Book review: Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979-1982, by Dominic Sandbrook

Published by: Allen Lane, Penguin. Out now.

I am writing this in a time of acute political crisis. It is easy to lose all sense of perspective when assessing a situation while it’s still happening. Even so, the year 2019 is unlikely to be viewed as a happy one for nation when we remember it in forty years time.

Despite this, the fifth volume in Dominic Sandbrook’s history of Britain since Suez, reminds us, the period, 1979-82 was very eventful indeed.

To briefly recap:

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher became the first woman prime minister in British history.

By 1980, she was already hugely unpopular as unemployment and inflation rocketed. There would probably have been a recession around this time anyway, but Thatcher’s dogged commitment to monetarism made things worse. Not for the last time, Labour blow the opportunity to replace the Tories in power by electing the decent but unelecttable Michael Foot as leader.

1981: The SDP breakaway from Labour and are soon way ahead of both the Tories (blamed for unemployment, rioting and recession) and Labour (harmed by Foot’s unpopularity and the antics of Tony Benn).

1982: The Falklands War transforms the political landslide. Thatcher becomes hugely popular again. There were signs of a Tory recovery before the Argentine invasion and it is doubtful ,Labour would ever have won the 1983 election anyway. But the Falklands Factor removed all doubt.

Sandbrook’s brilliant at these sort of books giving both a thorough insight into the politics of the period but almost all aspects of British life.

There are plenty of useful nuggets of info here. The book opens with an account of the live broadcast of the SAS break-up of the April 1980 Iranian embassy siege. The Alan Ahlberg book Peepo! is discussed as is Raymond Briggs’ incredibly harrowing graphic novel, When The Wind Blows. The rise of Ian Botham and Steve Davis are examined as is the fall of Joy Division and the rise of the New Romantics.

I was born in 1976 and so for the first time, like Sandbrook himself (who is about two years older than me) find myself encountering things here which I just about remember. I enjoyed the references to Peepo! (a book my baby brother liked) and was particularly interested in the portrait of my home town of Peterborough. I would dispute the claim made by an employee of the bishop of the time (and apparently endorsed by Sandbrook) that “Race relations are not a problem in Peterborough.” There were no riots in Peterborough as there were in Brixton in 1981 and although I went to school with a large number of children of Pakistani, Indian and Italian, I am white myself and cannot speak for them. But I know this for a fact: there were definitely racial tensions. There still are.

Reading the book, I was surprised to learn just how racist many people were back then. The extent of racism in the police force seems to have been appalling.

Sandbrook has started writing for the Daily Mail in recent years and though he strives for balance, his conservative tendencies occasionally show. Polly Toynbee of The Guardian, then an early SDP champion, is at one point described as a “future saint.” Who regards her as a saint, you might ask? No one in the real world, that’s who. Certainly not Guardian readers. The term is only ever used in reference to Toynbee sarcastically by envious columnists on the Right. I was also surprised to see Sandbrook resurrecting the discredited claim that Michael Foot was in the pay of the KGB. Foot retained strong pro-democratic tendencies throughout his life and won a libel case against the Murdoch press when tbey made the same claim. Were he not dead, I’m sure Foot would be suing again. And I’m sure he would win.

So Thatcher generally comes out of this well, Sandbrook agreeing with Charles Moore, in the face of virtually all evidence that the Iron Lady had a sense of humour. Little credence is given to the notion that anyone might have found the somewhat jingoistic aftermath of the Falklands conflict distasteful. Tony Benn comes out of this badly. After an effective chapter about the fear of nuclear war experienced by many at this time, Sandbrook then seems to go out of his way to argue unconvincingly that nobody was ever seriously worried about it after all.

But ultimately, this is another literally superb addition to Sandbrook’s account of Britain since 1956. What next? Greed is Good? No Turning Back? Nice Little Earner? I eagerly await Sandbrook’s next volume.

As a chronicler of post-war Britain, Sandbrook is only seriously rivalled by David Kynaston and Alwyn W. Turner.

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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

 

 

General Election memories 2: 1983

Margaret Thatcher, Dennis Thatcher

Peterborough, June 9th 1983

I was six by the time of Margaret Thatcher’s second election victory in 1983.  I certainly remember the year, if not the election itself.

I remember going to the Isle of Wight on holiday and falling over outside the saloon area of the Wild West Zone of Blackgang Chine (all now, apparently, under the sea). I remember my older brother (then 17) dragging me to see Return of the Jedi. I remember Bananaman, Danger Mouse and my teachers at Queens Drive Infants’ School. I actually remember being conscious that it was the year 1983, the first year I think where this ever happened, even though my memory banks seem to start in 1980. But other than noting that Labour leader Michael Foot’s surname was “Foot” and that this was, of course, funny, I don’t remember anything political at all.

This is perhaps a good thing.

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Conditions were ripe for a landslide Labour victory. The Thatcherite monetarist experiment had failed dramatically. 1981 had been a good year for my family: my father got a new job, we moved from the then modern and acceptable area of Longthorpe to a big house in a more central and very nice part of Peterborough (no, this last bit isn’t an oxymoron). My younger brother was born and I started school, both developments that doubtless delighted me at the time. Helped by the Trotskyite adventurer known as “Roger Redhat”, I soon learned to read.

But aside from the distraction of Charles and Diana’s wedding, 1981, seems to have marked a major low point in the fortunes of the country as a whole. Margaret Thatcher became one of the most unpopular leaders on record, as a major recession kicked in. Unemployment surged to a post-war high, inflation also went nearly as high as it had in 1974. Callaghan’s predictions of rioting on the streets if Thatcher won, were soon proven right in both Brixton and Toxteth. Alan Moore predicted a Labour victory (as well as a second Kennedy presidency) in V For Vendetta. Chris Mullin predicted a Tory-SDP Coalition in A Very British Coup.

