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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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 Wedgewood Benn to succeed 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.

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 Thatcher impressed many as a junior minister under Macmillan, the death of Benn’s father 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 modern technology-obsessed minister in the Wilson Government. Thatcher, 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 as the Education Secretary demonised as the “milk snatcher” and alongside Barbara Castle and Shirley Williams becoming 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 witnesses 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.

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 stand. Few 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 in 1976. He came fourth but was pleased to do as well as he did.

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Thatcher struggled against 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 remained 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 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 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 missed 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 happier 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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The best (Labour) Prime Ministers we never had.

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

(A Tory list is to follow shortly!)

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Hugh Gaitskell

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

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

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

The verdict: We will never know.

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Roy Jenkins

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

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

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

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

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Denis Healey.

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

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

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

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

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John Smith

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

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

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

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

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David Miliband

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

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

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

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

 

Why Blair was better than Thatcher

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

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

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

Conclusions.

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

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

Ultimately, Blair wins hands down.Image

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

Mrs Thatcher with US president Ronald Reagan.

Mrs Thatcher with US president Ronald Reagan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perspective please! Thatcher was neither Churchill nor Hitler

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On this historic day, it is easy to lose perspective. 

Margaret Thatcher is easily the most divisive leader Britain had during the 20th century.

To her detractors, she is the heartless wicked witch of the south, a mad cow and the architect of mass unemployment, social disorder and a culture of misery and greed.

To her fans, she is the saviour of our nation rescuing us from decline, socialism, Argies and unions.

The reality is clearly somewhere in between.

Clearly, she was not evil in the sense Hitler or Stalin were evil. The unions were overmighty in 1979. She was (generally) a good war leader and did what she thought was right.

In that sense, she deserves our respect and we should send our regards to her family.

But let’s keep things in perspective.

She presided over a steep rise in crime, unemployment and social disorder. Murdoch got his claws into UK society largely thanks to her. The Poll Tax was a disaster and horrendously unfair. Homelessness and rioting returned to the UK largely thanks to her.

She was no Winston Churchill.

Reasons why the Left still hate Lady Thatcher

It’s a fact: Lady Margaret Thatcher remains one of the most reviled – as well as the most revered figures – in British politics today. That this is still the case, a full twenty three years after she left office and when she has long since retired and is reported to be in a state of frail poor health, does in some perverse way mark something of an achievement. Did anyone hate Clement Attlee with any ferocity twenty three years after he ceased to be PM after all (this would be in 1974)? Will anyone still be cursing David Cameron’s name in the late 2030s? It would seem unlikely.

Cristina Odone writing in the Daily Telegraph this week suggests two reasons why those on the Left might still hate Lady Thatcher, a figure the  late Tory MP Julian Critchley used to refer to as “the Great She Elephant.” http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/cristinaodone/100203198/two-reasons-why-the-left-hates-lady-thatcher/

Unfortunately, neither of her explanations really cut the mustard.

“First, she disproved Labour’s favourite myth: Tories appeal only to toffs,” Odone writes. “She led her party to win three general elections on the trot, and she didn’t need a military coup to do so.”

This would be convincing only if Thatcher had been the first Tory leader to command widespread working class support. In fact, to have been as successful as they had been the Tories must have been garnering the support of the lower orders since the age of Disraeli. Leaders as diverse as Lord Salisbury, Stanley Baldwin, Sir Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan were winning substantial Tory election victories with substantial working class support long before Thatcher first came on the scene.

Electoral envy might explain some of the hostility to Thatcher at the time, true. She won parliamentary majorities of 43, 144 (a post-war Tory peak) and 102 in the 1979, 1983 and 1987 elections, after all. But left wing anger over this would have been eased simply by the fact Labour have done so much better since. Blair won Labour majorities of 179 (a post-war peak for any party), 169 and 66 in 1997, 2001 and 2005 respectively.

 

Cristina Odone’s second explanation is even wackier:

 

“Secondly, she’s a woman. The party that pays lip service to equality and feminism is, behind the scenes, deeply misogynist.”

This seems pretty rich when you compare the Tory record to the Labour one. Labour today has far more women MPs than all the other parties put together. Even during Thatcher’s time in office, the ambitions of other women politicians were kept firmly in check. Even today, with the notable exception of Theresa May, the Tories – unlike the party of Deputy Leader Harriet Harman, Yvette Cooper, the Eagles and Dianne Abbott – remain firmly a party of men. Margaret Thatcher remains the exception that proves the Tory rule.

