Badgeland: Memoir of a Labour Party Young Socialist in 1980s Britain, by Steve Rayson. Published: 7th February 2023
Steve Rayson has worn a few badges in his time.
The 1980s was a time when badges were often worn to convey political slogans, at least by those on the Left. Slogans like: ‘Coal not Dole’, ‘Nuclear Power, No Thanks’, ‘Rock Against Racism’, ‘Jobs not Bombs’, ‘Tories Out’, ‘Free Nelson Mandela’, ‘Tony Benn for Deputy’, and ‘Keep GLC working for London’.
The book opens in Swindon in the late 1970s, at the exact point that Steve’s teenage preoccupations with football, fishing and females start to give way to a wider interest in promoting the Labour Party and socialism. It is a cause that will dominate the next decade of his life.
Opposition to his newfound idealism can be found everywhere. The old lady on the bus who refuses to accept that his ‘Anti Nazi League’ badge is not somehow intended to promote Nazism. The friend who rubs his hands with glee at the thought of helping his mother buy her own council house under the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme. The short-lived French girlfriend who proclaims, “I really admire Margaret Thatcher.” The man who concludes, ”I wouldn’t trust Labour with my money…Red Ken would just give it all to black lesbians.” Worst of all is the cool indifference of his working-class father who just seems embarrassed by his son’s frequent left-wing outbursts.
Over time, Steve sees his hometown and his country transformed. Indeed, he is transformed himself, never betraying his principles but forced to make compromises as he attempts to find his place in a rapidly changing new Thatcherite world. The book covers similar territory to other political memoirs by people of a similar age such as Mark Steel’s Reasons to be Cheerful or John O’Farrell’s Things Can Only Get Better. Steve Rayson lacks the comedy background of either of these two fairly well-known figures: until now, he has been best known for his more sober analysis of the reasons behind Labour’s 2019 General Election defeat, The Fall of the Red Wall (2020).
But this is, overall, a very readable, engaging and sometimes funny account of one young man’s decade-long campaign to attempt to halt and ideally reverse the nation’s gradual transformation into a new, crueller, harsher new Thatcherite reality.
Live and let Di: The Prince and Princess (Dominic West and Elizabeth Debicki) go on fighting the Cold War.
It’s 1991 and the political situation is very, very different from how it is today, in November 2022.
Hard as it is to imagine now but back in 1991, Britain had been under the same Conservative government for twelve long years. I know, right? With the economy slipping into economic recession, the Tories had forced out their unpopular woman leader and replaced her with the man who until recently had been Chancellor of the Exchequer. The new Prime Minister was the youngest one so far of the entire century. So, as you can see: nothing like the current state of affairs at all.
But never mind all that, where’s the Queen?
Well, the series opens with a supposed bit of newsreel footage showing the Queen attending a ceremony marking the commissioning of the Royal Yacht Britannia back in 1957. Older readers will remember that for the first decade of her reign, the young Queen was played by the actress Claire Foy and this is the case here. The flashback ends with Foy’s Queen staring, horrified into the middle distance as if she has foreseen the images which appear in the next scene where she has transformed into Imelda Staunton. We first see Staunton’s monarch enduring the banal necessities of a routine medical examination. We are now in the 1990s and like Staunton herself, the sovereign is now supposed to be in her mid-sixties.
Of course, we already know the real problem isn’t with the Queen herself (spoiler alert: she lives for another 31 years) but with her children, three of whom are about to divorce, almost simultaneously. A frisky Princess Anne (Claudia Harrison) is already eyeing up the local talent while Charles (Dominic West) is doing his best to preserve the public face of his desperately unhappy marriage to the much-loved Princess Diana. Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki does a great job of replacing the also excellent Emma Corrin in this challenging role, often displaying a remarkable physical resemblance to the late Princess of Wales. But by this point, the marriage is clearly already doomed, wrecked by Charles’s affair with Camilla and by the fact they obviously have absolutely nothing in common.
The onetime Trainspotting actor, Jonny Lee Miller plays Britain’s Prime Minister, John Major. Major mostly sits quietly while lots of people talk at him in this episode. It is not really made clear whether this is because he is supposed to be naturally inscrutable or because he is keeping quiet because he senses he is out of his depth. Prince Charles, in this, seems to be plotting to encourage the Queen to abdicate and waffles vaguely and attempting to draw vague parallels with the decision to replace the ageing sixty-something Thatcher with the male forty-something Major. Princess Margaret (Lesley Manville) typically attempts to embarrass Major socially. Diana and the Queen are more polite to him. Sadly, there is no repeat of the scene in the Chris Morris comedy, The Day Today, in which the Queen and Major have a full-blown fight during their weekly audience together.
The story so far: Against all the odds, ordinary London girl and granddaughter of King George V, Elizabeth Windsor has risen to become Her Royal Highness, Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. Having seen off many perils during her first forty years on the throne including her wayward, drunken sister, Margaret (Vanessa Kirby/Helena Bonham Carter/Lesley Manville), unstable palace intruder, Michael Fagan (Tom Brooke) and non-U-turning, ex-Europhile, Iron Lady, Great She Elephant, Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson), she now faces her greatest enemy of all: HER OWN CHILDREN. Can the Queen resolve the mystery of the Annus Horribilis? Can this series avoid overlapping with the storyline of the film, The Queen, also written by Peter Morgan nearly twenty years ago? And can the Queen work out why after nearly thirty years as Olivia Colman, she has now suddenly turned into Imelda Staunton? For the answers, read on…
Drama Queen: Actress Imelda Staunton takes over the reign/reins…
The idea might sound bizarre, but in fact, in the case of Hannah Rose Woods’ excellent new book, it makes perfect sense. For this is a history of nostalgia itself. As Woods gradually takes us back from the 2020s to the Tudor era, it makes so much sense that a chapter covering the years 1914 to 1945 should follow the one focusing on the period spanning 1945 to 1979, that it soon begins to seem normal.
Indeed, there never seems to have been a time when Britain wasn’t taking a fond look back over its shoulder to savour the apparent security and certainties of the recent past. Many today might mourn the passing of the immediate post-war decades. But Woods is good at myth-busting and points out things were rarely as simple as they seem. From the perspective of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Britain seemed, on the one hand, to be drifting into seemingly irreversible decline. We had lost our empire, been humiliated over Suez and as the 1960s moved into the 1970s, seemed to be perpetually lurching from one national crisis to another.
