Maggie vs Tony Benn

Politics - Anthony Wedgwood Benn


Two giants of the post-war political stage have died within the last year. Margaret Thatcher and Tony Benn were both born in the year 1925 and both died within twelve months of each other.

Benn’s influence was enormous and wide ranging and he is rightly hailed as one of the great British statesmen of the last century.

But the reaction to Lady Thatcher’s death was both greater and more enduring. For there is no denying it: in the Game of Thrones battle of post-war British politics, she was the victor.

A betting man (or woman) observing the two rising stars at almost any point before the late Seventies would doubtless have favoured the young Anthony Wedgwood Benn to succeed in life, over the young Margaret Roberts. Benn was both the son and the grandson of former MPs. Roberts was of humbler stock and had to overcome both the snobbery and sexism of the times. Thatcher’s biographer, John Campbell speculates that the two must have met at Oxford University where both were active in student politics. Neither ever mentioned having done so. It is likely neither remembered.

After serving in the RAF, Benn entered parliament at 25. He had already been an MP for almost a decade when the now married Thatcher managed to secure the Finchley seat in October 1959.

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Then things shifted; while the young Mrs. Thatcher impressed many as a junior minister under Macmillan, the death of Benn’s father in 1960 threatened to end his political career forever. It took three years for Benn to renounce his peerage, a struggle he did not always seem likely to win.

Once back as an MP in 1963, the rest of the decade saw Benn in power achieving most of his political successes as the rising, modernising, technology-obsessed minister in the Wilson Government. Thatcher, in contrast, in opposition from 1964 to 1970 struggled, her marriage to Denis even wobbling in the mid-Sixties.

The surprise return of the Tories in 1970, however, saw her become the Education Secretary, demonised as the “milk snatcher.” Alongside Barbara Castle and Shirley Williams she was now one of the most high profile women in politics.

It was at this point, Benn shifted to the Left, dropping the “Anthony Wedgwood” from his name and increasingly angering many of his colleagues on the Left and Right as unlike say, Michael Foot, he increasingly began to favour principles and “ishues” (as he  himself would have put it) over party unity and consensus. He became the source of intense media interest. The Sun dubbed him “the most dangerous man in Britain”. Benn claimed he once witnessed a man emptying one of his dustbins and taking it to a nearby limo. It would be amazing if he had not been under security service surveillance.

Margaret Thatcher’s victory in becoming Tory leader in 1975, owed itself partly to bravery, partly to luck. Ex-minister Keith Joseph had destroyed his own chances with a desperately inflammatory speech about the working classes and birth control. Thatcher stood in his stead. Few expected her to run. Fewer still expected her to win (least of all Ted Heath). Few expected her to become PM even after she had become Opposition leader.

Benn faced a much more crowded field in his first Labour leadership contest which followed Wilson’s resignation in 1976. He came fourth but was pleased to do as well as he did.

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Thatcher struggled against Prime Minister James Callaghan in Opposition. But the Winter of Discontent changed everything and in 1979 she won the election and became the first woman Prime Minister. Benn seemed likely to face her as Opposition leader. But he as contrary enough to sit out the 1980 contest (ultimately between Denis Healey and Michael Foot) on the grounds that the leadership contest rules were soon to change anyway. Benn felt any leader would be a lame duck.

The years 1981 and 1982 would settle the battle once and for all. Benn mounted his hugely divisive bid against Healey and the deputy leadership in 1981. Many in his own party never forgave him. He came very close to winning yet Healey survived. Thereafter, Benn’s influence which had peaked steadily started to wane.

Thatcher was already deeply unpopular until the Falklands War in 1982 boosted her leadership with a momentum which would propel her through two more landslide election victories and to the end of the decade.

The 1983 election underlined Thatcher’s triumph. She won the biggest post-war Tory election victory of the post-war era achieving a majority of 144. Benn, after twenty years, lost his seat. In fact, his defeat was largely a result of boundary changes. Benn had loyally refused to switch seats. But the result was largely blamed on an overly Bennite manifesto anyway. In retrospect, his defeat was total.

