Book review: Ernest Bevin: Labour’s Churchill

Ernest Bevin was a towering figure in 20th century British history.

But nearly seventy years after his death, he is too easily overlooked today. The original Bevin Boy is too often remembered only as the rotund, bespectacled man pictured walking alongside Winston Churchill or Clement Attlee in photos from the 1940s. It does not help that his surname is so easily confused with that of Nye Bevan, another major figure in the Attlee government, but a completely different person.

Andrew Adonis, himself a figure in the Blair and Brown governments, corrects the balance in this thorough and well-argued biography. Without Bevin, the history of Britain in the 20th century would have been very different. Although he never led a party himself, he founded the Transport and General Workers’ Union, which by the start of the Second World War was the largest trade union in the western world. By this point, Bevin (who was born in 1881) was anticipating retirement after a life spent in the union movement. Like Churchill, his finest hour, late in life, was in fact, still to come.

He played a major role in securing the succession of Churchill in 1940 and Attlee as Labour leader in 1935 and was a key figure in ensuring Attlee survived a coup attempt immediately after the 1945 Labour General Election landslide. As the wartime Minister of Labour and as Attlee’s first Foreign Secretary, he was a crucial figure in the two greatest governments of the 20th century.

His final years, establishing Britain’s position in the new Cold War were critical.

“Bevin stood up to Stalin sooner and more effectively than any other post-war Western leader,” Adonis writes. “Better even than Churchill and far better than Roosevelt or Truman.” Whereas some such as Labour’s George Lansbury (who Adonis sees as sort of 1930s version of Jeremy Corbyn) were weak on Hitler and even Churchill had an inexcusable soft spot for Benito Mussolini early on, Bevin’s no-nonsense approach towards Stalin was vital in ensuring no unnecessary ground was conceded to the Soviets in the Cold War’s critical early stages.

This is not a slavish hagiography. Adonis does not ignore Bevin’s failings: in particular, he was short-sighted on the subject of Britain’s post-war European destiny, had a personal dislike of schoolteachers and had a muddled approach to the Middle East which actually suggests he probably harboured anti-Semitic views.

Nevertheless, at a time when statues of less worthy historical figures are being torn down, this book serves as a fitting monument to a Great British hero.

Ernest Bevin: Labour’s Churchill, by Andrew Adonis. Published by: Biteback. Out now.

Book review: Where Power Stops, by David Runciman

Book review: Where Power Stops: The Making and Unmaking of Presidents and Prime Ministers, by David Runciman. Published by: Profile Books.

The premise is simple enough. David Runciman takes a look at some of the most interesting recent British and American leaders and sees what we can learn from their experiences of leadership. His choice of subjects is in itself fascinating.

Lyndon B. Johnson: a huge, cajoling, powerful figure, the choice of LBJ nevertheless seems slightly odd, simply because his tenure (1963-69) was so much earlier than everyone else included here. Runciman also inevitably relies on Robert Caro’s masterful biography of the 36th US president. Still unfinished, Caro’s magnum opus has barely touched on Johnson’s years in the White House yet. Let’s hope he gets to finish it.

Runciman has a talent for shedding new light on potentially over-familiar topics. All manner of leader is included here. Amongst others, the list includes: exceptional men who fell slightly short of the high hopes they raised on the campaign trail (Barack Obama), good leaders who trashed their own reputations on leaving office (Tony Blair), the highly intelligent and flawed (Bill Clinton and Gordon Brown), the decent but narrow (Theresa May) and the ultimate narcissist, the abominable showman (Donald Trump). The last of these should never have got close to power in the first place. Unhappily, he is the only one included here who is still there.

The fascinating story of the implosion of John Edwards’ 2008 presidential campaign will doubtless make a great film one day. As he never made it to the presidency, however, it doesn’t really belong here. But, overall, Runciman does an excellent job. The book is manna for political geeks like myself.

Book review: Punch & Judy Politics by Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton

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Punch & Judy Politics: An Insiders’ Guide To Prime Minister’s Questions by Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton. Published by Biteback.

Iain Duncan Smith was terrible at it. William Hague was great at it, but it got him nowhere. Theresa May is not very good at it. Jeremy Corbyn is better although is a dull performer. Harold Wilson drank a bottle of whiskey, (sometimes two) to prepare for it. Margaret Thatcher had her notes for it, produced in large print. She felt wearing reading glasses would look like a sign of weakness.

It is, in fact, Thatcher who we have in many ways to thank for the ritual of Prime Minister’s Questions in its current form. Although Prime Ministers have had a designated time slot for answering questions since the early 1960s, it was Thatcher who transformed it into a major event – or rather two events – by choosing to answer every question herself. It was also around this time – although through not her doing – that parliamentary proceedings began being broadcast on the radio from 1978 and then TV from 1989. The modern ritual of PMQs would not be the same without this.

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On taking office, Tony Blair reduced the sessions from two to one a week. Some criticised him for this, suggesting it proved his “contempt for parliament” but in fact it seems like a very sensible move indeed. Thatcher reportedly spent eight hours a week just preparing for her two weekly sessions. Something had to give.

Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton are behind this well-researched and thorough guide and clearly know their stuff. Both have experience as political advisers and spent years briefing Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband behind the scenes for their own sessions with, as they admit, somewhat mixed results.

Prime Minster’s Question Time a bizarre ritual, a genuine ordeal for the leaders on both sides and almost useless as a means to both ask and get an answer to a question, involving a lot of improvisation, preparation and second guessing. The sight of 600 paid representatives bawling and groaning at each other in a crowded chamber on a weekly basis, probably puts more people off politics than anything else.

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It does serve a function though and as the book reminds us, has provided scenes of rare humour and drama. William Hague, though a largely unsuccessful Tory leader was a master of this strange art and like the late John Smith could often be very funny.