This is all true enough. But at the same time as Harold Macmillan pointed out, “most of our people have never had it so good.” During his premiership and for nearly twenty years after it, lots of people had more money and free time than ever, acquiring cars, living in their own homes and going on foreign holidays for the first time. The year 1977 is often seen as marking something of a national low point, coming so soon after the 1976 IMF Crisis. But surveys from that year indicate Britons were then amongst the happiest peoples in the world. As the Canadian philosopher, Joni Michell had argued a few years earlier, “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?”
There is more. Contrary to popular myth, lots of people were pleased to be moved out of their slums, most people who went to the New Towns didn’t regret it (even in Stevenage) and some people were never happier during their entire lives than when the Nazis were bombing them during the Second World War (no joke!)
In short, this is an enjoyable and well-written book, packed with insights. You’ll be sure to remember it fondly, once it’s all over.
Book review: Rule, Nostalgia: A Backwards History of Britain, by Hannah Rose Woods. Published by: W.H Allen. Available: now.
His previous book, The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to Johnson focused on the ten most recent British occupants of 10 Downing Street.
In his new book, even the list of subjects chosen is potentially contentious as Richards has specifically chosen to focus on the ten people who he feels came closest to becoming Prime Minister in the last sixty or so years without ever quite achieving it.
The list actually includes eleven people, not ten, as Richards has judged the two Milibands to be equally worthy of a place here and are both dealt with in one chapter.
The figures included are:
Rab Butler, Roy Jenkins, Barbara Castle, Denis Healey, Neil Kinnock, Michael Heseltine, Michael Portillo, Ken Clarke, David and Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn.
It is a good selection. Of the eleven, only three were ever party leader. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband were both cruelly denied power after losing General Elections (in 1992 and 2015) which most opinion polls and most people expected them to emerge from as Prime Minister, as at the very least, the leaders of a Hung Parliament. In 2017, Jeremy Corbyn caused a major upset by wiping out Theresa May’s majority in an unnecessary election which she had expected to win by a landslide. For a short period, Corbyn seemed achingly close to power. But his last two years as Opposition leader were disastrous and in 2019, he lost far more heavily to the Tories, by then under their new leader, Boris Johnson.
Two others on the list, Rab Butler and Michael Heseltine came close to becoming leader while their parties were in power. But while supremely well-qualified for the position of PM on paper, Butler lacked the qualities necessary to secure the position in practice. He lost out three times in 1955, 1957 and 1963. He was ultimately outmanoeuvred by the far more ruthless Harold Macmillan. Amongst other things, his speech to the 1963 Party Conference was much too dull to excite the Tory Faithful.
Michael Heseltine’s party conference speeches, in contrast, were never dull but he faced a near impossible challenge in 1990 in attempting to both remove Margaret Thatcher from office and replace her. He succeeded in the first but failed to achieve the latter despite remaining a potential leadership contender until after the Tories lost power in 1997. Although he wisely avoids going down the counter-factual history route, Richards does speculate that as Prime Minister, Heseltine may well have fundamentally changed Britain forever. Alas, we will never know.
Ultimately, all eleven of the figures featured here failed to win the premiership for different reasons. Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey and Ken Clarke all attempted to swim against the opposing tides then prevailing within their own parties. Onetime heir to the Thatcherite legacy, Michael Portillo, meanwhile, was forced into such a fundamental rethink of his values by his 1997 defeat, that he seemed to have lost all his enthusiasm for leadership by the time he was finally able to contest it in 2001. Many of his original supporters by then had their doubts as to whether they still wanted him to be leader too.
Richards’ list is almost as interesting for those it misses off as for those it includes. From the outset, his position is clear: in this book, he is only interested in the reasons why people didn’t become PM. He thus wastes no time on the tragic cases of Hugh Gaitskell, Iain Macleod or John Smith, all of whom lost any chance they might have had simply as a result of their sadly premature deaths. He also wastes no time on no-hopers. Whatever qualities they might have had, nobody ever expected Michael Foot or William Hague to make the jump from Opposition leader to Downing Street, least of all the men themselves.
I am surprised by Reginald Maudling’s exclusion from the list, however. Whatever his flaws, he was widely expected to beat Edward Heath to the Tory leadership in 1965 and from there may well have led the Tories back into power as Heath himself somehow managed to do. Richards also (perhaps after some hesitation) rejects Tony Benn from the list arguing:
“Benn almost qualifies as a prime minister we never had but fails to do so because, unlike Corbyn, he was never leader of the Opposition and he never had a credible chance of becoming prime minister while Labour was in government.”
This is fair enough but it does make Barbara Castle’s inclusion as one of the ten seem a bit conspicuous. She never after all, even stood for party leader. Yet it arguably doesn’t matter. Castle was a colourful and interesting character. She might have become leader and her inclusion proves a useful entry point for discussing other female politicians of the time such as Shirley Williams and Margaret Thatcher. Richards’ writing is consistently engaging and well-argued. And rest assured, the likes of Tony Benn and Michael Foot certainly get lots of coverage here anyway.
It is a sad book, in some ways. Neil Kinnock possessed many brilliant qualities and achieved much but his nine years as Opposition leader were generally agonising. He arguably saved the Labour Party only to find that he himself had become their biggest obstacle to it ever winning power. Both Milibands were hugely talented too but ultimately found their own ambitions effectively cancelled each other out with disastrous consequences for both them and their family. Jeremy Corbyn, a man who Richards reliably assures us is almost completely lacking in any personal vanity at all ended up finding himself widely labelled as narcissistic.
It is an excellent book nevertheless confirming Steve Richards’ position as one of our finest political writers. Perhaps Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer should grab a copy and take note if only to help ensure they don’t find themselves in any future editions?
A politician will be asked many questions during the course of their life. “Are you going to resign, Minister?” and “Did you threaten to overrule him?” are two less friendly examples. But for anyone hoping to launch their own political career, this book asks all the critical questions anyone aspiring to political office will need to answer if they are going to overcome what should be the first major obstacle to achieving power: winning an election. Never mind, “What do I believe in?” or “why do I want to do this?” These are questions you will have to answer for yourself. Mark Pack and Edward Maxfield are seasoned veterans of a number of successful and unsuccessful campaigns. There is no agenda here, other than to educate the reader as to how best to win whatever campaign they are fighting, be it for election to parliament, parish council or to the PTA. It is full of practical advice. Now on it’s third edition, it is first and foremost an essential guidebook on how to get elected. It is not primarily intended as a source of interest for geeky political bystanders like myself. Although it does fulfil that role too, it must be said.
