Payne journeys through the Red Wall seats to discover how Labour lost them and Johnson won

18 Sep

Broken Heartlands: A Journey Through Labour’s Lost England by Sebastian Payne

The first thing Sebastian Payne prompted me to do was to order a copy of English Journey by J. B. Priestley. For Payne starts his book in Gateshead, where he grew up, and is sporting enough to quote what Priestley wrote about it in 1933:

“No true civilisation could have produced such a town, which is nothing better than a huge dingy dormitory.”

Payne is not a second Priestley. He is neither such a good writer, nor so rude. But he is a good investigative journalist, who wants to understand what happened in the Red Wall seats where the Conservatives made such inroads in 2019.

The term “Red Wall” was coined by the pollster James Kanagasooriam to describe seats which had never returned a Tory MP since 1997 (or in some cases since the Second World War); voted on average by 63 per cent for Brexit (compared to the national average of 52 per cent); had a substantial Labour majority during the 1990s; and also had a substantial minority Tory vote.

Four such seats went blue for the first time at the 2017 general election: Mansfield, North East Derbyshire, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, and Walsall North.

Thirty four went blue in 2019, and another 14 stayed in Labour hands. Payne quotes a Labour aide who says the 2019 result could have been even worse:

“We looked at the North and Midlands and thought the whole thing could just go, it could have been another Scotland for us.”

But to lose 34 seats is still pretty bad, and Payne sets out to discover what happened, and whether 2019 “was a fluke, or a realignment”.

His method is to visit ten Red Wall seats, each of which gets about 30 pages of text: Blyth Valley, North West Durham, Sedgefield, Wakefield, Don Valley, Great Grimsby, North East Derbyshire, Coventry North West, Heywood and Middleton, and Burnley.

In the course of his researches he interviews 120 people, including many former Labour MPs, often spoken to remotely, in part because of the pandemic. So we hear from Tony Blair, David Blunkett, David Miliband, Alan Johnson and many others.

In Blyth Valley, he meets Ronnie Campbell, former miner, Labour MP there from 1987-2019, when he retired because of a heart complaint; and Ian Levy, former mental health nurse, who proceeded to win the seat by 712 votes for the Conservatives.

Levy told Payne how he came to stand:

“We would often go out for a meal or a drink, me and my wife Maureen. On the wander back, when I’d had a few beers, I would start complaining about the state of the town centre: the state of the bus shelters, the feeling of despondency there was in the town where people feel really, really let down, and that their vote is taken for granted.

“I think she was happy to hear this, once, twice, maybe 30 times. But once it got to 40 or 50, she’d absolutely had enough. I remember this one night in particular she said, ‘Either do something about it or shut up.’ And I said, ‘Right, OK then.'”

The next day he told her he was going to stand for Parliament. His “gut feeling” took him towards the Conservatives, but he found there was no Conservative Association in Blyth Valley, so he wrote to David Cameron, explaining his passion for Blyth, the problems he had identified and how he intended to fix them.

Much to his and Maureen’s surprise, he received a positive reply, and in 2016 was invited to CCHQ for an interview, after which he became the prospective parliamentary candidate.

His first campaign, in the 2017 general election, was run with £500 donated by Matt Ridley, described by Payne as “the aristocratic science writer and libertarian campaigner based in Northumberland”.

Levy’s daughter and her friends distributed leaflets, and the Conservative vote rose to 15,855 (it had been 8,346 in 2015), but the genial Campbell was still well ahead, with 23,770 votes.

Two years later, the Conservative vote increased again, to 17,440, while Campbell’s successor fell back to 16,728. Levy in his second campaign had won a famous victory.

“One of the nuisances of the ballot,” Lord Salisbury once remarked, “is that when the oracle has spoken you never know what it means.”

There is a temptation, when seeking to explain what happened in the Red Wall seats, to pretend to greater knowledge than is actually possible.

It can be difficult enough to know what is going on inside one’s own head, let alone anyone else’s, as one makes up one’s mind how to vote. Here is Payne on his own decision in the EU Referendum of 2016:

“On both sides of my family, almost everyone voted Leave. I was deeply torn: my northern hinterland and instincts pulled me towards Brexit, but after twenty minutes in the polling booth, my head put a tick in the Remain column.”

One rejoices to find such a balanced outlook, such conscious doubt, in a reporter for a newspaper, The Financial Times, which expressed such dogmatic enthusiasm for remaining in the EU.

There is an overwhelming sense, in every place visited by Payne, of having seen better days. Great industries have collapsed,  so has the communal life which they engendered, and handsome town centres are left to rot.

Local pride is wounded at every turn by evidence of neglect, shoddiness and former greatness. The prosperous, of whom there are more than one might think, flee to houses on the periphery.

And as Payne explains, the Labour coalition has broken down:

“From its inception, the party was built on a Hampstead-to-Humberside electoral alliance, bridging metropolitan liberal voters, typified in the north London enclave, to the working-class voters in England’s working-class towns. Brexit annihilated this alliance, but Labour’s shift on other matters set the stage for the demise, according to Blair.”

Blair talks at considerable length to Payne. The ingenuity with which he justifies himself is impressive, and his self-righteousness is insufferable.

Nothing is ever Blair’s fault. Norman Tebbit, speaking from his office in the House of Lords, strikes a different note:

“There were mining communities in rural areas where there was very little other work. Unfortunately we could have run those mines down much more slowly. We could have done more to help to bring jobs to those areas. There was a deep and profound economic and social change that went on, which was adverse to those local people.”

One of the paradoxes of Payne’s account is that he talks to so many politicians, he does not always allow the voices of local people to be heard.

We instead get the generally rather bland language of professional politicians, discussing what to do about the Red Wall seats, what to do about Brexit, and still cut off from the people who in 2016 seized the chance to make their voice heard, administering a most tremendous shock to the metropolitan liberals who had ignored them for so long.

The weakness of Theresa May after the 2017 general election turned out to be a trap for the Remainers. Peter Mandelson tells Payne how Blair assembled a group of like-minded Labour figures and told them they had “a real opportunity” to get Leaver voters to think again.

After they had spent some time trying to persuade Leave voters that leaving was not such a great idea, Mandelson told Blair “We’re not gaining traction here”, but Blair would not accept this.

The People’s Vote campaigners were not thinking straight. As Mandelson says, the question of “what would be on the ballot paper of a second referendum…was insoluble”.

