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.

The Crown: Harold Wilson

Harold Wilson (1964-70, 1974-76)

Played by: Jason Watkins (Series 3)

Wilson was the first Labour Prime Minister to take office during the Queen’s reign and as in Peter Morgan’s earlier play, The Audience, the two are shown approaching each other somewhat warily after Wilson wins power in 1964.

The Queen (now played by Olivia Colman) is wary of the new socialist PM, having been tipped off by Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) that he might be a Soviet agent. In reality, this was definitely untrue although this was certainly a prevalent rumour in right-wing circles at the time and to some extent still is. So it’s quite likely the Queen would have heard such rumours if not from Philip, then someone else.

Wilson is initially presented as being slightly chippy and with a social inferiority complex about meeting the monarch.

A special relationship: In time, however, this initial mutual caution transforms into something approaching a warm friendship. It is generally thought Wilson was one of the Queen’s favourite Prime Ministers and this is reflected in the series. She certainly never warms to the stubborn stuffy Edward Heath (Michael Maloney) whose unhappy spell in Downing Street interrupts Wilson’s period in office and is sorry to see Wilson go when he finally retires for good. For his own part, he essentially becomes a royalist, keeping republican elements within his own cabinet such as Barbara Castle and Anthony Wedgewood-Benn in check.

Although not physically very like Wilson, Jason Watkins brilliant captures Wilson’s distinctive voice (think Michael Parkinson) and mannerisms. A man who smokes a pipe in public, but who prefers a cigar in private, Wilson is acutely aware of the growing importance of image in the TV age and advises the slightly younger monarch accordingly. He has transformed himself from a highly intelligent but dry numbers man into a charismatic and witty, dynamic working-class hero for the 1960s in order to win power. On screen, he evolves from the greying 1960s Wilson into the snowy-haired Wilson of the 1970s very effectively.

Coup warning?: A slightly paranoid Wilson is shown phoning the Queen during her world tour to warn her that Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance) might be becoming involved in a plot to mount a right-wing coup against him. This isn’t far off the mark: Mountbatten was approached by plotters in the late 1960s and the Queen may or may not have discussed it with Wilson: we do not know. This did not coincide with her tour though.

Resignation reasons: The political world was stunned by Wilson’s sudden seemingly inexplicable resignation in 1976. It is now widely acknowledged Wilson who had a famously good memory in his heyday, probably retired when he did as he sensed he was beginning to suffer from what would turn out to be Alzheimer’s. He was already increasingly paranoid and the effects of alcoholism (not really suggested here) were dimming his abilities further. In The Crown, Wilson is shown very specifically citing Alzheimer’s as the reason for his resignation.

The Crown. Season 3. Episode 10: Cri de Coeur

And so the third series of The Crown comes to an end, bringing us up to 1977, the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.

At one point in this episode, the dastardly Lord Snowdon (Ben Daniels) shows the Queen (Olivia Colman) some pictures of herself and Prince Philip, presumably supposed to have been taken in the early 1960s. “Gosh! Don’t we look young!” the Queen exclaims. The pictures are not, of course, of the Royal couple as we see them in the series now, but as they were in their younger incarnations when played by Claire Foy and Matt Smith in the first two series.

It is a nice nod to the past. For all Foy and Smith’s success, Season 3 has seen Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies make the roles their own. Colman (in reality, now 46 years old) has taken the Queen from her late thirties in 1964, just into her fifties. Season 4, which is about to be released, will take the story up to 1990. The current plan is for two final series after that starring Imelda Staunton (an actress, currently in her mid-sixties) which will take us through most of the remaining years of the Queen’s long reign.

Most of this episode deals with Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) and the wreckage of her disastrous marriage to philandering photographer, Lord Snowdon. An increasingly boozy and unhappy figure as she enters middle age, thanks to Snowdon’s womanising and general nastiness, Margaret finds solace in the arms of younger landscape gardener, Roddy Llewellyn (Harry Treadaway). After some brief and much deserved happiness, she ultimately narrowly survives a suicide attempt, provoking a genuine show of compassion from her sister. Sadly, Margaret’s ordeal does not inspire the same response from her mother (Marion Bailey) who dismisses this as a Cri de Coeur, (essentially ‘a cry for help’) rather than a serious attempt on her life. ‘Cri de Coeur’ is the title, an episode in which the Queen Mother comes across very badly.

Strangely, although Princess Anne, as played brilliantly by Erin Doherty has emerged as a major character in this series. her first marriage to Captain Mark Phillips in 1973 and her attempted kidnapping in 1974, both major events at the time, are not mentioned here at all.

We do, however, witness the departure of Prime Minister, Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins) in 1976, resigning suddenly after being returned to power in the two General Elections of 1974. Wilson here cites his Alzheimer’s diagnosis as his official reason for resigning. I’m not sure this was ever clearly stated, even in private, at the time.

As with creator Peter Morgan’s earlier play, The Audience, this series has seen the Queen and Wilson’s relationship blossom from an initially awkward one into probably the best relationship between a Prime Minister and the monarch of her entire reign. The Queen is visibly sorry to see Wilson go. Thanks to Jason Watkins’ brilliant performance, so are we.

Next up: a girl called Diana and a woman called Margaret show up as we begin The Crown Series 4…

The Crown. Episode guide: Season 3, Episode 5: Coup

It’s easy to forget that in the late 1960s, Britain was beset by many problems, one consequence being the devaluation of the pound in 1967. Many of these issues now seem unimportant and comparatively minor compared to some of the things we have seen since. They did, however, seem pretty important at the time.