Two years later, Margaret Thatcher led the Tories to their largest ever post-war election win. Labour were smashed. The Tory majority of 144 was smaller than Attlee’s in 1945 and Blair’s in 1997 and 2001, but was basically huge. What on Earth happened?

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Basically, the Falklands War happened. As Andrew Rawnsley has pointed out, Thatcher would definitely have had to resign had she not re-invaded the South Atlantic islands. But her strong war leadership gave a boost which effectively kept her in power for the rest of the decade.

But it wasn’t just that. The economy was starting to recover. And crucially 1981 was also the year Her Majesty’s Opposition pretty much collapsed completely.

Put simply: Roger Redhat proved too “red” for some, so Jonathan and Jennifer Yellow Hat broke away and formed their own group. But this weakened both, enabling Billy Bluehat to win.

Or put a bit more plainly: Labour coped very badly after their 1979 defeat. Labour has a tendency to go into a state of civil war after leaving government (and to Ed Miliband’s credit this didn’t happen at all in 2010. 2017 update: Ahem…) and in the Eighties this happened worse than ever. With the increasingly troublesome left-winger Tony Benn opting out, the 1980 party leadership election was between two men Michael Foot and Denis Healey. Both were sixty-something intellectuals first elected in the Attlee years. Both would live into their late nineties (Healey is still alive. 2017 update: he died in 2015 age 98). But the left-winger Foot won unexpectedly, beating the more populist Healey. Many on the Right (some of whom may have sneakily voted for Foot to strengthen their own argument that Labour had slid towards the “loony Left”) jumped ship forming a new centrist party, the Social Democratic Party (SDP). By the end of 1981, they were more popular than the “evil” Thatcherites on one side and the “Loony lefties” of Labour on the other. The SDP’s allure quickly faded, however, after they unwisely allied with the Liberals.

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The practical upshot of this was that three parties went into the 1983 election.

Mrs Thatcher’s Tories were actually less popular than in 1979 (their share of the vote fell). But boosted by the jingoistic fervour of the post-Falklands War mood, a slick campaign and the keen support of the Murdoch press, they won handsomely. The only awkward moment of the campaign for the Tories was the public grilling the Prime Minister received during a TV phone-in over the sinking of the General Belgrano. But this was not from Labour but from a member of the public, the late Diana Gould.

Labour’s campaign, in contrast, was a gaffe-prone shambles. Michael Foot was a thoroughly decent man, intellectual and ultimately less of a “loony” than Thatcher would prove to be. But he looked terrible and scruffy on TV. Labour were furthermore undisciplined and all over the place. It is obligatory to repeat Gerald Kaufman’s remark that the manifesto represented “the longest suicide note in history” at this point and I will happily do so as it is very clever. The manifesto was indeed unusually long and supported unilateral disarmament. The world has only occasionally been closer to nuclear war than it was in 1983, but only a fifth of the UK saw full nuclear disarmament as a solution. Labour came close to coming third behind the SDP vote-wise but the unfair electoral system ensured the SDP barely won any seats.

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Would Thatcher have been re-elected without the Falklands War? I actually suspect she would have been, though the margin would have been narrower. Did the SDP deny Labour victory? Again, I suspect the answer is “no”. Labour were heading for defeat anyway. Had Healey been elected leader, Labour wouldn’t have split and the defeat would have been smaller. Labour may have recovered earlier, perhaps returning to power in 1992.

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As it was, the election was a disaster. New Labour MP Anthony Blair surely observed that Labour had a long way to go policy and presentation-wise but to his credit never seems to have considered joining the SDP. Tony Benn lost his seat.

And for me this is the most recent General Election I have no memory of.

And frankly, I think I was lucky to miss it.

London Tony Benn

 

Tony Benn: 1925-2014

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Tony Benn, who had died, aged eighty-eight was primarily famous for the following things:

He was a Labour MP for longer than almost anyone else.

He represented Bristol South East from 1950 until 1960, then again from 1963 until 1983. He enjoyed a final 17 year stint as MP for Chesterfield from 1984 until 2001. Even after he retired to devote “more time to politics” he maintained a high profile. As a young child, he had been introduced to giants of the early 20th century such as Mahatma Gandhi, David Lloyd George and (less proudly) Sir Oswald Mosley.

Diarist.

He is also known for his diaries which he wrote on and off from his wartime teenage years in the 1940s. He wrote them consistently from his return to parliament in the early 1960s until a bout of ill-health persuaded him to stop writing them in 2009. Benn reckoned writing or taping the diaries added about an hour’s extra work to every day but they are now an invaluable historical document of Benn’s own career and the Labour Party’s history, particularly during the Wilson, Callaghan and Foot years. They have been gradually been published since the Eighties, the last volume A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine appearing only a few months ago. It is reviewed here https://chrishallamworldview.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/book-review-tony-benn-a-blaze-of-autumn-sunshine-the-last-diaries/

The best leader Labour never had?

Benn actually never came especially close to leadership himself. He scored fairly poorly in the 1976 Labour leadership contest (still the only one to occur while the party was in power), most of the left-wing vote going to Michael Foot who came second to James Callaghan. By 1980, when Labour was back in Opposition, he might well have won the leadership contest which was won by Foot. But Benn refused to stand, arguing that with the party’s electoral system about to be updated, any leader would ultimately be a lame duck. In 1981, he launched an unexpected and hugely divisive bid for the party deputy leadership but lost very narrowly to Denis Healey. The contest marked the peak of Benn’s influence in the party and the nadir of the party’s fortunes. Many never forgave Benn for the 1981 challenge.