Let us give a few examples from the text. Have you given any thought to whose votes your trying to win? If your answer to this is “everyone’s” then think again. You need to be more targeted than that. The bad news is, you’re not going to win everyone’s votes. The good news is, you don’t have to.
Are you campaigning for continuity or change? Are you trying to win new supporters or consolidate your position with existing ones? And how do you come across to the electorate? Are you, as Steve van Riel has suggested, Darth Vader (ruthless, but effective) or Father Dougal from Father Ted (caring, consensual but ineffective)?
The book tackles everything from broad strokes to the nitty gritty. How do you recruit a loyal campaign team? How should you deal with internet trolls? How do you deal with the media and get your voice heard? How do you drum home a consistent message without sounding robotic or repetitive? How do you attack your opponents without insulting and alienating potential future supporters?
It’s all here in what remains the definitive election campaign handbook of our times.
Book review: 101 Ways To Win An Election (Third Edition), by Mark Pack and Edward Maxfield. Published by: Biteback. Available: now.
General Election outcomes always seem inevitable when viewed in retrospect. They rarely seem so at the time.
Take the June 1987 election. Although Labour’s position had improved considerably from its 1983 “longest suicide note in history” manifesto crisis point, it was clearly still some way from electability by 1987. Neil Kinnock was clearly a better leader than Michael Foot had been but he was never exactly popular and there was still concerns over the party’s positions on taxation and defence. What was more, having survived both the Miner’s Strike and the Westland Affair, Margaret Thatcher in some ways looked stronger than ever. The economy seemed to be thriving (even though public services were not) and even unemployment having reached the horrendous post-war peak total of 3.6 million was now starting to fall. No surprise then that the Tories won a majority of 102, less than in 1983, but more than in any other Tory election win since 1945 before or since. Only Labour under Attlee and Blair have done better.
This is how the election looks now. As Lord David Young’s campaign diaries remind us, the outcome did not always seem so certain in 1987 itself. At the time, the Tory camp was seriously rattled by Labour’s impressive start to the campaign. Boosted by a famous party political broadcast dubbed ‘Kinnock: The Movie’ by the media and directed by Chariots of Fire’s Hugh Hudson, Labour knocked out the Liberal/SDP Alliance threat posed by ‘the Two Davids’ (Owen and Steel) in one fell swoop. Internally, the Tory campaign occasionally collapsed into panic. On ‘Wobbly Thursday,’ Thatcher (privately suffering from a dental problem on the day), seemed visibly irked during a press conference by questions about opinion polls which seemed to suggest the gap between Labour and the Tories was narrowing and that a Hung Parliament might be on the cards. Behind the scenes, at one point, Norman Tebbit reportedly grabbed David Young by the lapels and shouted, “we’re going to lose this fucking election!”
This didn’t happen, although again in retrospect, it is perhaps unsurprising Margaret Thatcher did not survive to fight her fourth General Election campaign. Although, in fairness, very few political leaders do.
The 1987 election campaign was a long time ago now. Nobody much under forty now remembers it. Nobody now under fifty was old enough to vote in it. Although Thatcher herself died in 2013, it is otherwise the most recent British General Election fought in which most of the key players (campaign manager Young himself, Tebbit, Ken Clarke, Douglas Hurd, Michael Dobbs, Davids Owen and Steel) are still alive as of July 2021.
The book’s blurb is a bit silly (it describes Labour as threatening to return the nation to the three-day-week, a crisis which had previously occurred under an earlier Conservative government). Young has written his memoirs before in 1990’s The Enterprise Years. But these diaries provide plenty of insight into the day-to-day realities of fighting a busy election campaign.
Book review: Inside Thatcher’s Last Election: Diaries of the Campaign That Saved Enterprise, by David Young. Published by: Biteback. Available: now.
How soon is too soon to write about the history of a particular time or place?
Following on from his earlier three excellent volumes which took us from the start of the 1970s to the dawn of the new millennium, Alwyn Turner’s new book picks up the English story at the time of New Labour’s second massive General Election victory in 2001 before dropping us off again at the time of David Cameron’s surprise narrow win in 2015. The stage is set for the divisive Brexit battles of the last five years and for the divisive leadership of the Labour Party by Jeremy Corbyn after 2015, but the narrative clearly stops before getting to either. Turner’s book is packed full of reminders of this eventful and turbulent period. Who now remembers Pastygate? Cleggmania? Russell Brand’s dialogue with Ed Miliband or Robert Kilroy Silk’s thwarted battle to take over UKIP? Viewed from the perspective of the current Coronavirus pandemic which, writing in July 2021, has thus far totally dominated the third decade of the 21st century, Turner’s social history of this busy and already seemingly historically quite distant fourteen year period already seems very welcome.
It is not all about politics, of course. As before, Turner takes a good look too at changes in society as viewed through the prism of TV, literature and other developments. No doubt he will one day have much to say about the recent Euro 2020 Finals and subsequent race row. Here, for example, we get a thorough comparison between the different styles of comedians, Jimmy Carr and Roy Chubby Brown. Both are edgy and deliberately tackle sensitive subjects for their humour. Carr, is however, middle-class and Cambridge-educated while Brown never conceals his working-class origins. Carr is frequently on TV, while Brown, although popular, is never allowed on. But, as Turner points out, it is not simply a matter of class. Carr is deliberately careful, firstly never to go too far or to appear as if he is endorsing any (or most) of the dark things he talks about. Brown is much less cautious. He frequently pushes his jokes into genuinely uneasy territory and occasionally seems to be making crowd-pleasing anti-immigration points which totally lack any comedic punchline. Whereas Carr clearly has a carefully constructed stage persona, it is unclear where the stage Chubby Brown begins and the real Chubby Brown ends.
Class comes up a fair bit in the book. Turner identifies a definite resurgence in the popularity of posher folk in public life during this period. Some are obvious: TV chefs such as Nigella Lawson, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, Chris Martin of Coldplay, the rise of Boris Johnson and David Cameron, the last becoming the first Tory leader to come from a public school background in forty years in 2005. Others are less obvious: musician Lily Allen was privately educated as were Gemma Collins and some of her other The Only Way is Essex companions. Even Labour’s Andy Burnham went to Cambridge.
The underrated Russell T. Davies 2003 TV drama, Second Coming in which Christopher Eccleston’s video shop assistant surprisingly claims to be the Son of God and indeed turns out to really be him. The phone hacking scandal. The London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony. The rise and fall of George Galloway. The 2011 London riots. The Jimmy Saville affair and other scandals. The TV show, Life on Mars. All these topics are revisited by Turner in intelligent and readable fashion.