At one point, indeed, things seemed so desperate that a cabal of powerful people including Cecil King (played here by Rupert Vansittart), head of Mirror Group Newspapers in the pre-Maxwell era, approached the ageing Lord Mountbatten of Burma to help out.

Mountbatten was, in fact, the second son of the eldest daughter of the second daughter of Queen Victoria, but what was viewed as a distinguished record of service had elevated him to the status of a high profile role in the post-war Royal Family. He was a famous and respected figure, particular admired by many of those who also happened to have right-wing tendencies.

Mountbatten was played by Greg Wise in the first two series of The Crown. He is now played by Charles Dance, an actor totally unlike Wise, yet at the same time, like Wise, very well suited to the role.

The group approach Mountbatten with a suggestion which appeals both to his patriotism and his vanity: why not depose the democratically elected Labour Government of Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins) and rule Britain yourself until you’ve got the nation back on the ‘right’ track? A very British coup, in effect.

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And, yes, this is one conspiracy theory based on a conspiracy which did actually exist. Dance’s Mountbatten is sceptical about the chances of this particular game of thrones resulting in victory. But he does, at least, seem to entertain the possibility of going ahead with it.

Meanwhile, the Queen (Olivia Colman) perhaps taking her eye off the ball slightly, has gone on a tour of France and America. The tour sees the Queen indulging her love of horses at one point confiding her to her friend and colleague, Lord “Porchie” Porchester (John Hollingworth) that a life and career breeding horses is one which she might in an ideal world, have preferred to have lived, had not “the other thing” got in the way. ‘The other thing,’ of course, refers to her duty to serve the Crown, a burden she blames her uncle, the Duke of Windsor for offloading onto her late father and her.

It is an interesting idea. If she ever has thought this, the Queen is, of course, largely ignoring the fact that it is largely only down to an accident of birth (namely being a member of the aristocracy) that she was ever in a position to contemplate a career breeding horses in the first place. Many non-aristocrats have enjoyed such a career, of course. But, for most people, such a life, travelling around visiting stables and racetracks has never really been a realistic possibility.

And what of the Queen and ‘Porchie’? Travelling without Philip, the Queen often seems surprisingly intimate with her childhood friend on this tour. There is a bit of dramatic licence here: the trip did not occur at the same time as Mountbatten’s manoeuvrings. It was slightly later in 1969: a paranoid Wilson would not have called her about Mountbatten’s plotting during it. Indeed, for all we know, the two may never have ever discussed the subject. We wouldn’t know, either way.

However, the tour itself definitely did happen. The real Lord Porchester died in 2001.

But contrary to rumours about the programme, the writers of The Crown do not in any way suggest anything unseemly happened between the monarch and her fellow equestrian. The writers too, may have entertained the possibility, but at the end of the day, they are no keener on committing treason than Lord Mountbatten was.

TV review: The Crown. Season 3, Episode 4

A whole TV programme dedicated to exposing the behind the scenes lives of the British Royal family! Can you imagine such a thing ever occurring?

Yet this is exactly what happened when, in 1969, Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies), determined to demonstrate that the Windsors were good value for money in the face of growing muttering from left-wing elements within the ruling Labour Government, agreed to let TV cameras have unprecedented access to their lives. The result was a special one-off documentary called ‘The Royal Family.’

As demonstrated here, from the Windsors’ point of view, this exercise didn’t really work. The Royals came across as stiff and unconvincing. At the same time, the overall effect was to shatter the air of mystique surrounding them. In one amusing scene, we see the nation’s first family being recorded watching TV together. As Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) wryly notes, they never do this in real life anyway and are now effectively in the banal position of being on TV, watching TV. To more modern eyes, it is as if the Royal Family have become The Royle Family.

Matters are complicated by unexpected mother-in-law problems for the Queen as Philip’s elderly mother, Princess Alice (Jane Lapotaire) is uprooted from her life in a Greek convent following the 1967 right-wing military coup in Greece. She finds temporary residence in the palace. Philip (who she refers to as “Bubbikins,” the episode’s title) undergoes a difficult reconciliation with her.

Meanwhile, Colin Morgan (Merlin) plays a fictional Guardian journalist who at one point, in an unconvincing scene, reads out his own scathing review of the documentary to his enthusiastic colleagues. The episode also sees the introduction of Erin Doherty as the Queen’s dry and sharp-tongued teenaged daughter, Princess Anne, a perhaps slightly flattering portrayal, which nevertheless becomes one of the best in the series.

Ultimately, the Queen (Olivia Colman) learns a few valuable lessons in media relations from the documentary experience and from her wily old Prime Minister (Jason Watkins: perfect). Wilson has gradually transformed himself from a high-achieving but uncharismatic numbers man who smokes cigars privately into a seemingly thrusting , witty and dynamic moderniser never seen without a pipe and perfect for the TV age. It is Wilson who articulates the essential paradox facing how the public view the Royal Family. They want them to be essentially normal, relatable and like them, while at the same time, fundamentally unusual and different from everyone else.

TV review: The Crown. Season 3, Episode 3

On October 21st 1966, after a period of heavy rain, 30,000 cubic yards of coal sludge collapsed on 19 houses and a primary school in Aberfan with predictably devastating results. Episode 3 of The Crown focuses on he disaster and its aftermath. The Queen herself reacts slowly to the tragedy, forcing her to confront her own apparent tendency to react with the traditional stoicism and reserve to such events, rather than the public show of emotion which might be expected or even needed by the watching public in the media age. The monarch would, of course, fall foul of similar issues following the death of Diana, 31 years’ later.