Labour, which in 2017 was still promising to implement the referendum result, ended up in a ridiculous position at the 2019 election, seen by Leave voters as an attempt to wriggle out of getting Brexit done, and Johnson won a thumping victory.

Johnson enters this book at the end, campaigning in May 2021 in the Hartlepool by-election, another famous Tory victory:

“With Jill Mortimer, the Tory candidate, he paced up the seafront in his trademark blue suit – sans coat, despite the weather. He was mobbed. Soon, the traffic piled up as every car stopped to point and shout, ‘Boris!’ He was the Pied Piper in the middle of a hurricane. He asked each voter he stopped to talk to if the party could count on their support. Bar some who were uncertain, every one answered in the affirmative. No one said they were backing Labour. The response was unlike any I have seen to any politician on the campaign trail, in any election: dozens of Hartlepudlians wanted selfies and elbow bumps with the Prime Minister. You cannot imagine David Cameron or Theresa May eliciting such a response.”

Payne later interviews Johnson:

“Recalling the scenes on the beach front, I asked why he felt he was so personally popular with working-class voters, despite his Eton and Oxford background? Was it that he was seen as an unconventional political insurgent? After running his hand through his mop of hair several times, Johnson said, ‘Look, it beats me.’ He appeared to be on the cusp of revealing more, before restraining himself. ‘It’s not about me, this is about this country.'”

Yes, it is about what kind of country we are, what kind of nation. And to cast light on that question, I hope another author, a latter-day Priestley, will make an English journey and spend more time talking to random members of the public, unimportant people.

Ashcroft goes in search of the real Starmer

21 Aug

Red Knight: The Unauthorised Biography of Sir Keir Starmer by Michael Ashcroft

Michael Ashcroft specialises in getting there first. Within the last two years he has brought out the first biographies of Rishi Sunak (reviewed here) and Jacob Rees-Mogg (reviewed here), this week he offers us the first life of Sir Keir Starmer, and he has promised that “early in 2022” we shall get his account of Carrie Johnson.

There is an excitement in being first. One feels like an archaeologist excavating a site which no rival has yet touched.

I had this experience in 2004, when I began researching the early life of Boris Johnson, tipped at that time as the next Conservative Prime Minister.

Starmer has led a quieter life than Johnson. A search of all 72 issues of The Leeds Student (the weekly newspaper for Leeds University) published during Starmer’s time reading law there (1982-85) yielded a single reference to him, published in the “Personals” column on 27 January 1984:

“Keir Starmer, King of Middle-Class Radicals.”

As Ashcroft writes, this arresting phrase “was almost certainly an in-joke between friends”. He uses it as the title for a chapter, and speculates that Starmer was already “fending off accusations of being more bourgeois than he would care to admit”.

While at Leeds, Ashcroft concludes, Starmer “did not seek the spotlight, but was instead cautious, modest and restrained”, and concentrated on getting a good degree.

Which he did, taking a first and proceeding to postgraduate law studies at Oxford University, where he was at St Edmund Hall from 1985-86.

During this period, “Oxford was awash with future front-rank politicians”, including David Cameron, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Radek Sikorski, Ed Balls and David Miliband.

Johnson, regarded by many of his contemporaries as a future Prime Minister, was at that stage the best known of these aspirants. In early 1986 he was elected (at the second attempt) President of the Oxford Union, and the following year just failed (to his bitter disappointment) to take a first in classics, having done almost no academic work except for an inadequate last-minute spurt.

Starmer spent, by his own account, “an intense year studying” in Oxford, which “confirmed me in my choice of pursuing a career as a human rights advocate, both here in the UK and abroad.”

It is not hard to think of circumstances in which this contrast could work to Starmer’s advantage. One can well imagine that Johnson’s mastery of the theatre of politics, and patchy approach to study, might create a reaction in favour of a less dramatic but more conscientious Prime Minister.

On the other hand, if it does, the Conservatives will attempt to install a less dramatic but more conscientious figure of their own.

Starmer has long been at pains to emphasise his working-class origins. Ashcroft looks into this class question with great care, and suggests that petit bourgeois would be a more accurate term, though that implies a cultural narrowness of which there is no sign.

For Starmer won a place at Reigate Grammar School in 1974, at a time when it was still, just, “a proper state grammar school”, as one of the teachers recalls, where “the ability level of the pupils was amazingly high”.

Starmer was a gifted musician, “good enough at the flute to be an exhibitioner at the Junior Guildhall School of Music”, to which he travelled for lessons on Saturday mornings.

He was also an accomplished footballer, who captained the school team in his last year “and proved a good leader both on and off the field”.

On the bus each morning to school, Starmer, a member of the East Surrey Young Socialists and an atheist, honed his wits in a running argument about politics, and also about religion, with a fellow pupil, Andrew Sullivan, a liberal conservative and Roman Catholic who was elected president of the Oxford Union and has since become a well-known commentator in the United States.

In 1976 Reigate Grammar School escaped abolition by going independent (though under the transitional arrangements Starmer continued to attend without his parents having to pay fees).

Andrew Adonis recently pointed out, in a piece for Prospect entitled “Boris Johnson: The Prime Etonian”, that in the 1970s, “having been for centuries essentially a comprehensive for the aristocracy, Eton changed into an oligarchical grammar school”:

“Just as Eton and the other top public schools were mutating into warped meritocracies, the grammar schools were abolished, so the competition largely left the field. It was strangely unrealised by Labour politicians of the era that the esprit de corps and academic prowess of the grammar schools had been vital to the left’s ability to take on the Tory public school elite on equal terms.

“The main political casualty of Labour’s comprehensivisation of education turned out to be the Labour Party itself, which thereafter lacked leaders with the confidence to match the gilded grammar school generation of Wilson, Healey and Jenkins, while the new breed of ‘meritocratic’ Etonians and fellow public school boys—girls were still rare, and girl Etonians non-existent—remained deep blue.”

Johnson used quite often to declare, with passionate sincerity, that competition is an essential part of education, so is academic selection, and so is studying subjects, such as Greek and Latin grammar, where there are right and wrong answers.

Competition suited him, and it suited Starmer, though the latter’s subjects at A level seem to have been maths, physics and chemistry, in which there are likewise right and wrong answers.

Conservatives still argue rather fruitlessly about grammar schools, but for Labour the whole subject of education, and how to reconcile the democratic thirst for equality with unequal distribution of ability and society’s need for a highly educated elite, is even more difficult.

