Book review: UnPresidented, by Jon Sopel

It was an election liķe no other.
The same, of course, has been said of most recent US elections ‐ the 2000 Bush/Gore disputed result, Obama’s historic 2008 win, the 2016 Trump upset. But as veteran British correspondent, Jon Sopel’s diaries remind us, the 2020 campaign really was, again, an election like no other. This is partly because of the unprecedented circumstances: the combination of a global pandemic, the resulting economic crisis and the George Floyd riots made it seem like a replay of 1919, 1929 and 1968 all at once.
It was also because of the uniquely eccentric and belligerent personality of the defeated Republican candidate, President Donald Trump. With the ultimately victorious Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden maintaining a low profile, the transparent and belligerent Trump largely lost the election by himself, suggesting at one point that the public inject themselves with bleach, deliberately and dishonestly playing down the extent of the pandemic and shamelessly and recklessly helping spread the virus himself amongst the population during his campaign.
Sopel’s compelling diaries now contain a new introduction on the violent aftermath of the election result and Trump’s second impeachment.

Book review: The Prime Ministers We Never Had: Success and Failure from Butler to Corbyn, by Steve Richards

Steve Richards knows his stuff.

His previous book, The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to Johnson focused on the ten most recent British occupants of 10 Downing Street.

In his new book, even the list of subjects chosen is potentially contentious as Richards has specifically chosen to focus on the ten people who he feels came closest to becoming Prime Minister in the last sixty or so years without ever quite achieving it.

The list actually includes eleven people, not ten, as Richards has judged the two Milibands to be equally worthy of a place here and are both dealt with in one chapter.

The figures included are:

Rab Butler, Roy Jenkins, Barbara Castle, Denis Healey, Neil Kinnock, Michael Heseltine,  Michael Portillo, Ken Clarke, David and Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn.

It is a good selection. Of the eleven, only three were ever party leader. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband were both cruelly denied power after losing General Elections (in 1992 and 2015) which most opinion polls and most people expected them to emerge from as Prime Minister, as at the very least, the leaders of a Hung Parliament. In 2017, Jeremy Corbyn caused a major upset by wiping out Theresa May’s majority in an unnecessary election which she had expected to win by a landslide. For a short period, Corbyn seemed achingly close to power. But his last two years as Opposition leader were disastrous and in 2019, he lost far more heavily to the Tories, by then under their new leader, Boris Johnson.

Two others on the list, Rab Butler and Michael Heseltine came close to becoming leader while their parties were in power.  But while supremely well-qualified for the position of PM on paper, Butler lacked the qualities necessary to secure the position in practice. He lost out three times in 1955, 1957 and 1963. He was ultimately outmanoeuvred by the far more ruthless Harold Macmillan. Amongst other things, his speech to the 1963 Party Conference was much too dull to excite the Tory Faithful.

Michael Heseltine’s party conference speeches, in contrast, were never dull but he faced a near impossible challenge in 1990 in attempting to both remove Margaret Thatcher from office and replace her. He succeeded in the first but failed to achieve the latter despite remaining a potential leadership contender until after the Tories lost power in 1997. Although he wisely avoids going down the counter-factual history route, Richards does speculate that as Prime Minister, Heseltine may well have fundamentally changed Britain forever. Alas, we will never know.

Ultimately, all eleven of the figures featured here failed to win the premiership for different reasons. Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey and Ken Clarke all attempted to swim against the opposing tides then prevailing within their own parties. Onetime heir to the Thatcherite legacy, Michael Portillo, meanwhile, was forced into such a fundamental rethink of his values by his 1997 defeat, that he seemed to have lost all his enthusiasm for leadership by the time he was finally able to contest it in 2001. Many of his original supporters by then had their doubts as to whether they still wanted him to be leader too.

Richards’ list is almost as interesting for those it misses off as for those it includes. From the outset, his position is clear: in this book, he is only interested in the reasons why people didn’t become PM. He thus wastes no time on the tragic cases of Hugh Gaitskell, Iain Macleod or John Smith, all of whom lost any chance they might have had simply as a result of their sadly premature deaths. He also wastes no time on no-hopers. Whatever qualities they might have had, nobody ever expected Michael Foot or William Hague to make the jump from Opposition leader to Downing Street, least of all the men themselves.

I am surprised by Reginald Maudling’s exclusion from the list, however. Whatever his flaws, he was widely expected to beat Edward Heath to the Tory leadership in 1965 and from there may well have led the Tories back into power as Heath himself somehow managed to do. Richards also (perhaps after some hesitation) rejects Tony Benn from the list arguing:

“Benn almost qualifies as a prime minister we never had but fails to do so because, unlike Corbyn, he was never leader of the Opposition and he never had a credible chance of becoming prime minister while Labour was in government.”

This is fair enough but it does make Barbara Castle’s inclusion as one of the ten seem a bit conspicuous. She never after all, even stood for party leader. Yet it arguably doesn’t matter. Castle was a colourful and interesting character. She might have become leader and her inclusion proves a useful entry point for discussing other female politicians of the time such as Shirley Williams and Margaret Thatcher. Richards’ writing is consistently engaging and well-argued. And rest assured, the likes of Tony Benn and Michael Foot certainly get lots of coverage here anyway.

It is a sad book, in some ways. Neil Kinnock possessed many brilliant qualities and achieved much but his nine years as Opposition leader were generally agonising. He arguably saved the Labour Party only to find that he himself had become their biggest obstacle to it ever winning power. Both Milibands were hugely talented too but ultimately found their own ambitions effectively cancelled each other out with disastrous consequences for both them and their family. Jeremy Corbyn, a man who Richards reliably assures us is almost completely lacking in any personal vanity at all ended up finding himself widely labelled as narcissistic.

It is an excellent book nevertheless confirming Steve Richards’ position as one of our finest political writers. Perhaps Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer should grab a copy and take note if only to help ensure they don’t find themselves in any future editions?

Published by: Atlantic Books.

Book review: This Land, by Owen Jones

Five and a half years ago, Jeremy Corbyn achieved the seemingly impossible. An amiable left-wing backbencher of some thirty years standing, his victory in the contest to succeed Ed Miliband was one of the most astounding political occurrences of the past fifty years. Yet four years later, his leadership ended in bitter defeat.

This insider’s account from the talented left-wing writer Owen Jones, one of the first people to champion Corbyn’s campaign in 2015, tells the story of this failure. We will all have our own views of Jeremy Corbyn. However, this is a review of Owen Jones’ book not of Corbyn himself. And Jones is frank about Corbyn’s failings. He could be stubborn and badly organised. He totally mishandled the Brexit issue and the antisemitism row, two issues which totally derailed his leadership.

On the other hand, Jones does not mince words on how Corbyn was betrayed by those within his own party and how less surprisingly he was brutally misrepresented and maligned by Britain’s conservative media. Owen Jones’ book is a thoughtful, well-written, balanced, intelligent and accessible account of a revolution which failed.

This Land: The Story of a Movement, by Owen Jones. Published by Allen Lane (2020)

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: 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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