TV review: The Crown. Season 3, Episode 2

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Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) articulates an interesting theory in the second episode of the third season of Peter Morgan’s The Crown.

The theory states simply that just as there is a clear pattern of steady, reliable, generally boring Royals, such as Queen Victoria, George V, George VI and the Queen herself, there is equally a parallel lineage of wild, reckless and hedonistic rebels. Consider: Edward VII, George V’s brother Prince Eddy or the notorious Duke of Windsor. Just as the older Queen, played by Helen Mirren in Morgan’s 2006 film, famously held back from shooting a stag, the other bunch would probably have ended up riding it roughshod over the hills and far away.

The Royal couple here are clearly thinking about the Queen’s own naughty little sister, Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter), glamorous and popular, but also increasingly wayward as she tours the mid-1960s USA. Viewers at home will, of course, be wondering how this theory applies to Prince Harry. And Prince Andrew.

At any rate, Margaret, at this point, gets an opportunity to restore Anglo-US relations which have been damaged by the new Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s (admirable) refusal to join America in the disastrous quagmire of Vietnam. The princess is thus dispatched to the White House in use her charms to win over President Lyndon B. Johnson (Clancy Brown) in the hope that L.B.J. will go all the way in resolving a British balance of payments crisis.

TV review: The Crown. Season 3, Episode 1

The Crown is back. We rejoin proceedings at the dawn of a new era.

For after two glorious seasons with the marvelous Claire Foy playing the Princess and young Queen in her twenties and thirties, we now give way to the new age of Olivia Colman. The transition is neatly symbolised by a tactful discussion of a new Royal portrait for a new range of postage stamps. It is 1964 and the monarch is in her late thirties, what might normally be seen as her “middle years.”

“A great many changes. But there we are,” Her Majesty reflects philosophically. “Age is rarely kind to anyone. Nothing one can do about it. One just has to get on with it.”

Other changes are afoot too. Then, as now, a general election is in progress, resulting in the election of the first Labour Prime Minister of the Queen’s reign, Harold Wilson. Jason Watkins captures Wilson’s manner perfectly, although not yet his wit. In time, we now know Wilson would become the favourite of the Queen’s Prime Ministers. At this stage, however, both figures are wary of each other: the working-class Wilson seems socially insecure and chippy while the Queen has heard an unfounded rumour from Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies – a good likeness) that Wilson is a KGB agent.

Elsewhere, another age comes to an end as the elderly Churchill breathes his last. In a rare piece of casting continuity with the first two series, John Lithgow briefly resumes his role.

Suspicion also surrounds Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, Anthony Blunt. Although not exactly a dead ringer for the art historian and Soviet spy, the always excellent Samuel West is well cast as Blunt. West is a fine actor anyway, but his lineage here is impeccable. His mother, Prunella Scales played the Queen in the Alan Bennett drama, A Question of Attribution, which was about Blunt and which parts of this episode strongly resemble. Blunt then was played by James Fox, whose brother Edward, incidentally played Churchill in The Audience, the Peter Morgan play which inspired this series. West also played the Queen’s father George VI in the (not very good) film, Hyde Park on the Hudson. His wife, the future Queen Mother was played by one Olivia Colman. West’s father, Timothy, of course, famously played George VI’s grandfather, Edward VII (and also played Churchill, several times), while Colman won an Oscar for playing the Queen’s ancestor, Queen Anne in The Favourite, earlier this year.

Fellow Oscar winner, Helena Bonham Carter is, of course, now cast as the Queen’s glamorous but troubled sister, Princess Margaret, replacing the excellent Vanessa Kirby. The makers clearly feel obliged to feature Margaret frequently in this episode, presumably because of Bonham Carter’s star status, but aside from much drinking, rudeness, singing and fretting about her wayward photographer husband Armstrong-Jones (Ben Daniels), who is pictured motorbiking about a lot, she does little of interest.

The next episode promises to be much more Margaret-orientated…

The Crown

Book review: Order, Order! by Ben Wright

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published by: Duckworth Overlook

Twenty years of Our Friends In The North

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It has now been a full two decades since the start of one of the most acclaimed British dramas of all time, Our Friends In The North. Peter Flannery’s hugely ambitious nine part series depicted British life between the years 1964 and 1995, through the eyes of four Newcastle friends as they progress from youth to middle age.

Opening on the eve of the October 1964 General Election, which saw a rejuvenated Labour Party reclaim power after thirteen years of Tory misrule, the series ends in 1995, with New Labour seemingly poised to do much the same thing. In the meantime, the series touches on a whole range of issues including corruption within the police and government, the decline of the Left, the Miner’s Strike, homelessness, the failure of high rise housing and rising crime. The show includes a huge supporting cast too. Even today, it is hard to watch TV for long without seeing someone from it crop up.

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The four main players have all enjoyed huge success since, one (Christopher Eccleston) subsequently becoming Doctor Who, another (Daniel Craig), then unknown, subsequently becoming James Bond and a huge star. The other main actors Gina McKee and Mark Strong have been prolific stars of TV and film in the years since. Only Eccleston, who had appeared in Danny Boyle’s debut Shallow Grave and the TV series Cracker and Hearts and Minds amongst other things could claim any real fame at the time.

The series required the four actors, in reality then all around the thirty mark, to age from their early twenties to their fifties. It is odd to reflect that, odd as they look in the final 1995-set episode, they are actually supposed to be about the age the actors are now. Ironically, the excesses of 70s fashion mean that even when playing their own age, in the fourth and fifth episodes set in 1970 and 1974, they still look a bit odd.

