“The chief problem with MPs today, is that too few of them have held a job outside politics”.
Saying this sort of thing is an easy way to get a big applause on BBC’s ‘Question Time’. But is it really such a problem? Anyone who wants to get on in politics is surely well-advised to start pursuing their ambitions early. Even in the past, many of those who did pursue other careers first (Margaret Thatcher was briefly a chemist, Tony Benn was a pilot and worked for the BBC) ultimately seem to have been biding their time until they got into parliament anyway, just like David “PR exec” Cameron and Tony “lawyer” Blair. But why is it assumed that MPs who have done other jobs first are necessarily of better quality? Remember: for every Winston Churchill or Paddy Ashdown, there’s a Jeffery Archer, Robert Kilroy-Silk, Neil Hamilton (an ex-teacher), a Robert Maxwell or an Iain Duncan Smith. All of these last five had other careers before politics. None seem to have been better MPs as a result.
2. “The Labour Party today has been taken over by the middle classes who have moved it to the right.”
Again, this isn’t the problem. Labour has always had lots of poshos in it from Clement Attlee to Hugh Gaitskell to Shirley Williams. It’s wrong to assume people from wealthier backgrounds are necessarily more conservative anyway. Anthony Wedgewood Benn and Michael Foot, after all came from better off families and they were hardly pseudo-Tories. Nor were James Callaghan or David Blunkett, exactly rampant lefties despite being of working class stock.
3. “Labour is obsessed with class”.
Actually, if you look at the tabloid press, it is clear the Right are far more intent on class war, attacking anyone on benefits as a “scroungers” and anyone not to their political liking with money as “hypocrites” or “champagne socialists”. Ignore them!
4. “Rupert Murdoch is nor right wing: he just likes to back a winner.”
Wrong! Murdoch will only back those who share his own right wing outlook. Hence why he backed losers like John McCain and Mitt Romney in the US and still backed the Tories even as they appeared to be heading for defeat in May 2015. Remember this, next time you pick up The Times!
Another year has passed and inevitably the last twelve months have seen us saying goodbye to many famous names for the final time.
But who were the main big names to leave us forever in 2014? Here is just a sample of some of the famous people who died in 2014…
Roger Lloyd-Pack (69)
(January 15th) Most people know him better as Trigger, Del Boy’s slow witted pal who inexplicably always referred to Rodney as Dave.
In addition to Only Fools and Horses, Lloyd-Pack was the father of the actress Emily Lloyd and was a regular in The Vicar Of Dibley.
Philip Seymour Hoffman (46)
(February 2nd) Undoubtedly one of Hollywood’s greatest ever character actors, Hoffman appeared in everything from The Big Lebowski to an Oscar winning turn in Capote while enjoying high profile roles in Mission Impossible 3 and the later Hunger Games films.
Shirley Temple-Black (85)
(February 10) As a child performer Shirley Temple was one of the biggest stars of the 1930s.
In adult life, she found a new role in politics serving as both US Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia.
Tony Benn (88)
(March 14th) One of the longest serving Labour MPs there has ever been, Benn never quite made it to the very top.
But as a cabinet minister, diarist, reformer (he battled to change a law which would have forced him to go to the House of Lords) and in late life an anti-war campaigner, Benn had a huge impact.
Mickey Rooney (93)
(April 6th) Like SHirley Temple, Rooney was another child star of the Depression years. He ultimately enjoyed a long career cropping up in everything from Breakfast At Tiffany’s to the Night At The Museum movies.
Peaches Geldof (25)
(April 7th) The daughter of Bob Geldof and Paula Yates, Peaches was well on the way to massive stardom as a model, presenter and model before her tragic and unexpected death from a heroin overdose.
Sue Townsend (68)
(April 10th) As the author of the diaries of hapless teenage wannabe intellectual Adrian Mole, Sue Townsend was one of the most popular British authors of the Eighties.