Benn lost his own seat in the 1983 General Election and was thus unable to compete in the subsequent leadership contest won by Neil Kinnock (who Benn disliked as leader, though they had been friends during the early left wing phase of Kinnock’s career). Benn’s final 1988 challenge to Kinnock was taken seriously by few. Benn’s influence was clearly on the wane and he performed even worse than expected.

The cult of Benn.

In fact, though he clearly wanted the leadership at different times, Benn does not seem to have been primarily driven by dreams of power. In a strange way though, like Enoch Powell on the Right, Benn set the mood of the times (the Seventies) more decisively than actual leaders like Harold Wilson and Ted Heath did. There was intense interest and paranoia about Benn in the Seventies. The Sun labelled him “The most dangerous man in Britain” and Benn and his family were frequently harassed by the press and security services.

The battle of the peerage.

In 1942, Tony’s father, William Wedgewood Benn, also a Labour politician, was awarded a hereditary peerage. It was assumed Tony’s older brother Michael would succeed on his father’s death and as he was intent on a career in the church, this wasn’t seen as a problem. In fact, Michael was subsequently killed in the war. The death was a devastating personal blow to his brother and the family, one that Tony never entirely got over. But it also provided a serious obstacle to his political career as in those days it was impossible to renounce a peerage. Getting out of the Lords and back into the Commons as an MP would be essential if Benn was to enjoy a serious political career.

Indeed, the fact that Benn was known to have an elderly father whose death might at any moment end Benn’s career as an MP, had proved something of an obstacle to Benn securing a parliamentary seat in the first place. Despite this, he won a seat while still in his twenties during the last days of the Attlee Government. Throughout the Fifties, he was recognised as a rising star in the party.

Following the death of his father in 1960, a mighty legal battle ensued. After several by-election wins and inertia from many in his own party as well as the Tory Government, Benn triumphantly returned to the Commons in 1963. An odd side-effect was that Benn’s actions enabled Lord Home to renounce his peerage and become Tory Prime Minister later that same year.

More…

He was born in 1925, the same year as Margaret Thatcher. Both attended Oxford simultaneously and probably met as both were active in student politics. However, there is no record of them meeting at this time.

Benn served in the RAF during the Second World War. He was married to his American wife Caroline for fifty years. His son Hilary Benn was a minister in the Brown government. Although clearly far to the Right of his father, Tony (a vocal critic of New Labour) was always careful not to criticise his son in his diaries or anywhere else.

Benn enjoyed his most successful period in government as Postmaster General under Wilson introducing the giro system, opening the Post Office Tower and perhaps less happily unsuccessfully launching a scheme to remove the Queen’s head from stamps (Benn met the Queen and got the impression she backed the scheme. It seems she did not). Benn also outlawed pirate radio, something he later regretted.

Benn was generally known as Anthony Wedgewood Benn until the mid-Seventies. Critics still called him this until the end of his life in the hope of embarrassing him by drawing attention to his aristocratic background. He is also sometimes referred to as the former Viscount Stansgate, although he never actually used the title himself.

Benn was known for his pipe and compulsive tea drinking.

With the notable exception of Lord Denis Healey (who is 96) and three of the four founders of the SDP, Benn outlived most of his colleagues and opponents.

Friends included Chris Mullin (former MP and author of A Very British Coup), actress Saffron Burrows and newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky.

Benn had many opponents on both the Left and Right. Despite this, he was always recognised for his decency and courteous manner. Perhaps no politician since Churchill has overseen such an enduring and wide ranging career in public life.

Book review: Seasons In The Sun – The Battle for Britain 1974-1979

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Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979.

Dominic Sandbrook.

Penguin, 2011.

£10.99.

There is probably a great play to be written about the filming of the first Star Wars film.

Admittedly, there would probably be legal issues, perhaps insurmountable ones. But imagine! The tensions between the rising young American stars: ex-carpenter Harrison Ford and the highly intelligent but vulnerable Carrie Fisher. And the older, distinguished English co-star Sir Alec Guinness, a man with an Oscar and years of experience but little understanding of the script.

This might sound like an odd place to begin a review of a book about Britain in the late Seventies. But this is exactly where the book itself begins. The film was after all, mostly filmed in Britain with much of the cast drawn from the likes of those previously best known for appearances on Poldark or later to appear in Brookside. A key point is that Guinness had managed to secure a generous two percent of the entire profits for a film that was to become one of the most commercially successful of all time. Another is that under the tax regime of the time, Inland Revenue trucks were soon pulling up to claim 83 pence out of every pound Guinness had made.

This was, of course, not a happy spell in British modern history. Sandbrook suggests the 1974-76 Wilson Government was the worst in British history. “Wilson was one of the cleverest and kindest men ever to occupy Number 10 but also one of the weakest,” he writes. In fairness, he inherited a mess (the Three-Day-Week and an economic crisis from Heath) and left the situation little better. This is odd because the government which included Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins and Anthony Crosland amongst its members was far from extreme (for the most part) and certainly not lacking in talent. Probably the main problem was Wilson himself, who had not expected to return to power in 1974 and thanks to alcoholism and probable early Alzheimer’s, was a shadow of his sharp-witted, wily mid-1960s self. Jim Callaghan, at any rate, though close to being a watered down Thatcherite himself, did better. At least until the Winter of Discontent.

It was a strange time in many ways. There was intense paranoia on all sides as if the neuroses of Wilson and US President Richard Nixon had infected the general population. The right-wing host of TV’s Opportunity Knocks, Hughie Green appealed live on air: “For God’s sake Britain, wake up!” in 1975. Many worried about a coup from the Left  perhaps led by Tony Benn while others began preparing for a coup from the Right, perhaps led by Lord Mountbatten. Right-wing journalist Peregrine Worsthorne hoped the United States would come to the aid of a socialist Britain just as they had “helped” Allende’s Chile by replacing him with the murderous General Pinochet in 1973. This scenario later inspired Chris Mullin’s 1982 thriller A Very British Coup in which a democratically elected Labour Prime Minister is overthrown by a combination of the CIA, British security services and the Establishment.