Other interesting nuggets of information also come in the footnotes. “By 2009 over 9 per cent of Peterborough had come to the city from overseas.” Alexander Armstrong was the first man to play David Cameron in a TV drama in 2007’s The Trial of Tony Blair (aired during Blair’s final months in office). We also get reminders of some of the better jokes of the period in this manner. Frank Skinner’s “George Osborne has two types of friends: the haves and the have yachts.” Or the late Linda Smith’s take on the 2005 Tory election slogan: “Are you sinking like we’re sinking?”
We are also kept informed of the main biscuit preferences of our political leaders, an issue Gordon Brown, a brilliant man, but always uneasy with popular culture, characteristically messed up answering.
There is less about music, although Turner does at one point suggest that the Spice Girls “might have been the last group that really mattered, that meant something beyond record sales and outside their own constituency.”
Turner does well to retain a position of political neutrality here and is especially good at retracing the early machinations on the Labour Left and the Eurosceptic Right which seemed irrelevant at the start of this era but which by the end of it came to seem very important indeed. It is, indeed, a very depressing period for anyone on the liberal left. In 2001, the Lib Dems under their dynamic young leader, Charles Kennedy seemed poised to become the nation’s second party. By 2015, Kennedy was dead and the party wasn’t even registering in third place in terms of either seats or share of the vote. In 2001, Tony Blair won a second huge landslide majority, seemed to have the world at his feet and was one of the most highly regarded political leaders of recent times. Furthermore, no one serious in political life was even remotely contemplating withdrawing from the European Union.
What changed? Read this endlessly fascinating book to find out.
Book review: All In It Together, England in the Early 21st Century, by Alwyn Turner. Published by: Profile Books. Available: now.
Geoff Norcott is that rarest of breeds: a popular and funny right-wing comedian.
Whereas, even only a few years ago, most people would have struggled to name even one living British comedian with conservative views (particularly when the list is shortened further to exclude those who are not openly racist), Norcott has risen to fame largely on the basis of his appearances as the ‘token right-winger’ on the BBC’s excellent topic comedy show, The Mash Report. The show was cancelled earlier this year, largely as a result of concerns by nervous BBC execs that, Norcott’s contribution aside, it was too left-wing.
Some would doubtless challenge me for even agreeing to review this book and thus provide the oxygen of publicity to someone who is not only a self-confessed Tory voter and a Brexiteer.
To these people I would point out first that Norcott clearly represents the more acceptable face of the Right. He is clearly not racist at all and in 2019 was appointed as a member of a BBC Diversity Panel with the aim of ensuring the corporation represents a broad cross section of the public’s views. He is also, it must be mentioned, deeply sceptical about the leadership skills of Boris Johnson. This is a definite point in his favour, even if his scepticism was not quite sufficient to prevent him from helping vote Johnson back into power in the December 2019 General Election.
Secondly, I would argue strongly that we shut out voices such as Norcott’s at our peril. Nobody’s life is perfectly typical of anything, but Norcott seems to be a textbook example of the sort of voter Labour could once, perhaps complacently rely on to support them as recently as the 1990s and 2000s but who they have since lost with fatal consequences. With much of Norcott’s assessment of Labour taking the form of critical advice rather than flagrant attacks, he is certainly worth listening to.
By coincidence, me and Geoff Norcott are almost exactly the same age. He was born six days earlier than me in December 1976. Like me, his first ever experience of voting in a General Election as a twenty-year-old was for New Labour in May 1997. He describes his feeling on leaving the voting booth:
“It was probably the first and last time I ever felt total conviction about the party I voted for,” I feel the same. It was a combination of the perhaps misplaced certainties of youth. But it was also, I think, something about the political mood of 1997.
Like me, he returned, perhaps slightly less enthusiastically to voting Labour in 2001. Thereafter, our paths diverge. I came very close to voting Lib Dem in 2005, largely because of my opposition to the war in Iraq (I eventually held my nose and voted for my local Labour candidate who was anti-war, but lost her seat anyway). Norcott doesn’t mention his views on the war, but did vote Lib Dem, partly because like me, he admired their then leader, the late Charles Kennedy, but also as part of a slow journey he was undergoing towards the Tories. In the last four General Elections held since 2010, he voted Conservative. He also voted Leave in 2016.
In truth, Geoff Norcott, although from a traditionally Labour family had been showing conservative instincts from a young age. He had an entirely different upbringing to me. Mine was comfortable and middle-class, his was marred by both poverty and parental divorce. He is sceptical about the welfare system based on his own family experiences and is less enthusiastic than most people are these days about the NHS. He felt endlessly patronised while at Goldsmith College, London in the mid-1990s and has come away with a lifelong scepticism about left-wing middle-class liberals, many of whom frequently serve as targets for his humour today, (for example, on the marches for a second ‘People’s Vote’ on Brexit: “The idea that loads of liberals having a day out in London with chopped kale power salads and terrible chants in some way spoke for the country was laughable”). He has had some tough battles on Twitter. Critics of his appearances on Question Time have variously attacked him for either being rich and self-interested or too common to be on TV. He now seems to be convinced Twitter is a hotbed of left-wing sentiment. I’m not sure it is.
The book takes us through his difficult early years, a brief stint in media sales, his work as a teacher, his time entertaining the troops overseas, a series of personal tragedies a few years ago through to his final success as a successful and reasonably well-known comedian and now author, settled with his family in Cambridgeshire.
Needless to say, I don’t agree with him on many things. He believes the Blair and Brown governments spent too much: I don’t think they did particularly, and even if they did, this certainly does not explain why the credit crunch happened. His main criticism of people like the Milibands and Keir Starmer seems to be largely based on the fact that they are middle-class and cannot claim any link to working-class people. In my view, this is true but is surely dwarfed by the facts that the their opponents men such as David Cameron and Boris Johnson were born into lives of such immense privilege to the extent that these leaders have no knowledge or interest in reducing poverty at all. I suspect, at root, like many right-wing people, Norcott thinks there is something hypocritical about anyone with money having a social conscience about anything, while his tolerance for rich leaders who openly don’t give a toss about society is much greater. This has never been my view. My horror at the Tory record on homelessness, unemployment and underfunding of the health service has always been sufficient to drive me away me from ever voting for them, particularly when combined with the frequent right-wing tendency (not shared by Norcott himself) to either be racist or to blame many of the weakest and poorest in the world for many of society’s ills.