Bob Hoskins (71)
(April 29th) A familiar face throughout the last forty years thanks to roles in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Hook, Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven and The Long Good Friday, Hoskins was one of Britain’s best and most underrated actors.
Rik Mayall (56)
(June 9th) One of the biggest names of the 80s alternative comedy scene, Mayall shot to fame in the roles of odious student Rick in the anarchic sitcom The Young Ones, evil politician Alan B’stard in The New Statesman and Lord Flash ‘Flash by name, flash by nature!’ in Blackadder before returning in the Nineties with Bottom.
James Garner (86)
(July 19th) US actor best known for his roles in The Great Escape and in TV’s Maverick and The Rockford Files.
Robin Williams (63)
(August 11th) Legendary US comedian and actor who moved from zany TV stardom Mork and Mindy, onto the big screen in Good Morning Vietnam and Dead Poets Society. Although increasingly drawn towards dramatic roles such as The Fisher King, One Hour Photo and an Oscar winning turn in Good Will Hunting, he also continued to appear in often very sentimental comedies including the huge popular hit Mrs. Doubtfire.
Lauren Bacall (89)
(August 12th) True Hollywood giant famously married to Humphrey Bogart. Great beauty, superb actress, her most famous roles were largely opposite Bogart in To Have And Have Not, The Big Sleep and Key Largo in the Forties and Fifties.
Lord Richard Attenborough (90)
(August 24th) Brother of the celebrated naturalist David, “Dickie” enjoyed huge success as an actor in key post-war films such as Brighton Rock, The Great Escape and 10 Rillington Place before becoming the director of the Oscar winning Gandhi and Cry Freedom in the Eighties. He later returned to acting in Jurassic Park and the remake of Miracle on 34th Street in which he played Father Christmas.
Joan Rivers (81)
(September 4th) Can we talk? Hilarious US comedian famed for sharp often harsh wit and witty one liners. A winning although sometimes controversial presence on the chat show circuit for decades.
Sir Donald Sinden (90)
(September 12th) Celebrated British actor of stage and screen often noted for his distinctive voice and charismatic performances in everything from Shakespeare to sitcom Never The Twain.
Sir Ian Paisley (88)
(September 12th) Charismatic and controversial, fiercely pro-Unionist Northern Ireland politician.
Lynda Bellingham (66)
(October 19th) Beloved TV star of All Creatures Great And Small, Loose Women, sitcoms such as Second Thoughts and Faith In The Future and those OXO adverts. Although often a strong mother figure on screen, her private life was sadly often marked by domestic discord.
Alvin Stardust (72)
(October 23rd) Pop star and stage actor famed for his Seventies hit My Coo Ca Choo.
Warren Clark (67)
(November 12th) Much loved British character actor famous for roles in everything from Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange to Blackadder The Third. He was probably best known for his role in detective drama Dalziel and Pascoe alongside Colin Buchanan..
Phillip Hughes (25)
(November 27th) Australian Test batsman tragically killed when a ball struck him on the head during a match.
PD James (94)
(November 27th) Acclaimed British crime writer. Author of The Children Of Men and Death Comes To Pemberley.
Jeremy Thorpe (85)
(December 4th) Liberal leader of the Sixties and Seventies. Initially, the most successful post-war Liberal leader up until that point, rumours of his homosexuality and his role in a high profile murder trial, in which he was found innocent, wrecked his career.
David Ryall (79)
(December 28th) Familiar character actor perhaps best known for his later roles in Outnumbered, The Village and Harry Potter.
Life is a race. How are you doing compared to this bunch?
Henry VI becomes King of England and France (ten months old, 1422).
60% of the human race died before their first birthday.
Prince George’s age (2014).
Mozart watches his older sister playing a piece of music, gets up and plays the same piece perfectly. C. 1759.
Shirley Temple begins acting (1931).
Charles I only able to walk and talk from this age onward (c.1605).
Michael Jackson begins performing with The Jackson Five (1965).