Starmer’s parents were keen supporters of their local theatre, the Barn in Oxted, and attended plays and concerts all over Surrey. His father, a toolmaker, had his own business, and cared devotedly for Keir’s mother, born in 1939, who at the age of 11 was found to be suffering from Still’s disease.

Her consultant at Guy’s Hospital, Dr Kenneth Maclean, received her parents’ permission to administer the new steroid cortisone to her, which for a long time enabled her to live a much fuller life than had been expected.

Keir did not have a close relationship with his father, a man of rugged independence who late in life sent a round robin Christmas letter in which he remarked of “some of the residents in Oxted”:

“The posher the voice, the more vulgar they are.”

Ashcroft finds this “rather gratuitous”, but I find it admirable, an expression of the Englishman’s ancient right to be as rude as he likes about those who give themselves airs.

I would guess Starmer finds Johnson vulgar, but doesn’t quite know how to say this. One of the melancholy conclusions to be drawn from this book is that Starmer has yet to offer any phrases to the world which are likely to survive him.

Ashcroft takes us through Starmer’s increasingly successful legal career, culminating, after he has served as Director of Public Prosecutions, in a knighthood. His parents drive up from Surrey for the ceremony, bringing with them a Great Dane, a rescue dog called Chip, who they are told they cannot bring into Buckingham Palace, until Chip licks the police inspector’s face and they are all allowed through, with a member of staff volunteering to look after the dog.

The Starmers, she by now confined to a wheelchair, watch their son kneel in front of Prince Charles and reckon they are “the proudest parents there”. This is the stuff to give voters in the Red Wall seats who doubt whether Labour is still patriotic.

But it is also something their son feels an overwhelming urge to play down, for like most members of the modern Establishment, he wants somehow to deny that he belongs to it, and to emphasise his ordinariness.

As Ashcroft points out, this makes it impossible for Labour to talk convincingly about aspiration, the opportunities to better oneself which industry and ability can open to anyone in this country.

Unwearying egalitarianism undermines pride in individual achievement. Of course, any individual achievement also reflects credit on family, school, friends, colleagues etcetera.

But Starmer comes across as a bit of a bore (which actually he isn’t) because he feels a moral obligation virtually never to give credit to individuals, and to the difference they can make, but always to be collective and inclusive.

Until recently, Starmer could have served as a barrister and an MP at the same time, which would have given him more practice at speaking like a politician rather than a human rights lawyer.

This book will be found invaluable by anyone seeking to work out what kind of a person Starmer really is.

Johnson now has the serious task of restoring pride to the working class, failed by Labour

24 Jul

The New Snobbery: Taking on Modern Elitism and Empowering the Working Class by David Skelton

If David Skelton had delayed publication of this book by many more months, he would have had to rename it The New Orthodoxy.

For the lessons he urged in his last book, Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map, are becoming more and more widely accepted.

That book was reviewed on ConHome in October 2019, and in December of that year Boris Johnson redrew the political map by leading the Conservatives to victory in many of the forgotten towns.

Or the blue remembered towns, as one might now call them. The initiative now lies with the Conservatives.

The “new snobbery” identified by Skelton is mainly a problem for the Labour Party, which needs to regain the seats it lost in 2019, and cannot do so as long as voters in places like Hartlepool, captured by the Conservatives at a by-election held less than three months ago, feel despised by many on the Left.

That astonishing result came just in time for Skelton, who writes:

“Once the scale of the Hartlepool defeat for Labour had become clear, elements of the Left indulged in another round of electorate blaming. One claimed that the problem for the Left was that ‘a huge number of the general public are racists and bigots’ and asked, ‘How do you begin to tackle entrenched idiocy like that?’ Another claimed, ‘We don’t have an opposition problem. We have an electorate problem.'”

Skelton has collected much snobbery of this kind, some of which he quotes in his piece this week for ConHome.

In his book Skelton reminds us that such sentiments are not new. Here is Engels to Marx in November 1868, as newly enfranchised working-class voters supported “reactionary” parties:

“The proletariat has discredited itself terribly.”

Nobody has put it better than Engels. The workers often refuse to behave as progressive middle-class intellectuals instruct them to behave.

Skelton writes in a rushed, clumsy and gloomy tone about the dreadful delusions of the leftie intellectuals, but surely they have more cause for despondency as they contemplate Johnson’s to them incomprehensible success.

Lunatic “woke” nostrums, and attempts by their adherents to usher in a tyranny of virtue, cry out for a new Michael Wharton who helps us laugh to scorn these impertinent attempts to purify our history, language, institutions and the rest.

Earlier this week, I met a peer who has just been on one of the courses where members of the House of Lords are taught how to behave. He took it all with the utmost docility, but at the end asked his instructor whether it was all right to be rude to an Old Etonian.

“Oh yes,” she replied without a moment’s thought.

And perhaps that is one of the things people like about Johnson. One can be as rude as one wants to him and he doesn’t seem to mind.

The Prime Minister has an old-fashioned idea of liberty, as involving a degree of tastelessness; a propensity to live and let live; and a willingness to tease the Puritans, not least by avoiding a culture war fought on their own ineffably humourless terms.

We now have Wharton, not as a columnist for The Daily Telegraph, but as Prime Minister: a man capable of seeing the absurdity of everyone, including himself.

But there is another part of Skelton’s story where gloom is understandable. The destruction of great industries, the loss of skilled trades, the humiliation of proud workers reduced to scraping a precarious existence, is the dismal post-war story in town after town.

The example closest to Skelton’s heart is the closure in 1980 of the great steelworks in his home town of Consett, a topic dealt with at greater length in his previous book.

One of the worst things about the nationalisation after the Second World War of the commanding heights of the British economy was that decisions were no longer taken locally, but in London, where it was easier to pretend that parsimonious investment, limited by Treasury rules and recurrent public spending crises, would be adequate to modernise these grand old industries.

Local pride and ownership were lost. Now everyone owned the plant, which meant nobody owned it, and its future was in the hands of distant politicians and officials who for the most part had no deep knowledge or commitment.

The nationalised industries declined into job-preservation schemes which failed even in their own terms, a series of doomed rearguard actions as the great names of British manufacturing went under.

Just as modern architecture done on the cheap in the 1950s and 1960s led increasing numbers of us to shudder at the idea of allowing anything to be built, so regional policy and industrial policy were discredited by a lengthening record of failure.