Geoff Norcott is, of course, now successful enough to be considered middle-class himself and undoubtedly has many left-wing comics amongst his friendship circle. None of which should detract from this sometimes funny, enjoyable and often useful book which is packed with useful phrases such as ,”when you demonise a voter, you lose them forever” which many of us would do well to remember.
Book review: Where Did I Go Right?: How The Left Lost Me, by Geoff Norcott. Published by: Octopus. Available: now.
Okay: admittedly ‘The Sultan of Swing’ may sound like a rather flash title for a biography of the 20th century’s foremost election statistician: ‘Sultans of Swing’ was the name of a Dire Straits album. But David Butler was a seemingly permanent feature of the BBC’s TV election coverage for nearly thirty years. He not only largely created the science of Psephology (the study of balloting and calculating election results) almost from scratch but perhaps did more than anyone else to make the complex world of electoral science accessible and easily understandable to the general public. Although he has always been too modest to admit it, he effectively invented the familiar General Election night device of the Swingometer. He is now ninety-six years old. The long story of his life is worth telling and the veteran writer, journalist and broadcaster, Michael Crick does so very well in this biography, published in 2018.
It is quite eye-opening (at least, it was for me) to learn just how primitive election coverage was when Butler started out in the 1940s. Although BBC TV was established in 1936, the organisation remained extremely wary of providing decent coverage of elections or indeed any aspect of British political life for the first twenty years of its existence. Fearful that the government might accuse them of political bias and use this to restrict their powers (admittedly, a very real risk today), the broadcaster imposed strict rules on itself. The monumental 1945 General Election night was thus covered on BBC radio only: admittedly, perhaps not such a huge issue as very few people owned TVs then anyway. In 1950 again, the BBC did not allow itself to cover any election canvassing during the campaign itself. It did, however, tentatively allow a programme covering the results for the first time in which the handsome young dark-haired and very self-assured Oxford graduate, Butler made a favourable impression. He would become a fixture of the BBC’s election night coverage during the next nine General Elections held up to 1979, often appearing as part of a sort of double-act with friendly rival, the Canadian, Bob McKenzie. Butler would adopt spectacles and see his hair grow grey in the ensuing thirty years but his contribution would prove no less vital.
The book opens with a scene in 1950, in which Winston Churchill, at that point Leader of His Majesty’s Opposition and plotting his own return to Downing Street summoned the young Butler to discuss the possibilities the new science of opinion polling offered for predicting election outcomes in advance. It is a good start: the political titan nearing the end of his long career meeting the young talent at the start of his own. In general, though he seems to have been slightly left of centre politically, Butler strived to remain impartial, something which generated occasional tensions with his lifelong friend, left-wing Labour MP, Tony Benn who he met at university. Butler, in fact, had a very distinguished family background and was the cousin of the leading Tory politician, R.A. ‘Rab’ Butler.
Michael Crick chronicles the details of Butler’s many books, innovations, his travels in America and his success in exporting many of his techniques to Australia and India alongside his personal life. This includes two very sad elements: the death of his wife, the very successful academic, Lady Marilyn Butler in 2011 after many years of happy marriage in 2011 following a struggle with Alzheimer’s disease and the death of one of their three sons, Gareth following a sudden heart attack in 2008, aged just 42.
But, in general, this is a well-researched and highly readable biography of a life well-lived.
It’s 1981 and a group of young people are on their way to embark upon a new life in London in Russell T. Davies’ new five-episode Channel 4 drama.
Escaping a fairly loveless home environment on the Isle of Wight, Ritchie Tozer (Olly Alexander) is soon having the time of his life in the capital. Good-looking and confident, he is free to enjoy the delights of the capital’s thriving gay scene at night while pursuing bit parts as an actor in the likes of Doctor Who during the day. He soon befriends Jill (Lydia West, who appeared in Davies’ previous drama, Years and Years), who is also hoping to tread the boards. Colin (Callum Scott Howells), meanwhile, is gay too, like Ritchie, but a tamer character who has moved from Wales to work at a tailor’s. He is soon being forced to politely resist unwanted sexual overtures from his married male boss. Finally, Roscoe (Omari Douglas), another live wire, has been forced to flee his family home after his family threaten to send him to Nigeria because of his homosexuality.
All of these characters and a number of others soon converge and become friends in London. As the series moves through the next decade, all also see their lives seriously impacted by the spread of AIDS.
This is clearly very serious subject matter indeed and it would be wrong to pretend that watching It’s A Sin isn’t a powerful, hard-hitting, harrowing and overall, very moving experience. At the same time, Davies doesn’t forget to show that at least initially life for these twentysomethings as they go out, get jobs, make friends, live together, go clubbing, get drunk, go on the pull and generally experience adult life for the first time is lots of fun. This is something many of us will be able to relate to regardless of whether we are young or old, gay or straight or can remember the 1980s ourselves or not. The soundtrack is also amazing. Putting 1980s songs in a TV drama is hardly an amazingly original idea but songs such as Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy, Freedom by Wham!, REM’s Everybody Hurts and yes! It’s A Sin by the Pet Shop Boys (many although not all of them performed by artists who whether we knew it or not at the time were gay themselves) are deployed very effectively.
It’s easy to forget how far social attitudes have progressed in the thirty or forty years since the show’s 1980s setting. None of the main characters feel able to tell their families they are gay with the end result that when many of them do contract AIDS their families discover that their children are both homosexual and potentially mortally ill almost simultaneously. Initially, there is a terrifying mystery about the disease. One fairly minor character goes to his grave early on, apparently at a complete loss as to why he and his partner seem to have both contracted cancer at the same time. Another is so ashamed by his condition that he won’t tell anyone he has it. Following his death, his family not only cover-up the cause of his demise but attempt to destroy any evidence that he ever existed. Even as liberal and well-intentioned character as Jill is sufficiently worried about her AIDS-infected friend drinking out of one of her mugs that she destroys it afterwards. The information simply wasn’t available then.
The myth that AIDS exclusively affected only the homosexual community persisted for far too long to, hindering progress partly because many authority figures clearly felt many victims to some extent deserved their fate simply because they were that way inclined. In one memorable sequence, talking straight to camera, Ritchie articulates his own reasons for believing the AIDS virus to be a myth dreamed up by a homophobic media. Such conspiracy theories, of course, foreshadow those who persist in claiming in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t exist today. If anything, although we know Ritchie’s argument is no less bogus than they are, Ritchie does present a better argument for his disease not existing than they do.