Lisa Simpson’s age.
Edward VI becomes King (1547).
Bart Simpson’s age.
Orson Welles had read the Complete Works of Shakespeare by this age (1925).
Macaulay Culkin is in Home Alone (1990).
Tatum O’Neal wins an acting Oscar for Paper Moon (1974), the youngest ever actor to receive one.
Anna Paquin wins a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Piano (1993).
Jodie Foster appears in Bugsy Malone and Taxi Driver (1976).
Edward V (1483) one of the “Princes in the Tower” probably around this age.
Emperor Tutankhamun dies.
Anne Frank dies (1945)
Britney Spears releases “Baby One More Time” (1999).
Billie Piper releases Number One hit “Because We Want To” (1998).
Edward VI dies (1553).
Boris Becker wins Wimbledon (1985).
Joan of Arc burnt at the stake (1431).
Gavrillo Princip assassinates Archduke Franz Ferdinand effectively triggering the outbreak of the First World War (1914).
Peter Cook writes the “One Leg Too Few” sketch (c. 1956).
Nigel Short World Chess Grandmaster (1984).
Justin Bieber’s age (2014).
Princess Diana marries (1981).
Jesse Owens appears at the Berlin Olympics (1936).
Buddy Holly dies (1959).
Lee Harvey Oswald is arrested for the killing of JFK before being shot dead himself (1963).
River Phoenix dies (1993).
William Pitt the Younger becomes the youngest ever British Prime Minister (1783).
Zadie Smith sees White Teeth published (2000).
James Dean dies in a car crash (1955).
John Singleton nominated Best Director for Boyz nThe Hood (1991), the youngest such nominee.
Orson Welles directs Citizen Kane (1941).
Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II both become Queen (1558 and 1952).
Ian Hislop becomes editor of Private Eye (1985).
John Keats dies (1821).
Charles Dickens writes Oliver Twist (1838).
Stephen King’s Carrie (1974) published.
Matt Smith is the youngest ever Doctor Who (2009).
Andy Murray wins Wimbledon (2013).
A notorious age for musicians to die:
Kurt Cobain dies (1994).
Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones dies (1969).
Jimi Hendrix dies (1970).
Janis Joplin dies (1970).
Jim Morrison dies (1970).
Steven Spielberg sees Jaws released (1975)
John Lennon’s age when The Beatles split up (1970).
John Cleese’s age when Monty Python begins (very nearly 30, 1969).
Harold Wilson becomes the youngest cabinet minister of the 20th century (1947).
Alexander the Great dies (332BC).
Robert De Niro’s age on the release of Taxi Driver (1976).
Fidel Castro wins power in Cuba (1959).
Prince William’s age (2014).
Prince Charles (1981) marries Diana at this age.
Tolstoy begins writing War and Peace (1861). It is published eight years later.
Approximate age of Jesus Christ on his death.
John Belushi dies (1982).
George Lucas directs Star Wars (1977).
Ayrton Senna dies (1994).
Hitler attempts Munich Beer Hall Putsch (1923).
The minimum age requirement to run for US president.
Mozart dies (1791).
Napoleon becomes Emperor of France (1804).
Anne Boleyn beheaded (1536, approx. age).
William Hague becomes Tory leader (1997).
Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana both die (1962 and 1997).
Neil Armstrong walks on the moon (1969).
Martin Sheen suffers a heart attack while filming Apocalypse Now (1978).
David Cameron elected Tory leader (2005).
George Osborne becomes Chancellor (2010).
Cleopatra dies after being bitten by an asp (30BC).
John Lennon is shot and killed (1980).
Ed Miliband is elected Labour leader (2010).
Penelope Cruz current age (2014).
Tony Blair and Neil Kinnock are both elected leader of the Labour Party (1994 and 1983).
Theodore Roosevelt becomes the youngest ever US president (1901).
Bobby Kennedy runs for US president and is assassinated (1968).
