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

Published by: Allen Lane, Penguin. Out now.

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

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

To briefly recap:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rise and fall of Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo

ImageAs Michael Portillo approaches his 60th birthday this weekend, it’s easy to forget that this gentle, amiable TV presenter was not only the fierce young embodiment of a resurgent Thatcherite Right but also a prospective Prime Minister. But flashback to twenty years ago and it was a very different story…

With the possible exceptions of Boris Johnson and Michael Heseltine, Portillo excited Tories more than any other post-Thatcher politician. The son of a left-wing refugee from the Spanish Civil War, Portillo was an unlikely Tory hero. Like William Hague, he was vulnerable to charges of teenaged political geekery. But it was Labour’s Harold Wilson, Portillo idolised, not Thatcher. He even had a picture of him in his school locker. This only changed when hr began experimenting with conservatism at university.

By the time of John Major’s surprise victory in 1992, Portillo’s Thatcherite credentials were impeccable. He had been close to the lady herself since the Seventies. Although not yet forty and as Chief Secretary of the Treasury, the most junior cabinet minister, Portillo began being touted as a possible successor to the already troubled Major. He was younger and healthier than Heseltine and more agreeably Eurosceptic than the other apparently most likely successor, the Chancellor, Ken Clarke.

Portillo was certainly a mischief-maker and a party conference rabble rouser even if his absurd “Who dares wins” speech was poorly received. A panel of disillusioned Tory voters on Newsnight who had never seen him before, universally backed him as exactly the sort of leader they would like to see. On Spitting Image, the puppet of Jeremy Paxman was endlessly distracted by Portillo’s “nice hair”. Malicious rumours flew elsewhere that he was having a gay affair with colleague Peter Lilley (untrue). Portillo was appointed Employment Secretary, a decision likened to “putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank”. Portillo was undoubtedly one of the Eurosceptic “bastards”, John Major in an off the record moment complained he could not sack. There seemed to be no stopping him.

That said, in 1995, when Major resigned, inviting opponents to “put up or shut up” and stand against him, Portillo dithered just as David Miliband did over whether to challenge Gordon Brown a decade or so later. Portillo came off badly – telephone wires were seen being installed at his potential campaign HQ, presumably installed as a precaution if Major fell suddenly. John Redwood, another Rightist, boosted his profile immeasurably by standing against Major and losing. But Redwood, unlike Portillo, had never stood a chance. Portillo was given the post of Defence Secretary, a tricky position to cause mischief in (Thatcher had appointed her nemesis, Heseltine to the same position in 1983). Portillo was surely sensible to wait until the Tories lost in 1996 or 1997 as was universally expected and then stand for leader then?

Few expected the Tories to lose as heavily as they did, however. The opinion polls were actually quite accurate but even Labour’s leaders, cautious after the 1992 shock, only expected a majority of about 40. They in fact achieved 179, the largest majority won by any party since the war.

Portillo certainly wasn’t expecting to lose his Enfield seat although had steeled himself by the time the result was aired on TV, a clip later voted one of the “best TV moments ever.” Unlike the disgraced former Heritage Secretary, David Mellor who had a public row with Referendum Party leader Sir James Goldsmith when he lost his seat in Putney, Portillo maintained an air of dignity. But Portillo’s defeat to Labour’s young Stephen Twigg was a total surprise. He had been widely expected to be elected as the next Tory leader. In a night of big Tory scalps (Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, ex-Chancellor Norman Lamont) Portillo’s was the biggest. “Were you up for Portillo?” became the big question of the next day. Subsequent elections threatened to have “Portillo moments” – Peter Mandelson almost fell in 2005, Ed Balls came close in 2010. But none delivered. Blair, born in the same month as Portillo had proven his political nemesis.

The subsequent 1997 Tory leadership contest must have been especially galling for Portillo as had he been an MP, he would have surely won the leadership. Heseltine, Portillo’s main prospective rival, did not stand due to health concerns. Clarke, the most popular and well-known candidate was rejected by Tories as too pro-Europe. Lady Thatcher’s endorsement and the support of Tories went to a young right-winger, William Hague. At thirty-six, Hague was eight years younger than Portillo, little-known, inexperienced and unpopular. On the other hand, with such a huge Labour majority to overturn, the likelihood of anyone, even Portillo, leading the Tories to victory within a decade looked slim. The job was a poisoned chalice.

Had Portillo stayed where he was ideologically, he would probably have succeeded Hague as leader. He won a by-election in Alan Clark’s rock solid Kensington and Chelsea seat in 1999 and quickly moved to Hague’s front bench. The Tories barely gained any ground in the 2001 General Election and Hague quit. Surely now was Portillo’s time?

But Portillo was no longer the right-winger he had once been. He had genuinely had a rethink during his time out of parliament and had re-positioned himself basically as a “compassionate conservative” similar to David Cameron today. This and revelations about homosexuality in his student days, harmed his standing with the notoriously homophobic Tory Party. In a notoriously eccentric decision, Tories plucked for Iain Duncan Smith over the more popular, experienced and well-known Portillo and Ken Clarke. Smith turned out to be the worst Opposition leader in living memory and was ditched in 2003. Not yet fifty, Portillo grew disillusioned, concentrating instead on a career in the media. He stood down in 2005 and is no longer a Tory Party member today.

Perhaps Portillo’s misfortune was simply timing. Tony Blair was born in the same month as Portillo and ultimately proved his nemesis. Portillo would probably never have overthrown Major in 1995 but had more Tories voted for Redwood, Major might have fallen and Portillo, hampered by his youth (he was then only forty-two) might have succeeded him. But would he have wanted to be PM for just two years with New Labour’s ascent in 1997 so inevitable by that point anyway? He would surely have been blamed forever for the Tory defeat.

Alternatively, had Labour won by less in 1997, Portillo would have maintained his seat and probably won the leadership. But the “what if…?” scenario does not help. Although a leading member of the government, the scale of the defeat was largely beyond Portillo’s control.

Portillo’s third chance in 2001 was effectively wrecked by his new moderate position. This was sincere and not a tactic. Besides Portillo was not to know just how eccentric the Tories would be by 2001. A shallower politician would have become leader. It seems unlikely but not impossible he could have beaten Blair in 2005 anyway.

Perhaps he could have stayed on and won the leadership in 2005 instead of Cameron? Or maybe, had he become leader in 2001, he would have done well enough in 2005 to stay on as leader and then won in 2010? He would still have been two years’ younger than PM, Gordon Brown.

But one senses his heart was no longer in it. Ultimately, Portillo’s failure to become Prime Minister was not wholly down to ill-judgement. He was also unlucky.

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