Even Hague, could come unstuck though, as he did filling in for David Cameron when Harriet Harman stood in for PM, Gordon Brown in 2008.

“You had to explain yesterday that you dress in accordance with wherever you go – you wear a helmet to a building site, you wear Indian clothes to Indian parts of your constituency,” he began, then attempting a joke. “Presumably when you go to a cabinet meeting you dress as a clown.”

Against all expectation, Harriet Harman then wiped the floor with him:

“If am looking for advice on what to wear or what not to wear, I think the very last person I would look to for advice is the man in a baseball cap,” she said.

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By common consent, PMQs is currently going through a dull patch. Jeremy Corbyn covered up his initial experience well by using questions from the general public. Today, he is much better and no longer resorts to this clever tactic. But he is not a spontaneous performer even as he consistently outperforms Theresa May.

It was David Cameron who called for “an end to Punch and Judy politics” when he became Tory leader in 2005. He was not the first or last leader to express such sentiments and was not referring to PMQs specifically anyway, a ritual which he generally proved pretty good at.

But a few years later, he admitted the folly of this pledge. For calm down, dear! He was the future once, his Day Mayor and your Night Mayor.

And Punch and Judy politics are here to stay.

That is that. The end.

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Book review: Things Can Only Get Worse? by John O’Farrell

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Things Can Only Get Worse? Twenty Confusing Years In The Life Of A Labour Supporter by John O’Farrell, Published by: Doubleday

In 1998, John O’Farrell published, Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter, 1979-1997. It was an enjoyable and genuinely funny political memoir of O’Farrell’s life from his teenage defeat as Labour candidate in his school’s 1979 mock election to the happy ending of the New Labour landslide in 1997. Eighteen years is a long time: by 1997, O’Farrell was well into his thirties, balding, married with children and thanks to his work on the likes of Spitting Image and Radio 4’s Weekending, an established comedy writer.

The book was a big hit. But now twenty years have passed again since Blair’s first big win. The story of the two decades since as covered  in this sequel is rather more complex.

On the one hand, New Labour won yet another landslide in 2001 and a third big win in 2005. The Tories have never really recovered from their 1997 trouncing, winning a  majority in only one of the last six General Elections and even then a very small one (in 2015). And as O’Farrell says, things undeniably got better under Labour, with the government “writing off the debt of the world’s poorest countries…transforming the NHS by trebling health spending and massively reducing waiting lists…the minimum wage, and pensioners getting free TV licences and the winter fuel allowance…peace in Northern Ireland… equality for the gay community…all the new schools…free entry to museums and galleries…” The list goes on (and on).

John O'Farrell, Labour's prospective parliamentary candidate for Eastleigh

On the other hand, as O’Farrell admits, there are certainly grounds for pessimism too. O’Farrell often felt conflicted defending the Blair Government as a Guardian columnist in the early 2000s particularly after the build-up to the Iraq War. He had a bit of a laugh campaigning as the Labour candidate for the hopelessly Tory seat of Maidenhead in the 2001 second Labour landslide election running against a notably unimpressive Opposition frontbencher called Theresa May. But the disintegration of Labour under first Gordon Brown and then Ed Miliband was hardly a joy to behold, either for him or anyone else who backed Labour. O’Farrell’s candidature in the 2013 Eastleigh by-election in which he came fourth, was less fun too with the Tory tabloids attacking him by using out of context quotes from his first book. By 2016, with O’Farrell despairing after a year of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Brexit result and the election of Donald Trump, the celebrations of victory night in May 1997 start to seem like a very long time ago indeed.

Thankfully, O’Farrell is always a funny writer, remaining upbeat even when for others, things would only get bitter.

After all, even at their worst, Labour have never been as bad as the Tories. Yes, the Tories: a party who supported the Iraq War far more enthusiastically than Labour did (and indeed, whose support ensured it happened), a party who fiercely upheld Labour’s spending plans in the early 2000s at the time (rightly) only to attack them endlessly (and wrongly) later, a party whose membership enthusiastically chose Jeffery Archer as its choice for London mayor in 2000 and Iain Duncan Smith as their party leader in 2001. The Conservatives were, are and will always be “the Silly Party.”

This is an excellent book. And thanks to Theresa May’s calamitous General Election miscalculation, it even has a happy ending.

Sort of.

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Book review: Order, Order! by Ben Wright

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published by: Duckworth Overlook

Great political myths of our time

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  1. “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 Wedegwood 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.

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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!

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General Election memories 7: 2005

Blair 2005 mainPortsmouth, Hampshire, May 2005

“Are you thinking what we’re thinking?”

This was the Tories’ brilliant slogan for the 2005 election. As it turned out, we weren’t thinking what they were thinking, unless they too were thinking, why have we picked Michael Howard as our leader?

Indeed, half the time we didn’t know what the Tories were thinking. Why had they replaced the unelectable William Hague with the even more unelectable Iain Duncan Smith in 2001? Surely the worst opposition leader of all time, they chose him over the comparatively brilliant Ken Clarke and Michael Portillo. In another eccentric decision, Michael Howard was chosen – unopposed – as Tory leader in 2003. Howard had been an unmitigated disaster as Home Secretary under Major and had actually come last in the Tory leadership contest in 1997 even behind the likes of Peter Lilley and John Redwood.

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The Tories managed to be wrong on the key issue of the day too: the Iraq War. They were even keener to go in than Blair was. Like many people I was opposed because a) Iraq had nothing to do with September 11th b) the Bush administration seemed to have sinister reasons of their own for going in and c) they seemed to have little plan for what to do afterwards.

I even took part in the London February 15th 2003 anti-war march or at least the first half of it, abandoning it along with one of my friends to go to Pizza Hut (this isn’t mentioned in Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday). I felt guilty over this at the time but I’m reasonably now satisfied now that the war would still have gone ahead had we completed the march.