In his recent Levelling Up speech, Johnson lamented the “basic half-heartedness” of the 40 different schemes or bodies which over the last 40 years have tried to boost local or regional growth.

He admitted that “for many decades we relentlessly crushed local leadership” because “we were in the grip of a real ideological conflict in which irresponsible municipal socialist governments were bankrupting cities”.

Now, he rejoiced, “that argument is over and most of the big metro mayors know that private sector investment is crucial”.

So we are at last returning to local leadership. That at least is the idea. We can be pragmatic rather than ideological, and can bring everyone together in a particular locality in order to do what works.

Skelton agrees that we should not allow ourselves to get “stuck in the endless trenches of a culture war”.

He observes that the Labour Party “emerged from those great institutions of working-class life: the chapel and the trade union”, but that the proportion of Labour MPs who were manual workers “has fallen from almost 20 per cent in 1979 to less than three per cent today”.

The party has become obsessed by cultural issues, and has forgotten that secure, well-paid work is what matters to its former voters.

Let the Labour Party debate cultural issues to its heart’s content, while the dignity of work is championed by the Conservatives.

Skelton wants to formalise “the partnership between workers and employers” by putting workers on boards, which he thinks would “help to rein in the excesses of executive pay”, and would “increase productivity, enhance retention and promote a long-term focus”, instead of short-term expedients to increase shareholder value.

Every successful Conservative leader from Disraeli to the present day has taken seriously the requirements of the working class, and has thereby triumphed over priggish middle-class Liberals and Socialists who supposed they were the true guardians of the workers. Here is a serious task for Johnson.

Husain warns in his new book that British Muslims lead increasingly separate lives

26 Jun

Among the Mosques: A Journey Across Muslim Britain by Ed Husain

As your train pulls in to the station in a town you do not know well, you notice a new mosque, with minaret, standing in clear view of the tracks, and wonder what is going on inside, but reflect that you lack the knowledge of Islam, perhaps also the linguistic equipment, to make sense of what you would see and hear if you were to pay a visit.

And you reflect that you do not want to give offence. It is really much easier, and more tactful, to leave the worshippers at that mosque to their own devices, than to pester them with ignorant questions which might sound suspicious or even hostile.

For you, inhibited traveller, it would be a good idea to read Ed Husain’s book. For he has gone by train to nine towns and cities across the United Kingdom, and in each of these attended Friday prayers at the central mosque, entered many other mosques, Islamic schools and bookshops, questioned everyone from the imams and the faithful to chance passers-by in the streets, and created from these dialogues a portrait of some of the most unknown districts in Britain.

Husain is a Muslim who in his first book, The Islamist, described how he became, at the age of 16, a fundamentalist, and how he saw the error of his ways. His next work, The House of Islam: A Global History, reviewed on ConHome under the headline “How Islam and the West went wrong”,

“is animated by a burning sense of indignation at the way in which the Muslim faith has been narrowed and traduced by the rise of Salafi literalism, which as he says is ‘eerily similar’ to the puritanism which from the 16th century afflicted the Christian world.”

In his third book, he examines what has become of British Muslims, “the grandchildren of the British Empire”, in such centres as Dewsbury, Manchester, Blackburn, Bradford, Birmingham and London.

He has accumulated a mass of evidence, any one bit of which might be dismissed as inconsequential. But although his account is shot through with moments of hope, its general tendency is to warn that we have not being paying attention to a growing gulf within our own country.

In the “deeply divided” town of Blackburn, once represented in Parliament by Jack Straw, he finds:

“Much like Dewsbury, it is clear that a caliphist subculture thrives here, a separate world from the rest of British society.”

In Bradford, which has 103 mosques, he wonders how the city has become so segregated, and is appalled to find that the police are not allowed into mosques to speak to the congregants about not grooming white girls.

An imam tells him the groomers have nothing to do with Islam:

“There are two factors involved in those cases again and again: drugs and alcohol. Does Islam permit those things? Of course not. Yes, they have Muslim names and Pakistani backgrounds, but our mosques are not responsible for their criminality. These issues will be with us for a long time in Leeds, Bradford, Halifax, Keighley and other cities. But unless the police can prove it is not down to drugs and alcohol, we will not open the mosque doors to them…

“In 2010, they brought in laws to end corporal punishment. We as teachers in the mosque have no power over the children. They become teenagers and have no respect for us. The British limited us to the four walls of the mosque and then stopped our ability to control children.”

Husain argues for some time with this imam, but no meeting of minds takes place. He finds instead a closing of minds; a determination not to integrate:

“After travelling the length and breadth of Great Britain, meeting Muslims from every major denomination, it is clear to me that blind reliance on scripture and clerics is overwhelmingly strong within British Islam.”

But into what are British Muslims supposed to integrate? This is the question to which Husain works round at the end of his book. In his opinion,

“A fuzzy ‘integration’ whose success is judged by Muslims speaking English, baking cakes and playing cricket will not work. Caliphists are only successful in winning followers for their imagined utopia of an ‘Islamic State’ because the majority community is unable to tell a more compelling story of why Muslims should have a stake in maintaining Britain as a pluralistic, tolerant, secular democracy.”

Many at Westminster supposed that devolving power to Edinburgh would be a sufficient way to persuade the Scots to remain in the Union.

Only now is the realisation dawning that a positive idea of Britishness, as something more than the freedom to do one’s own thing, is required.

A similar misconception has underlain the failure of integration to which Husain draws attention.

The British idea of freedom includes a strong predisposition to respect other people’s privacy.

What one does in one’s own home is nobody else’s business. So too what one does in one’s church, temple, synagogue or mosque.

But this right to privacy does in fact have limits. It does not extend to the right in one’s own home to beat up one’s spouse, or in one’s place of worship to preach sedition.

Consider this passage from the Church of England’s Prayer Book:

“We beseech thee also to save and defend all Christian Kings, Princes, and Governors; and specially thy servant ELIZABETH our Queen; that under her we may be godly and quietly governed: And grant unto her whole Council, and to all that are put in authority under her, that they may truly and indifferently minister justice, to the punishment of wickedness and vice, and to the maintenance of thy true religion, and virtue.”

Husain remarks:

“In Britain’s synagogues on Saturday mornings, as in many of its churches on Sundays, a prayer is always said for the good health of the Queen. Historically, Muslims too have always prayed for the head of state’s wellbeing, as a symbol of thanksgiving for the security and stability of the lands in which they live. This prayer is more important now than ever to connect young Muslims to their country, monarch and government.”