There is nothing outlandish about the hostility many on the Left and Right feel towards Lady Thatcher. Her regime arrogantly destroyed a fifth of the nation’s industrial base in her first three years in office. Elected off the back of a poster campaign attacking Labour’s record on unemployment, she proceeded to increase the levels of unemployment threefold. She brought the NHS to the brink of destruction. Crime more than doubled under her watch while Rupert Murdoch was allowed to gain a fatal toehold in British society. Homelessness and rioting, for so long distant memories, made a major return under Thatcher. The Poll Tax, the horrendously jingoistic aftermath of the Falklands bloodshed, the brutal suppression of the Miner’s Strike, the culture of greed and selfishness perpetuated by the government and the pre-eminence of the stock markets which would prove so fatal in 2008.

These are just some of the reasons, Lady Thatcher will never be forgiven by a significant portion of the UK population.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jan/01/margaretthatcherImageM

Book review: Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s by Graham Stewart

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Make no mistake: 1979 was a very long time ago. Let’s not have any of this “it seems like yesterday” bollocks. If it really does seem like yesterday, there is something seriously wrong with you.

Despite its name, this book actually begins in 1979. It is now 2013. The same amount of time has passed since 1979 as had passed between it and the end of the Second World War in 1945. When the same amount of time has passed again, it will be 2047. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find things have changed a fair bit. In 1979, you wouldn’t be reading a blog on your phone, a laptop or anywhere else,

Consider:  in 1979, the Labour Prime Minister (a man born before the First World War) was still at ease sitting round the Downing Street table with leading trade union figures. This was a time when some such union leaders spoke openly of Marxist revolution in Britain and believed this was apparently a realistic prospect. Leading Labour figures like Tony Benn spoke of nationalising almost all of British industry to enthusiastic mostly male smoke filled Labour conferences.

Flash forward to 1990 when this book ends and things start to see a lot more familiar. Not the same but a lot more like now. Seventies fashions had lost their grip.  Nobody had IPods yet but they had Walkmans at least and CDs were already replacing vinyl.  Mobile phones were still rare and huge but they did at least exist. Channel 4 was now on air and a small minority could now watch BSkyB (although a common joke of the time was that the average person was more likely to get BSE – the human form of mad cow disease- than BSkyB).  EastEnders was on.

Meanwhile, strikes were a rarity. The SDP had been and gone. The Labour Party, although still firmly out of power were also a lot more recognisable. Behind the scenes, Peter Mandelson was hard at work. The smoke filled conference halls were gone. Neil Kinnock, although never a popular figure with the public, was smartly dressed and in command, a far cry from the decent but scruffy Michael Foot. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, then in their late thirties were advancing fast up the Labour ranks. New Labour was on its way.

In my view, the 1980s transformed Britain more than any other peacetime decade in the last 150 years, except perhaps for the Sixties.

Much of this is doubtless due in no small measure to the personality and politics of Margaret Thatcher, who Stewart seems rather a fan of. I am rather less keen. The Lady was undeniably a fine war leader and by the Eighties, union power clearly needed curtailing.

But this was a bad decade for the British economy. Before the Winter of Discontent wrecked Labour for more than a decade, the Callaghan Government had been doing a fine job of pulling the UK back from the oil shock, the Barber Boom and the errors of Wilson’s final two years. But Callaghan’s gains and those made by the discovery of North Sea oil were squandered by Thatcher’s Monetarist experiment. Soon more than a fifth of the nation’s industrial base had been wiped out forever and high unemployment hung over the rest of the decade like a curse.

This was also the decade where the unrestrained power of the markets took hold and Rupert Murdoch was permitted unprecedented media power by the Thatcher Government. Both of these problems should have been addressed later by Major, Blair or Brown. But the Lady (as the late Alan Clark would lovingly refer to her) is the original source of responsibility here. Crime soared, the health service suffered and homeless levels rose unforgivably under Thatcher. A simple comparison of how the UK fared under her watch and that during Tony Blair’s decade (1997-2007) is damning.

By 1990, she had grown tremendously in confidence to the point of mental instability. Having seen off the Argies, the miners and Labour (three times: under Callaghan, Foot and Kinnock), she seemed convinced of her own infallibility. She even began speaking about herself using the royal “we” (famously: “we are a grandmother”).

