Book review: All In It Together, by Alwyn Turner

How soon is too soon to write about the history of a particular time or place?

Following on from his earlier three excellent volumes which took us from the start of the 1970s to the dawn of the new millennium, Alwyn Turner’s new book picks up the English story at the time of New Labour’s second massive General Election victory in 2001 before dropping us off again at the time of David Cameron’s surprise narrow win in 2015. The stage is set for the divisive Brexit battles of the last five years and for the divisive leadership of the Labour Party by Jeremy Corbyn after 2015, but the narrative clearly stops before getting to either. Turner’s book is packed full of reminders of this eventful and turbulent period. Who now remembers Pastygate? Cleggmania? Russell Brand’s dialogue with Ed Miliband or Robert Kilroy Silk’s thwarted battle to take over UKIP? Viewed from the perspective of the current Coronavirus pandemic which, writing in July 2021, has thus far totally dominated the third decade of the 21st century, Turner’s social history of this busy and already seemingly historically quite distant fourteen year period already seems very welcome.

It is not all about politics, of course. As before, Turner takes a good look too at changes in society as viewed through the prism of TV, literature and other developments. No doubt he will one day have much to say about the recent Euro 2020 Finals and subsequent race row. Here, for example, we get a thorough comparison between the different styles of comedians, Jimmy Carr and Roy Chubby Brown. Both are edgy and deliberately tackle sensitive subjects for their humour. Carr, is however, middle-class and Cambridge-educated while Brown never conceals his working-class origins. Carr is frequently on TV, while Brown, although popular, is never allowed on. But, as Turner points out, it is not simply a matter of class. Carr is deliberately careful, firstly never to go too far or to appear as if he is endorsing any (or most) of the dark things he talks about. Brown is much less cautious. He frequently pushes his jokes into genuinely uneasy territory and occasionally seems to be making crowd-pleasing anti-immigration points which totally lack any comedic punchline. Whereas Carr clearly has a carefully constructed stage persona, it is unclear where the stage Chubby Brown begins and the real Chubby Brown ends.

Class comes up a fair bit in the book. Turner identifies a definite resurgence in the popularity of posher folk in public life during this period. Some are obvious: TV chefs such as Nigella Lawson, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, Chris Martin of Coldplay, the rise of Boris Johnson and David Cameron, the last becoming the first Tory leader to come from a public school background in forty years in 2005. Others are less obvious: musician Lily Allen was privately educated as were Gemma Collins and some of her other The Only Way is Essex companions. Even Labour’s Andy Burnham went to Cambridge.

The underrated Russell T. Davies 2003 TV drama, Second Coming in which Christopher Eccleston’s video shop assistant surprisingly claims to be the Son of God and indeed turns out to really be him. The phone hacking scandal. The London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony. The rise and fall of George Galloway. The 2011 London riots. The Jimmy Saville affair and other scandals. The TV show, Life on Mars. All these topics are revisited by Turner in intelligent and readable fashion.

Other interesting nuggets of information also come in the footnotes. “By 2009 over 9 per cent of Peterborough had come to the city from overseas.” Alexander Armstrong was the first man to play David Cameron in a TV drama in 2007’s The Trial of Tony Blair (aired during Blair’s final months in office). We also get reminders of some of the better jokes of the period in this manner. Frank Skinner’s “George Osborne has two types of friends: the haves and the have yachts.” Or the late Linda Smith’s take on the 2005 Tory election slogan: “Are you sinking like we’re sinking?”

We are also kept informed of the main biscuit preferences of our political leaders, an issue Gordon Brown, a brilliant man, but always uneasy with popular culture, characteristically messed up answering.

There is less about music, although Turner does at one point suggest that the Spice Girls “might have been the last group that really mattered, that meant something beyond record sales and outside their own constituency.”

Turner does well to retain a position of political neutrality here and is especially good at retracing the early machinations on the Labour Left and the Eurosceptic Right which seemed irrelevant at the start of this era but which by the end of it came to seem very important indeed. It is, indeed, a very depressing period for anyone on the liberal left. In 2001, the Lib Dems under their dynamic young leader, Charles Kennedy seemed poised to become the nation’s second party. By 2015, Kennedy was dead and the party wasn’t even registering in third place in terms of either seats or share of the vote. In 2001, Tony Blair won a second huge landslide majority, seemed to have the world at his feet and was one of the most highly regarded political leaders of recent times. Furthermore, no one serious in political life was even remotely contemplating withdrawing from the European Union.