When asked at a mosque in Rochdale to address an assembly of 120 children who are attending its Quran class, Husain tells them:

“never forget that you are children of this soil. You were born here and you belong here. Let nobody tell you otherwise. Muslims serve in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces and are present in every aspect of life here. Serve your country and your faith, and know that there is no contradiction between the two of them. Those who say we must choose between them, one or the other, are wrong. It’s like asking us to choose between our mum and our dad. Our religion tells us to serve our country, and our country gives us the freedom to be religious in a way that China or Russia does not.”

What a brave book this is. For as Husain says, for fear of giving offence, we often remain silent.

Norcott tells us why Radio Four is no longer funny

29 May

Where Did I Go Right? How The Left Lost Me by Geoff Norcott

When did comedy on BBC Radio Four become no laughing matter? And why has Labour lost the working class?

If Geoff Norcott were writing this review, he would now drop in a deadpan joke, just to reassure the reader, or readers, that he is not about to go all portentous on us.

He sounds nervous about not being funny enough often enough. For a comedian, this is a good fear to have, though at a personal level it must also get wearing.

There are laughs on almost every page of Norcott’s memoir. “I laughed out loud – Andrew Gimson, ConservativeHome” will not shift a single extra copy, could indeed reduce sales by suggesting that no decent, left-wing member of society would want to be seen dead reading this book.

All the same, I laughed out loud. And since I never quite believe recommendations of this kind – for it is more than possible that the reviewer is given to over-statement, or is trading favours with the author, or else has absolutely no sense of humour – here is a passage by Norcott himself.

His father, a one-armed trade unionist, has become seriously ill, and the family have gathered at the hospital, braced for bad news:

The consultant breezed in. You might think “breezed'” is already a verb loading the bases for bias but there’s no other way of describing it. She was in her early forties, seemed to be sporting a recent suntan and bore no hallmarks of someone about to deliver the kind of sombre news she was there to impart. As she checked the notes she seemed to remember the context and did a tilted head sad-face which reminded me of Jennifer Saunders in Absolutely Fabulous when she feigned melancholy with her daughter Saffie. 

She started with a decent level of gravitas, “So I’m afraid to say it is late-stage pancreatic cancer.”

We all stopped, breathed in and looked at one another.

Then, after a brief pause, the consultant added, “It’s the same cancer Patrick Swayze died of.”

I stared straight at her. It was such a bizarre thing to say. I didn’t know what she was getting at, whether she’d said that to shed light on the condition or if she was suggesting we, as a family, should be proud that our dad was going out with a relatively high-profile cancer twin. Meanwhile, Dad was staring so hard at the woman I was convinced he was about to turn the air blue.

“Who the fuck is Patrick Swayze?” he eventually asked, never especially up on pop culture.

“He’s the one from Big Trouble in Little China,” my sister explained.

“No,” I interrupted, “that’s Kurt Russell, he just looks like Patrick Swayze.”

If you enjoyed that passage, you will enjoy Norcott’s book. If not, not.

But this book is not just enjoyable. It also explains, without portentousness, why comedy on Radio 4 has stopped being funny, and why Labour lost the workers.

For Norcott is a comedian who alone among his trade, decided to come out as a Conservative. In this memoir he describes his journey, as Tony Blair would call it, from a dodgy South London council estate to voting Tory.

Looking back, he detects twinges of small-c conservatism even his his childhood. At the age of 11, he goes off to school, leaving his mother in her dressing gown, “smoking and gasbagging” with the other mums, who are sitting on the stairs adjacent to her front door:

“When I got back at 3.30 p.m. she was still sitting there, still in her dressing gown. I was livid.”

He remarks that this experience “has left me with a lifelong distrust of dressing gowns”.

He was certainly not ready to come out as a Conservative, but he does already have a “pathological fear of poverty”. His parents have got divorced, which makes their finances more precarious, but he admires the work ethic of his stepfather.

This, palpably, is the way to escape poverty, as long the state doesn’t take most of your money in taxes and hand it out to the idlers on the estate who sit around all day in their dressing gowns, getting more money from inactivity than they would from an honest day’s toil.

But I have slipped into preaching mode, which Norcott never does. His conservatism is more a matter of intimations than of moral certainties.

Those belong to the Left. His parents took every chance to reinforce the prevailing narrative that the Tories “don’t give a toss about normal people”.

Something about this doesn’t quite fit. Norcott, born in 1976, goes to Rutlish School in Merton Park, and while he is there, a former pupil becomes Prime Minister.

At the 1992 General Election, the Conservatives run a successful ad campaign addressing the charge that they don’t care about normal people:

“What did the Tories do with a working-class boy from Brixton? They made him prime minister.”

Norcott is not exactly a Major fan:

“Like most people in Britain at that time, my view was that I didn’t mind him. He inspired an almost ideological level of ambivalence.”

Yet when Major comes to speak at his old school, it turns out there is more to him than that:

“The staff at Rutlish, like at most teaching faculties, were overwhelmingly left wing. Coming off the back of the Thatcher years, they were quite open in their contempt for the Tories. And yet, on the night Major came, it’s fair to say he surprised everybody by charming their leftie pants right off them. ‘What an honest man,’ they eulogised. It was also noticeable that he had a particular effect on the ladies. Before his affair with Edwina Currie became public knowledge, the last thing you’d have had Major down as would’ve been a ‘playa’, but the female staff were disturbed by how charismatic they found him… As my mate Michael put it, having met him, ‘The bloke’s a fucking unit. He’s got shoulders like a cupboard.'”

Norcott observes that the Labour candidate, Neil Kinnock, “seems a bit of a pillock”, for example by saying “We’re all right!” in “a preposterous American accent” at “a needlessly glitzy and self-congratulatory rally in Sheffield”.

It is also harder, Norcott remarks, to become Prime Minister if you are “bald, ginger or Welsh”, and “Kinnock was all three”:

“I’m not saying those aversions are morally justifiable but part of the Conservative mindset is understanding the public as it is, not as you wish it to be.”

In the mock general election held at his school in 1992, the year Major astonished the pundits by winning, Norcott ran as a Liberal Democrat.

Not long after this, his mother loses the use of her legs, he has to spend a lot of time looking after her, and his predicted grades at A level slump.