He would return as MP for Chesterfield in 1984. But Labour was now moving inexorably towards a “New Labour” direction. Benn had been out of parliament during the 1983 leadership contest won by Neil Kinnock. Thatcher would beat Kinnock soundly in the 1987 General Election. Kinnock would soundly beat Benn in his last unnecessary challenge in 1988.

London Tony Benn

Benn became an increasingly avuncular and much-loved figure in old age. His diaries will prove an invaluable historical resource. He remained active well into his eighties. One senses he was a much happier and well-rounded figure than Lady Thatcher and had a more satisfactory family life. Thatcher, in contrast, had no interests outside politics, no real sense of humour and was unlucky enough to be struck down by dementia. It is thought that she never had a good day after leaving Downing Street in November 1990 until her death last year.

But the Britain we live in today, of a diminished welfare state, high unemployment, strong markets, privatised utilities, a pro-US foreign policy, a modernised Labour Party and a Murdoch-dominated press is recognisably hers and not Benn’s.

Benn achieved much, more than many Prime Ministers have. But this was a battle he could not win.

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Book review: Crisis ? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s

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Crisis What Crisis?: Britain in the 1970s.

Alwyn W. Turner.

Published: Aurum.

RRP: £9.99

“Crisis, what crisis?” The words were famously spoken by Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan in 1979 as he returned tanned and complacent from a tropical summit to learn that Britain had shuddered to a wintry strike bound halt in his absence.

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Except of course, Callaghan never actually said these words. Like Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” and  George W. Bush’s “Yo Blair!” the phrase actually came from somewhere else, in this case The Sun’s headline from the following day. In fact, as Alwyn W. Turner points out in this updated version of his well-researched 2008 book, the phrase predates The Sun’s usage and indeed even Callaghan’s premiership and was first used during the similarly troubled tenure of Tory Edward Heath a few years before. Turner even reveals its usage in the 1973 film version of the thriller, The Day of the Jackal.

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How different things could have been! For The Sun, in fairness, captured the essence of Callaghan’s reaction. “I don’t believe that people around the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos.” It was not his finest hour. For this was what would become known as the “Winter Of Discontent”, the series of strikes which would haunt Labour for decades. In the short run, the piles of uncollected rubbish and occasional disgraceful scenes of bodies being lefty unburied by striking gravediggers wrecked Labour’s chances in the 1979 election and propelled Mrs Thatcher to power.

As Turner reminds us, victory might easily have been Callaghan’s. Labour had actually been ahead in the opinion polls in late 1978 but Callaghan hesitated at the last minute, reasoning (not unreasonably): “Why run the risk of a very doubtful victory in October 1978, if we could convert it into a more convincing majority in 1979?”

But like Gordon Brown in 2007, Callaghan made a colossal error in postponing the election. He was always a more popular leader than Thatcher, who would doubtless have been ditched by the Tories had she lost in 1979, perhaps being replaced by Peter Walker or William Whitelaw. It is worth remembering that there were very few ardent Thatcher enthusiasts before 1979. Even Enoch Powell proclaimed voters “wouldn’t put up with those hats and that accent.”  The hats went and the accent changed. But Callaghan blew his chance to lead Britain into the Eighties. Had he had the chance, he might perhaps, have led the nation through a much less brutal version of Thatcherism in her place.

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Perhaps he was right to be wary of the opinion polls. The Seventies were an unpredictable and unstable decade. The keys to Downing Street changed hands four times between 1970 and 1979. They have only changed hands four times again in the thirty-five years since. The 1970 election saw Labour brutally and unexpectedly ejected in an electoral upset. Labour’s Harold Wilson buoyed by good opinion polls, had called the election a year earlier than he had to. But the polls were wrong. Edward Heath won a majority of thirty for the Tories instead. But Heath too fell foul of the polls three and a half years later when his crisis “Who Governs Britain?” election unexpectedly ended with a Labour led Hung Parliament in March 1974. Labour went onto under-perform electorally again, winning only a small majority of three in October of that year. By the time James Callaghan took over in the spring of 1976, Labour’s majority had almost vanished and a pact with the Liberals (ultimately a disaster for the smaller party, as it so often is) was just around the corner.