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I did a few Labour-y things during my 2001-04 stint in Peterborough. I met the former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, went to see Tony Benn doing a talk (then just retired as an MP) and was interviewed for a position to run the campaign of Peterborough MP Helen Clark (she would lose to Tory Stewart Jackson in 2005, the exact opposite of the 2001 result).

Despite all this, I seriously considered voting Liberal Democrat. Only the facts that Helen Clark had voted against the war and the fact that my voting Lib Dem could help the pro-war Jackson win swayed me.

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At any rate, I was not in Peterborough but in Portsmouth in 2005, at the very end of a six month Magazine Journalism course at Highbury College. I’d been reviewing films and DVDs for Peterborough-based free magazine ESP and had had more work since doing the course contributing to SFX magazine, the Charles and Camilla Royal Wedding edition of Radio Times, several local mags and (bizarrely for me) a sports journal. I was 28 years old and finally seemed to have worked out what I wanted to do.

The day after the election was actually the day of my Public Affairs exam on politics and government. It was a bizarre dilemma. Were my interests best served by more revision and an early night or by watching the election results? In the end, I did both. The only campaign activity I witnessed was a local debate between the local candidates. The UKIP man had been by far the most entertaining. Portsmouth’s outgoing Labour MP Syd Rapston was a slow-witted man best known for being duped by Chris Morris’s satire Brass Eye into publicly condemning the “made-up drug” Cake.

Some seemed surprised Labour’s national majority dropped by about 100, but, in truth, this was still a good result. I passed my course and returned briefly to Peterborough. I had interviews at Local Government and Inside Soap magazine and did some holiday cover at Radio Times. In June 2005, I was offered a job at DVD Monthly in Exeter, Devon. I had had girlfriends but was single then and thus unencumbered I went down south. I did not know for sure even where I was going to live on the day of my departure.

Ten years on, I have lived in Exeter ever since (2017 update: this is still true).

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General Election memories 6: 2001

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Peterborough, June 7th 2001

One of the big myths Tories that like to make up about the Blair-Brown years is that they were an unholy period of tyranny in which the nation was held to ransom by a debauched and malevolent cabal of godless devils and perverts.

Or at least this is what Michael Gove says.

There are a few problems with this theory, however. Namely:

  1. Barely anybody seems to have felt this way at the time.
  2. Secondly, if the government was so horrible, why on Earth did the people re-elect the government not once but twice by fairly hefty margins?

Take 2001, usually considered a fairly dull General Election. Labour were re-elected with a majority of 166! This is only slightly less than their famous victory in 1997 and still more than any other victory achieved since 1945, including those won by Thatcher, Attlee or anyone else.

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This was partly the Tories’ own fault. No one had had time to forget the balls up they’d made of attempting to run the country under Major. They had also foolishly rejected the popular and experienced Ken Clarke as their leader, opting instead for the foolish and inexperienced young William Hague. These days, Mr Hague is held in high regard after his stint as Foreign Secretary. But he was viewed as geeky and weak when he was party leader. The best that can be said of his leadership is that he was slightly better than his successor Iain Duncan Smith. The main Tory complaint at this time was that Labour was crippling the stock markets with unnecessary restrictions. The Tories would give the markets all the power they wanted. What could go wrong?

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But, it should be said, the first Blair Government was a big success too. If I was largely politically inactive for a Politics student at this time, perhaps it’s because I had little to complain about. The government achieved a lasting peace in Northern Ireland, introduced the minimum wage, reformed the Lords, introduced devolution, steered us away from the recession which engulfed most of the world at the start of the century and launched a well meant intervention in Kosovo. To quote the film, The Wild One if asked: “What are you rebelling against?” I too, would have replied: “what have you got?” as it turns out, not much. Labour were barely even behind in the polls for a whole decade.

Not everything was perfect, of course. I disliked the introduction of tuition fees even though they were nowhere near the obscene levels the Cameron-Clegg coalition hiked them up to. I was lucky to be unaffected by them (I started my degree at Aberystwyth in 1996). My four older nephews and nieces were all born while I was at university during this time. Thanks to Cameron AND Clegg, any of them who go to university will pay a far greater price than I or indeed Cameron and Clegg themselves would have done themselves.

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I was nearing the end of my academic career in 2001 anyway. I was 24 and about to return to Aberystwyth for the summer to finish my final Masters dissertation on the historiography of the Cold War (zzzzz). In the meantime, I was working part-time at home in the privatised section of Peterborough Passport Office (woeful). I had enough free time to see William Hague entering the Bull Hotel on a campaign visit. His visit was ineffective. Helen Brinton (later Clark) beat the Tory candidate Stewart Jackson to win the seat for Labour for a second time. As the late  Simon Hoggart reporting on Hague’s Peterborough visit put it: “The local Labour MP is Helen Brinton, whom I like personally but whose wide mouth, always slathered with scarlet lipstick, makes me long to post a letter in it.”

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2001 is the only election I stayed up all night to watch to date (2017 update: this is no longer true). My parents must have been on holiday as I camped out downstairs with a female friend (not in a rude way) in the living room and watched the whole thing why she mostly slept. I don’t entirely blame her. Compared to 1997, it was a fairly dull night even if the “Prescott punch” during the campaign is still one of the best things to happen in the world ever.

Boris Johnson, David Cameron and David Miliband all became MPs for the first time that year. My old Head Boy David Lammy was already an MP. September 11th was just around the corner. The 2001 campaign already seems to belong to a more innocent bygone age.

Hague 2001

 

 

10 reasons why the last Labour Government was great

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The Blair-Brown government achieved a lot of good, so why are Labour politicians so afraid of defending it in public? Here are ten reasons why it was a success…

  1. A lasting peace in Northern Ireland

By 1997, the peace process began under John Major had stalled, partly because the Tories were reliant on the Ulster Unionists to prop up the Tories in parliament during the Major Government’s final days. It took a new government, a new Prime Minister (Tony Blair) and a dynamic new Northern Ireland Secretary (the late Mo Mowlam) to deliver the Good Friday Agreement and the enduring peace which continues to this day. Blair and Mowlam succeeded where thirty years of previous governments had failed.