Goldsmiths College, whose recent alumni include Damien Hurst, Blur and Tracey Emin, offers him a place to read English if he gets two Bs and a C.

He astonishes everyone, including himself, by getting three As, but goes to Goldsmiths anyhow, where he finds the corridors “full of toytown revolutionaries trying to save Cuba, whales and rainforests”, while “a lot of the people I knew back in Mitcham were still busy trying to save themselves and their families”.

For the first time, he realises that he is “properly working class”. When people look down on him he feels chippy, but when they are supportive he feels patronised.

He has one or two strange jobs in advertising, veers into becoming an English teacher, almost by accident starts a parallel career on the comedy circuit, and gets married to the love of his life, who suggests, when he has gone full-time as a comic and is casting around for new material, that he could make some jokes about becoming a Conservative.

Which he does. The joke is that he is the only Conservative comedian. The entire trade is monolithically left-wing, which is one reason (though he doesn’t bother, or is too tactful, to point this out) why Radio Four has ceased to be in the slightest bit funny (though I admit it may have started to be funny again: I reach with desperate agility for the off button whenever a supposedly comic programme is about to be aired).

We are being told what to think. Instead of being invited to laugh at the world as it is, we are instructed to hold the right opinions about the world as it ought to be.

The objection to the progressive package deal is not that the opinions are wrong, but that they are compulsory.

Puritans can’t bear the theatre, its frivolity, immorality and unpredictability. They yearn to shut it down, and somehow they have managed to shut it down on Radio Four, crushed beneath a leaden layer of self-censorship.

The subversiveness of comedy – which usually includes the absurdity of the comic, the willingness of him or her to look ridiculous and make jokes at his or her own expense – has been supplanted by a uniform and monumentally dull moral certainty.

Self-righteousness is not funny, but why waste one’s time getting into a row about it, when the only effect is to make one’s opponents more self-righteous.

As the 2015 General Election approaches,

“In the circles I moved in, it seemed it had been universally decided that no one agreed with austerity and unconvincing head of sixth form Ed Miliband would surely become leader of the world’s fifth largest economy.”

Instead of which, the Conservatives under David Cameron win an overall majority of 17. “WHO DID THIS?” Norcott’s right-on colleagues scream.

“11.3 million people,” he wants to reply, but is “hesitant about throwing sarcasm into an already febrile environment”.

The media devote a lot of attention to the “Shy Tory” phenomenon, but in Norcott’s view they overcomplicate the matter, for

“all that really happened was people had seen the increasingly vengeful moral certainty of the Left in full view since 2010 and had wisely decided to keep schtum.”

Norcott is not particularly keen on Boris Johnson, and says almost nothing about him in this book: “He’s not my kind of politician.”

But one cannot help reflecting, as one reads this account of the awakening of a South London Conservative, that one reason for Johnson’s success is his unrivalled ability to mock the solemn rule of virtue which the self-righteous hypocrites of North London are determined to impose on us.

Noises off: The Duncan Diaries are more amusing, and more valuable, than one might have expected.

1 May

In The Thick Of It: The Private Diaries of a Minister by Alan Duncan

This book is more amusing, and more valuable, than one might have expected. The serialisation in The Daily Mail gave the impression that it was no more than page after page of petulant abuse of colleagues by a touchy and disappointed man.

There is certainly any amount of that, some of it very funny. One running joke – no joke to him – is Duncan’s row with Frances, Dowager Duchess of Rutland, who is the President of his Association (Rutland and Melton), a devout Leaver, and furious with him for coming out (despite being a long-standing Eurosceptic) for Remain.

She considers him appallingly rude to her, and he considers her appallingly rude to him. “Oh you are so disgusting!” she shouts at him in the Falcon Hotel in Uppingham.

The Duchess summons him to her house below Belvoir Castle, and demands:

“Why has it taken four months for you to come and explain yourself?”

“I don’t consider that I have anything to explain. What is it that I am expected to explain to you?”

“You know. If you don’t then you should. I put it in the letter.”

“It is a highly offensive letter. Why did you write it when we had agreed to meet this weekend?”

“I didn’t believe you would come.”

“But I said I would call you, and I did, and I am here… Your letter is the rudest and most insulting I have ever received from a fellow Conservative. You seem to think that the only opinion that matters is your own. You go to political meetings with UKIP, which I consider unbecoming for an Association President…”

This could be from a novel by Trollope, or a story by Lewis Carroll. There is a Gilbert and Sullivan element to Duncan. He leads a comic opera kind of a life, though all too often he leaves out the jokes, indiscretions and betrayals which a great diarist would record as a matter of course.

It is no use, indeed an insult, to the reader to be assured that “Time with Mandelson is never dull”, or Sir John Major “loves a good mischievous gossip”, without being told the stories which would prove this to be true.

The Diaries run from January 2016 to January 2020, and historians will turn to them to see what Duncan, who served for most of that period as Minister of State for Europe and the Americas at the Foreign Office, has to say of Boris Johnson, who like Duncan arrived at the Foreign Office in July 2016, but resigned after only two years.

A glance at the index entry for Johnson, which runs to three and a half columns, indicates that the coverage will not be uniformly flattering:

lack of seriousness and application, 4, 134, 140, 160, 163-4, 171, 178, 202, 217, 299, 383, 508; manoeuvrings for leadership [about the same number of references]…self-serving ambition…lack of grip on detail…bluff-and-bluster routine…

But that is only part of the story. In some ways, Duncan’s complimentary remarks about Johnson are more enlightening, for they demonstrate the latter’s remarkable capacity to win round, even impress, critics who have lost all patience with him.

In his introduction, Duncan writes of Johnson:

“What frustrated me most of all, and still does, is that he has the makings of an exceptionally good politician – one with moderate, liberal instincts and a gift for rallying an audience. If he could channel his energies into devising a compelling and optimistic vision of the future direction of the country, and use it to consign the unpleasant divisiveness of Brexit to the past, he would be a formidable Prime Minister. I still hold out hope.”

On 12 March 2018, the Russian Ambassador, Alexander Yakovenko, is summoned to the Foreign Office to be addressed by Johnson, in the presence of Duncan and one British official, about the Salisbury nerve gas attack:

“Yakovenko and his deputy came in, all jaunty and smiling as if nothing had happened. Boris…with fabulous indignation verging on anger, told him in no uncertain terms how unacceptable it was to violate our security, try to murder someone on British soil, breach a highly important international convention, etc. It was a deliciously delivered dressing down, in response to which the dumb-struck Yakovenko couldn’t say anything, and just left.