But when she linked her destiny to that of the hated and ultimately unfair Community Charge (or “Poll Tax”) even the Tories recognised she had to go. John Major secured one more win for the Tories in 1992. But twenty three years on, the Tories have not recovered from her fall. No Tory leader since Major has won a General Election.

This is a slightly badly structured book with hard going chapters about monetarism rubbing shoulders with those about pop music and the singles of Madness. But it’s a story worth retelling especially if you want to terrify your left leaning children before they go to sleep.

Just remember: don’t have nightmares.

Margaret Thatcher: a love poem

She floated in before my time

In the year of 1979,

Unions’ “Winter of Discontent”,

Ensured her rise to government.

 

Tory majority 43.

Began by quoting Assisi.

A change from previous older men,

Like Wilson, Heath and Callaghan.

 

First woman leader soon in trouble,

With unemployment surging at the double.

Two million, three million wow!

Also rioting (a bit like now).

 

Recession deep, few were earning,

The Lady pledged:  She’s not for turning.

Then suddenly: in the South Atlantic,

Falklands War came: saved her neck!

 

In fairness, also should be said,

Labour Party largely dead,

Heading in “loony left” direction,

Forgot: supposed to win elections.

 

Welfare State soon derailed,

Miners fought her but quickly failed,

A bad time for schools and national health,

A good time for anyone out for self.

 

Third victory, economy booming,

But problems with Europe and Poll Tax looming,

Iron Lady growing rusty,

Began to use the Royal “We”.

 

When she shouted “No, no, no”,

Geoffrey Howe thought: time to go.

Thanks to Tarzan, she went also,

She wept as she got in the car to go.

 

(She didn’t handle retirement well,

Made John Major’s life living hell).

 

So depending on your view,

She arguably came to our rescue,

Saved us from reds, Argies and decline,

Thank God for 1979!

 

On the other hand, you might disagree,

That there’s no such thing as society.

Promoted markets and Mad Murdoch.

Spoilt son Mark also a bit of a cock.

 

On the other hand, crime, greed and wealth creation,

May have ruined our once great nation,

Homelessness, unemployment and selfishness,

May have left us with not more but less.

 

What’s not in doubt is her legacy,

She handbagged her way into history.

Whether she leaves you angry or full of yearning,

Who cares?:  the Lady’s not returning.Image

The hardest job in politics

It’s undeniably the hardest job in British politics: Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

The success rate is mixed. There have been nineteen Opposition leaders since 1945, by my count. Of these, only eight, including the current one, Ed Miliband never enjoyed a stint as Prime Minister, the others being Hugh Gaitskell, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, John Smith, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. It should be noted four of the leaders who made it to Downing Street (Home, Callaghan, Major and Brown) had already been PMs before they, all fairly briefly, led in Opposition having lost General Elections. It should also be noted that while no British Prime Minister has died in office since 1865, two Opposition Leaders have died just in the last fifty years. Both were in their fifties.

The job is undeniably horrendous. It attracts few of the perks, publicity, status or kudos of the premiership but invites plenty of scorn. Opposition leaders are at an automatic disadvantage in Prime Minister’s Questions and in General Elections which the PM gets to choose the date of.

No one did better in the post-war era than Tony Blair during his three years as Opposition leader. Although he was undeniably helped by the fact, John Major’s government was clearly disintegrating before the nation’s eyes, Blair never put a foot wrong, clearly outflanking the beleaguered PM at every turn. No one has done worse, meanwhile, than the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith who “led” the Tories from 2001 to 2003. His appalling croaky Commons performances, lamentable radio interviews (he attempted to laugh his way through one notorious Today interview) and ludicrous conference speeches (“The quiet man is here to stay and he’s turning up the volume!”) soon saw him overthrown by the same disgusted party which had previously elected him.

Ed Miliband is happily doing much better. Early tabloid nicknames “Red Ed” never really stuck nor did claims that he was a sop to the unions (he has held a firm line on the unions since his acceptance speech). The charge that he was young and inexperienced (he was older than Cameron when both men became party leader and more experienced than Cameron or Clegg were when both became PM and Deputy PM) never stood up to scrutiny either. Polls suggest the public liked his bold stance against News International.

Indeed, unlike Cameron, the more they see of him, the more they seem to like him. Labour now commands a double digit poll lead over the Tories. With the General Election likely to be in 2015, the next two years will clearly be crucial for Miliband and Labour. After that, it seems only too likely Mr Cameron will be enjoying his second stint in Opposition.