  1. The economy…stupid!

There are countless Tory myths about the last government’s economic record. Did Labour overspending cause the slump? Clearly not, there was a severe recession throughout the western world: Britain would have been hit anyway. Only the effort to bail out the banks (supported by the Tories) once the slump was in progress put the economy in debt. Should Labour have regulated the markets more tightly? Yes, but again the Tories at the time were arguing for LESS regulation of the markets not more. Did Brown’s actions prevent a recession becoming a depression? Undoubtedly yes. Brown stopped the UK entering the Euro as Chancellor and as PM, his quantative easing policy was widely credited with saving the global banking system. Historians are likely to judge Labour well for dodging the recession which hit many countries at the start of the century and coping well with the global deluge when it came. Should Labour have prepared a “rainy day fund” to prepare the economy during the boom times? In retrospect, yes. Has any other government ever done this? No!

  1. Tough on crime…

The crime rate fell by 44% between 1997 and 2010. Will this continue under Cameron with police numbers being slashed? It seems doubtful. Even Cameron in 201 admitted crime had fallen under Labour making a mockery of his “broken Britain” slogan.

  1. Labour saved the NHS

A disaster area in 1997, Labour bailed the NHS out, leaving it in a good state and with record user approval ratings by 2010. Once again, the Tories have squandered this inheritance and the NHS is in crisis again.

  1. Education, education, education

The period saw huge strides in education. By any measure, standards rose dramatically.

  1. A minimum wage

Fiercely opposed by the Tories at the time on the grounds that it would lead to mass unemployment (wrong!), the minimum wage introduced by Labour is now universally accepted by everyone. The living wage promoted by Ed Miliband is the next step.

  1. Things did get better

Homelessness fell dramatically (under both Thatcher, Major and Cameron it rose dramatically). Civil partnerships were introduced. The House of Lords was reformed. Devolution was introduced for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The gay age of consent was equalised. Britain got better.

  1. Less social division

Labour were never affected by the endless wrangling over the EU that has blighted both of the last Tory Governments. Nor did the government actively seek to turn the public against itself as the Tories have with the public and private sectors.

  1. What will Cameron be remembered for?

Compare his achievements with those listed above. What springs to mind?  Austerity. The Bedroom Tax. Gay marriage – a real achievement but only accomplished with Labour’s help. The massive rise in student tuition fees. Cameron’s record has been abysmal.

  1. Win. win, win

If Labour were so bad in office, why did the public elect them three times? The Tories were hated in 1997, leading to the biggest majority achieved by either party being won by Labour (179). After four years in power, the people wanted more. Labour’s 167 seat majority in 2001 was second only to their 1997 one in post-war scale. Neither Attlee or Thatcher ever won such big majorities. In 2005, their majority fell to 66. Even then, this was a big majority, the eighth largest win of the 19 elections held since 1945. No disgrace at all. Even in 2010 under the unpopular Gordon Brown and during a major slump, Labour still did well enough to deny the Tories a majority.

It is a record to be proud of. Labour should not shy away from defending it.

General Election memories 5: 1997

tony_blair_1997-cherieAberystwyth, May 1st 1997

“Bliss it was that dawn to be alive. And to be young was very heaven.”

William Wordsworth on the French Revoution.

Why was the 1997 election so great?

Was it simply because I was young? It was not only the first time I was able to vote in a General Election (I was twenty) but the first election where Labour had won in Peterborough or nationwide in my entire life. Indeed, it was the biggest Labour victory ever and still the biggest victory achieved by any party since the Second World War. But just as everyone tends to like the music that was popular when they were young, is my own memory of the election blighted by similar nostalgia?

Perhaps. But, if so, I am certainly not the only one. Many people, some much older than me, seem to have fond memories of it too. Ultimately, it may be the best election many of us ever experience in our entire lives.

It is easy now to forget just how hated the Tories were by 1997. Blair never came close to being anywhere near as unpopular, nor has David Cameron (yet). Gordon Brown and Margaret Thatcher did come close, Thatcher particularly towards the Poll Tax lunacy of her final year in office. But neither were as widely disliked as the Major Government in 1997. The proof is in the results: Labour won a majority of 179, bigger than any other party since 1945 (including any victory by Attlee, or Thatcher). Their margin of victory in terms of share of the vote was also the second greatest since the war (nearly 13% over the Tories).

The problem with the Tories wasn’t so much John Major himself, an amiable figure, despite being a very weak leader. It was the fact that the Tories had been in power for eighteen years and had given everyone a reason to dislike them.

True, if you hated their poor treatment of the NHS, schools and public services, you would probably have already been against the Tories before 1997. Many more were converted to Labour after 1992 by the total catastrophe that was rail privatisation. Nobody wanted it, it was clearly a stupid idea. The Tories did it anyway. The Major government even sold off the railways at knockdown prices. It was a disaster. One we are still living with today.

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Even traditionally Tory groups had cause to hate the Tories. If you had been in the services, you resented the defence cuts and the shoddy treatment of those with Gulf War Syndrome. If you were a farmer, you were furious over the government’s disastrous handling of the Mad Cow crisis. If you were in the business community, you were grateful the economy was doing so well. But after the economic incompetence of Black Wednesday in 1992, many felt our economic recovery had occurred in spite of the Tories not because of them.

If these things hadn’t put you off the Tories, the sleaze, the hypocrisy of the Back to Basics campaign and the government’s total paralysis as the Tories waged a bitter civil war with itself over Europe would have done. The Major Government was a worthless, hateful  shower of mediocrities and richly deserved the fate which befell it.