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Turner reminds us though that the decade was defined less by the politics of Wilson, Heath and Callaghan than by those of mavericks Enoch Powell and Anthony Wedgwood Benn. He is brilliant on the intense paranoia on both sides of the political spectrum about both men (Powell, particularly, was portrayed in fictional form in books and on TV several times).

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But this is not purely a political account, far from it. As in his later books Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s and A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s, Turner is brilliantly thorough on all aspects of high and low culture as he is on affairs of state. Sometimes these are linked (as he does cleverly with the TV series I, Claudius and the machinations of the 1976 Labour leadership contest), sometimes they are not (football, music and sitcom are all covered thorough. The chapter on “Violence,” for example, covers The Troubles as well as A Clockwork Orange).

But this is another excellent history from Turner. As strong on Tom and Barbara as it is on Maggie and Jim. As thorough on Doctor Who as it is on Dr David Owen. Or as insightful on Mr. Benn as it is on the career of Mr. Tony Benn. It is well worth a read.

Prime Minister James Callaghan with Harold Wilson

A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s book review

A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s.

Alwyn W. Turner.

Published: Aurum.

RRP: £25

Some might think it a bit soon to be writing histories of the 1990s. Perhaps they should think again. This volume, the third and final part of Alwyn W. Turner’s trilogy takes Britain up to the General Election of June 2001. It was a sleepy campaign, enlivened only by the celebrated “Prescott Punch” when the Deputy PM John Prescott was filmed punching a voter.

Turner argues the 2001 election saw Britain winding down after the industrial unrest of the 1970s (chronicled in his earlier Crisis? What Crisis?) and the battles and mass unemployment of the 1980s (detailed in his second volume Rejoice! Rejoice!). 2001 was at any rate still a considerable time ago. E-readers, iPods, the Iraq War and Credit Crunch were still in the future. But the book starts with Thatcher’s fall in November 1990. Twenty-four years ago, this is definitely the stuff of history.

In 1990, Britain was preparing to go to war over Kuwait (a much less controversial war than the Iraq conflict which began twelve years later) as the nation licked its wounds from the ordeal of Thatcherism. It is arguable that Britain has not fully recovered from her leadership even today and certainly the Tory Party don’t seem to have done so.

Mrs Thatcher’s successor was John Major who Turner reminds us, was at the time the youngest Prime Minister of the 20th century. We have got used to younger leaders since. Major was 46, Blair who would succeed him would be 44. Cameron in 2010 was younger still and all three major party leaders today are under 50. Major, at any rate did what no Tory leader has achieved in the 22 years since, winning his party an overall majority in the General Election of April 1992. Thereafter, it proved to be a very bad decade to be a Tory.

Major’s economic record was much better than Thatcher’s. But he was a poor leader and after the election win the party went into freefall, alienating any group who might have potentially supported them. The number of Tory MPs fell by more than half during John Major’s leadership of the party between 1990 and 1997.

Had he not died, another John, John Smith would surely have won power in 1997. Sadly, we will never know how a Smith premiership might have turned out (Turner is certainly harsh on the Blair Government) and it will remain forever one of the great pondering points of post-war party politics.

This isn’t just about politics though, far from it. As before, Turner covers seemingly every aspect of British life in the decade including Lad Culture, the comedy scene, the recovery of the British film industry, the rise of Britpop to the death of Diana, in massively comprehensive detail.

I wouldn’t share all his emphasises. Much as I love the sitcom Drop the Dead Donkey, Turner quotes from it a bit too much. It is odd also that he devotes time to mediocre TV offerings like Waiting For God and Root Into Europe too while never mentioning memorable dramas House of Cards or GBH. I wouldn’t have described Alan Rickman as “fresh from his triumph in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves” in 1999 either. The film came out in 1991, eight years before the point  Rickman was touted as a possible London Mayoral candidate.

