, as in the case of former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, the results have been tragic.

Ben Wright’s book offers a witty and well informed insight into one of Britain’s longest standing political traditions.

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Book review: Order, Order! The Rise and Fall of Political Drinking by Ben Wright.

Published by: Duckworth Overlook

Book review: Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography. Volume Two Everything She Wants

 

charlesmoore-margaretthatcherThis is the second volume of Charles Moore’s three volume official biography of the first British woman Prime Minister and deals with the middle years of her premiership from the aftermath of her 1982 victory in the Falklands to her third and last election win in June 1987. These were the golden years for the Iron Lady: perhaps this period should be called “the Iron Age”?

Council houses are sold, utilities are privatised and opposition from Michael Foot’s and Neil Kinnock’s Labour, the SDP and the unions is aall crushed underfoot. Thatcher also exploits her ties to US President Reagan to mostly good effect and survives the 1984 Brighton bomb.

Moore is a former Daily Telegraph editor but despite this conservative bias is not always unaware of the lady’s faults. She never knew how to deal with her wayward son Mark, was lucky to survive the Westland Affair, was stubbornly blind to the numerous flaws of the Poll Tax and was privately very difficult during the 1987 election campaign.

Moore is weaker on popular culture, however, partly because he is very anti-BBC. He has given the book a title from a song by Wham! which virtually no one remembers and attacks Sue Townsend for putting anti-Thatcherite sentiments into Adrian Mole’s adolescent poetry (“Do you weep Mrs Thatcher, do you weep?”) while condemning Rik from TV’s The Young Ones for attacking the “Thatcherite junta”. Townsend and the Young Ones’ creators were undeniably left wing but Moore misses the point. The satirical targets here were not Thatcher but the immature Mole and “people’s poet”/sociology student Rik themselves.

At another point, he accuses David Frost (by that point, a fairly gentle interviewer and certainly no lefty) of “having a go at her” rather than asking perfectly reasonable questions during the 1987 election campaign. At no point does Moore offer any examination of the often dubious but consistent support given to her by the slavishly pro-Thatcherite tabloid press.

Moore also does not really understand why Thatcher made so many people so very angry. For this was a time when levels of homelessness and crime soared, unemployment reached its post-war peak (3.6 million) and the NHS was savagely undermined.

There is little mention of these things in the book.

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Published by Allen Lane

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography Volume Two: Everything She Wants

Author: Charles Moore

 

 

In praise of Blackadder the Third

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This article (written by me) has been reproduced with the kind permission of Chortle. It first appeared in 2012.

‘I want to be remembered when I’m dead. I want books written about me. I want songs sung about me. And then, hundreds of years from now, I want episodes of my life to be played out weekly at half past nine by some heroic actor of the age.’ (Edmund Blackadder, Dual and Duality).

It has now been a full quarter-century since the screening of Blackadder The Third. Under normal circumstances, the anniversary of the third series of anything would not be a cause for comment. Yet Blackadder is not a normal programme and the third series alone must rank as one of the best sitcoms of the Eighties in its own right.

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Continuing the slow social decline of the Blackadders (from 15th Century royalty in the first series to a 20th Century Army officer by the fourth), Blackadder the Third, sees Edmund (Rowan Atkinson again) reduced to the role of butler to the idiotic foppish Prince Regent played by the then still-up-and-coming twenty something Hugh Laurie. Despite having played two different roles in Blackadder II, as the drunken innuendo obsessed Simon ‘Farters’ Partridge (‘Sounds a bit rude doesn’t it?’) in Beer and the cast’s Teutonic nemesis Mad Prince Ludwig in the final episode Chains (‘Yes! I was one of the sheep!’), Laurie was reportedly tremendously nervous about taking on the part.

It’s easy to see why. The standard set by the second series had been incredibly high and with the regular cast slimmed down (Miranda ‘Queenie’ Richardson and Tim ‘Lord Percy’ McInnerny appear in only one episode each in new roles), a lot of weight was on Laurie and Atkinson’s shoulders, even with the excellent Tony Robinson returning as Baldrick or rather Mr S. Baldrick. The introduction of a new character, pie shop proprietor Mrs Miggins (Helen Atkinson-Wood), a character referred to in Blackadder II but never seen, frankly doesn’t help the series much.

Thankfully virtually everything else does. Hugh Laurie is perfect as Prince George, a good natured clot who seems incapable of recognising his butler’s insults even when he says them directly to his face. The role would in fact be the perfect preparation for Laurie’s most successful Nineties role as Bertie Wooster, opposite a less hostile servant.