Christopher Columbus sails the ocean blue (1492). (He was around this age).
Elvis Presley dies (1977).
Adolf Hitler becomes German Chancellor (1933).
John F. Kennedy is elected president, the youngest to be elected president although not the youngest ever (1960).
David Cameron becomes PM (2010).
John Candy, actor, dies (1994).
Ed Miliband’s current age (2014).
Orwell writes 1984 (1948).
Napoleon loses the Battle of Waterloo (1815).
President Kennedy is assassinated (1963).
Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are both elected president (1992 and 2008).
Leonardo da Vinci paints The Last Supper (1498).
George Orwell dies (1950).
Nick Clegg’s age (2014).
David Cameron’s current age (2014).
Margaret Thatcher ousts Heath as Tory leader (1975).
Boris Johnson’s current age (2014).
Brad Pitt’s current age (2014).
Michael Jackson dies (2009).
Johnny Depp current age (2014).
Napoleon dies (1821).
Margaret Thatcher elected first UK woman Prime Minister (1979).
Oscar Wilde dies in Paris (1900).
Julius Caesar is assassinated (44BC)
Morrissey age (2014).
Thomas Hardy’s last novel Jude The Obscure is published (1895).
Richard Nixon becomes US president (1969).
Hitler dies (1945).
Charles Dickens dies (1870).
Tony Blair and Michael Portillo’s age (2014).
Nixon resigns as US president (1974).
Gordon Brown’s age (2014).
Winston Churchill assumes office as PM (1940).
Prince Charles’ age (2014).
Hillary Clinton’s age (2014).
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s current age (2014).
Ronald Reagan is elected US president (1980).
Mary Wesley sees her first novel published.
John Major, former Prime Minister’s age in 2014.
Age of US Vice President Joe Biden (2014).
Reagan is re-elected (1984).Bob Dole (1996) and John McCain (2008) run unsuccessfully for US president.
Clint Eastwood wins Best Director (the oldest ever recipient) for Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Cliff Richard age (2014).
Reagan, the oldest US president to date, leaves office (1989).
Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman’s current age (2014).
Jessica Tandy becomes the oldest Best Actress winner for Driving Miss Daisy (1989).
Brigitte Bardot’s age (2014).
Queen Victoria dies (1901)
Churchill, the oldest PM of the 20th century, steps down (1955).
William Gladstone steps down as the oldest ever Prime Minister (1894). He dies, age 88 (1898)
Thomas Hardy dies (1928).
The present age of Queen Elizabeth II (2014). She is the oldest British monarch ever.
Charlie Chaplin dies (1977).
Fidel Castro’s current age (2014).
Winston Churchill dies (1965).
Age of former US presidents Jimmy Carter and George HW Bush in 2014.
Doris Day’s current age (2014).
Richard Gordon, author of the Doctor books age (2014).
Jake Le Motta, boxer, subject of Raging Bull age (2014).
Zsa Zsa Gabor current age (2014, in a coma).
Current age of veteran Labour politician Lord Denis Healey (2014)
Current age of Gone With The Wind actress Olivia de Haviland (2014)
The Queen Mother dies (2002)
Kennedy clan matriarch Rose Kennedy dies (1995).
Harry Patch dies, the last British fighting Tommy of the First World War dies (2009).
Labour politician Tony Benn was many things to many people. To many on the Right (many of whom are clearly far more class-obsessed than Benn or anyone on the Left has ever been), he was the ultimate hypocrite: a peer of the realm who dared to turn on his own class and embrace socialism. In fact, Benn famously renounced his hereditary peerage as soon as he could after a monumental battle with the Establishment in the early sixties. A father of three and barred from the Commons, Benn was frequently left dejected and depressed by a battle which despite public support, often didn’t seem to be going his way.
To others within his own party, he was sometimes a hindrance. Harold Wilson, Labour leader during most of the relatively short period Benn held office (about eleven years) famously remarked that Benn “immatures with age”.