Ultimately, with an excellent supporting cast including Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Fry, Tracy Ann Oberman, Keeley Hawes and Shaun Dooley, It’s A Sin is a worthy companion piece to Russell T. Davies’s earlier series Queer as Folk and Cucumber. January is barely over yet this may well prove to be the best British TV drama of 2021 along with Russell T. Davies’s greatest ever masterpiece.
All episodes of It’s A Sin can be viewed now on All 4. It is also being broadcast n Channel 4 every Friday at 9pm.
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.
And so, Series 4 of The Crown comes to an end, having guided us through the period from 1977 to 1990.
We are still talking about events a very long time ago: for example, the 30th anniversary of the fall of Margaret Thatcher (on November 22nd 1990) occurred exactly a week after this series fell onto Netflix. The world of 1990 was still a world, lest we forget, where mobile phones were still largely the preserve of a few yuppies shouting into them on trains and such concepts as the internet, Netflix and the actress Gillian Anderson either didn’t exist or were entirely unknown to most people.
Despite these facts, perhaps it’s just because of my age but 1990 much more like the world we know today than 1977 did. Or perhaps I should amend that? 1990 feels much more like the world we knew up until a year ago, than 1977 did.
At any rate, this episode marks the end of an era. After two series, twenty episodes and twenty-six years of time passing on screen, this episode sees the end of Olivia Colman’s reign as the second of The Crown’s second screen Queen Elizabeths. The first, Claire Foy, made a welcome cameo at the start of Episode 8 in a 1940s flashback. Elizabeth the Third, Imelda Staunton will assume her duties taking the Queen fully into old age in Seasons 5 and 6. We leave the Queen, now a grandmother in her early sixties, with a quartet of increasingly troubled grown-up children.
Olivia Colman has been a success in the role and she has been ably supported by a cast (also presumably all destined to now be replaced) of which Tobias Menzies’ reliably crotchety Prince Philip, Erin Doherty’s sharp-witted Princess Anne and Helena Bonham Carter’s increasingly embittered and famously rude Princess Margaret have all been standouts.
This series has, of course, been dominated by both another Margaret and another Princess entirely. This episode sees Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher get her marching orders after a killer speech from supposed ‘dead sheep’ and onetime loyal if frequently bullied ally, Sir Geoffrey Howe (Paul Jesson) precipitates a fatal leadership contest from a never-seen Michael Heseltine. After a rocky road together, particularly during Episode 8’s Apartheid-themed episode, the monarch and the Iron Lady end things on fairly good terms, albeit only after a bizarre, presumably completely imagined episode in which Thatcher makes a last ditch effort to retain power by proposing a dissolution of parliament. The Queen declines and a diminished Thatcher, stunned by her loss, walks off into the political sunset. A workaholic with no interests outside politics, Margaret Thatcher never reconciled herself to her removal from power (an event which she perhaps should have recognised was always bound to occur at some point) and reportedly never lived a happy day again. Although many viewers have been reportedly troubled by the fusion of the actress’s sexual allure with the famously unsexy Thatcher, Gillian Anderson can at least walk away happily from this role. Following in the footsteps of such luminaries as Sylvia Sims, Hadyn Gwynne, Andrea Riseborough, Lindsay Duncan, Steve Nallon and Meryl Streep, her’s is undoubtedly the definitive screen Thatcher.
But the Lady’s not returning.
Of course, the other stand-out character of this series is ultimately headed for a grim fate too. Emma Corrin’s Princess Diana has also been a triumphant success, Corrin’s performance humanising a character who has become idolised to an almost magical status in many of the public’s eyes. The series leaves Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Diana’s marriage at very much a low point. With Series 5 destined to take events up to the fateful year of 1997, don’t expect things to get a lot better for them.
With so many matters of historical import being dealt with, it is no surprise The Crown has often come under scrutiny as to whether it is factually accurate. Broadly speaking, as with any historical drama, be it Wolf Hall, I, Claudius or anything else, it is fair to say, some dramatic licence has often been deployed.
For example, nobody really knows what the Queen talks about with her Prime Ministers in their weekly audiences, other than the Queen and the surviving ministers themselves (insofar as they would remember). The writers can speculate, however, based on our knowledge of the times and the personalities involved.
Events have sometimes been moved slightly in time or changed slightly. Princess Diana wasn’t in costume when she first met Prince Charles. Mark Thatcher’s disappearance in 1982 did not overlap with the start of the Falklands Crisis. However, the broad narrative sweep of The Crown is largely accurate. It is also interesting to note that many sources claiming to list things The Crown “got dead wrong about history” not only often misrepresent what actually happened in the series but are pretty free in their own speculation about historic events themselves.
This episode deals with an incident which seems so far fetched that it seems woefully implausible but yet did actually happen. In 1982, an unemployed painter and decorator, Michael Fagan (played here by Tom Brooke) did scale the 14 foot parameter wall of Buckingham Palace, shinnied up a drain pipe, climbed through an unlocked window and ultimately entered the Queen’s bedroom, briefly spending some time in the company of the understandably rattled monarch, before the alarm was raised.
Incredibly, this not only happened, but occurred only weeks after Fagan had breached Palace security before. On that first occasion, the Queen wasn’t present. Fagan had fled after being spotted in the Palace, having stolen and drunk what turned out to be a fairly cheap bottle of wine. Amazingly, although the Palace was fully aware of the incident, security was not tightened up enabling Fagan to do the same thing again soon afterwards, this time encountering the Queen, waking her up while she was in bed.
As unstable figure as he was, it is actually surprising Fagan even managed to locate the Queen. It is fortunate she was not attacked or even assassinated. Fagan had mental health issues and was institutionalised for three months. He is still alive today, aged 70, and has been critical of the programme.
In The Crown, Fagan uses his time with the Queen (Colman) to vent some of his frustrations with the political situation at the time. In reality, it is unlikely Fagan was as articulate about these issues during his brief audience with the Queen, but the episode takes advantage of the incident to highlight the vast gap between the Queen’s life and that of many of her subjects at that point.
In what is generally a much grittier episode than usual, we get to see many aspects of Fagan’s unhappy poverty-stricken life as he proves unable to find work or gain access to his children.
Britain was at a low ebb in 1982: unemployment had more than doubled in the previous three years. Despite this Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) is accurately portrayed as being at the peak of her political rebirth, following her victory in the South Atlantic.