What changed? Read this endlessly fascinating book to find out.

Book review: All In It Together, England in the Early 21st Century, by Alwyn Turner. Published by: Profile Books. Available: now.

Book review: Orwell: A Man of our Time, by Richard Bradford





Over seventy years after the death of George Orwell, Richard Bradford’s new biography, convincingly argues the case for the continued importance of the author of Animal Farm and 1984 in the 21st century.

In addition to the biographical details of Orwell’s eventful life – his unhappy schooldays, his years in the Burmese police force, his genuine heroism fighting fascism during the Spanish Civil War- the book connects Orwell’s writing to the present by linking it to recent trends such as the endless distortions of the truth by the now disgraced former US President Donald Trump and by the current UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. The book also discusses the bitter antisemitism row which undermined Jeremy Corbyn’s spell as leader of the Labour Party in an intelligent book which demonstrates how Orwell today remains as relevant as ever.

Book review: Orwell: A Man of our Time, by Richard Bradford. Published by: Bloomsbury Caravel, May 13th 2021.

Book review: The Sultan of Swing – The Life of David Butler

Okay: admittedly ‘The Sultan of Swing’ may sound like a rather flash title for a biography of the 20th century’s foremost election statistician: ‘Sultans of Swing’ was the name of a Dire Straits album. But David Butler was a seemingly permanent feature of the BBC’s TV election coverage for nearly thirty years. He not only largely created the science of Psephology (the study of balloting and calculating election results) almost from scratch but perhaps did more than anyone else to make the complex world of electoral science accessible and easily understandable to the general public. Although he has always been too modest to admit it, he effectively invented the familiar General Election night device of the Swingometer. He is now ninety-six years old. The long story of his life is worth telling and the veteran writer, journalist and broadcaster, Michael Crick does so very well in this biography, published in 2018.

It is quite eye-opening (at least, it was for me) to learn just how primitive election coverage was when Butler started out in the 1940s. Although BBC TV was established in 1936, the organisation remained extremely wary of providing decent coverage of elections or indeed any aspect of British political life for the first twenty years of its existence. Fearful that the government might accuse them of political bias and use this to restrict their powers (admittedly, a very real risk today), the broadcaster imposed strict rules on itself. The monumental 1945 General Election night was thus covered on BBC radio only: admittedly, perhaps not such a huge issue as very few people owned TVs then anyway. In 1950 again, the BBC did not allow itself to cover any election canvassing during the campaign itself. It did, however, tentatively allow a programme covering the results for the first time in which the handsome young dark-haired and very self-assured Oxford graduate, Butler made a favourable impression. He would become a fixture of the BBC’s election night coverage during the next nine General Elections held up to 1979, often appearing as part of a sort of double-act with friendly rival, the Canadian, Bob McKenzie. Butler would adopt spectacles and see his hair grow grey in the ensuing thirty years but his contribution would prove no less vital.

The book opens with a scene in 1950, in which Winston Churchill, at that point Leader of His Majesty’s Opposition and plotting his own return to Downing Street summoned the young Butler to discuss the possibilities the new science of opinion polling offered for predicting election outcomes in advance. It is a good start: the political titan nearing the end of his long career meeting the young talent at the start of his own. In general, though he seems to have been slightly left of centre politically, Butler strived to remain impartial, something which generated occasional tensions with his lifelong friend, left-wing Labour MP, Tony Benn who he met at university. Butler, in fact, had a very distinguished family background and was the cousin of the leading Tory politician, R.A. ‘Rab’ Butler.

Michael Crick chronicles the details of Butler’s many books, innovations, his travels in America and his success in exporting many of his techniques to Australia and India alongside his personal life. This includes two very sad elements: the death of his wife, the very successful academic, Lady Marilyn Butler in 2011 after many years of happy marriage in 2011 following a struggle with Alzheimer’s disease and the death of one of their three sons, Gareth following a sudden heart attack in 2008, aged just 42.

But, in general, this is a well-researched and highly readable biography of a life well-lived.

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: The Friends of Harry Perkins, by Chris Mullin

“Who is Harry Perkins?” you might ask.