British Prime Minister John Major (L) and his de

Some deduce from this that Labour thus barely needed to lift a finger to win in 1997. This isn’t true. Contrary to popular legend, governments do not lose elections, oppositions win them. Nobody elects an alternative government without being sure that as the great political philosopher Kylie Minogue put it they are better than “the devil you know”. And Tony Blair and New Labour didn’t put a foot wrong in the three years leading up to 1997.

This is what made the General Election night in 1997 so glorious. The odious Hamiltons: gone, in one of the strongest Tory seats in the country. Sleazemaster David Mellor: gone. Norman Lamont: gone. Thatcher’s old seat Finchley: gone to the Lib Dems. Peterborough gone to Labour. My future home of Exeter fell to Labour’s Ben Bradshaw after a bitterly homophobic campaign by his Tory opponent Dr. Adrian Rogers backfired. The Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind gone.

And best of all,  the most likely next successor to the Tory leadership, Michael Portillo was gone! Today he is an amiable TV presenter who wears odd pink clothes. Readers have indeed proven fascinated by his sexuality making my earlier post https://chrishallamworldview.wordpress.com/2013/05/24/the-rise-and-fall-of-michael-denzil-xavier-portillo/ The Rise and Fall of Michael Portillo (which barely mentions his personal life) consistently the most read piece on this blog.

But in 1997, Michael Portillo was a power-hungry Thatcherite yob. Trust me: we had a narrow escape there.

Major had left the Tories with fewer than half of the number of seats he had inherited in 1990. Justice had been done. New Labour had been elected. A new era had begun. “Bliss it was that dawn to be alive” indeed!

But what about me? I was twenty and as youthful and energetic as ever. I was finishing my first year at the University of Aberystwyth, a seat which actually fell to Plaid Cymru not Labour in that year. And, yes, I was as apathetic as ever.

On the one hand, I met the Labour candidate Robert “Hag” Harris. He seemed decent and looked a bit like Lenin, which at the time I took to be a good sign. I was sorry to tell him I was registered to vote in Peterborough and so could not vote for him. I am disappointed to see now that he has never become an MP in the years since.

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I also wrote letters to friends and family about the election: yes letters! Remember them? My brother even got a pager for his 16th birthday that year! I would not send many more letters, however. I sent my first email the following year.

I saw the New Labour battle bus while travelling between Peterborough and Aberystwyth, presumably with many of our nation’s future leaders on board.

I studied History and in 1997 switched to International Politics. I know I argued with lots of people about politics during that period and who knows, may have even convinced a few instead of pushing them in the other direction.

But officially, yes. I was lazy. I spent the last and one of the most important UK General Election nights of the 20th century, drunk in either the Student Union building or watching the results in one of the hall TV rooms (I am not confused, I was in both of these places).

And yes. I did vote Labour but I was registered to vote in Peterborough not Aberystwyth. There, Labour’s Helen Brinton replaced Tory Party Chairman Brian Mawhinney who, in a huge show of confidence for the party whose national election campaign he was officially running, had fled the seat he had represented for eighteen years for a neighbouring safer Tory seat. It was known as “the chicken run”. So he remained as an MP even though Peterborough was won by Labour.

And even in this, I was lazy. I had arranged for my father to vote on my behalf by proxy. He cast my first fateful vote, not me.

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The race of life

Wolfgang-amadeus-mozart_1Life is a race. How are you doing compared to this bunch?