“Well done, Boris!I felt genuinely proud of him. Perhaps it worked so well because he was not larking about and playing to the gallery – he spoke from the heart and meant what he said. It was a magic moment, which shows that little can beat Boris at his best.”

The good impression does not last. In September 2018, two months after resigning as Foreign Secretary, Johnson accuses Theresa May of wrapping a “suicide vest” round Britain and handing the detonator to Brussels.

Duncan goes for him on Twitter:

“For Boris to say that the PM’s view is like that of a suicide bomber is too much. This marks one of the most disgusting moments in modern British politics. I’m sorry, but this is the political end of Boris Johnson. If it isn’t now, I will make sure it is later.”

That outburst gets a lot of coverage, but is not entirely sincere. Duncan confides to his diary that it is “rather hyperbolic, but it’s the only way to get noticed”, and a couple of days later writes a note to Johnson assuring him that “It’s not personal”, but “Noises off are constantly undermining our negotiating position”.

Johnson at length replies:

“Dear Alan, On the contrary I fear it is the noises off, as you call them, that have been the only thing to stiffen the spine of our negotiations and postpone the day of abject capitulation! Boris.”

So they don’t disagree with each other quite as fundamentally as one might guess from the coverage. They disagree about tactics, and the acceptable bounds of political language.

Duncan supports May, but laments that she has “zero empathy” and is incapable of connecting with her own MPs, or indeed of thanking Duncan for his support. On 20th March 2019 he writes of her:

“The PM’s performance at PMQs was construed as an attack on Parliament for its failure to reach a decision. It went down like a bag of cold sick. She is there because replacing her would prove so chaotic, but in truth she has only grudging support and there is no affection for her. She’s like a single flaking old pit prop: everyone knows it will collapse, but dares not touch it to wedge in a replacement in case the roof falls in first.”

As Minister of State, Duncan is responsible, he tells us, for 77 countries. He has a deep knowledge of the Middle East, having worked for much of his life as an oil trader, but he never really gives us a proper feeling for what the top figures from countries like Oman, with close links to Britain, are like.

Just as one thinks he is in danger of becoming bland, he reminds us that he is capable of thinking for himself. This must be one of the few books to have appeared in recent years to contain two favourable, albeit fleeting, references to the Duke of York.

From Walpole to Johnson, the rude, original vigour of the Prime Minister and the Commons have survived

3 Apr

The Impossible Office? The History of the British Prime Minister by Anthony Seldon

Spoiler alert. Ten pages from the end of his 337-page study, Anthony Seldon concludes that “the undoubted challenges” of being Prime Minister “have not made the job impossible”.

He also concedes that making lists of the best Prime Ministers, though “entertaining”, is also “largely meaningless”, because there are no “agreed criteria on what constitutes ‘success’ for a Prime Minister”.

But Seldon knows which PMs he puts in his top class, worthy of the accolade of being “Agenda Changers”, by which he means they “changed the course of the country, and with it, the way the job of Prime Minister operated”:

“Robert Walpole, William Pitt the Younger, Robert Peel, Viscount Palmerston, William Gladstone, David Lloyd George, Clement Attlee, and Margaret Thatcher.”

No Winston Churchill, which is rather refreshing, for that endlessly fascinating figure can sometimes obscure everyone who came before him.

But oddly enough, in the piece for The Times which Seldon wrote about his book, the top eight become the top nine, for Churchill is included.

One must register here an immediate protest at the exclusion of Pitt the Elder. For although his titanic parliamentary speeches are lost to history – there was no Hansard in that confident century – the electrifying effect of this pioneering globalist’s performances is amply recorded, and it is a mere quibble to say that in 1759, the Year of Victories, he was not actually Prime Minister, but merely the driving force of the Government and of British arms.

In Seldon’s book, Churchill is relegated to the second division, described as “Major Contributors”, as if they had donated substantial sums to the school appeal, after which we get “Positive Stabilisers”, “Noble Failures”, “Ignoble Failures”, and “Left on the Starting Line”, this last category consisting of PMs who served for too short a time to make much of a difference.

All this has the merit of being highly thought-provoking. Seldon is a Gladstonian technocrat. He admires moral seriousness, and getting things done. Life is real and life is earnest, and so is politics.

Walpole, who took office 300 years ago today, is some ways lucky to make the cut. Seldon begins with an imaginary dialogue between Walpole, generally regarded as the first Prime Minister, and Boris Johnson, who is the 55th holder of the office.

Throughout these three centuries, control of the House of Commons has been a cardinal requirement for any Prime Minister, and loss of control, which Walpole suffered at the start of 1742, meant you were out.

Although Seldon reserves his greatest admiration for Prime Ministers who changed the way the office works, he does not seek to hide the fact that in some ways it has remained unchanged.

He does not, however, have much sympathy with any Prime Minister who might be suspected of frivolity. He has little time for Benjamin Disraeli, and a great deal for Robert Peel.

The enduring impact of the great split of 1846, when Disraeli destroyed Peel and almost destroyed the Conservative Party, is underplayed by Seldon:

“For Conservatives, memories of Peel’s splitting the party caused successive leaders regular anxiety.”

Regular nightmares would be more accurate. Robert Blake, in The Unknown Prime Minister, his life of Andrew Bonar Law, Prime Minister from 1922-23, puts the matter in its true perspective, when explaining why in 1913 Bonar Law felt obliged, as the still quite new Conservative leader, to abandon his personal support for Imperial Preference, an issue as bitterly divisive as Brexit became a century later:

“Did Bonar Law act rightly in thus reversing his own declared policy for the sake of Party unity? To answer this is to to answer a problem in political ethics which has never yet been satisfactorily solved. But in acting as he did there is no doubt that Bonar Law was following the established tradition of previous Conservative leaders. Ever since the day when Peel’s decision to repeal the Corn Laws had broken the Party and driven it into the wilderness for 20 years, successive Conservative leaders had felt it was their duty, at all costs and at almost any sacrifice, to avoid repeating Peel’s action. Disraeli, Salisbury, Balfour, had all regarded party unity as of paramount importance – and Bonar Law both on this occasion, and at several other critical moments in his life, took the same view.”

Such party considerations are almost entirely ignored by Seldon, who instead focuses on what happens inside Number Ten. Bonar Law, who brought down Lloyd George but then served as Prime Minister for only 212 days before being forced by mortal illness to step down, is put among the Prime Ministers who had too little time to do anything significant while in office.