The answer lies within Chris Mullin’s excellent 1982 novel, A Very British Coup. Written in the dark days of early Thatcherism, Mullin envisaged a future (the late 1980s), in which Perkins, a working-class hero and onetime Sheffield steelworker leads the Labour Party to an unexpected General Election victory on a manifesto not dissimilar to the one Labour lost on in 1983. Perkins’ Labour Party is thoroughly socialist and the new government quickly embarks on fulfilling the radical agenda it has been elected on: dismantling Britain’s nuclear deterrent and leaving NATO, breaking up the newspaper monopolies, redistributing wealth and more.

Needless to say, the establishment: the civil service, the media and the security services are horrified. They immediately begin conspiring with the US (who, viewing things through a Cold War prism, see Britain as having “gone over to the other side”) in a bid to thwart the programme of the democratically elected government. It is a great read.

Mullin was writing at a very volatile political time. In 1980, the new Thatcher government was already proving to be such a complete disaster that it seemed hopelessly doomed. For much of 1981, the SDP, not Labour, seemed set to replace them. By the post-Falklands summer of 1982, the resurgent Tories again seemed unbeatable, as indeed, proved the case, the Iron Lady having staged her own very British coup in the South Atlantic. We are in very volatile times again now. The future in the Brexit era is also very hard to foresee.

In this long-awaited sequel, Chris Mullin (now a former Labour MP himself) creates a convincing near future which cleverly not only seems sadly only too plausible but which also makes sense in the context of what has happened in the earlier book.

It is the 2020s. With Brexit having proven a miserable failure, serious consideration is being given to a humiliated Britain going crawling cap in hand and applying to rejoin the EU. Trump has left office, but has left the international situation thoroughly de-stablised. Today’s leaders have left the political stage. A King is on the throne, as he was in the earlier novel. Labour seemingly locked in perpetual opposition under an ineffectual woman leader seems poised for a takeover by the former aide of the recently deceased former Prime Minister, Harry Perkins, Fred Thompson (Mullin isn’t much of a one for glamorous character names). As so often happens, Perkins, the scourge of the status quo in life is now hailed by left and right alike as a great leader of the past, now he is safely dead. Thompson, who was played by Keith Allen in the acclaimed 1980s TV version of the book, is still middle-aged (Mullin admits to some authorial sleight of hand here: only ten years have passed since the events of the first book, not thirty or forty).

But can Fred Thompson succeed in leading Labour back to power and restoring Britain to it’s former glory? Will his family difficulties or a rising tide of violence threatening to engulf British politics get in the way?

The Daily Telegraph describes this book “preposterous.” Presumably, they mean “preposterous” in the sense that it doesn’t mindlessly back Brexit or shamelessly back Boris Johnson’s leadership bid as that newspaper did.

This is perhaps – like Thompson himself – not quite the equal of its illustrious predecessor. But it is a fine sequel and an excellent, short-ish read.

Published by: Scribner UK. 192 pages

The Crown

Preview, gratefully reproduced from Bingebox magazine (2016).

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It is sometimes described as one great soap opera: the longest running drama in British history. So why not make a big TV drama based around the Royal family? Indeed, why not make one based in the life of Queen Elizabeth II herself, a person whose image adorns either a stamp, coin or banknote on the person of nearly everyone reading this? Well, Left Bank Pictures have produced just such a series, a ten-part epic available on Netflix since November 4th 2016. Indeed, they have big plans. The first series covers the period from the young Princess’s marriage in 1947 to the first few years of her reign following her ascension to the throne in 1952. But five more series are planned. If all goes well, in a few years’ time we should have sixty hours of drama covering the Queen’s sixty or seventy years on the throne.

REIGN OF THRONES

Dramas about the royals are, of course, nothing new – Victoria, Henry V, The Madness of King George are just three examples of historical monarchs who have seen their lives dramatised. But until Stephen Frears’ 2006 film The Queen, scripted by Peter Morgan, which focused on the potential public relations disaster which almost engulfed the monarchy following Princess Diana’s death in 1997, dramas about the current monarch were almost unheard of. The King’s Speech, which features the future Queen as a young girl, was another successful Oscar-winning stab at comparatively recent royal history. But it is Morgan – the author of The Queen as well as the play The Audience which also starred Helen Mirren as the Queen who has brought his formidable writing powers to The Crown. Stephen Daldry, famed for Billy Elliott and The Hours directs.