0
Henry VI becomes King of England and France (ten months old, 1422).
1
60% of the human race died before their first birthday.
Prince George’s age (2014).
2
3
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).
4
5
Charles I only able to walk and talk from this age onward (c.1605).
6
7
Michael Jackson begins performing with The Jackson Five (1965).
8
Lisa Simpson’s age.
9
Edward VI becomes King (1547).
10
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.
11
Anna Paquin wins a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Piano (1993).
12
13
Jodie Foster appears in Bugsy Malone and Taxi Driver (1976).
Edward V (1483) one of the “Princes in the Tower” probably around this age.
14
Emperor Tutankhamun dies.
15
Anne Frank dies (1945)
Britney Spears releases “Baby One More Time” (1999).
Billie Piper releases Number One hit “Because We Want To” (1998).
16
Edward VI dies (1553).
17
Boris Becker wins Wimbledon (1985).
18
19
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).
20
Justin Bieber’s age (2014).
Princess Diana marries (1981).
21
22
Jesse Owens appears at the Berlin Olympics (1936).
23
Buddy Holly dies (1959).
Lee Harvey Oswald is arrested for the killing of JFK before being shot dead himself (1963).
River Phoenix dies (1993).
24
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.
25
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).
26
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).
27
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).
28
Steven Spielberg sees Jaws released (1975)
29
John Lennon’s age when The Beatles split up (1970).
John Cleese’s age when Monty Python begins (very nearly 30, 1969).
30
31
Harold Wilson becomes the youngest cabinet minister of the 20th century (1947).
32
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.
33
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).
34
Ayrton Senna dies (1994).
Hitler attempts Munich Beer Hall Putsch (1923).
35
The minimum age requirement to run for US president.
Mozart dies (1791).
Napoleon becomes Emperor of France (1804).
Anne Boleyn beheaded (1536, approx. age).
36
William Hague becomes Tory leader (1997).
Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana both die (1962 and 1997).
37
38
Neil Armstrong walks on the moon (1969).
Martin Sheen suffers a heart attack while filming Apocalypse Now (1978).
39
David Cameron elected Tory leader (2005).
George Osborne becomes Chancellor (2010).
Cleopatra dies after being bitten by an asp (30BC).
40
John Lennon is shot and killed (1980).
Ed Miliband is elected Labour leader (2010).
Penelope Cruz current age (2014).
41
Tony Blair and Neil Kinnock are both elected leader of the Labour Party (1994 and 1983).
42
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).
43
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).
44
Ed Miliband’s current age (2014).
45
Orwell writes 1984 (1948).
Napoleon loses the Battle of Waterloo (1815).
46
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).
47
48
David Cameron’s current age (2014).
49
50
Margaret Thatcher ousts Heath as Tory leader (1975).
Boris Johnson’s current age (2014).
Brad Pitt’s current age (2014).
Michael Jackson dies (2009).
51
Johnny Depp current age (2014).
Napoleon dies (1821).
52
53
Margaret Thatcher elected first UK woman Prime Minister (1979).
54
Oscar Wilde dies in Paris (1900).
55
Julius Caesar is assassinated (44BC)
Morrissey age (2014).
Thomas Hardy’s last novel Jude The Obscure is published (1895).
56
Richard Nixon becomes US president (1969).
Hitler dies (1945).
57
58
Charles Dickens dies (1870).
59
60
61
Tony Blair and Michael Portillo’s age (2014).
62
63
64
Nixon resigns as US president (1974).
Gordon Brown’s age (2014).
65
66
Winston Churchill assumes office as PM (1940).
Prince Charles’ age (2014).
67
Hillary Clinton’s age (2014).
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s current age (2014).
68
69
Ronald Reagan is elected US president (1980).
70
Mary Wesley sees her first novel published.
71
John Major, former Prime Minister’s age in 2014.
72
Age of US Vice President Joe Biden (2014).
73
Reagan is re-elected (1984).Bob Dole (1996) and John McCain (2008) run unsuccessfully for US president.
74
Clint Eastwood wins Best Director (the oldest ever recipient) for Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Cliff Richard age (2014).
75
76
77
Reagan, the oldest US president to date, leaves office (1989).
Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman’s current age (2014).
78
79
80
Jessica Tandy becomes the oldest Best Actress winner for Driving Miss Daisy (1989).
Brigitte Bardot’s age (2014).
81
Queen Victoria dies (1901)
Churchill, the oldest PM of the 20th century, steps down (1955).
82
83
84
William Gladstone steps down as the oldest ever Prime Minister (1894). He dies, age 88 (1898)
85
86
87
Thomas Hardy dies (1928).
88
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).
89
90
Winston Churchill dies (1965).
Age of former US presidents Jimmy Carter and George HW Bush in 2014.
Doris Day’s current age (2014).
91
92
93
Richard Gordon, author of the Doctor books age (2014).
Jake Le Motta, boxer, subject of Raging Bull age (2014).
94
95
96
97
Zsa Zsa Gabor current age (2014, in a coma).
98
Current age of veteran Labour politician Lord Denis Healey (2014)
Current age of Gone With The Wind actress Olivia de Haviland (2014)
99
100
101
The Queen Mother dies (2002)
104
Kennedy clan matriarch Rose Kennedy dies (1995).
111
Harry Patch dies, the last British fighting Tommy of the First World War dies (2009).

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Ten reasons why the last Labour Government was great

Tony Blair testifies at a U.S. Senate Hearing on Middle East peace in Washington

1. Labour saved the NHS.
The NHS was a disaster area in 1997, underfunded, depressed and blighted by huge waiting lists. Under Labour, the NHS was literally restored to health. Patent satisfaction levels had both witnessed dramatic improvements as had levels of national health h generally. The tragedy is that even since 2010, the Coalition has pushed the NHS once again on the path to destruction.

2. Peace in Northern Ireland.
Thanks to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, Northern Ireland has enjoyed a general enduring peace in the last fifteen years. After getting nowhere at all under Mrs Thatcher and fatally stalling over Tory support for the Ulster Unionists keeping his John Major’s government in power, Tony Blair and the late Mo Mowlam ultimately achieved one of the finest achievements of post-war British politics.

3. Crime fell by 44%.
Between 1997 and 2010. This, after disastrous rises in the crime rate under Thatcher and Major. Today, thanks to Cameron’s cutbacks, police numbers are again under threat.

4. The minimum wage was introduced.
In the face of fierce opposition from the Tories, who falsely claimed it would lead to rising unemployment.

5. Education, education, education.
Dramatic improvements were achieved here., for example, those with five good GCSEs rose from 45% to 76% (grade inflation doesn’t explain such a surge).

6. Equality legislation.
Civil partnerships were introduced, the gay age of consent was lowered to 16, homosexuality was legalised in the armed forces and the ludicrous Section 28 legislation banning the teaching of “gay propaganda” in schools introduced by the Thatcher Government was finally abolished.

7. Devolution.
Devolution was introduced to Scotland and Wales.

8. Other reforms.
Smoking was banned in public places. Fox hunting was abolished.

9. The slump would have happened anyway.
The 2008 global recession occurred throughout the world and would certainly have occurred to some extent whatever the British government had been doing. Before 2007, Britain had enjoyed a decade of prosperity under Labour even avoiding totally the recession which hit so many western countries after 2001. Labour did not spend recklessly. Gordon Brown as Chancellor was generally criticised more for being too prudent than anything else). The Tories, fatally argued that the markets were OVER-regulated at the time. Brown’s fast action in introducing quantitative easing probably saving the global banking system and preventing a recession becoming a depression. This while, as late as 2007, David Cameron himself argued “our hugely sophisticated financial markets match funds with ideas better than ever before” and claimed that “the world economy is more stable than for a generation”.
Perhaps we should all be grateful the Tories were not in power in 2007.

10. If it was bad, why was the government so popular?
Labour won the biggest majority achieved by any post-war political party in 1997 (179) achieving the second biggest margin of victory in terms of share of the vote between the first and second party. Labour remained ahead in the polls for virtually all its first term until it achieved the second biggest majority achieved by any party since 1945 in 2001 (166), still a bigger win than any achieved by Thatcher. Clearly people at the time liked Labour in power and wanted them to stay. Even after the controversies over Iraq, Labour’s third win in 2005 was still a considerable victory. And finally in 2010, Labour only narrowly lost power, denying the Tories outright victory.