So far, most of the episodes in this series can be easily divided into ‘Princess Diana’ episodes or ‘Margaret Thatcher’ episodes. At one point, in this one, we see Princess Diana (Emma Corrin) struggling through her pregnancy with the future Prince William as her husband, Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) shouts at her through a door.
But otherwise, this is a Margaret Thatcher episode.
It’s 1982 and when we first see her in this episode, Mrs T (Gillian Anderson)is up in arms, not because of mass unemployment or the recession but because her son Mark (Freddie Fox) has got lost in the Sahara desert while taking part in the Sahara-Dakar Rally. Mark is soon recovered safe and well, but the Queen is surprised to see a more vulnerable side to the Iron Lady in the meantime. She is also surprised by the Prime Minister’s undisguised favouritism for her son Mark over his twin sister Carol (Rebecca Humphries in a role played by Olivia Colman herself in the 2011 film, The Iron Lady). Here, as in reality, Mark is spoilt rotten by his mother, becoming brash and overconfident, despite ultimately being pretty thick. Though genuinely intelligent, Carol, in contrast, comparatively ignored by her headstrong and domineering mother, has low self-esteem, only proving a success later in life as Mark proves a failure.
With some dramatic licence, the Mark Thatcher Sahara story here slightly overlaps with the start of the Falklands War. This wasn’t the case: there was in fact several months’ distance between the two events. It is thus unlikely Thatcher was venting feelings about her son when she reacted to the news of developments in the South Atlantic, as is suggested here.
Thatcher’s favouritism does prompt a teasing suggestion to the Queen from Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) that all parents have their own favourite amongst their own children. Philip here is upfront in admitting his own favourite is Princess Anne, a prejudice many viewers will doubtless share largely thanks to Erin Doherty’s winning performance.
But who is the Queen’s favourite? Her Royal Highness (played by Olivia Colman who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Anne in the film, The Favourite) arranges a meeting with each of her four children. She is briefed about each of them first, just to ensure she is up to date.
The Queen finds her daughter as dry and grounded as ever. And yet she is clearly miserable: annoyed by how she is portrayed in the media (particularly when contrasted with the newcomer, Diana) and, crucially, unhappily married.
Charles is unhappily married too and turning into a world class bore. The Queen reprimands him for his poor treatment of Diana and for continuing to see Camilla on the side.
For the first time we also get to meet the teenaged Prince Edward (Angus Imrie), who seems arrogant and is bullied at school. Despite being keen to go the Falklands, Prince Andrew (Tom Byrne) also already seems to be developing unsavoury attitudes and is clearly utterly fixated on his own chopper (his helicopter, I mean).
Little wonder as the Queen here concludes: Mark Thatcher may be the one to have gone missing. But it is her own children who seem lost.
Balmoral: 1981. And the holidaying Royal Family are buzzing with excitement at the news a computer-animated stag has been sighted, limping across the nearby landscape. Who amongst them will be the first to fell the wounded beast? This episode is entitled, ‘The Balmoral Test.’ It could just have easily been called, ‘Stag Party.’
The Windsors also have other prey in mind too, as the Prime Minister and her husband are set to join them for a few days of socially excruciating fun and games. Will Margaret and Denis Thatcher (Gillian Anderson and Stephen Boxer) prove up to the challenge? Will they, in short, pass ‘the Balmoral test?’
Spoiler alert: no. They don’t.
As usual, writer Peter Morgan presents a balanced view of things. On the one hand, Margaret Thatcher was clearly a workaholic, with little sense of humour and no sense of fun. In real life, she described Balmoral as “purgatory.” Here, she commits a number of social gaffes, notably turning up for a rural excursion to hunt the stag in a brilliant blue suit more appropriate for addressing the Conservative Party Conference. The woman who, in reality, spent nearly every New Year’s Eve of her eleven-year premiership in the company of Jimmy Saville, proves unable to tolerate more than a few days with the holidaying Windsors. She has better things to do: the country is in the grip of recession and her Cabinet, some of whom were in ‘Allo ‘Allo (Guy Siner – Gruber in the sitcom, Sir Francis Pym in this) are in open revolt.
On the other hand, it’s easy to see why any outsider might struggle to get involved in the long established traditions of a close-knit family, particularly one as jaded and weird as the Windsors are. The Royal Family treat the Thatchers with frosty disdain, never explaining anything and assuming everyone else already knows their silly little rules. It is easy to see why Thatcher might not enjoy playing ‘Iggle Piggle’ or enjoy the delivery of Princess Anne’s (Erin Doherty) spirited animal impressions at close quarters. It also doesn’t help that two of the Royals, Princess Margaret and Prince Philip (Helena Bonham Carter and Tobias Menzies) were clearly amongst the rudest people to have ever lived.
Later, Mrs. Thatcher diminishes herself still further in the eyes of the Queen (Colman) explaining her purge of the Wets (that is, more moderate Tories, uneasy at the severe consequences of her economic policies) occurred almost entirely due to a lack of resolution on their part resulting from their privileged social background. This would have been an odd tactic to adopt when talking to the Queen, of all people, and doesn’t really do justice to the stubborn self-belief which enabled the Iron Lady to cling doggedly to such policies, even as society was devastated by mass unemployment.
Back at Balmoral, however, another new arrival – Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) brings a new subject for the family’s scrutiny, young Lady Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin). There is a slight sense of manipulation in the way Diana wins over the Royals – for example, she tells Philip (falsely) she is essentially a country girl at heart. But this isn’t overstated. Diana soon helps the Duke kill the stag, effectively winning over all the Royals (except Margaret) in one fell swoop. She has passed the Balmoral Test with flying colours!
Next time we see her, she is Diana as most of the wider world in 1981 first saw her. A beautiful but seemingly ordinary young woman at the centre of stories about her relationship with the Prince of Wales, smiling self-consciously as she walks down the street surrounded by a growing number of snapping photographers, seemingly slightly irritated by all the attention, but also rather enjoying it at the same time.
It’s 1977 and the Queen is celebrating her Silver Jubilee. She is now around fifty (slightly older than Olivia Colman who plays her) and there is a sense the focus of the action is now shifting slightly away from her, Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) and her drunken, unhappy, newly divorced sister, Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) to the next generation: Charles (Josh O’Connor) and his youthful romantic entanglements and to Princess Anne (Erin Doherty) who is now married and enjoying success in her show-jumping career. The Queen’s two other children, Prince Edward and the now disgraced Prince Andrew, both teenagers at this point, have not really featured yet.