The Crown’s credentials are impeccable. The casting was always going to be controversial, however. Few are likely to gripe about Claire Foy in the role of HRH but as with Victoria which saw former Doctor Who companion Jenna-Louise Coleman cast in the main role, the producers have turned to the Tardis for the role of Prince Philip. Recent Doctor Who Matt Smith is not an obvious choice for the role, but then who is? James Cromwell and David Threlfall have both played the Duke of Edinburgh before but as a much older man. Smith is a fine actor and delivers a first-class performance. However, time will inevitably become an issue. Both he and Foy are in their thirties and are likely to be replaced at least once if the show is to cover the Queen’s entire reign.

The choice of American ‘Third Rock From The Sun’ actor, John Lithgow to play Churchill, the Queen’s first Prime Minister might also raise a few eyebrows in some quarters. Yet Lithgow is an accomplished actor experienced way beyond the realm of comedy and thanks in part to some due some modifications to alter his appearance (Lithgow is nearly a foot taller and slimmer than Winnie was) he is great in this. And Churchill was half-American anyway. What’s the problem?

MONARCHY IN THE UK

“I have seen three great monarchies brought down through their failure to separate personal indulgences from duty,” says Eileen Atkins’ Queen Mary at one point, warning her granddaughter Elizabeth, “you must not allow yourself to make similar mistakes. The Crown must win.”

Rather like Maggie Smith’s character in Downton Abbey, The Crown’s Queen Mary seems to specialise in saying controversial and sometimes prophetic things in this. Presumably, the three monarchies she means are Victoria (who arguably indulged herself by grieving over Prince Albert’s death excessively), Edward VII (who basically drank, ate and womanised his way to death) and her own son Edward VIII, who abdicated. Although as a heavy drinker and smoker, Elizabeth’s father George VI (also Mary’s son) was hardly free of personal indulgence either.

The excellent Alex Jennings incidentally crops up as the Duke of Windsor, whose abdication in 1936 (as Edward VIII) ensured Elizabeth would be Queen. Jennings also played Prince Charles in the film The Queen.

As with any good drama, there is the potential for controversy. Though the Queen no longer has the power to put people who annoy her in the Tower, there will still be a desire not to cause offence.

WINDSOR CHANGE

If The Crown proves a success, five more series could be in the offing. The opening episode which begins in 1947, clearly lays out the framework for what is to come. The King (Jared Harris, son of the late Richard Harris and perhaps best known for his role as the token Brit in Mad Men) has a bad cough and is clearly not long for this world. His daughter Princess Elizabeth is about to marry Prince Philip and though the couple are happy, there are hints of awkwardness to come. Philip is giving up a lot for “the greatest prize on Earth” including his love of smoking and Greek nationality. “Not a single person supported the match,” warns Queen Mary.

The action then jumps forward four years to 1951 during which time, the King’s health has deteriorated further and Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage has yielded two children, Charles and Anne. There are also allusions to trouble brewing with Elizabeth’s younger sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), notably the strong suggestion of an affair with dashing equerry Group Captain Peter Townsend (Ben Miles), a married man. With a title sequence, reminiscent of Game of Thrones, there are also political manoeuvrings afoot. Returning Prime Minister Winston Churchill soon knows more about the true state of the King’s health than the monarch does himself.  And Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam) is already assessing the great war leader’s vulnerabilities: as Tory heir apparent in effect, he is clearly eyeing up the elderly Churchill’s job.

Ultimately The Crown is essential viewing. It is as much about how Britain has changed in the last seventy years as the monarchy has. There is certainly plenty of material.

The Crown

AND WHAT DO YOU DO…?
Three stars of The Crown…

Claire Foy as Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth II

Foy has played royalty before and was the ill-fated mother of the Queen’s Tudor namesake (Elizabeth I) Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall.  She sprung to fame in the title role in the BBC’s Little Dorrit in 2008.

Matt Smith as Prince Philip

Best known for playing the last Doctor Who but one, the thirty-four -year-old Smith plays the young Duke of Edinburgh, a man struggling in the traditionally feminine role of partner to the monarch.

John Lithgow as Winston Churchill

Although often associated with comedy roles such as Bigfoot and the Hendersons and Dick in the sitcom Third Rock From The Sun, veteran US star Lithgow is an acclaimed and prolific dramatic actor.

Book review: Comrade Corbyn, by Rosa Prince

Book review: Comrade Corbyn by Rosa Prince. Published by: Biteback.