Clearly, Labour must have been doing something right.

Book review: Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion

Wounded LeadersBook review of Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion: A Psychohistory by Nick Duffell (Lone Arrow Press)

Wounded Leaders

What if the public school boarding system is poisoning the quality of Britain’s political leadership? This is the intriguing question posed by Nick Duffell’s sequel to his earlier The Making Of Them. With Tony Blair a product of this system, along with David Cameron and possible future leaders like Boris Johnson, this is a concern. Cameron in particularly is flawed in his attitude to women, Europe
“By any analysis the last 50 years in Britain have produced a remarkable lack of noteworthy political leadership.”
But while I went to a (admittedly somewhat elitist) state school and am no great fan of David Cameron, I have little time for Duffell’s argument.
He argues we have had poor leadership in the last fifty years? Since 1964 then? Maybe so. But Blair and Cameron were the only ex-public schoolboys to enter Downing Street during this time. Only fourteen out of these fifty years have been spent under boarding school poshos. The remaining thirty six years were spent under Wilson, Callaghan, Heath, Thatcher, Major and Brown. Surely if there has been poor leadership during the time, these oiks should take the blame too?
Most of the arguments collapse if we compare Cameron, to Blair, who did attend boarding school and Margaret Thatcher who didn’t. I actually don’t think Cameron does struggle to form relationships with women or anyone else. There were few women in his government and still are, but this is more due to the Tory Party’s historic paucity of women in general. And even if this were so, why was Tony Blair’s government so successful in promoting women? Public school shows little sign of messing Blair up. Contrast this with Gordon Brown, flying into rages and striking me as tremendously difficult to work with despite (or perhaps because of) his intellectual superiority. Or compare them all to Thatcher, who despite being a woman herself, does not seem to have liked other women much at all to the extent of never promoting them, generally avoiding them and forgetting to include her mother in Who’s Who? But Thatcher and Brown didn’t go to boarding school.
The same applies to Thatcher’s jingoistic flag waving and attacking Europe at every opportunity. Different leaders have different strengths and weaknesses. David Cameron is a weak leader who wants to be Tony Blair but is turning out more like John Major.
But the fact he went to a boarding school is largely irrelevant.

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Ten reasons why Labour will win the 2015 General Election

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The media seem to have already decided the result. They don’t want Labour to win so therefore they cannot win. Really? Take a look at the following before deciding for yourself…

  1. Labour are ahead in the polls.

As of July 2014, average opinion polling would give Labour a majority of thirty if replicated in a general election. This is easily enough for a five year parliament and a solid basis for an even longer spell in government. No recent opinion polls have given the Tories anything like enough to come first, let alone enough to win a majority in the House of Commons.

  1. Nobody likes the Tories.

They haven’t won a General Election since April 1992. That’s twenty two years! Many current voters were not even born then.  Even in 2010, in the throes of a global recession and with Gordon Brown less than popular, they were unable to achieve outright victory.

  1. Many Lib Dems will flock to Labour.

The Lib Dem leadership have totally betrayed their supporters and their progressive origins. The party now has more in common with George Osborne than Lloyd George. Some Lib Dems sadly will never vote again. Some might drift towards UKIP. Far more will move towards Labour.

  1. UKIP are hurting the Tories more than anyone else.

Yes, it would be foolish to deny that UKIP are taking votes off all the major parties. But as a right wing party they are clearly hitting the Tories hardest.

  1. More voters care about the NHS than anything else.

This is Labour’s issue. Labour created the NHS and saved it from destruction after 1997. People care about their health more than anything else.

  1. The last Labour Government had a great record.

A lasting peace in Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement. A decade of prosperity. A dramatic fall in the levels of crime. The introduction of the minimum wage. And if Labour were so awful why did they win three landslide victories in a row, including the two largest since the war? Even in 2010, their actual defeat was small enough to deny the Tories a majority.

  1. Ed Miliband has been a success as leader.

Contrary to media myth, Miliband has connected strongly with public opinion on the issues of newspaper phone hacking, rising energy prices and the ongoing struggle to make ends meet.

  1. The bedroom tax has been a disastrous failure.

Ill conceived, malicious and badly planned, it is David Cameron’s Poll Tax.

  1. The Tories are still hopelessly divided over Europe.

EU membership is guaranteed under Labour. Under Cameron, as under past Tory governments, years of uncertainty, division and infighting are assured.

  1. Nobody is happier under the Tories.

The last few years have witnessed endless cuts, uncertainty and insecurity. It is time to put this to an end and restore Labour to their rightful place in government.

 

 

Book review: Clement Attlee: The Inevitable Prime Minister

Attlee

Clement Attlee: The Inevitable Prime Minister.

Michael Jago.

Published by Biteback.

Few great political leaders have been so frequently underestimated as Clement Richard Attlee. In his early years, he showed little sign of becoming anything special or indeed of developing a socialist outlook. As Jago explains, for a Victorian boy of Attlee’s background born in 1883, there was simply no means of becoming a socialist. The teenage Attlee once argued that the working classes could not be expected to appreciate museums and art galleries in a school debating society. Attlee would later be embarrassed by these views, although as a lifelong champion of both the monarchy and the public school system, a conservative strain to Attlee’s thinking always remained.

Attlee And Bevan

Attlee seemed set for a fairly unpromising legal career until a period of voluntary work which started before the First World War transformed his outlook and which in the 1920s launched him towards politics. He continued to be underestimated, however. The first ever Oxford graduate to become a Labour MP, his rise to the leadership in 1935 surprised many. Most assumed he would be a temporary stop gap leader. In fact, he would be the longest serving Labour leader there has ever been, lasting twenty years until 1955 (Ed Miliband will need to last until 2030 to do as well! )

Churchill underestimated him too describing him as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing” despite witnessing his competence working alongside him in the wartime coalition in which Attlee eventually became the first ever Deputy Prime Minister. Churchill invited him to the first half of the critical post-war Yalta Conference on the off chance that Attlee might win the 1945 election and thus need to attend the rest as Prime Minister. But this was a formality. Churchill didn’t expect him to win. Neither did Stalin or his foreign minister Molotov, who, apparently not quite grasping how democracy works, had expected Churchill to fix the result.