This is nevertheless a classic series. If you’ve seen it, watch it again. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to seek it out.

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A century of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath

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They seemed  like total opposites.

Wilson seemed working-class to the core, Heath seemed posh. Wilson seemed jovial, dynamic and witty, Heath seemed stiff and awkward. Wilson was the family man who holidayed in the Isles of Scilly ever year, Heath was the European, conductor, champion yachtsman and lifelong bachelor.

Both men were actually more similar to each other than they seemed. Both ruled the nation for as long as Thatcher, eleven and a half years (October 1964 to April 1976) between them. And both were born a full century ago in the year 1916.

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Wilson emerged first, beating two older men George Brown and James Callaghan to win the Labour leadership following Hugh Gaitskell’s death in early 1963. Always brilliant – he had become the youngest British cabinet minister of the century at 31 – Wilson was also wily and had reinvented himself from being rather a dull figure under Attlee to a dynamic, raincoat-wearing, pipe-smoking working class hero ripe for the TV age. Wilson, like all successful politicians, was lucky: the Tory government fell foul of the Profumo Affair and Harold Macmillan gave way to the much less formidable Alec Douglas Home in October 1963. But Wilson was also a brilliant opposition leader and spoke of “the white heat of revolution” an exciting but largely meaningless term. He led Labour to a narrow victory in October 1964. It is surprising he didn’t win by a wider margin.

Young and from a similar background (his father had been a carpenter) and the first grammar school boy to be Tory leader, Heath was elected in 1965 partly because he was seen (wrongly) as the Tory answer it Wilson.

Wilson trounced Heath in the 1966 election which saw Labour’s majority surge to almost 100. Both men would struggle in the next four years. Wilson was lucky to survive a sea of economic troubles especially with many of his colleagues (Brown, Jenkins, Callaghan, Healey) keen to usurp him. Heath was criticised for sacking Enoch Powell after his inflammatory 1968 Rivers of Blood speech on immigration. In fact, he was right to do so. But the press remained critical of Heath and he remained unpopular. Polls predicted another easy General Election win for Labour in 1970, Heath’s last chance. As in 1992 and 2015, the polls were wrong and the Tories got back with a majority.

As Prime Minister, Heath led Britain into the Common Market, a towering achievement the like of which neither Wilson or indeed most prime ministers ever manage. Sadly, the rest of his premiership was a disaster derailed by the oil shock, inflation and his battle with the unions.

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Asking “Who governs Britain?” Heath went to the polls early during the Three Day Week in 1974. He was overconfident. Enoch Powell urged voters to back Labour and though the Tories got more votes, Labour got slightly more seats. After an unseemly and unnecessary attempt to court the support of Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, Wilson, to his surprise, was back. A second election later in the year gave him a majority, albeit a very small one, similar in size to the one he had started as PM with a full decade earlier.

Heath was now in serious trouble. Arrogant and supremely overconfident, he never expected to be overthrown by his former Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher in February 1975. Few had done. He never forgave her and remained a plausible rival to her leadership until the early 1980s. The Incredible Sulk had begun.

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Wilson had problems too. Inflation was sky-high, the pound was low, Labour’s majority was vanishing fast and the party was at odds over Europe. Wilson was also drinking heavily, well past his best politically and possibly already suffering from the dementia which would blight his old age. He resigned very suddenly in 1976, damaging his reputation with his botched Resignation Honours list. Wilson was consumed by paranoia. It is true these were paranoid times; many of Wilson’s colleagues DID want his job. Sections of the MI5 were also convinced he was a Soviet agent who had poisoned his predecessor Hugh Gaitskell. (They were wrong: Wilson had not been favourite to succeed Gaitskell at the time of his death anyway, so aside from anything else, he had no real motive). But Wilson’s own paranoia nevertheless got out of hand.

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Neither man has been served well by posterity. Heath looks worse than Thatcher in most Tory eyes (she did win three large victories after all, he lost three and won one). Although the abuse allegations raised in 2015 seem unsubstantiated at this time, Heath was most likely gay and suppressed his homosexuality in favour of a political career (his contemporary Jeremy Thorpe attempted to pursue both: the results were disastrous). He remained a visible and vocal public figure until his death in 2005. Now eleven years on, his most cherished achievement: our place in Europe is under threat.

Wilson’s tenure saw some major changes: the legalisation of abortion, homosexuality and the abolition of the death penalty and reform of the divorce laws. Neither Wilson nor Heath can be described as a total success. But their decade or so in power, undoubtedly changed Britain.

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Does being Prime Minister make you live longer?

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An odd feature of post-war British political life has been the longevity of our leaders.

Three former Prime Ministers John Major (72), Tony Blair (62) and Gordon Brown (64) are all still alive and are not yet especially aged.

Nine former British PMs have died since the end of the Second War.

(Churchill, Attlee, Eden, Macmillan , Home, Wilson, Heath, Callaghan, Thatcher).

Seven out of nine of those who died  lived past 80 years old (Harold Wilson and Sir Anthony Eden both died, aged 79).

Six of the remaining seven made it to 85 (Attlee was 84).

Four of the remainder made it to 90.

Macmillan, Home and Callaghan all died aged 92. Churchill was 90. (Heath, 89 and Thatcher, 87 did not).

Four out of nine post-war prime ministers have thus lived into their nineties. Does being PM increase your lifespan? Or do the sort of people who become Prime Ministers just tend to live longer? It should also be remembered that not all UK Prime Ministers have had privileged backgrounds (Thatcher, Heath and Wilson did not, nor did James Callaghan who lived longer than anyone else).