This is the fourth of Dominic Sandbrook’s superb series of four books which thus far have chronicled Britain’s progress (or decline) from the era of Suez to the coming of Thatcher (the others are Never Had It So Good, White Heat and State of Emergency). As before, Sandbrook does a superb job of describing not just the political and economic scene but the minutiae of seemingly almost every aspect of British life, for example, the details of the Sex Pistols’ notorious TV appearance with Bill Grundy. “Who knows what Grundy thought he was s doing?” Sandbrook rightly asks after Grundy goaded his guests into swearing on live TV and thus ensuring his own downfall.

Mike Yarwood. Malcolm Bradbury. Butterflies. The Good Life. Quadrophenia. John Stonehouse. Lord Lucan. The Bee Gees. All are here. It is a fascinating read. Along with Alwyn W. Turner and David Kynaston, Dominic Sandbrook remains at the forefront among chroniclers of our nation’s recent history.

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Book Review: Tony Benn A Biography by Jad Adams

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Few people who have ever lived can claim to have enjoyed as long and diverse a political career as Tony Benn.

Today, Benn is a socialist lion in winter, bearded, in poor health and approaching his ninetieth year. He ceased writing his celebrated diary four years ago. He has been a widower for some thirteen years now and has been out of parliament for almost that entire period. With the notable exception of Denis Healey, almost all of the other leading political figures of the Sixties and Seventies (Wilson, Callaghan, Heath, Jenkins, Whitelaw, Thatcher) are now gone.

There is more to Benn than longevity although his endurance is certainly worth dwelling on for a moment. Benn was born in 1925 and as a child was introduced to the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Ramsey MacDonald, David Lloyd George and even Sir Oswald Mosley by his father, a Secretary of State for India in the second Labour Government. Benn himself first entered parliament during the last days of Clement Attlee’s hugely successful government during the reign of George VI. Benn would never be Father of the House: his spell in parliament was interrupted twice, first by the battle to renounce his peerage between 1960 and 1963 and again for a year following the loss of his seat largely due to boundary changes in the 1983 General Election. But he would still be in parliament during the age of Tony Blair and William Hague. And from 1963 onwards (and intermittently from the Forties), he kept a diary.

The young Anthony Wedgewood Benn, as he then was, is easy to like. Dynamic, energetic and youthful, he made his mark through regular appearances on Any Questions?, a major role in condemning the 1956 Suez Crisis and a position on Hugh Gaitskell’s front bench. But it could so easily have ended in 1960 with his father’s death.

His father had slightly thoughtlessly accepted a peerage assuming Benn’s older brother who was bent on a career in the church would eventually inherit the title which would forbid the holder from serving as an MP. But his brother, Michael, died during the war, a personal tragedy that affected the future politician deeply. But there was also now a practical problem. Benn would inherit the title Viscount Stansgate and when he did so would no longer be able to serve as an MP. Fortunately, on his father’s death, despite the obstruction of the likes of Macmillan and Rab Butler as well as some in his own party, Wedgewood Benn was only able to renounce his peerage after an epic three year battle to change the law. An odd side effect was that Lord Home was thus able to renounce his peerage a few months later. Anthony Wedgewood Benn was thus inadvertently responsible for the brief premiership of Tory Sir Alec Douglas Home.

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Benn enjoyed perhaps his most productive period in government as Postmaster General during the first Wilson Government. He opened the Post Office Tower, facilitated the creation of the giro scheme, the flight of Concorde and put the postal service firmly into profit despite intense resistance from a conservative (and often Conservative) civil service. Less happily, he introduced the ban on pirate radio stations (something he later regretted) and a scheme to remove the Queen’s head from the British stamp was thwarted despite Benn getting the impression (falsely) that the Queen herself was happy to go along with it.

A change undoubtedly overcame Benn after Labour lost office in 1970. The experience of power seemed to make him more keenly socialist, not less (Harold Wilson claimed he “immatures with age”). Certainly, there was a change in attitude with Benn valuing the educational benefits of the politician’s role more highly. It was also at this point that he went officially from being Anthony Wedgewood Benn to just Tony Benn.

The Seventies and early Eighties were certainly Benn’s heyday. The levels of media interest in him were huge. A substantial amount of effort was put into unsuccessful efforts to find evidence that either Benn or his American wife Caroline were super rich and thus supposedly hypocrites (they were not). At one point, Benn’s children were verbally abused by photographers as they went to school. On another occasion, Benn witnessed his rubbish being taken away by a man in a limousine.

Benn was clearly viewed by much of the media and security services as a socialist bogeyman: “the most dangerous man in Britain”. Many on his own side fell out with him too. Leftists such as Michael Foot were more interested in establishing agreement within the party than Benn was and his unsuccessful bid for the Deputy leadership in 1981 was seen by many as hugely divisive.

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It is possible to view Benn’s career as a long and unsuccessful campaign to become PM. But this is probably misleading. Even allowing for the fact that they were being written for posterity, Benn’s diaries reveal little interest in power for power’s sake. At any rate, he never came close. He scored well in the 1976 leadership contest but didn’t come close to Foot or the victor Callaghan. He refused to stand in 1980 when he might well have won as the leadership contest ballot rules were being changed imminently. He felt any leader elected under the old system would quickly become irrelevant. He might have beaten Kinnock in 1983, had he not lost his Bristol seat in the 1983 election. He was returned as MP for Chesterfield in 1984. His bid for the leadership against Kinnock in 1988 was never likely to succeed and was more to promote his own arguments than anything else.