It is still not the best series of Blackadder, a position which still belongs to Blackadder II. Historically, it’s a bit confused – George is repeatedly referred to as the Prince Regent, a position he didn’t hold until 1811, when he was in his fifties. Yet virtually everything else in terms of costumes and references suggests its set in the 1780s or 1790s, while Johnson’s dictionary was published before the Prince was actually born.

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Despite a few good lines and an excellent cameo by the late political reporter Vincent Hanna, the election-themed opening episode is perhaps also bit iffy by Blackadder standards. A few episodes also rely a bit too heavily on fictional versions of real characters such as Dr Johnson (Robbie Coltrane) and the Duke of Wellington (Stephen Fry) being homicidal maniacs. They were not.

Happily, though, most of the series is sublime, reaching a peak with the brilliant closing episodes Amy and Amiability and Dual and Duality. Blackadder’s run-in with a squirrel-hating highway woman and a memorable scene in which Hugh Laurie’s Prince is repeatedly punched make up two of the best Blackadder episodes ever produced.

And (is a spoiler alert necessary 25 years on?) the series uniquely sees a happy ending for Blackadder himself, with the butler rather confusingly replacing George as heir to the throne. Are we to assume all subsequent royals are in fact descended from him?

It hardly matters. What’s undeniable is that this remains one of the finest British sitcoms ever produced.

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Read more: Third time’s a charm… : Correspondents 2012 : Chortle : The UK Comedy Guide

US Election Memories 1: The Reagan years

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Some might think it a bit silly that I’ve chosen to record my memories of all of the US presidential elections I can remember. I went through the same process for the recent British General Elections last year but that sort of made sense. I am British, after all. I am not American, have never voted in a US election and being a bad flier, have never been to the US, indeed have never even left Europe. As my hopes of there ever being construction of an Atlantic Tunnel recede, it is possible I may never do, especially as I’m not sure I’d fancy going on it anyway. Why should these elections concern me?

The official answer simply is that the United States remains so powerful that its actions have a huge impact way beyond its own borders. It’s sort of like the butterfly effect but one caused by a ginormous butterfly creating a hurricane by flapping its enormous wings. Cool eh?

But the real reason is that I am just interested. I have always been interested. I don’t know why. As some Americans might say: go figure…

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12 Aug 1988, Washington, DC, USA — Washington: President Reagan acknowledged the applause of senior staff members August 12th, prior to speaking to them as Vice President George Bush looks on. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

 

How Ronald Reagan nearly killed me.

I was pleased when I learnt Americans could all speak English. Personally, I really appreciated the effort. Why couldn’t the French or the Swedish go to the same trouble? Frankly, it smacks of laziness. Regardless, this lack of a language barrier made it easier for my Uncle to move to New York when I was four (an example of the “brain drain” much spoken of in the Thatcher years). Another relative, a cousin moved to the US later. The common language also made it easier for me to consume Dr Seuss books, Bugs Bunny cartoons and episodes of Hart To Hart from an early age.

I was born in December 1976, a month after Jimmy Carter narrowly beat the Republican incumbent Gerald Ford for the presidency. I’d just missed seeing Watergate and Vietnam (on the TV news at least). I am also too young to remember Jimmy Carter being beaten by Ronald Reagan in November 1980 or Carter’s old vice president Walter Mondale being trounced by “the Gipper” (Reagan) four years after that. There is thus not much about elections in this instalment.

I do remember Reagan, however, and despite every cell in my brain telling me otherwise, I liked him and sort of still do. Oddly, despite having a very real fear of nuclear war, Reagan’s rhetoric and massive defence build-up undoubtedly increased already fragile international tensions in the early Eighties. The Cold War was already colder than it had ever been since the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. He pushed us closer to the brink than anyone else.

Like the little girl with the flower in the famous 1964 campaign ad, I could have thus been killed several times before I even knew what was going on. Never mind everyone else.

Of course, some argue Ronnie’s plan all along was to push the USSR into submission through pressure which Gorbachev ultimately did. In fact, there is no evidence Gorbachev’s reforms had anything to do with western pressure. Certainly, nobody ever seems to have said this out loud if this was the case, even in now declassified private conversations.

Reagan actually probably delayed the end of the Cold War, refusing a total ban on nuclear missiles because he wanted to keep his treasured Star Wars program.

Jokes like this didn’t help: “My fellow Americans,” he began during a public sound check in 1984. “I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”

Arguably, the first bit is okay. No one was liked to think Russia had actually been outlawed. But the chilling words “we begin bombing in five minutes” understandably caused a panic.