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Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has divided opinion like no other British political leader since Margaret Thatcher. To his admirers, he is above reproach, the flawless, bearded, living embodiment of socialist perfection: any criticism of him can only suggest insidious bias by the right-wing mass media.
His detractors, in contrast, see him, in the words of Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun as “a friend of terrorists who’s ready to open our borders and hike up taxes.” In short, they portray him as an unpatriotic, unprincipled, malevolent, Marxist bogeyman.
Neither characterisation is accurate and neither does the real Corbyn any favours. The reality, of course, lies somewhere in between these two extremes.
Jeremy Corbyn has now led Labour for three years, a period exceeding that of John Smith and Gordon Brown. Rosa Prince’s biography, Comrade Corbyn: A Very Unlikely Coup was the first comprehensive biography of Corbyn to emerge, appearing in 2016. Rosa Prince is online editor for the Daily Telegraph and many thought she was an odd choice to write about the Labour leader. But as Prince herself says, this is “not a hagiography but nor is it a hatchet job”. She is right. The Guardian attacked the book as “spiteful” which is entirely unfair. The book has its problems, but judging by this third edition (two supplemental epilogues update us of events since Corbyn became leader), this is a thorough and fair account of the Opposition leader’s life so far.

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By and large, he comes across as a decent and principled man, an eternal campaigner, who genuinely seemed to have no ambitions or expectations beyond being an apparently excellent constituency MP for Islington North and a back bencher even as recently as the 2015 General Election. The story of his astonishing triumph in the 2015 Labour leadership contest (partly, though certainly not entirely, a consequence of disastrous campaigns by the three other contenders, particularly a chronically indecisive Andy Burnham) is thoroughly and vividly recreated.
There is nothing at all to suggest any anti-Semitism in Corbyn: quite the opposite. Corbyn has speculated openly in the past that he himself might have some Jewish heritage. The worst that can be said of him is that he has been too relaxed about meeting various dubious figures with terrorist connections in the past, mainly in the 1980s, He is certainly not pro-terrorist, however and these past acts are unlikely to cause serious issues in the future.
Another valid charge against Corbyn is that he has also grown so used to constant media hostility that he can no longer tell whether any criticisms of him have any validity or not.
The press is indeed relentlessly unfairly brutal towards him, as one would expect they would be towards anyone on the Left. Corbyn has a genuine element of greatness within him, for all his failings. This should worry the Tories and the Tory press even more.

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There are a few errors in the book. Harold Wilson did not call a General Election in October 1966 (p29), Ed Miliband was not elected “under the electoral college system which had been in place since 1980” – it had been reformed in the meantime, notably under John Smith (p192) while Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup was about a Sheffield steelworker who is unexpectedly elected Prime Minister and was not “inspired” by the career of Anthony Wedgwood-Benn (p71 and p308).
By far the worst flaw in the book, however, occurs in its early stages. Like many on the Right, Rosa Prince seems incapable of comprehending the fact that anyone who has any wealth might aspire to work towards improving society as a whole, rather than simply to consolidate their own position. Prince thus marvels endlessly over the not unusual fact Corbyn’s background was relatively comfortable but that he nevertheless became a left-winger. She simply can’t get over it. Indeed, every time someone privileged appears in the story, we are told “they were not an obvious socialist” or that they were an “unlikely radical”. Even the fact that this occurs time and time again in the narrative, does not seem to provide her with any sort of clue. Prince seems completely unaware that there has always been a large cohort of middle and upper-class support for the Left in general and for Labour specifically. Think of: the Milibands, Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Clement Attlee, Shirley Williams, Hugh Gaitskell, George Orwell and others. They were no more “unlikely” socialists than those from relatively humble backgrounds such as John Major, Margaret Thatcher, Richard Nixon or indeed Adolf Hitler – who became figures on the Right, were “unlikely conservatives”.
Classics scholar Mary Beard is also described as “outspoken” (she isn’t) while Prince seems slightly obsessed by Corbyn’s 1970s relationship with Diane Abbott. Still, we should remember: Rosa Prince writes for the Telegraph. Perhaps we should be grateful there is only one mention in the entire book of the Duchess of Cambridge?
These blind spots (admittedly common to many Conservative Party supporters) flaw an otherwise thorough, well-written and well researched biography of a man who may yet one day lead Britain.