(For the record, Michael Foot became Labour leader in 1980 not 1981. And William Hague was never the youngest Cabinet Minister of the 20th century. Harold Wilson was only 31 when he was appointed by Attlee in 1947).

But these are minor quibbles in a book spanning well over 600 pages. Alwyn W. Turner has triumphed yet again. His three volumes on the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties should be required reading for all students of popular culture, politics and history during the period between the grinning smiles of the grumpy bachelor Mr. Heath and that nice Mr. Blair.

Book Review: Tony Benn A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine. The Last Diaries

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“All political careers, unless cut off in mid-stream, end in failure,” wrote Enoch Powell. Margaret Thatcher was famously and dramatically driven from Downing Street by her own party and her own intense unpopularity. Others go more gently into the night and more gradually.

Tony Benn’s influence has been on the wane since his narrow defeat in the 1981 Labour Deputy Leadership contest. The party changed under Kinnock, then Smith, then Blair, then Brown but the former Viscount Stansagate did not change himself. He just grew older. These final diaries find him in his eighties, a widower and out of parliament as the successful Blair era gives way to the more calamitous leadership of Gordon Brown.

Benn seems increasingly a sad figure by this point, increasingly relishing the prospect of death (the sentiment, “I do actually feel as if I am coming to the end of my life” recurs frequently). But the eighth and final volume of his diaries nevertheless remains compelling. He remains friends with the actress Saffron Burrows and the newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky and his political insights remain as sharp as ever whether one agrees with them or not.

Sadly, a bout of ill health in 2009 brought his diaries – which he had written on and off since his wartime childhood and consistently since his return to the Commons in 1963 – to an end. Benn summarises the last five years (which have been dominated by the formation of the Tory-Liberal Democrat Coalition) in the few final pages, a much less satisfying read than the diaries themselves.

But who can complain? Benn’s legacy, in addition to his political achievements (and failings) will undoubtedly be these diaries which have chronicled his own long political career and indeed all political life during the last half century.

The nearly men: Ken Clarke

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Some reacted with alarm to the news that Ken Clarke had been appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1993. Some were simply he worried that he wasn’t up to it. He had been a bad gaffe-prone Health Secretary and little better in Education. Others were simply worried about Clarke’s seemingly unstoppable rise to power. Had John Major, like Sir Anthony Eden promoting Macmillan in 1955, unwittingly appointed his successor?

In fact, neither group need have worried. Ken Clarke (he had previously been Kenneth but like Anthony Wedgewood Benn and Anthony Blair, this was seen as too posh) was a successful Chancellor as he had been a successful Home Secretary in the year before 1993. It is true, the Tories never regained their reputation for economic competence under him, but this was hardly his fault. The shambles of Black Wednesday in 1992 during which interest rates rose fifteen times in one day put paid to that. Major was very lucky to survive.

Why then didn’t Clarke become Tory leader after the 1997? His two main rivals had disappeared after all, young Michael Portillo losing his seat in the electoral deluge, old Michael Heseltine declared unfit after an angina attack soon after. Ken Clarke was surely the obvious choice, the most popular, experienced and credible candidate?

The simple answer is that the Tories had been driven to eccentric extremes by their 1997 defeat and were prepared to follow whatever their elderly former leader Lady Thatcher said. And she endorsed the former Welsh Secretary, William Hague.

William Hague might well make a good Prime Minister today. But he was an appalling choice in 1997, only 36, little known to the public, gaffe-prone and looking and sounding weird. He never shook off the fallout from the blunder of wearing his baseball hat at the Notting Hill Carnival (a desperate attempt to look cool) or the memory of his teenage appearance at the Tory Party Conference in the 1970s. His error in letting through Blair’s Lords reform measures and his over-enthusiastic endorsement of Lord Archer as London’s 2000 mayoral candidate, all testified to his poor judgement. He was redeemed slightly by strong performances at Prime Minister’s Questions. But even this merely strengthened the impression that he was a political geek. Little wonder the Tories made only one net gain in 2001, a disastrous follow up to their worst election defeat of the 20th century.