Despite this, despite the horrendous deficit he ran up, despite the Iran-Contra affair, I still have a soft spot for Ronald Reagan.

Perhaps it was just because he wasn’t Thatcher.

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Twenty years of Our Friends In The North

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It has now been a full two decades since the start of one of the most acclaimed British dramas of all time, Our Friends In The North. Peter Flannery’s hugely ambitious nine part series depicted British life between the years 1964 and 1995, through the eyes of four Newcastle friends as they progress from youth to middle age.

Opening on the eve of the October 1964 General Election, which saw a rejuvenated Labour Party reclaim power after thirteen years of Tory misrule, the series ends in 1995, with New Labour seemingly poised to do much the same thing. In the meantime, the series touches on a whole range of issues including corruption within the police and government, the decline of the Left, the Miner’s Strike, homelessness, the failure of high rise housing and rising crime. The show includes a huge supporting cast too. Even today, it is hard to watch TV for long without seeing someone from it crop up.

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The four main players have all enjoyed huge success since, one (Christopher Eccleston) subsequently becoming Doctor Who, another (Daniel Craig), then unknown, subsequently becoming James Bond and a huge star. The other main actors Gina McKee and Mark Strong have been prolific stars of TV and film in the years since. Only Eccleston, who had appeared in Danny Boyle’s debut Shallow Grave and the TV series Cracker and Hearts and Minds amongst other things could claim any real fame at the time.

The series required the four actors, in reality then all around the thirty mark, to age from their early twenties to their fifties. It is odd to reflect that, odd as they look in the final 1995-set episode, they are actually supposed to be about the age the actors are now. Ironically, the excesses of 70s fashion mean that even when playing their own age, in the fourth and fifth episodes set in 1970 and 1974, they still look a bit odd.

This is nevertheless a classic series. If you’ve seen it, watch it again. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to seek it out.

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A century of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath

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They seemed almost 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 and 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 do better.

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 1992and 2015, the polls were wrong and the Tories were 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 similar one to the one he had started as PM with a full decade earlier.

Heath was now in 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 he still seemed 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 y was vanishing 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 name further 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 expected to succeed Gaitskell at the time of his death anyway. 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 do 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 c 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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Book review: Thatcher’s Secret War: Subversion, Secrecy and Government, 1974-90

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Thatcher’s Secret War: Subversion, Secrecy and Government, 1974-90

By Clive Bloom

Published by: The History Press

The Thatcher era was probably the most radically divisive in recent political history. The period is fascinating and has, of course, been well documented.

But what about the secret state? What was going on behind the scenes?

Thatcher has been out of power for almost a quarter of a century now and dead since 2013, but no one would expect all of the secrets of Britain’s espionage activity during her tenure to be revealed yet (or, indeed, ever) and Clive Bloom doesn’t claim this. This is nevertheless a fascinating and sometimes chilling read.

The book opens in 1974, at a time when Thatcher herself was still in Edward Heath’s shadow cabinet. The nation, however, was already starting to experience the intense political polarisation which would characterise her time in Downing Street. It was a time of intense paranoia with groups of retired officers plotting a coup should the nation take a sudden leftward turn. Airey Neave, Thatcher’s confidante, who would himself be assassinated by the IRA shortly before Thatcher’s victory in the 1979 General Election reportedly threatened Tony Benn with assassination if the latter ever became leader of the Labour Party. Bloom claims the chances of Benn ever becoming leader were “slim”. We now know of course that he never did. But would this have been obvious at the time? It seems doubtful: Benn might well have led his party had he stood in 1980 or had he not lost his seat in 1983. But anyway…

In 1976, Harold Wilson resigned as Prime Minister and soon began talking to journalists like this:

“I see myself as the big fat spider in the corner of the room. Sometimes I speak when I’m asleep. You should both listen. Occasionally when we meet I might tell you to go to the Charing Cross Road and kick a blind man standing on the corner. The blind man may tell you something, lead you somewhere.”

Wilson was clearly long past his best: an alcoholic and probably suffering from the early stages of dementia. But MI5 had been plotting against him when he was in power. It was a fact.

Under Thatcher from 1979, the government’s enemies were clearly defined: the IRA, unions, the Soviet Union, British socialists and the Left, the last few often viewed as effectively in alliance. The enemy within. The government even took the view that the inner city rioting of the early Eighties could be blamed on left wing politicians stirring things up.

Covering everything from the still emerging scandal concerning high level paedophilia, to the battles with the IRA, the miners and the Soviets, to the alarming number of suspicious looking and unexplained deaths, this is the book not of a conspiracy theorist or even a polemicist but a balanced and well written insight into the world of those who lived and worked in the shadows during the most interesting decade (or so) in modern British political history.