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Book review: Citizen Clem – A Biography of Attlee by John Bew


Published by Riverrun

Uncharismatic, underwhelming and a bit posh, Clement Attlee might seem an unlikely hero. But he’s certainly one of my heroes. And he should probably be one of yours too.
He came from a privileged background, the sort of background many on the Right see as inappropriate for someone on the Left. In fact, Attlee’s origins are very typical of many on the Left: Tony Benn, Michael Foot, Hugh Dalton, Shirley Williams, Hugh Gaitskell and many others. But Attlee, unlike most right wingers was intelligent enough to recognise the realities of poverty and sought to rectify them, rather than either seeking to blame the poor for their own misfortunes or obsessing about the social background of those attempting to alleviate poverty as the Right tend to do.
Attlee retained a certain conservatism. He never moved against the royal family or the House of Lords. He never attacked public schools either, having enjoyed his own schooldays.

His relationship with Winston Churchill, the other political giant of his era is fascinating. As a young man, Attlee watched the top hatted Home Secretary as he attended the 1911 Sidney Street Siege. He didn’t blame Churchill for the disastrous 1915 Gallipoli landings even though he took part in them himself. He served loyally as Churchill’s wartime deputy. He trounced Churchill in the 1945 General Election.
As John Bew’s extremely well researched and thorough Orwell award winning book reminds us, Attlee probably did more than any other 20th century British Prime Minister to transform Britain for the better. This is a great book about a great man.

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.

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

Myth 1: Margaret Thatcher “saved Britain”

Whatever else you may 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 people, less crime and free prescription charges. Either way, Britain would still exist.

Myth 2: Margaret Thatcher “won the Cold War”

Thatcher famously identified Mikhail 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, even less to do with Thatcher and everything to with the liberalism of Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev. It’s very hard to envisage any realistic scenario where a different British Prime Minister would have made any real difference whatsoever.

Myth 3: 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”.

Myth 4: She enjoyed warm relations with US President Ronald Reagan

This is certainly 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 Grenada without even warning the UK in advance.

Myth 5: 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 very much further towards pushing the UK towards European integration than the later Maastricht Treaty ever did.

Myth 6: 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!

Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson: fifty years on

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Sudden deaths in front-line British politics are mercifully quite rare. In 1970, Iain Macleod died suddenly a month after becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer, a desperate blow to Edward Heath’s new Tory Government. In 1994, Opposition leader John Smith died suddenly of a heart attack. Had Smith lived, it seems virtually certain he would have led Labour back into power in 1997, instead of Tony Blair.

Although he had been leading Labour for seven years at the time of his death fifty years ago, (he led the Opposition for longer than any other post-war leader except Neil Kinnock) it is less certain Hugh Gaitskell would ever have enjoyed the trappings of Downing Street even had he survived what turned out to be his final illness. True, Labour did win power again in October 1964. But this was only after Gaitskell’s successor Harold Wilson had immeasurably boosted the party. And even then it was a narrow win. Gaitskell had lost the 1959 election heavily and might well have led the party to defeat again. We will never know.

The youthful, combative Harold Wilson was undoubtedly the right choice for the party at the time, even though his subsequent leadership after the Labour landslide of 1966 would ultimately prove disappointing. George Brown, who came second in the race, was to prove a notoriously erratic figure and later that year appeared drunk on TV (having just provoked a fight with US actor Eli Wallach) on a TV programme on which he was being interviewed about President Kennedy’s assassination which had occurred earlier that day. James Callaghan, who came third in the 1963 leadership, would eventually lead Labour and the UK himself between 1976 and 1979.

Alas, Hugh Gaitskell famous for his two conference speeches in which he tearfully pledged to “fight and fight again to save the party we love” and another in which he declared that European integration threatened to end “a thousand years of British history,” would never get this opportunity to lead his country.  After years spent fighting the Left and working to keep the party alive, he died just as things were finally falling into place.

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Why I hate referenda

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Hurrah for David Cameron! He has promised an In-Out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union if he wins the next General Election.

Hurrah? Well, no. Not really. For one thing, Cameron has bad form on this. He famously made a “cast-iron” pledge to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty when he was Opposition leader back in 2007. Writing in the Murdoch-owned Sun newspaper, Cameron said:

“The final reason we must have a vote is trust. Gordon Brown talks about “new” politics.  But there’s nothing “new” about breaking your promises to the British public. It’s classic Labour. And it is the cancer that is eating away at trust in politics.  Small wonder that so many people don’t believe a word politicians ever say if they break their promises so casually.  If you really want to signal you’re a break from the past, Prime Minister, do the right thing – give the people the referendum you promised.