Hague, had however, been anti-European and endorsed by Lady Thatcher. Even more crazily, this was enough to push Tories towards Iain Duncan Smith instead of Clarke in 2001. This proved an even more eccentric choice than Hague had been. IDS totally lacked the charm of his predecessor and was turned out in favour of a temporary caretaker leader, Michael Howard in 2003.

In their desperation for unity, the Tories had appointed Howard without an election, something they would vilify Labour for with Gordon Brown just two years later. Howard had also been a disaster as Home Secretary in government and had come last in the 1997 leadership contest in which Hague had beaten Clarke. He did perform more effectively in 2005, reducing Blair’s majority to a still substantial 66.

Determined not to see his irritable colleague David Davis succeed, Howard postponed his resignation as leader until later in 2005. Clarke on his third run as leader seemed to stand a good chance at first but was ultimately harmed by revelations of his business links with British tobacco. He was at any rate, now too old. Tories probably made the right choice in selecting David Cameron, still not yet forty in 2005 and only an MP for four years.

Today, old Ken Clarke remains in government. In earlier, less youth-fixated times (all three party leaders are now in their forties), he might still stand a chance.

His misfortune was to be in the ascent during a decade when the Tories had rarely been more eccentric.

Other nearly men…

RA  (“RAB”) Butler:  The founder of the famous Butler Education Act. Why not PM?: Betrayed by colleague Harold Macmillan in both 1957 and again in 1963.

Tony Benn: Long standing Labour MP and diarist. Why not PM? Went ultra-left wing after 1973 and was probably too unpalatable even for 1970s/1980s Labour after that. Might have led Labour had he not lost his seat in 1983. Kinnock won instead.

Neil Kinnock: The longest serving Opposition leader since World War II (1983-1992). Why never PM? Came close in 1992, but the public and especially the press never warmed to him. Arguably saved Labour from destruction though.

David Davis: Briefly the front runner in the 2005 Tory leadership contest but notoriously moody. Cameron triumphed when Davis’s electoral address fell flat.

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Book review: Power Trip by Damian McBride