In the US, four post-World War II former presidents have lived into their nineties, two of whom, Jimmy Carter and George H.W Bush are still alive. Bush is 91, Carter though seriously ill is 90. Gerald Ford, the longest lived former US president and Ronald Reagan both died aged 93.

Generally, the US trend is less impressive partly because President Kennedy was assassinated while still in his forties and his successor Lyndon Johnson died prematurely following a heart attack at 64.

But overall the stats are still impressive: Hoover died aged 88 (he was not a post-war World War II president – he was in office from 1929 to 1933 – but died in the post-war era). Harry S. Truman died aged 88, Dwight D. Eisenhower was 78 and Richard Nixon, 81. Since 1945, seven former presidents have made it to eighty (as opposed to four who did not) and four have made it to ninety.

Generally, for whatever reason, being a world leader does seem to be good for your health.

How NOT to call a General Election

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Thanks to the new fixed term arrangements, the days of a Prime Minister calling an election whenever the political weather seemed favourable are gone. But while Thatcher, Blair, Macmillan and Eden took full advantage of this privilege, other Prime Ministers have made a real mess of it…

Calling the election too early

June 1970 (Harold Wilson)

Few would blame Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson for calling an election almost a full year before he had to for June 1970. After a rocky few years, the economy was recovering and Labour was way ahead in the polls. The pipe-smoking northerner Wilson was always more popular than the somewhat stuffy Tory leader Edward Heath too. Many (including Tory Enoch Powell) eagerly anticipated Heath’s second defeat (he had also led the Tories to defeat in 1966) and inevitable resignation as Tory leader.

But the opinion polls turned out to be wrong. Very wrong. On election night, the Tories won a majority of thirty. The result was totally unexpected. A low turnout and unexpectedly poor trade figures did for Labour. Labour had branded the Tories “Yesterday’s Men”. Now it was their turn to be consigned to history.

February 1974 (Edward Heath)

Under different circumstances, Prime Minister Heath fell into the same trap as Wilson during the Three Day Week crisis a few years later. With a six percent lead in the polls, Heath called a surprise early election on the issue “Who Governs Britain?” The government or the unions? An election didn’t have to be called until June 1975, but Heath wanted the issue resolved immediately and was confident of victory.

Instead, the result was very inconclusive and a disaster for Heath personally. The Tories got more votes but slightly fewer seats. The Tories had lost their majority needlessly. Edward Heath, who didn’t even have a house to move into after Downing Street (a friend put him and his piano up) moved out after Hung Parliament negotiations with Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe failed. Harold Wilson was back and he was returned to power again with a small majority in a second election in October. Heath’s leadership of the Tories ended with his shock removal by Margaret Thatcher in February 1975.

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Clinging to power

October 1964 (Alec-Douglas Home)

Just as calling an election too early can be calamitous, a leader clinging to power until the very last minute hardly inspires great confidence either. Alec-Douglas Home did indeed lose narrowly for the Tories after holding out for a full five years until October 1964. With Home focusing heavily on Labour’s apparent inexperience in foreign policy during the election campaign, however, Home may have, in retrospect, wished the election had been held a day later. With news of China exploding its first H-bomb and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev suddenly being toppled breaking on the day after polling, the new international uncertainty might well have persuaded voters to stay in the Tory camp had news of these two troubling international events come to light slightly earlier. As it was, Labour won with a majority of just four.

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Pretending to be about to call an election and then not doing so (James Callaghan, 1978. Gordon Brown 2007)

“Can’t get away to marry you today, my wife won’t let me!” Labour PM James Callaghan surprised everyone at the TUC Conference in September 1978, by not calling an election and singing this ancient music hall ditty instead (he had been born in 1912). Although leading the less popular Mrs. Thatcher’s Tories in the polls, the cautious Callaghan feared a 1978 election might end in a dead heat and preferred to wait until 1979. The decision was a disaster.

Over the winter, relations between government and unions broke down completely. Memories of the so-called “Winter of Discontent” with rubbish left uncollected and some isolated cases of the dead being left unburied, would poison Labour’s prospects not just in 1979 but for years to come.

Gordon Brown’s attempts to capitalise on the short-lived “Brown bounce” just after he became Prime Minister in 2007 backfired horribly too. Brown’s dithering ensured that the party never recovered from “the election that never was” and led to its actual defeat in 2010.

Book review: Jeremy Thorpe by Michael Bloch

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Since the Second World War, two third party leaders have been in a position to determine the balance of power in a Hung Parliament. Five years ago, Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg secured his party a position in government but ultimately failed to achieve a proper cabinet position for himself or any of his party’s aims in office.

Liberal leader Jeremy Throrpe in February and March 1974 antagonised his Liberal colleagues (notably Chief Whip David Steel) by negotiating with Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath without consulting them first. Thorpe ultimately rejected the trappings of office and emerged with his reputation enhanced.

Few politicians would wish to emulate Jeremy Thorpe today, however, as Michael Bloch’s excellent biography reminds us. Indeed one wonders if the real reason future Liberal Democrat leader Jeremy Ashdown changed his name to “Paddy” was to avoid comparisons with the earlier Liberal? Today Thorpe, who died last December, is chiefly remembered for scandal and for being accused and found not guilty in a notorious murder plot. It was one of the biggest political stories of the Seventies and totally destroyed Thorpe’s career. Although only fifty in 1979, he was practically invisible for the last thirty-five years of his life which were also made worse by Parkinson’s disease.