In the meantime, there’s a new face in Downing Street. Despite being an enthusiastic monarchist during his three-year spell as premier, poor old Jim Callaghan, doesn’t even get a look-in here. As with Alec Douglas-Home (who admittedly only lasted twelve months), “Sunny Jim” gets missed out of The Crown’s narrative completely. Instead, we jump straight to the May 1979 election of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman PM and the only one of the Queen’s 14 First Ministers to date, to be roughly the same age as the monarch herself was at the time.
There have been a number of great dramatic portrayals of Margaret Thatcher over the years ranging from Lindsay Duncan, Patricia Hodge, Haydn Gwynne and Meryl Streep. In Peter Morgan’s 2006 film, The Queen, Sylvia Sims, who had once starred in 1991’s TV drama, Thatcher: The Final Days played The Queen Mother. Fittingly, when Meryl Streep starred in The Iron Lady, her daughter, Carol was played by Olivia Colman, who, is, of course, now The Queen in The Crown.
Margaret Thatcher is certainly not an easy role to play, partly because years of elocution lessons topped off with Saatchi and Saatchi-inspired voice exercises combined to ensure that she literally spoke like no one else who has ever lived on the planet Earth. Gillian Anderson does very well, capturing amongst other things Thatcher’s total lack of any sense of humour whatsoever. Like Thatcher herself though, it seems likely her performance will divide audiences. Philip and Margaret’s husband Denis (Stephen Boxer), meanwhile, react in similarly old school fashion to the news that Britain is now being ruled by “two menopausal women”. The Queen, in time, (like many others) found the famously headstrong, combative and stubborn woman premier difficult to like. In this first episode, however, set in 1979, the monarch seems very receptive to her.
At one point, we see the new Prime Minister doing the ironing. She is the Iron Lady.
Elsewhere, following Lord Mountbatten’s (Charles Dance) generally bad advice to “sow his wild oats.” Prince Charles is still carrying on with his now married, old flame, Camilla Parker Bowles (Emerald Fennell, not actually in this episode) while simultaneously dating one Lady Sarah Spencer (Isobel Eadie). It is during one visit to the Spencer household, having been briefly left alone with plenty of plants to talk to, that the thirty-ish Prince first encounters Sarah’s bewitching teenaged sister, Diana (Emma Corrin). More on her later…
This episode also deals with the assassination of Lord Mountbatten and three others by an explosion caused by a bomb planted by the Provisional IRA in August 1979. The explosion is cleverly spliced between footage of the other Royals seemingly simultaneously hunting, shooting and fishing during their own separate summer holidays.
Anderson’s Thatcher (who had lost her own friend and colleague Airey Neave to a terrorist bombing only a few months earlier, although this isn’t referred to) promises vengeance to the Queen. Speaking during a private phone conversation, Anderson’s Thatcher adopts a vicious, vindictive tone, which one suspects, wasn’t what the grief-stricken monarch really needed to hear at the time.
Thirty years ago, the Cold War came to a peaceful end. Germany was reunified. A wave of mostly peaceful uprisings occurred across the so-called Eastern Bloc in 1989 before finally in 1991, the Soviet Union itself disintegrated completely.
Such developments would have seemed unthinkable only a few years earlier. Russian communism had dominated Eastern Europe since 1917 with the intense rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States threatening to destroy humanity following the superpower arms build-up which escalated soon after the end of the Second World War.
As Archie Brown demonstrates in this book the fact that this amazing development was able to occur at all owes itself almost entirely to ‘the human factor,’ namely the unique personalities of three world leaders during the second half of the 1980s. The personality of one of these leaders in fact, was especially critical.
Many in the west were alarmed when Ronald Reagan won the presidency in November 1980. A onetime Hollywood actor who had been a liberal Democrat until his early fifties, Reagan had strong enough conservative credentials by 1980, that he was able to preside over a thaw in East-West relations without stoking fears that he might be appeasing the Soviets. The British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meanwhile was not as slavish in her support for Reagan and the US as is sometimes made out. She and Reagan were friends and shared the same ideological free market perspective, but there were occasional fallings out. Crucially, on the major issue of East-West relations, however, she and the 40th US president always stood shoulder to shoulder.
However, it was the third actor, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev who was utterly indispensable to the whole process. Make no mistake: without Mikhail Gorbachev there would have been no end to the Cold War. The Berlin Wall would not have fallen. The USSR would not have collapsed. Remarkable leaders though they in many ways were, the same cannot be said of Reagan or the so-called ‘Iron Lady.’
Gorbachev’s attitude and politics were utterly unique within Soviet politics at the time. Nor is it true that he (or anyone) was browbeaten into submission by the United States’ continued hard line. There is no evidence to support this whatsoever.
As the only one of these three figures still alive in May 2020, the world really owes the elderly Mr. Gorbachev a huge debt of thanks. As Archie Brown notes, it was he who made all the difference.
Gorbachev, not Reagan and certainly not Thatcher, ended the Cold War.
The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan and Thatcher and the End of the Cold War, by Archie Brown. Out Now. Published by Oxford University.
Book review: Where Power Stops: The Making and Unmaking of Presidents and Prime Ministers, by David Runciman. Published by: Profile Books.
The premise is simple enough. David Runciman takes a look at some of the most interesting recent British and American leaders and sees what we can learn from their experiences of leadership. His choice of subjects is in itself fascinating.
Lyndon B. Johnson: a huge, cajoling, powerful figure, the choice of LBJ nevertheless seems slightly odd, simply because his tenure (1963-69) was so much earlier than everyone else included here. Runciman also inevitably relies on Robert Caro’s masterful biography of the 36th US president. Still unfinished, Caro’s magnum opus has barely touched on Johnson’s years in the White House yet. Let’s hope he gets to finish it.
Runciman has a talent for shedding new light on potentially over-familiar topics. All manner of leader is included here. Amongst others, the list includes: exceptional men who fell slightly short of the high hopes they raised on the campaign trail (Barack Obama), good leaders who trashed their own reputations on leaving office (Tony Blair), the highly intelligent and flawed (Bill Clinton and Gordon Brown), the decent but narrow (Theresa May) and the ultimate narcissist, the abominable showman (Donald Trump). The last of these should never have got close to power in the first place. Unhappily, he is the only one included here who is still there.
The fascinating story of the implosion of John Edwards’ 2008 presidential campaign will doubtless make a great film one day. As he never made it to the presidency, however, it doesn’t really belong here. But, overall, Runciman does an excellent job. The book is manna for political geeks like myself.