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Fifty years of Tory leadership contests

Margaret Thatcher and John Major in 1991

It is easy to forget amidst all the current Labour leadership hoo-hah, that it is fifty years this month since the very first Conservative leadership contest. Generally more unpredictable than their Labour equivalents, let’s recall this and every such contest since…

1963: Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan falsely believing himself to be dying of cancer resigns on the eve of the party conference. The resulting chaos convinces most that the “magic circle” process of consultation needs to be replaced by an election of MPs. Macmillan’s successor Alec Douglas Home resigns after losing the 1964 General Election and begins devising the mechanism for the coming contest.

1965:

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Edward Heath beats the favourite Reginald Maudling to win the leadership. Enoch Powell comes third.

The right choice?: Probably. Heath at least won the 1970 General Election. Maudling fell foul of his business connections. Powell with his inflammatory Rivers of Blood speech (and his 1974 pre-election decision to urge voters to support Labour) was ill suited to front bench politics.

1975

Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher

Former Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher unexpectedly deposes Heath (now back in Opposition) and proceeds to beat Geoffrey Howe, Willie Whitelaw, Jim Prior, Hugh Fras and John Peyton for the top job. Heath goes into “the incredible sulk” for the next thirty years.

The right choice?: Undoubtedly. Whatever else she may have been, Thatcher was a boon to the Tory party, ultimately delivering them three landslide election victories. This wasn’t obvious in 1975, however, and Heath’s popularity with the public continued to outstrip hers until the early Eighties.

1989

Margaret Thatcher resigns, Guardian front page 23 November 1990

Unknown backbencher Sir Anthony Meyer (dubbed “Sir Nobody” by the press) mounts a “stalking horse” challenge to Prime Minister Thatcher’s leadership. He loses but the number of abstentions is high, a fact largely overlooked at the time.

The right choice?: Could the brutality of Thatcher’s departure have been averted had she gone a year earlier? Who knows?

1990

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 9:  British Prime Minister John Major (L)  and  his deputy  Michael Heseltine answer questions at the morning election conference, 09 April in London,  as sleaze promised to dominate the 22 days left to May 1 elections after local party bosses thumbed their noses at the national leadership and retained   MP Neil Hamilton accused of taking bribes. Mr Major said that Mr Hamilton had the full support of the Conservative Party and hoped he would return to the House of Commons to carry out his work,    and he called on the voters of Tatton to stand behind    Hamilton and elect him as their MP at       elections.  (Photo credit should read JOHNNY EGGITT/AFP/Getty Images)

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In a hugely dramatic coup, Margaret Thatcher is challenged by former defence secretary Michael Heseltine. She wins but not by enough and resigns. Little known John Major beats Heseltine and Douglas “too posh” Hurd in the second round.

The right choice?: In the short run, yes. Major replacing Thatcher saved the Tories from certain defeat in 1992. In the long run? Perhaps not. Thatcher became a perpetual thorn in Major’s side and the scars of the contest took many years to heal.

1995

John Major PM talking to journalists in Downing Street before leaving for Waterloo.

Troubled PM Major pre-empts ongoing leadership controversy by resigning as leader and inviting people to “put up or shut up” and challenge him. He defeats former Welsh secretary John Redwood but only narrowly beats his own private target below which he would have resigned. Bigger guns Ken Clarke, Michael Portillo and Heseltine again, thus do not enter the contest.

The right choice?:  It seems doubtful anyone could have saved the Tories from electoral disaster in 1997 by that stage.

1997

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Little known 36 year old William Hague beats Clarke, Peter Lilley, Redwood and Michael “something of the night about him” Howard after their devastating election defeat. Heseltine’s heart condition rules him out. Portillo famously lost his seat.

The right choice?: Probably not. Hague proved an inexperienced and inadequate leader. Voters would have preferred the more effective and experienced Ken Clarke.

2001

Iain Duncan Smith beats Clarke in a ballot of party members. Michaels Portillo (now back in parliament) and Ancram all lost out early on in a ballot of MPs as did David Davis.

The right choice?: Definitely not. IDS was a disaster as leader and deposed in favour of an unelected Michael Howard in 2003. Any of the other candidates would have been better.

2005

In the year of Ted Heath’s death, David Cameron beats David Davis for the leadership. Liam Fox and an ageing Clarke lose out early on.

The right choice?: Probably, yes. Cameron finally delivered victory this year. their smallest post-war majority, yes. But a win is a win.

cameron