But to everyone Benn was something of a phenomenon, the second longest-serving Labour MP ever and a man who dutifully, almost obsessively, recorded the events of the second half of his life.
Skip Kite begins this film, made with Benn’s cooperation during his final two years, with the old man reciting Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be” speech from Hamlet. And though, it jumps around a little (being thematic rather than strictly chronological in order) and features an odd recurring Narnia-like lamp post visual motif, it does accurately portray the Seven Ages of Benn (my own idea, not the director’s):
The schoolboy who once met the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Ramsay MacDonald (and who, in later life, would never stop reminding people of this).
The wartime pilot.
The young ambitious Labour MP, diverted by the battle with the Lords.
The modern technocrat of the sixties. Widely seen as the future of the party and perhaps Benn at his best.
The increasingly leftist “Most dangerous man in Britain” of tabloid infamy. An agitator, yes, but always respectful and good-natured.
Switching remarkably quickly from youthful rising star, to the lisping white-haired veteran of the Kinnock and Blair years: increasingly less powerful but never less interesting.
The old man we mostly see here, still in genuine mourning for Caroline his wife of nearly fifty years and increasingly a much loved national institution (whether he liked it or not).
This is an excellent documentary and a fitting monument to one of the greatest British politicians of the 20th century.
Bonus features include a Christmas message from the elderly Benn, a selection of photos (mostly covering his early life) and Benn’s final interview.
He will be missed.
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.
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 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 went nearly as high as it had in 1974. Callaghan’s predictions of rioting on the streets if Thatcher won, were soon vindicated in 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?
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 great landslide of 1945. 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 into 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 after they unwisely allied with the Liberals.
The practical upshot of this was that three parties went into the 1983 election.
Mrs Thatcher’s Tories were 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.
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.
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, the defeat would have been smaller. Labour may have recovered earlier, perhaps returning to power in 1992.
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.
September 2014 marks the centenary of the birth of one of the most eccentric Labour politicians in British political history. George Brown was a leading figure in Harold Wilson’s government and deserves to be remembered as more than just a drunk. He was, however, an erratic sometimes aggressive figure who will always be associated with Private Eye’s famous euphemism ” tired and emotional”. Like the “unwell” in “Jeffrey Bernard is unwell”, tired and emotional was usually taken to mean “pissed again”. Although he rose to be Foreign Secretary and almost became party leader, Brown’s career was blighted by his tendency to get drunk on very small amounts of alcohol. Ironically, Harold Wilson, Brown’s chief rival who ultimately bested him by becoming party leader and then PM is now known to have been effectively an alcoholic while in office. But he concealed it much better than Brown did. Here are some of the highs and lows of Brown’s career (he is no relation to Gordon Brown):
1914: Brown is born in Lambeth. He will prove one of the few genuinely working class figures in Harold Wilson’s Labour cabinet of 1964-70. His father is a van driver who is beaten up during the 1926 General Strike. 1945: Is elected MP for Belper in the post-war Labour landslide. 1956: Has a row with Soviet leader Khrushchev during a special private dinner in honour of the Soviet leader’s visit. Khrushchev is later quoted as saying that if he were British he would vote Tory. 1950s: Brown launches a physical assault on colleague Richard Crossman after the latter criticised him in the press. Crossman is physically larger than Brown and ends the assault by sitting on him. 1963: Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell (a Brown ally) dies suddenly. Writing in his diary, Tony Benn expects Brown to be elected as his successor. In the end, he is beaten by Harold Wilson, something Brown never gets over, partly because if concerns about Brown’s private behaviour. Some see the choice as between “a crook and a drunk”. Brown famously humiliated himself on the evening of