Power TripHistory is likely to be kinder to the Blair-Brown Government than some contemporary critics, including, for example, the Cameron Government have been.
Day after day we are told that the last government wasted billions of the nation’s finances after 2008. The reality is that Brown Government handled the global banking crisis as well as any government could have done, indeed perhaps slightly better. Cameron’s Tories certainly seemed clueless on the subject at the time.
Indeed, Brown’s introduction of quantative easing most likely saved the global banking system. The Tory charge that the government had failed to save up any “rainy day” money during the years of prosperity is weak too. Levels of debt were no worse before 2008 than they had been under the Major years.
In short, if the Blair-Brown government is guilty of not legislating to restrain the markets and not clearing its debts before 2008 (and it is), it is no more guilty than any other previous post-war government was. And for all his faults as a leader (which are not insignificant), Gordon Brown’s leadership probably prevented a recession from becoming a depression.
All in all, with three election victories, the salvation of the NHS, a dramatic drop in the crime rate, a decade of prosperity and the Good Friday Agreement, it is not a bad record.
Labour have always been poor at boasting about their achievements, however, and memoirs like this by Gordon Brown’s ex-spin doctor Damian McBride which draw attention to the seedier side of New Labour, do not help.
Released in time for this year’s Labour Party Conference, the damaging effect of the book was ultimately cancelled out by the impact of the Daily Mail’s stupendous gaffe over Ralph Miliband.
But let’s not pretend New Labour come well out of this book. They don’t, simply because McBride’s memoirs revive memories of the unhappy days of the Brown premiership
McBride is clearly highly intelligent and writes well. Against all the odds, he comes across (occasionally) as a likeable figure. He was and is loyal to his former master Gordon Brown. He was a success as Treasury Head of Communications from 2003 until 2007, perhaps partly explaining why Brown enjoyed such popularity as Chancellor. The wheels came off after 2007 when Brown became PM. McBride had lost all the contacts at the Treasury he had relied upon. After the “election that never was” things went from bad to worse although McBride was felled by an email scandal in 2009 so escapes responsibility for Mrs Duffy and the other mishaps of Brown’s last year.
McBride’s competence is surprising bearing in mind he seems to have been a functioning alcoholic throughout this period. Only a tragicomic episode at the 2005 Party Conference where he was found fast asleep naked and face down on bed and unable to be woken caused him major trouble. Amusingly, after no one could wake him, Ed Balls attempted to, before reeling back after the naked drunken semi-conscious McBride apparently mistook him for a female bed partner and made an amorous grab for him.
Contrary to rumour, Eds Balls and Miliband do not come off badly in the book and are merely harmed by the reminder of their close association with Brown (which is hardly a revelation anyway). Brown too although prone to wail “How could he/she/they do this to me?” when anything went wrong, does not come across as all bad either. Although almost comically incapable of speaking fluently and naturally in public (McBride describes how Brown’s visage would suffer because his brain would be working at numerous levels at once), his decision not to exploit his family for party political gain (something that annoyed Cameron, who did, intensely) is admirable.
Damian McBride has written a memoir which (after some dry early chapters) is highly readable. He undoubtedly did his bit to ensure the success of the last government, yet the excess of spin and false briefing which he played a part in undoubtedly ultimately proved pernicious and self destructive.
Nor do I share his view that the Blair/Brown rivalry helped the government, giving it an edge which McBride compares to the healthy competition between Pepsi and Cola at a time when there was no serious competition in town. In truth, the feud between the two leaders poisoned the mood of an otherwise successful government and was lucky not to split Labour as the Liberals were split in the 1920s.
Let us hope the potential familial rivalries between the brothers Miliband or even the husband and wife team of Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper do not prove as harmful to Labour in the future.

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.

Why Blair was better than Thatcher

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Winston Churchill received a State Funeral in January 1965 while Lady Thatcher received a Ceremonial one last month. With these precedents in mind, surely Tony Blair, on his death, should be considered for a Ceremonial Funeral himself?

It may seem a little premature to speculate about Tony Blair’s funeral arrangements in the month of his sixtieth birthday. But it certainly isn’t unreasonable. No, Blair cannot claim to have been Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. But in most respects, he was a more successful Prime Minister than Lady Thatcher was. Consider:

  1. Popularity when in power: Blair and Thatcher both won three election victories each. Thatcher’s majorities were 43, 144 and 100. Blair’s were: 179, 167 and 66. Both leaders saw their share of the vote decline in each election but it is clear Blair’s majorities were larger on average. Blair was also notably more popular than Thatcher while in power if you look at opinion polls. Labour were rarely ever behind in the polls during the first half of Blair’s time in office (1997-2002) and were never very unpopular. Thatcher’s Tories were usually behind in the polls during her tenure (despite her election wins) and she was one of the most unpopular Prime Ministers on record in 1980-81 and 1990. Popularity isn’t everything, of course. However, the enduring nature of Labour’s poll lead under Blair, surely suggests he was doing something right.
  2. Peace in Northern Ireland: The peace process (such as it was) got nowhere under Thatcher. Under Major, progress was made, the main achievement of his largely disastrous premiership. This stalled, however, largely because of Tory dependence on the Ulster Unionists for parliamentary support. Thanks to Blair and the late Mo Mowlam, the Good Friday Agreement has left a legacy of peace which has endured to this day. It is one of the greatest achievements of any British Prime Minister.
  3. A decade of prosperity: admittedly, Blair inherited a better economy in 1997 than Thatcher did in 1979. Despite this, Thatcher’s policy of monetarism wrecked the UK economy in the early 80s and had it not been for North Sea oil, it might not have recovered. After an unsustainable boom, the economy was again on the slide when Thatcher left office in 1990. Blair deserves credit for overseeing a golden age of prosperity and growth for a full decade.
  4. Crime: Crime more than doubled during the Thatcher years. It fell by over 40% under Blair and Brown. Even David Cameron admitted this, making a nonsense of his own “Broken Britain” claims in the 2010 election.
  5. Homelessness: This also doubled under Thatcher, largely because of the catastrophic Care in the Community scheme. Homelessness fell under Blair.
  6. The NHS undeniably suffered under Thatcher and undeniably benefitted from the extra expenditure of the Blair years. Customer satisfaction surveys confirm this.
  7. Minimum wage, devolution, civil partnerships: The Blair Government oversaw all these changes in the face of Toy opposition. Unlike under Thatcher, the UK became a more tolerant, civilised place. And there was no New Labour equivalent to the Poll Tax.
  8. Thatcher became eccentric in her later years in office referring to herself with the royal “we” (as in “We are a grandmother”) and publicly bullying her colleague, Geoffrey Howe. There are no such accounts of bad behaviour from Blair.