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Labour’s spectacular 1945 General Election victory gave them their first ever majority. It was also a  huge one:  146. Only Tony Blair in 1997 and 2001 has won bigger victories since. The new intake of Labour MPs included most of the key Labour figures of the next forty years: Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson, George Brown, Denis Healey, Michael Foot with Tony Benn and James Callaghan soon to follow.

Attlee’s government did so well that every government since has been disappointing in comparison. Despite walking an economic tightrope throughout, Attlee ensured the return of full employment, a house building boom, the establishment of the post-Cold War foreign policy, independence for India, the nationalisation programme and the creation of the NHS and the welfare state.

Even now, nearly fifty years after his death in 1967, Attlee remains a somewhat underappreciated figure; his success often attributed more to his hugely talented cabinet (Cripps, Bevin, Bevan, Dalton and Morrison) than to the man himself. Jago’s excellent biography contains a couple of errors (a chapter entitled From Lord Haw Haw to Burgess and Maclean does not actually mention Lord Haw Haw aka William Joyce once) but is a masterly piece of work and goes some way to redressing the balance.

Thirty years after Margaret Thatcher shamelessly savaged Attlee’s cherished post-war legacy, it remains a shame that there is no one of Attlee’s stature around in Britain today.

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John Smith: Twenty-five years on

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The Labour leader John Smith died suddenly of a heart attack, twenty-five years ago this month, on May 12th 1994. Had he lived, he would now be eighty. He would also, no doubt, be remembered a former Prime Minister, rather than an Opposition leader whose tragic premature death prevented him from getting to the top.

Smith only led the Labour Party for two years. I don’t recall much popular excitement about his election as leader in July 1992. The contest against the perfectly decent left-winger Bryan Gould (who subsequently returned to his native New Zealand) was a foregone conclusion and a dull affair.

There was also some feeling that after losing for the fourth time in a row in April 1992, Labour might never win again. After all, if Labour couldn’t win during a Tory recession when could it win? Surely the economy would have recovered by 1996 or 1997 ensuring yet another win for the Tories? Satirical show Have I Got News For You… meanwhile pointed out, Labour was electing the very man whose tax plans had arguably led to their recent defeat in the first place.

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Such fears proved misplaced. Simply by electing Smith, Labour had made an important step towards recovery. In the month of Smith’s election as leader, Labour gained a poll lead over the Tories which it would maintain for the next decade. The April 1992 election result in fact turned out to be the last Tory General Election win achieved until 2015.

John Smith is sometimes accused of laziness and complacency: of being happy to let the Tories lose the election for themselves. In fact, during the Major years, this was the perfect tactic to adopt. Within months of their victory, the Major Government virtually disintegrated amidst a sea of divisions over Europe, sleaze allegations, and perhaps worst, the total economic incompetence exhibited by Prime Minister John Major and his Chancellor Norman Lamont on Black Wednesday in September 1992. Labour had double digit poll leads from the autumn onward. Hopelessly divided and weak, torn apart by self-inflicted wounds, the Major Government never recovered.

This is not to deny John Smith any credit for Labour’s recovery. Although he did not launch any “New Labour” style revolution, he was certainly not lazy either. For one thing, he proved the finest performer as Opposition leader in the Commons of the post-war era. Only Harold Wilson in 1963-64, William Hague in 1997-2001 or perhaps Tony Blair in 1994-97 have come close to matching him. “No wonder we live in a country where the Grand National doesn’t start and hotels fall into the sea!” he derided Major in 1993 (referring to two recent news events which, of course, the hapless John Major, for once, could not really be blamed for). More seriously, he attacked “the devalued Prime Minister of a devalued government” after Black Wednesday.

Then there was the One Member One Vote reform to end the union block vote in autumn 1993. Smith privately planned to resign if the party voted “no”.  They did not, partly thanks to  a spirited Conference defence of the OMOV proposals from John Prescott. As it turned out, this would ensure Prescott would defeat Smith’s Number Two Margaret Beckett in the then entirely unforeseen Deputy Leadership contest the following year.

Ultimately, Smith’s strength was a self-assurance which both his predecessors the terminally un-telegenic Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock as well as his successors Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband all lacked. True, the party experienced a huge surge in support following Tony Blair’s election as leader and a decisive move to the right for the party. But, in retrospect, Labour was already clearly heading for victory under John Smith. Maybe not the 179 seat majority achieved by New Labour but a substantial win nevertheless. There was no need for the creation of New Labour or the campaign to win over the Murdoch press. Labour had a 20% lead over the Tories in May 1994.

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Counter-factual history is a risky business. Would the Blair-Brown rivalry have taken new form in a Smith Cabinet? Would the Tories have fared well enough in 1997 for Michael Portillo to escape the humiliating loss of his seat and thus succeed Major instead of Hague?  Would Blair, Brown, Cameron and May still have become Prime Minister anyway? Would the Good Friday Agreement have still happened? The 2001 and 2005 Labour victories? Devolution? Kosovo? Afghanistan? Iraq? Brexit?

We will, of course, never know these things. While I would not wish to romanticise Smith’s leadership (every Labour leader before or since has, after all, been accused of “betraying socialism”. Smith, unfairly or not, would doubtless been accused of this just the same, had he lived) there seems little doubt that John Smith would have led Britain into the 21st century had he survived.

His death remains a great tragedy. The question of what a Smith-led Britain would have turned out like remains a fascinating mystery, twenty-five years on.

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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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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.

Book Review: Tony Benn A Biography by Jad Adams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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