The contrast with Thorpe’s earlier days could not be more striking. Thorpe was a dazzling figure who seems to have charmed almost everyone he met . Born in 1929, he joined the Liberals at the time of their great post-war crisis when they came close to extinction around 1950. Thorpe nevertheless determined to one day be Prime Minister, used his boundless energy to secure a seat in parliament in 1959 and obtained the party leadership while still in his thirties in 1967. As leader, he was always popular with the public (seeing the party through blows the 1970 election which coincided with the death of his first wife Caroline in a car accident) and highs (almost getting into government in 1974).

Ultimately, it was Thorpe’s compulsive risk-taking and his numerous homosexual liaisons which proved his downfall.

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Jeremy Thorpe

Michael Bloch

Published by: Little Brown

DVD review: Tony Benn: Will and Testament

Benn DVD cover

Director: Skip Kite
Cert: 12
Running time: 95 minutes
Praslin Pictures

Labour politician Tony Benn was many things to many people. To many on the Right (many of whom are clearly far more class-obsessed than Benn or anyone on the Left has ever been), he was the ultimate hypocrite: a peer of the realm who dared to turn on his own class and embrace socialism. In fact, Benn famously renounced his hereditary peerage as soon as he could after a monumental battle with the Establishment in the early sixties. A father of three and barred from the Commons, Benn was frequently left dejected and depressed by a battle which despite public support, often didn’t seem to be going his way.
To others within his own party, he was sometimes a hindrance. Harold Wilson, Labour leader during most of the relatively short period Benn held office (about eleven years) famously remarked that Benn “immatures with age”.
But to everyone Benn was something of a phenomenon, the second longest-serving Labour MP ever and a man who dutifully, almost obsessively, recorded the events of the second half of his life.
Skip Kite begins this film, made with Benn’s cooperation during his final two years, with the old man reciting Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be” speech from Hamlet. And though, it jumps around a little (being thematic rather than strictly chronological in order) and features an odd recurring Narnia-like lamp post visual motif, it does accurately portray the Seven Ages of Benn (my own idea, not the director’s):
The schoolboy who once met the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Ramsay MacDonald (and who, in later life, would never stop reminding people of this).
The wartime pilot.
The young ambitious Labour MP, diverted by the battle with the Lords.
The modern technocrat of the sixties. Widely seen as the future of the party and perhaps Benn at his best.
The increasingly leftist “Most dangerous man in Britain” of tabloid infamy. An agitator, yes, but always respectful and good-natured.
Switching remarkably quickly from youthful rising star, to the lisping white-haired veteran of the Kinnock and Blair years: increasingly less powerful but never less interesting.
The old man we mostly see here, still in genuine mourning for Caroline his wife of nearly fifty years and increasingly a much loved national institution (whether he liked it or not).
This is an excellent documentary and a fitting monument to one of the greatest British politicians of the 20th century.
Bonus features include a Christmas message from the elderly Benn, a selection of photos (mostly covering his early life) and Benn’s final interview.
He will be missed.

A century of George Brown

Brown Streisand

September 2014 marks the centenary of the birth of one of the most eccentric Labour politicians in British political history. George Brown was a leading figure in Harold Wilson’s government. He deserves to be remembered as more than just a drunk. He was, however, an erratic sometimes aggressive figure who will always be associated with Private Eye’s famous euphemism ” tired and emotional”.

Like the “unwell” in the title of the play, “Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell”, tired and emotional was usually taken to mean “pissed again”.

Although he rose to be Foreign Secretary and almost became party leader, Brown’s career was blighted by his tendency to get drunk on very small amounts of alcohol. Ironically, Harold Wilson, Brown’s chief rival, who ultimately bested him by becoming party leader and then Prime Minister is now known to have been effectively an alcoholic while in office. But the fact is, Wilson seems to have been able to hold his drink. He certainly concealed his condition much better than Brown did.

I’ve no idea, incidentally, why he is with Barbara Streisand in the above picture.

Here are some of the highs and lows of Brown’s career (he is no relation to Gordon Brown):