The last thirty years have inevitably been ones of declining influence for Benn even as the gradual publication of his diaries has boosted his reputation. He had little time for Kinnock or Blair was notable for his opposition to Iraq and became a familiar elder statesman-like figure whether appearing on Question Time, meeting up with the likes of Billy Bragg or his friend the actress Saffron Burrows or being duped by Ali G.

This updated version of Jad Adams’ excellent biography from Biteback, jumbles chronology a little in the updated chapters. But it remains a worthy companion piece to Benn’s own diaries (the final volume of which A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine will be reviewed here shortly) and is a comprehensive tribute to one of the great political lives of the last century.

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From battlefields to ballot boxes

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How much of an asset is experience of warfare to a future political career? Does a spell in the army, navy or air force, particularly during a world war always lead to popularity?  Is it any use whatsoever in helping leaders make decisions once in power?

Winston Churchill’s long record of military heroism probably made him the ideal person to lead Britain through the darkest days of the Second War. But in the Thirties, when Churchill was in the political wilderness and appeasement was in vogue, Churchill’s background probably counted against him. Coupled with his warnings about Nazi rearmament, Churchill’s reputation fuelled fears that he was a warmonger. His role in the disastrous Gallipoli landings in 1915 complicated matters still further. Churchill had resigned as Lord of the Admiralty and immediately volunteered for the Western Front. He was the first of four Great War veterans to lead Britain.

If ever a man had cause to hate war, it was Churchill’s successor Sir Anthony Eden. He had not only fought in the First World War but lost two brothers in the conflict as well as a son in World War II. But Eden recognised the dangers of appeasement (before World War II) and resigned as Foreign Secretary over Neville Chamberlain’s friendliness towards Mussolini in the late Thirties. It could have been the end of a promising career for Eden. However, with the outbreak of war, like Churchill, his arguments seemed vindicated. He returned, eventually succeeding Churchill in 1955.

Sadly as Prime Minister, Eden’s instincts served him less well. Perhaps viewing the Egyptian leader Nasser as a new Il Duce, Eden led Britain into a disastrously ill conceived attempt to retake the Suez Canal in 1956. The end result was a calamitous humiliating withdrawal and Eden’s downfall.

Both Clement Attlee and Harold Macmillan served in the First World War too as did the US Presidents Harry S Truman and Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower. The impact of the Great War on their leadership isn’t obvious. But for Ike, his major role as Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe in the Second World War was to prove crucial to his election.

General Eisenhower had never been elected to any office before 1952 and his huge fame and popularity as a General at a time of Cold War in Europe and hot war in Korea was almost the sole basis for his 1952 presidential campaign. He won handsomely then and in 1956, both times beating the less charismatic Adlai Stevenson comfortably.

But Ike was only the first of seven World War II veterans to make it to the White House between 1953 and 1993. Some were more heroic than others. John F. Kennedy had rescued the crew of his Japanese PT 109 swift boat after the Japanese rammed it in the Pacific. Kennedy had swum dragging a colleague to safety while holding a lifeboat in his teeth. Ronald Reagan, in contrast, spent most of the war making propaganda films. But every leader for forty years was a WWII war veteran. The last one was George HW Bush. Like Senator Bob Dole who unsuccessfully sought the presidency in 1996, aged seventy three, Bush had been a pilot.

Oddly, although many notable British politicians served in World War II (for example, Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn, John Profumo, Colditz escapee Airey Neave, William Whitelaw,  Enoch Powell and many others) only two: Edward Heath and James Callaghan became Prime Minister. Neither seems to have gained much politically from their war experience. Callaghan relished anything to do with the navy. Heath spoke in later life over his unease over the execution of a Polish officer in 1945. But Callaghan never won a General Election and Heath only won one and lost three. Harold Wilson, in contrast, spent the war in the civil service but won four out of five General Elections.

Perhaps the issue was less relevant in the Britain of the Seventies or than in the US where the president is also Commander in Chief. But even there, the war was rarely a big issue other than in the case of Eisenhower or perhaps in helping Kennedy beat his Democrat rival Hubert Humphrey (who had not served in the war) in 1960. President Ford’s running mate Bob Dole (again) also committed a damaging gaffe in the 1976 Vice Presidential TV debates claiming that every 20th century war had been a “Democratic war” started by a Democratic president.

Margaret Thatcher was largely excused from any expectation of military service simply because she was a woman. Yet many women did do voluntary work during the war, joining the Wrens and such like. The young Margaret Roberts chose to focus on her career and Oxford instead. Thatcher was fortunate to escape serious scrutiny on this. Her Labour opponent in 1983, Michael Foot was less lucky. He had been unable to fight in the Second World War due to asthma (which bizarrely seems to have been cured buy a car accident in the Sixties) but in the jingoistic atmosphere after the Falklands War, both Foot’s championing of CND and even his choice of coat at the Cenotaph for the Remembrance Sunday service led his patriotism, entirely unfairly to be questioned.

Foot

Foot was born in 1913. His successor as Labour leader Neil Kinnock was actually born during the Second World War in 1942. In Britain, national service had ended with the Fifties. Only a few notable politicians have had military experience since the Eighties.

In the United States, the focus shifted from World War Two to the far more controversial legacy of Vietnam. In 1988, George HW Bush’s running mate Dan Quayle, already under scrutiny over his inexperience and competence, was found to have used his family’s connections to ensure enrolment on the Indiana National Guard twenty years before. The National Guard were traditionally seen as an easy escape route to avoid the draft. Quayle survived but his embarrassment contrasted him unfavourably with Colonel Oliver North, a leading figure in the Iran-Contra Scandal but a decorated Vietnam vet.