President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. https://chrishallamworldview.wordpress.com/2013/11/20/the-strange-case-of-eli-wallach-george-brown-and-the-death-of-jfk/ 1964: Labour return to power with Brown as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economic Affairs in charge of the National Plan. Brown’s car breaks down on one occasion as he attempts to transport the only copy of the Plan. He flags down a bearded man and a pretty young girl in a Mini (leaving his driver behind) ordering them to take him to Whitehall, rudely insisting that he is on “important government business”. Rather surprisingly, they agree to do so. On being dropped off, Brown realises he has left the Plan in the backseat of the Mini. Luckily, for him the couple return it before morning. 1968: Brown finally resigns as Foreign Secretary. During his tenure, he has threatened to resign eighteen times, a post-war record. He attempts to retract his resignation but fails, effectively marking the end of his political career. He remains Deputy Prime Minister until 1970. 1970: Brown goes down fighting in the 1970 General Election, his defeat after 25 years in Belper inevitable, not because of his behaviour but actually due to boundary changes (Labour unexpectedly lose power in the election anyway, returning in 1974). During one speech in Norfolk, a pretty girl in the audience shouts “Never!” Brown breaks off to say: “My dear girl, there are some big words which little girls should not use and “never” is one of them. Later in an early version of the 2001 “Prescott punch” Brown punches a long haired student heckler to the ground. Bizarrely, a number of journalists assist Brown. “I left one long-haired young man…very surprised indeed…” Brown later wrote “when he found himself lying on the floor as the result of the accidental collision of his chin with my fist.” Brown loses Belper and never returns as an MP. He changes his surname to George-Brown to ensure that on receiving a peerage both names are included in the title Lord George-Brown. 1976: Brown resigns from the party. The Times reports “Lord George-Brown drunk is a better man than Harold Wilson sober. Brown falls over during the announcement, widely assumed, wrongly in fact, due to drunkeness. By coincidence, Wilson resigns suddenly as PM only a few days later. 1981: Like many right wing pro-European Labour politicians, Brown joins the fledgling SDP. 1982: Brown, aged nearly seventy, leaves his wife after thirty five years, to move in with his personal assistant, then in her thirties. He does not change his will, however, and Lady George-Brown inherits the estate on his death. 1985: Brown converts to Catholicism shortly before his death from cirrhosis of the liver, aged 71.
The past may well be a different country. But is it one which you would necessarily want to visit? In the case of the Eighties, here are six reasons why the decade as a whole is best avoided…
Movies were bad
Okay, clearly not ALL Eighties movies were bad but there was a hell of a lot of crap around ranging from Flashdance, Red Dawn, Mannequin to the Police Academy films. The British film industry was in an especially dire state with virtually one Cannon and Ball film or Merchant Ivory period piece being released a year. Animated films such as The Fox and the Hound and Basil The Great Mouse Detective were a million miles away from the sophisticated standard set by the likes of Frozen and the Toy Story films today. Even at the higher end, supposedly great Oscar winning fare like Driving Miss Daisy, Ordinary People and Terms of Endearment are watched by virtually NO ONE today.
Computers were rubbish
Got a spare two hours? Then try loading even the most basic blocky bitty computer game in 1984. Even then, it probably won’t work and will come back with a message saying “Boot error”.
Mobile phones were huge
Some people, of course, had mobile phones in the Eighties but they were huge brick-like things which required you to shout down them so loudly you may as well just have shouted anyway. There was also no internet so you needed to visit the library to find out even the slightest bit of trivia about anything. Also, are you late for a meeting with someone? Tough! You can’t text “15 MINS L8 SORRY”. You’ll just have to miss them! You could try calling them from a phone box (although many were vandalised even then) but unless they’re at home or in the office, that won’t work as chances are they don’t have a mobile either!
Everything closed on Sunday
And TV stopped at about one o clock in the morning (after a quick play of the National Anthem). What a bore!
TV was often rubbish
Not only did you have to get both the Radio Times AND the TV Times to see what was on all four channels, we had to put up with the likes of Duty Free, No Place Like Home and sitcoms starring Jim Davidson. The most watched comedy show of the entire decade? An episode of Carla Lane’s Bread. Rubbish.