“Today, I will give this cast-iron guarantee: If I become PM a Conservative government will hold a referendum on any EU treaty that emerges from these negotiations.  No treaty should be ratified without consulting the British people in a referendum.”

Of course, this time it was Cameron who eroded the public trust. As some of you may have noticed, Mr Cameron IS now PM and er…no referendum has ever happened. Cameron broke his promise. He may well do so again.

But perhaps this would be a good thing? Referenda are bad. And here’s why:

1.       Referenda are never held for anything other than party political reasons.

David Cameron knows it is not in our national interest to leave the EU. He is doing it for two reasons: to shore up his own support and to undermine the (exaggerated) threat presented by the UKIP lunatic fringe. It has worked, but don’t think for a moment his motives on this are honourable. Likewise, the first national UK referendum which was held on Common Market membership in 1975 was intended purely to keep the Labour Party from splitting, while the 2011 one on electoral reform was held purely to keep the Lib Dem grouping in the Coalition happy.

2.       In referenda, nobody ever votes on the issues at stake.

Perhaps because we are more familiar with General Elections, voters nearly always end up voting for some party political reason. Last time, it was to piss off the unpopular Nick Clegg. In 1975, Britain voted overwhelmingly to stay in the Common Market (as it was then known) largely because a) the press were overwhelming pro-EC back then (yes, really!) b) because they were told it would be impossible for the UK to pull out anyway and c) to anger the unpopular anti-EC Labour Government. Margaret Thatcher, the new Tory leader, was then a keen supporter of the European ideal.

3.       Don’t we elect MPs to make decisions on our behalf?

If the Tories want to pull out, they should go into the next General Election saying so! Labour did this in 1983 (and subsequently suffered their biggest post-war defeat). Why bother having a referendum as well?

4.       No one knows when to call a referendum or not.

No one has a clue. There are no set rules on it. There have only ever been two national referenda in British history in 1975 and 2011. Generally, they are usually called for when the public already clearly want the change which is being proposed. In which case, why not just pass the law anyway if it’s good? If there isn’t a clear majority supporting the motion (as in the case of electoral reform), everyone whinges and says it’s a waste of time and money.

Here is a list of developments since 1945, none of which the public had a direct vote on. Some of us might feel they would like to have had the chance to vote on a few of these things:

Joining the UN.

Joining NATO.

The end of National Service.

The onset of Commonwealth immigration.

The abolition of hanging.

The legalisation of abortion.

The legalisation of homosexuality.

The closure of grammar schools/introduction of comprehensive education.

The stationing of Cruise missiles in the UK.

The reduction in trade union power.

The Single European Act/Maastricht/Amsterdam/Maastricht etc.

The abolition of fox hunting.

The decision to invade Iraq.

5.       Not every issue is easily resolvable in a simple Yes/No debate.

6.       Referenda rarely satisfy anyone.

I may well take part in the referendum “Yes” campaign assuming it ever happens. I did the same for the last one on electoral reform (which ended in heavy defeat). This isn’t hypocrisy. There is little point arguing against a referendum which is already happening.

But the 2011 referendum was not a happy experience. I can accept that most people didn’t want electoral reform and never would: the margin of defeat was heavy. But the whole affair was highly unsatisfactory for both sides. The victors hardly seemed hugely triumphant arguing that the whole exercise had been a pointless and expensive distraction. There were also lots of silly false rumours about expensive counting machines being needed if the Yes vote won (the reason why was never explained). The No team also enjoyed saying how expensive the changes would be, typically including the cost incurred by the actual referendum itself in their calculations. The referendum, of course, was already happening and would have cost the same regardless of the outcome.

The Scots/Welsh referenda on self government in the late Nineties were more justified, although annoyed some English who wanted a say on the issue too. The EC vote in the Seventies similarly left many people feeling dissatisfied.

Both Clement Attlee (who I liked) and Lady Thatcher (who I didn’t) called referenda “the device of demagogues and dictators”. This is perhaps a bit strong in this case. But even if David Cameron is telling the truth this time, I’m not excited.

Why I support the Labour Party.

My name is Chris Hallam. I am in my thirties, live in the south-west of England and I support the Labour Party.


Why? Why would anyone pin their hopes to a political party in this day and age? Particularly one has so recently been ejected after a long spell in power?

Well, in fact, there are a number of reasons. And if you feel as I do about the following things, perhaps you should consider supporting them too.
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