Four years later, the Democratic candidate Governor Bill Clinton saw his campaign descend into controversy when it was revealed he too had evaded the draft.  But Clinton survived, perhaps helped by the fact, that unlike Quayle or George W. Bush later on, he had actually opposed the war. Bush’s joining of the Texas National Guard to avoid service was exacerbated in 2004, by the revelation that he had gone AWOL while even doing that at one point. Many assumed this to be drink related.

Bush’s opponent Democrat Senator John Kerry was well placed as regards Vietnam, having not only served there heroically but become a vocal opponent of the war on his return. Vietnam suddenly became a big issue again at the time of the Iraq war. But despite his strong position, Kerry overplayed the Vietnam card. Although the Republicans erred in attempting to fake a Seventies picture of a young Kerry supposedly standing next to fiercely anti-war activist Jane Fonda, and were not helped by Vice President Dick Cheney admitting he had avoided service too, claiming he had “other priorities”, Kerry’s overemphasis on his war record ultimately totally backfired.

In 2008, Barack Obama beat Vietnam vet and former Prisoner of War John McCain for the presidency. The 2012 election between Obama and Romney was the first since 1944 in which neither of the two main candidates had served in a world war or Vietnam.

Do war vets make better presidents? It seems doubtful. Neither Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt served in the forces (FDR was already a politician during the First World War. He contracted polio in the Twenties). Were they thus automatically worse presidents than Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter who did?

Eisenhower and Kennedy may have benefitted popularity-wise from their years of service. But did anyone else?

Every election between 1992 and 2008 was fought between a war veteran and a non-combatant:

1992: President George W Bush (WWII) Vs Governor Bill Clinton: Clinton won.

1996: Senator Bob Dole (WWII) Vs President Bill Clinton: Clinton won.

2000: Vice President Al Gore (Vietnam) Vs Governor George W. Bush. Bush won.

2004: Senator John Kerry (Vietnam) Vs President George W. Bush. Bush won.

2008: Senator John McCain (Vietnam) Vs Senator Barack Obama. Obama won.

As we can see, the non-combatant beat the veteran every time.

So far no Vietnam veterans at all have won the presidency yet this era may not be over yet.

In the UK, the only recent notable MPs with military backgrounds have been Paddy Ashdown, the Lib Dem leader between 1988 and 1999 and Iain Duncan Smith, Tory leader. It is true, Ashdown’s military background contributed to his popularity. But in the case of IDS, the least successful Opposition leader since the war, any advantage even during the Iraq War was extremely well hidden.

Ultimately, war experience may bring about good qualities and spawn great leaders, notably Churchill. But it is rarely a decisive factor in terms of popularity or leadership.

Some leaders such as Blair or Thatcher have proven natural leaders in peace and war without any military background at all. Others such as Sir Anthony Eden or Edward Heath found their military background little help in office and totally floundered in Downing Street.

Basically, if you are unsure who to vote for, basing your decision on the candidate’s military background is unlikely to help you to make the right decision.

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The best (Labour) Prime Ministers we never had

Who should have been Prime Minster but never got the chance?

(A Tory list is to follow shortly!)

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Hugh Gaitskell

(Life: 1906-1963. Chancellor of the Exchequer: 1950-51. Labour leader: 1955-1963)

The case for: With the exception of Neil Kinnock, no post-war politician has done the hardest job in British politics (Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition) for as long as Hugh Gaitskell did: over seven years. A youthful Chancellor during Attlee’s last days, Gaitskell had already made an enemy of the unofficial leader of the party’s Left, Nye Bevan. Always a right-winger in the party, Gaitskell struggled to prevent full blown civil war both before and after their heavy 1959 General Election defeat despite a tearful conference address in which he pledged to “fight and fight again” to save the party he loved. Tragically, just as Labour seemed to be finally pulling together, Gaitskell suddenly fell ill and died in early 1963. His successor Harold Wilson, boosted by Tory chaos after the Profumo Affair, led Labour back into power in October 1964. Many, particularly acolytes like George Brown and Roy Jenkins felt it should have been Hugh. Or failing that, them.

The case against: To be fair, the public never loved Gaitskell. He led Labour to defeat in 1959 and might have done again in 1964. As an adulterer himself (he was having an affair with James Bond creator Ian Fleming’s wife – some even suspected Gaitskell was poisoned by the KGB) he might have lacked moral authority during the Tories’ Profumo sex scandal. Wilson himself, indeed, only won power himself very narrowly after his election as leader prompted a surge in Labour popularity. Would Gaitskell have done the same?

The verdict: We will never know.

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Roy Jenkins

(Life: 1920-2002. Home Secretary 1965-1967. 1974-1976. Chancellor of the Exchequer: 1967-1970. EEC President: 1977-1981. SDP leader: 1982-1983)

The case for: Jenkins’ spell as Home Secretary must rank as one of the most successful ministries ever. In just a few short years, he oversaw the abolition of capital punishment, ended the death penalty, legalised homosexuality and liberalised the abortion and divorce laws. Few politicians changed British life as much as he did.

The case against: With his posh manner, liking for the fine things in life and speech impediment, “Woy” Jenkins was often described as “nature’s old Etonian” even though unlike his colleagues Michael Foot, Denis Healey and Tony Benn, he was actually from genuine working class stock, in fact a Welsh mining community. But his position as a right-wing pro-European was unfashionable at the time. He scored poorly in the 1976 leadership contest following Wilson’s resignation and after a spell as President of the EEC returned as a founder member of the breakaway Social Democratic Party in 1981. The SDP really did seem set to win power for a period in 1981, but a combination of internal feuding, Thatcher’s Falklands victory and an unfair electoral system saw them perform badly in 1983, scoring almost as many votes as Labour but scarcely any seats. In old age, Jenkins advised Tony Blair on electoral reform  as a Lib Dem peer (Blair ignored him) and wrote numerous biographies of historical figures such as Gladstone and Asquith.