The country was in a bad way
Britain boomed in the Eighties? Well, yes, for about five minutes towards the end before overheating and descending into recession again. For most of the decade, unemployment was well over three million (much higher than during the recent recession) while the country quaked amidst rioting, IRA bomb explosions while teetering on the brink of extinction from the threat of nuclear war. Nostalgia? Some things are best left in the past.
Watching Nick Clegg being soundly beaten by UKIP leader Nigel Farage n the recent radio and TV debates was a dispiriting business. Some may have felt inclined to hark back to an earlier age when the European cause had more eloquent and effective debaters on its side. For example, Roy Jenkins.
Of course, Roy Jenkins (or Lord Jenkins of Hillhead as he was by the end) died in 2003 and would doubtless be horrified to learn that our continued membership of the European Union is now in doubt once again at all. As for the current Coalition Government, this would doubtless shock him less. He was keen on coalition governments long before it was fashionable.
There are many myths about Roy Jenkins. One is that he was “nature’s old Etonian”, posh and clubbable despite coming from a Welsh mining background. In fact, though this is true (his father was falsely imprisoned for his role in the 1926 General Strike), Jenkins’ background was much more privileged than was generally realised. His father did, after all, serve in the Attlee Government.
Another myth which Campbell convincingly dispels is that Jenkins was lazy. He most definitely was not that, combining a busy social life (including a string of extra marital affairs), with a distinguished career as a biographer and historian in addition to being Labour’s most successful ever Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was also the first British President of the EEC and co-founder of the ultimately unsuccessful Social Democratic Party.
During his comparatively brief spell as Home Secretary between 1965 and 1967, Jenkins transformed more lives for the better than most Prime Ministers have succeeded in doing, sponsoring the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality. He is sometimes credited (or blamed) with launching the permissive society, an exaggeration even if one ignores the fact that the abolition of National Service and the death penalty had already been delivered not by Jenkins but by the Tories. He was no less successful as Chancellor. Sadly, like Tony Benn, the 1970 unexpected Labour General Election defeat of 1970 led his leadership prospects to fade, albeit in a wholly different way to Benn: Jenkins alienating his then Eurosceptic party through his support for European unity. He was, in fact, perhaps too reluctant to challenge for the leadership and by 1976 when a vacancy finally arose with Wilson’s resignation, it was too late. The SDP, despite huge initial opinion poll success in 1981 and (unlike today’s UKIP) actual by election wins failed to break through although contrary to myth, probably didn’t ensure Tory victory in 1983 either.
This is a superb biography from distinguished author John Campbell. Despite being a self confessed SDP supporter (he actually wrote an earlier biography of Jenkins at the height of the party’s ascendancy), Campbell certainly isn’t blind to either Jenkins’ or the party’s failings.
It is a long book and there are a few errors, mostly ones of chronology. The SDP were formed in 1981 not 1982 as he states on page 9 (though the detailed account of SDP history later in the book makes clear Campbell obviously knows this). Jenkins was also first Home Secretary from 1965 to 1967, not 1966 to 1967 (p1). Tony Blair’s reform of Clause IV did not come “half a century” after Gaitskell’s attempt but only about thirty five years later (p208). Gaitskell attempted this in 1959-60. Blair’s more successful attempt was in 1994-95. Was Sir Stafford Cripps ever referred to as the “Iron Chancellor” as Campbell states (P310-P311)? Maybe he was. The nickname is more usually applied to Labour’s first ever Chancellor Snowdon, however, or sometimes Gordon Brown (and originally to Otto von Bismarck obviously). Finally, the Westland Affair peaked in January 1986 not January 1985 (p642).
But these are quibbles. This is a superb well rounded biography of a well rounded man. It is indeed a biography Roy Jenkins himself would have been proud to have written although he may have struggled to pronounce the title.
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 Wedgewood 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.
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 Wedgewood” 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.
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.
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.
Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979.
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.