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1914: Brown is born in Lambeth. He will prove to be one of the few genuinely working class figures in Harold Wilson’s Labour cabinet of 1964-70. His father is a van driver who is beaten up during the 1926 General Strike.
1945: Is elected MP for Belper in the post-war Labour landslide.
1956: Has a row with Soviet leader Khrushchev during a special private dinner in honour of the Soviet leader’s visit. Khrushchev is later quoted as saying that if he were British, he would vote Tory.
1950s: Brown launches a physical assault on colleague Richard Crossman after the latter criticised him in the press. Crossman is physically larger than Brown and ends the assault by sitting on him.
1963: Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell (a Brown ally) dies suddenly. Writing in his diary, Anthony Wedgwood (Tony) Benn expects Brown to be elected as his successor: this is the general view at the time. In the end, he is beaten by Harold Wilson, something Brown never gets over, partly because of concerns about Brown’s private behaviour. Less than sympathetic observers see the choice as between “a crook and a drunk”.
Brown famously humiliated himself on the evening of President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 (see this link, for a full account): https://chrishallamworldview.wordpress.com/2013/11/20/the-strange-case-of-eli-wallach-george-brown-and-the-death-of-jfk/
1964: After 13 years, Labour return to power with Brown as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economic Affairs in charge of the National Plan.
Brown’s car breaks down on one occasion as he attempts to transport the only copy of the Plan. He flags down a bearded man and a pretty young girl in a Mini (leaving his own personal driver behind) ordering them to take him to Whitehall, rudely insisting that he is on “important government business”. Rather surprisingly, the couple agree to do so. On being dropped off, Brown realises he has left the Plan in the backseat of the Mini. Luckily, for him, the couple return it before morning.
1968: Brown finally resigns as Foreign Secretary. During his tenure, he has threatened to resign eighteen times, a post-war record. He attempts to retract his resignation but fails, effectively marking the end of his political career. He remains Deputy Prime Minister until 1970.
1970: Brown goes down fighting in the 1970 General Election, his defeat after 25 years in Belper inevitable, not because of his behaviour but due to boundary changes (Labour unexpectedly lose power in the election anyway, returning in 1974).
During one speech in Norfolk, a pretty girl in the audience shouts “Never!” in response to something he has said. Brown breaks off to say:
“My dear girl, there are some big words which little girls should not use and “never” is one of them.
Later in an early version of the 2001 “Prescott punch” Brown punches a long-haired student heckler to the ground. Bizarrely, a number of journalists assist Brown. “I left one long-haired young man…very surprised indeed…” Brown later wrote “when he found himself lying on the floor as the result of the accidental collision of his chin with my fist.”
Brown loses Belper and never returns as an MP. He changes his surname to George-Brown to ensure that on receiving a peerage both names are included in the title Lord George-Brown.
1976: Brown resigns from the party. The Times reports “Lord George-Brown drunk is a better man than Harold Wilson sober”. Brown falls over during the announcement of his resignation. He is widely assumed to be drunk. In fact, for once, he isn’t.
By coincidence, Wilson resigns suddenly as Prime Minister only a few days later.
1981: Like many right wing pro-European Labour politicians, Brown joins the fledgling SDP.
1982: Brown, aged nearly seventy, leaves his wife after thirty-five years, to move in with his personal assistant, then in her thirties. He does not change his will, however, and Lady George-Brown inherits the estate on his death.
1985: Brown converts to Catholicism shortly before his death from cirrhosis of the liver, aged 71.

Brown and JFK

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

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

Wounded Leaders

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

David-Cameron

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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Book review: Roy Jenkins, A Well Rounded Life

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Roy Jenkins: A Well Rounded Life.

John Campbell.

Published by Jonathan Cape, London.

Watching Nick Clegg being soundly beaten by UKIP leader Nigel Farage n the recent radio and TV debates was a dispiriting business. Some may have felt inclined to hark back to an earlier age when the European cause had more eloquent and effective debaters on its side. For example, Roy Jenkins.

Of course, Roy Jenkins (or Lord Jenkins of Hillhead as he was by the end) died in 2003 and would doubtless be horrified to learn that our continued membership of the European Union is now in doubt once again at all. As for the current Coalition Government, this would doubtless shock him less. He was keen on coalition governments long before it was fashionable.

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There are many myths about Roy Jenkins. One is that he was “nature’s old Etonian”, posh and clubbable despite coming from a Welsh mining background. In fact, though this is true (his father was falsely imprisoned for his role in the 1926 General Strike), Jenkins’ background was much more privileged than was generally realised. His father did, after all, serve in the Attlee Government.

Another myth which Campbell convincingly dispels is that Jenkins was lazy. He most definitely was not that, combining a busy social life (including a string of extra marital affairs), with a distinguished career as a biographer and historian in addition to being  Labour’s most successful ever Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was also the first British President of the EEC and co-founder of the ultimately unsuccessful Social Democratic Party.

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During his comparatively  brief spell as Home Secretary between 1965 and 1967, Jenkins transformed more lives for the better than most Prime Ministers have succeeded in doing, sponsoring the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality. He is sometimes credited (or blamed) with launching the permissive society, an exaggeration even if one ignores the fact that the abolition of National Service and the death penalty had already been delivered not by Jenkins but by the Tories. He was no less successful as Chancellor. Sadly, like Tony Benn, the 1970 unexpected Labour General Election defeat of 1970 led his leadership prospects to fade, albeit in a wholly different way to Benn:  Jenkins alienating his then Eurosceptic party through his support for European unity. He was, in fact, perhaps too reluctant to challenge for the leadership and by 1976 when a vacancy finally arose with Wilson’s resignation, it was too late. The SDP, despite huge initial opinion poll success in 1981 and (unlike today’s UKIP) actual by election wins failed to break through although contrary to myth, probably didn’t ensure Tory victory in 1983 either.

This is a superb biography from distinguished author John Campbell. Despite being a self confessed SDP supporter (he actually wrote an earlier biography of Jenkins at the height of the party’s ascendancy), Campbell certainly isn’t blind to either Jenkins’ or the party’s failings.

It is a long book and there are a few errors, mostly ones of chronology. The SDP were formed in 1981 not 1982 as he states on page 9 (though the detailed account of SDP history later in the book makes clear Campbell obviously knows this). Jenkins was also first Home Secretary from 1965 to 1967, not 1966 to 1967 (p1). Tony Blair’s reform of Clause IV did not come “half a century” after Gaitskell’s attempt but only about thirty five years later (p208). Gaitskell attempted this in 1959-60. Blair’s more successful attempt was in 1994-95. Was Sir Stafford Cripps ever referred to as the “Iron Chancellor” as Campbell states (P310-P311)? Maybe he was. The nickname is more usually applied to Labour’s first ever Chancellor Snowdon, however, or sometimes Gordon Brown (and originally to Otto von Bismarck obviously). Finally, the Westland Affair peaked in January 1986 not January 1985 (p642).