The verdict:  He never led Britain but undoubtedly changed the nation more than many who have.

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Denis Healey.

(Born: 1917. Defence Secretary: 1964-1970. Chancellor of the Exchequer: 1974-1979. Deputy Labour leader: 1981-1983).

The case for: Healey was a familiar figure on TV in the Seventies and Eighties, famed not only for his distinctive eyebrows and sense of humour but also for his formidable intellect, debating power and competence. An ex-communist and (like Jenkins) a Second World War veteran, Healey oversaw the British military disengagement “East of Suez”  in the Sixties and endured a rocky ride as Chancellor during the 1976 IMF Crisis, famously turning his car away from the airport where he was planning a conference trip abroad when the crisis grew too severe. In fact, the loan was later recognised as unnecessary and due to a treasury error. After Labour’s 1979 defeat, many were astonished when the elderly, scruffy and un-telegenic left winger Michael Foot beat the only slightly younger but far more popular Healey for the Labour leadership in 1980. Did the members planning to defect to the SDP vote for Foot in the hope of strengthening their cause? A few votes would have made all the difference. At any rate, Foot, though a decent and highly intellectual man proved a disastrous leader. The party split, the new SDP rejecting Labour’s new anti-nuclear and anti-EEC positions. Healey himself fought off a serious left-wing challenge for the Deputy leadership from Tony Benn in 1981. Both Labour and the SDP performed disastrously in the 1983 election. But Healey, to his credit, never deserted Labour.

The case against: Healey would have almost certainly fared better as Labour leader than Foot did after 1980 and may well have prevented the damaging SDP split. But whether even he could have prevented Margaret Thatcher being returned in the post-Falklands 1983 election (winning a majority of 144) is open to question. Particularly as Healey could sometimes be quite gaffe-prone himself during election campaigns, accusing Thatcher of “glorifying in slaughter” in 1983 and suggesting the Russians wanted a Labour victory before the 1987 contest.

The verdict: The best Prime Minister we never had? Perhaps. Lord Healey has now outlived virtually all of his ex-colleagues and rivals. He is ninety-six.

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John Smith

(Life: 1938-1994. Labour leader: 1992-1994).

The case for: Labour was at a very low ebb indeed when John Smith was elected leader in July 1992. Labour had just suffered her fourth defeat, this time during a recession. Many doubted Labour would ever win again. As leader, Smith projected an air of competency which Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock had always lacked. Though his election as leader generated less excitement than Blair’s did in 1994, his strong often witty Commons performances, his success in abolishing the union block vote and the total Tory collapse after Black Wednesday, the pit closures, Back to Basics, the Maastricht Tory civil war and Tory sleaze made a Labour victory in 1996 or 1997 inevitable. His sudden death following a heart attack in May 1994 triggered a period of genuine mourning.

The case against: As the architect of Labour’s unpopular tax plans, Shadow Chancellor Smith is sometimes blamed for Kinnock’s 1992 election defeat. He was also accused of being too laidback as leader and effectively hoping victory would fall into his lap. However, despite no New Labour-esque attempts to woo business or the press, in 1994 Smith’s strategy seemed to be working.

The verdict: The Tory disintegration was so total under John Major that had Smith lived it is almost inconceivable that he would not have become Prime Minister. Had he lived, he would now be seventy-five.

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David Miliband

(Born: 1965. Foreign Secretary: 2007-2010).

The case for: Despite being the more experienced, better known and older of the two Miliband brothers, David narrowly lost the 2010 leadership contest to his brother Ed despite winning more votes from MPs and party members.

The case against: Although probably better on TV than his brother, David has endured image issues too (notably the “Banana Incident”) and lacked the killer instinct to take a stance for or against Gordon Brown at critical times in government. But ultimately his Blairism and (like Hilary Clinton in 2008) his support for the Iraq War and somewhat arrogant manner probably cost him victory.

The verdict: Unproven. Ed Milband seems neither as bad as his detractors say, nor his brother as good. And with David Miliband still under fifty, he could yet make a comeback. True, he’s not an MP. But then neither is Boris Johnson (who is the same age). The tragedy is that as brothers neither can easily serve under the other.

Book review: Shirley Williams The Biography by Mark Peel

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Baroness Shirley Williams appeared as a guest on BBC Question Time last Thursday. To say that the Liberal Democrat peer, at eighty-three, is universally admired throughout all parties for her good nature and superior intellect is true but sounds a little patronising. Giving sharp, concise and well thought-out answers, she is still clearly  a force to be reckoned with suggesting fellow panellist TV chef Anthony Worrall Thompson “go back to the kitchen” after the TV chef had unleashed a rambling anti-Liberal Democrat tirade.

But how different history could have been…

Back in 1981, Williams was one of the founders of the ‘Gang of Four’ who broke away from Labour to form the Social Democratic Party. The SDP’s early triumphs make UKIP’s recent “success” look all the more risible. The SDP actually won by-elections and had MPs sitting in parliament. By the end of 1981, (before Thatcher’s 1982 post-Falklands War comeback) they commanded over 50% in the opinion polls, way ahead of the two traditional parties, both then at the extremes under Margaret Thatcher and Michael Foot.

Before that, Williams was a leading figure in the Wilson and Callaghan Governments, frequently talked of as a possible first woman Prime Minister.

But this never happened. Margaret Thatcher born to a much humbler background five years before her beat her to it in May 1979. On the same day, Williams lost her Hertford and Stevenage seat as an MP, an upset similar in terms of prompting widespread surprise to Michael Portillo’s defeat in 1997.

What went wrong?