Conclusions.

Of course, not everything about the Thatcher years was bad and everything about the Blair years good. On the issue of Iraq, Blair was at least as divisive as Thatcher. Thatcher achieved great victories in the South Atlantic. Reducing union power was undoubtedly necessary but too brutally done. Thatcher changed the UK more towards how she wanted it in her eleven and a half years than Blair did in his ten. Spin and rivalry with Gordon Brown too often hampered Blair.

However, surely the measure of a great leader is in what they achieved for their nation? Under Thatcher, crime rose, unemployment soared, the NHS declined, homelessness and rioting proliferated and society grew more selfish and violent. Under Blair, the opposite to all these things happened. And peace in Northern Ireland was achieved.

Ultimately, Blair wins hands down.Image

Thatcher didn’t save Britain: and other myths of the era dispelled

Mrs Thatcher with US president Ronald Reagan.

Mrs Thatcher with US president Ronald Reagan.

Margaret Thatcher “saved Britain”: Whatever you think about Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, David Cameron and the Daily Mail are clearly wrong. While Lord Nelson and Winston Churchill arguably saved Britain from invasion and President Kennedy’s actions may have saved us from nuclear destruction over Cuba in 1962, Thatcher cannot claim this. Without her, you might argue we might have lost the Falklands, still be strike bound or a poorer nation than we are currently. Or alternatively, you might think, we would have a fairer, wealthier society, fewer homeless, less crime  and free prescription charges. Either way, Britain would still exist.

Thatcher won the Cold War: Thatcher identified Gorbachev as “a man she could do business with” early on (in 1984) and this is to her credit. But the thaw in East-West relations had little to do with US President Ronald Reagan, less to do with Thatcher and everything to with the liberalism of Mikhail Gorbachev. It’s very hard to envisage any realistic scenario where a different British Prime Minister would have made any difference whatsoever.

Margaret Thatcher Milk Snatcher: She did cut free school milk as Education Secretary, yes. But her Labour predecessors had already done so too. The name “milk snatcher” only stuck because a) she’s a woman and b) it rhymes with “Margaret Thatcher”.

She enjoyed warm relations with Reagan: This is generally true. But they almost fell out in 1982 when the US threatened to remain neutral in the Falklands dispute. They almost fell out again in 1983, when the US invaded the Commonwealth nation of Greneda without even warning the UK in advance.

Thatcher was consistently anti-European: Not so! As Opposition leader, she enthusiastically campaigned for the successful Yes campaign in the 1975 EEC Referendum ensuring continued membership. In power, the Single European Act passed in 1986, went much further towards pushing the UK towards European integration than the later Maastricht Treaty ever did.

Delusions of grammar: as Education Secretary, she closed more Grammar Schools than anyone before or since.

She was Britain’s first woman prime minister: Okay, this is true!