But these are quibbles. This is a superb well rounded biography of a well rounded man. It is indeed a biography Roy Jenkins himself would have been proud to have written although he may have struggled to pronounce the title.

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Tony Benn: 1925-2014

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Tony Benn, who had died, aged eighty-eight was primarily famous for the following things:

He was a Labour MP for longer than almost anyone else.

He represented Bristol South East from 1950 until 1960, then again from 1963 until 1983. He enjoyed a final 17 year stint as MP for Chesterfield from 1984 until 2001. Even after he retired to devote “more time to politics” he maintained a high profile. As a young child, he had been introduced to giants of the early 20th century such as Mahatma Gandhi, David Lloyd George and (less proudly) Sir Oswald Mosley.

Diarist.

He is also known for his diaries which he wrote on and off from his wartime teenage years in the 1940s. He wrote them consistently from his return to parliament in the early 1960s until a bout of ill-health persuaded him to stop writing them in 2009. Benn reckoned writing or taping the diaries added about an hour’s extra work to every day but they are now an invaluable historical document of Benn’s own career and the Labour Party’s history, particularly during the Wilson, Callaghan and Foot years. They have been gradually been published since the Eighties, the last volume A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine appearing only a few months ago. It is reviewed here https://chrishallamworldview.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/book-review-tony-benn-a-blaze-of-autumn-sunshine-the-last-diaries/

The best leader Labour never had?

Benn actually never came especially close to leadership himself. He scored fairly poorly in the 1976 Labour leadership contest (still the only one to occur while the party was in power), most of the left-wing vote going to Michael Foot who came second to James Callaghan. By 1980, when Labour was back in Opposition, he might well have won the leadership contest which was won by Foot. But Benn refused to stand, arguing that with the party’s electoral system about to be updated, any leader would ultimately be a lame duck. In 1981, he launched an unexpected and hugely divisive bid for the party deputy leadership but lost very narrowly to Denis Healey. The contest marked the peak of Benn’s influence in the party and the nadir of the party’s fortunes. Many never forgave Benn for the 1981 challenge.

Benn lost his own seat in the 1983 General Election and was thus unable to compete in the subsequent leadership contest won by Neil Kinnock (who Benn disliked as leader, though they had been friends during the early left wing phase of Kinnock’s career). Benn’s final 1988 challenge to Kinnock was taken seriously by few. Benn’s influence was clearly on the wane and he performed even worse than expected.

The cult of Benn.

In fact, though he clearly wanted the leadership at different times, Benn does not seem to have been primarily driven by dreams of power. In a strange way though, like Enoch Powell on the Right, Benn set the mood of the times (the Seventies) more decisively than actual leaders like Harold Wilson and Ted Heath did. There was intense interest and paranoia about Benn in the Seventies. The Sun labelled him “The most dangerous man in Britain” and Benn and his family were frequently harassed by the press and security services.

The battle of the peerage.

In 1942, Tony’s father, William Wedgewood Benn, also a Labour politician, was awarded a hereditary peerage. It was assumed Tony’s older brother Michael would succeed on his father’s death and as he was intent on a career in the church, this wasn’t seen as a problem. In fact, Michael was subsequently killed in the war. The death was a devastating personal blow to his brother and the family, one that Tony never entirely got over. But it also provided a serious obstacle to his political career as in those days it was impossible to renounce a peerage. Getting out of the Lords and back into the Commons as an MP would be essential if Benn was to enjoy a serious political career.

Indeed, the fact that Benn was known to have an elderly father whose death might at any moment end Benn’s career as an MP, had proved something of an obstacle to Benn securing a parliamentary seat in the first place. Despite this, he won a seat while still in his twenties during the last days of the Attlee Government. Throughout the Fifties, he was recognised as a rising star in the party.

Following the death of his father in 1960, a mighty legal battle ensued. After several by-election wins and inertia from many in his own party as well as the Tory Government, Benn triumphantly returned to the Commons in 1963. An odd side-effect was that Benn’s actions enabled Lord Home to renounce his peerage and become Tory Prime Minister later that same year.

More…

He was born in 1925, the same year as Margaret Thatcher. Both attended Oxford simultaneously and probably met as both were active in student politics. However, there is no record of them meeting at this time.

Benn served in the RAF during the Second World War. He was married to his American wife Caroline for fifty years. His son Hilary Benn was a minister in the Brown government. Although clearly far to the Right of his father, Tony (a vocal critic of New Labour) was always careful not to criticise his son in his diaries or anywhere else.

Benn enjoyed his most successful period in government as Postmaster General under Wilson introducing the giro system, opening the Post Office Tower and perhaps less happily unsuccessfully launching a scheme to remove the Queen’s head from stamps (Benn met the Queen and got the impression she backed the scheme. It seems she did not). Benn also outlawed pirate radio, something he later regretted.

Benn was generally known as Anthony Wedgewood Benn until the mid-Seventies. Critics still called him this until the end of his life in the hope of embarrassing him by drawing attention to his aristocratic background. He is also sometimes referred to as the former Viscount Stansgate, although he never actually used the title himself.

Benn was known for his pipe and compulsive tea drinking.

With the notable exception of Lord Denis Healey (who is 96) and three of the four founders of the SDP, Benn outlived most of his colleagues and opponents.

Friends included Chris Mullin (former MP and author of A Very British Coup), actress Saffron Burrows and newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky.

Benn had many opponents on both the Left and Right. Despite this, he was always recognised for his decency and courteous manner. Perhaps no politician since Churchill has overseen such an enduring and wide ranging career in public life.