Williams was undeniably from a privileged background. She was born in 1930 as Shirley Vera-Brittain-Caitlin, the daughter of an academic and frustrated politician and Vera Brittain, the author of the celebrated First World War memoir, Testament of Youth. With her parents both vocal left-wing critics of the Nazi regime before the war (they were later revealed to be on a Nazi “Death List” and thus would have been in extreme danger had Hitler invaded Britain), Shirley and her brother spent most of the war in the United States. Throughout her early life and at Oxford, she seems to have dazzled and impressed almost everyone she met with her charm and precocious intellect. An early serious relationship was with the future four-minute-mile champion Roger Bannister. Despite her many qualities, she faced a struggle to enter parliament winning only after four attempts in 1964.

Did Williams’ privileged background count against her?

Margaret Thatcher certainly made play of it in a Conference speech made when Williams was in government and the Tory was Opposition leader in 1977:  “People from my sort of background needed grammar schools to compete with children from privileged homes like Shirley Williams and Anthony Wedgwood Benn.”

But in truth, it is unlikely Williams’ background did her serious harm. She has always possessed a classless quality which has broadened he appeal to the electorate

Was she then a victim of sexism? Peel mentions here that despite a good relationship with Jim Callaghan, she was never offered any of the major offices of state. Yet this no less true of Thatcher who, like Williams, was in charge of Education, in Thatcher’s case under Heath. Neither woman was a huge success in this role. Williams regards her promotion of comprehensive education as her proudest achievement but it remains controversial. Thatcher, in contrast, was reportedly embarrassed for herself that she closed more grammar schools than anyone else in that post.

Was Shirley Williams just unlucky? Was, as some have suggested, just in the wrong party at the wrong time? Luck does of course play a part in anyone’s political destiny. Labour were in fact in power for more than half of Williams’ thirties and forties. This is again similar to Thatcher and the Tories (in fact, Thatcher spent longer as an Opposition MP before 1979 than Williams did). And Thatcher raised the Tories from a very low ebb indeed in 1975.

Shirley Williams was, however, less lucky in her marriage than Margaret Thatcher. This is not to be sexist. A good marriage can be as crucial to male political success as female. Only Edward Heath has made it to Downing Street since the war while still unmarried and only Sir Anthony Eden became Prime Minister with a divorce behind him. Shirley’s first marriage to philosopher Bernard Williams ended in 1974. She married presidential historian Richard Neustadt in 1987 (both men in fact died very close together in 2003). She thus lacked a soul mate at a critical juncture in her career.

Biographer Mark Peel cites a certain scattyness and lack of political courage at crucial moments (notably her failure to stand in the Warrington by-election a decision perhaps fatal to her own career and to that of the SDP) which did for her.

Journalist Robin Oakley summarised her thus: “she really is one of the warmest, nicest people in politics, ever open to reason… She has a first rate-brain and a burning sense of justice… But the great drawback is her fatal indecisiveness…The flaw, some say, is that she likes being liked and making decisions makes enemies.”

Few of the tributes to Lady Thatcher earlier this year cited her warmness, niceness, first-rate brain or sense of justice. Clearly, the late Prime Minister totally lacked these qualities.

And maybe Shirley Williams lacked the necessary harshness and killer instinct to be Prime Minister. But she is perhaps the better person for that.

Labour can win without David Miliband

Rebuilding Peace and Stability in Afghanistan: David Miliband

Poor David Miliband.

In some quarters, he was seriously considered as a possible successor to Tony Blair in 2007. But he was barely forty then. The general consensus then was that he was too young and inexperienced for the top job.

However, now only six years later and having come within a whisker of the Labour leadership in 2010, he seems to be leaving British politics forever. He is standing down as MP for South Shields and leaving for a job with a leading charity in New York. As Michael Foot once said of another notable David (Owen): “He’s passed from rising hope to elder statesman without any intervening period whatsoever.” The problem is not, of course, the former Foreign Secretary’s age – he is a year younger than the Tories’ “rising hope” Boris Johnson – but the fact that he lost, however  narrowly in 2010, and worse, lost to his brother.

The sibling rivalry element to the story complicates everything and probably explains why David Miliband’s chosen to leave the political scene now. There is no reason at all why a defeated candidate cannot seek the leadership again – Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and Michael Foot all became leader on their second attempt – but this now seems unlikely to happen.

There is an element of mythmaking about the Miliband Saga, however. The Tory press will tell you, Labour made a historic mistake in September 2010 akin to their error in electing Michael Foot over Denis Healey in October 1980.

This is absurd. We are not now in a spring 1983 scenario. Labour has not split or plunged into the civil war which traditionally plagues it after being ejected from government. Ed Miliband is not obviously leading Labour to a crushing defeat as Foot was by this point in his ill fated leadership.

The truth is David Miliband is no Denis Healey nor is Ed Miliband, Michael Foot.

Ed Miliband vanquished fears that he might be in thrall to the trade unions in his 2010 acceptance speech. The “Red Ed” nickname did not last. He responded to the News International Scandal well. His “One Nation” speech last autumn won widespread plaudits from the public and media. And perhaps most importantly, thanks in no small measure to UKIP, Labour are likely to be in power (perhaps as the lead party in another Coalition) in a little over two years time.

Would they be doing better under David Miliband? Probably. The older brother comes across better on TV, a fact not insignificant in the media age. But let’s not get carried away. Like his friend Hillary Clinton in 2008, he fatally supported the Iraq War and acted as if the leadership was his almost by divine right in 2010. He also has mild image problems too and dithered fatally over whether to support Gordon Brown at the height of his leadership troubles in office.

Make no mistake: the same Tory press which heaps praise on David Miliband now would be lambasting him were he actually Opposition leader.

It is sad to see him go, yes. But he is not Denis Healey. Labour can win without him.Image