Lord Salisbury, who spent a total of almost 14 years as Prime Minister, is placed by Seldon in the third division. One looks in vain for any recognition of Salisbury’s ability often to defeat Gladstone, by ensuring that after the widening of the franchise in 1884, an organised appeal was made to the “Villa Toryism” found in the suburbs which were springing up round every prosperous town.

In Seldon’s view, Salisbury “was responsible for few fresh initiatives over his 14 years”, so doesn’t belong at the top table. Novelty is what counts, so Tory leaders who disguise innovation as keeping things the same receive no credit.

Lord Rosebery, who in 1894 succeeded Gladstone but remained in office for only a year and a bit, comes off worse. “We need not linger on Lord Rosebery,” Seldon tells us, later adding that this Prime Minster “lacked gravitas, failed to build on Gladstone’s legacy, to give a clear direction, and led the Liberals into a defeat”.

It is certainly true that despite being a man of wealth, intellect, charm and spell-binding eloquence, and winning the Derby twice while he was Prime Minister, Rosebery was a failure. But reading Seldon’s study reminds us that failure can be good for liberty, and good for Parliament.

The voters, who are almost entirely absent from this account, need someone to blame when things have gone wrong, and in many ways it is more satisfying to blame a brilliant Prime Minister than a second-rate one.

The Commons matters because it can end any Prime Minister’s career. Here is one of the great checks on tyranny, for MPs in whichever party or coalition of parties has a parliamentary majority are quick to realise when their leader has become such a liability with the wider public that they themselves will be in danger of losing their seats at the next election.

The Commons withdraws its confidence from a Prime Minister who has failed, and a new Prime Minister, who perhaps sees more clearly what the nation requires, is given the chance to show what he or she can do.

Churchill taking over from the previously impregnable Neville Chamberlain in 1940 is the most dramatic example of this brutal process. We have a wonderfully responsive system, which is one reason why it has absorbed three centuries of shocks: plenty of wars, riots, crashes, slumps and strikes, but no revolution.

The Commons is still there, and when it senses that the right moment has come it will – unless pre-empted by some some other means of getting rid of the Prime Minister such as an election defeat – unmake Johnson as it unmade Thatcher.

Seldon makes proposals for lightening the load borne by the Prime Minister, by delegating much of the routine business of government to a Deputy Prime Minister, and many external responsibilities to the Foreign Secretary, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer demoted to become only the fourth most senior member of the Cabinet.

Such reforms may be desirable, and might even lead to greater efficiency, but efficiency is not enough. And Seldon recognises that well-intentioned reforms often prove transitory.

John Major tried to show he was a different kind of leader by consulting the Cabinet more respectfully than his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, was accustomed to do. As Seldon comments, “It didn’t last. It never does.”

Seldon has interviewed a number of insiders, including Gus O’Donnell, a former Cabinet Secretary, who tells him:

“The role of full Cabinet has been over-emphasised. It’s just become too big to be the decision-making body.”

The same point was made, more amusingly, by C. Northcote Parkinson in the 1950s.

There are a number of astonishing errors in Seldon’s book: Lloyd George is said to have sat for 55 years for a “South Wales seat”, while a well-known remark by Horace Walpole about the fourth Prime Minister, the Duke of Newcastle (“A Secretary of State without intelligence, a Duke without money, a man of infinite intrigue, without secrecy or policy, and a Minister despised and hated by his master, by all parties and Ministers, without being turned out by any”) is attributed to H.T. Dickinson.

But there are also some wonderful things. Here is the Duke of Portland, Prime Minister in 1783 and again in 1807-9, and classified by Seldon as an Ignoble Failure:

“the idea of courting popularity by any means I have always reprobated…the possession or enjoyment of it has always something in it very suspicious, and I know hardly any act or measure vulgarly or commonly called popular which has not originated in a bad cause, and been productive of pernicious effects.”

Many Remainers would agree most devoutly with Portland. Could it be (as I suggested the other day) that we still live in an 18th-century country?

One of the best things about this book is that it makes one think anew about our political tradition, and give thanks that certain features of it, including the office of Prime Minister, still possess, despite all attempts by glorified management consultants at modernisation, some traces of their rude original vigour.

How to advise Lord North, or Heath, or Thatcher, or Johnson

5 Mar

Political Advice: Past, Present and Future edited by Colin Kidd and Jacqueline Rose

The press is excited by stories about Boris Johnson’s advisers. Who is in, who out? Who is briefing against whom? Carrie Symonds is running the country from her sofa! The news that leopards are to be reintroduced into St James’s Park shows she is. And anyhow, who paid for the sofa?

Readers who wish to take a longer view of political advice are advised to get hold of this book. But be warned: it does not offer a crib, a cut-out-and-keep guide to how to be an adviser.

The lesson of the book is that there are no lessons. If this volume were by a single author, we could perhaps deduce from it a doctrine, but it is actually the work of 14 different contributors, who on 8th June 2017 met for a one-day conference on Political Advice at All Souls College, Oxford.

We are not fed anything so misleading as a theory of advice, but in these 14 essays we do find intimations, continuities and recurrences as we travel with these authors from Periclean Athens via the Renaissance, Tudor England, the Scottish Enlightenment, British orientalists in Persia, Edward Heath’s managerialists in Whitehall and astrologers at the court of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, to an account of the impossibility of advising Donald Trump.

Nobody can govern alone: every ruler needs help, and as the editors, Colin Kidd and Jacqueline Rose, remark in their introduction, the people running the show today “have no more time or concentration than their predecessors in antiquity”.

There is a limit to how much advice anyone can take in, let alone make use of. William Waldegrave writes, in this volume, about his experience of being a member of the Central Policy Review Staff (CPRS) from 1971-73.

Heath, both as Leader of the Opposition and from 1970 as Prime Minister, had a tremendous appetite for policy advice. He was a man of his time, for as Waldegrave reminds us,

“the late 1960s had seen much discussion of whether Britain’s institutions had sufficiently modernised themselves: the civil service was among those subject to criticism, including self-criticism. This had led in 1966 to the establishment, after a select committee of the House of Commons had levelled the accusation of amateurism at the modern service, of the Fulton Committee…it made trenchant criticisms of what it saw as the cult of the generalist, the lack of influence by scientists, poor training and recruitment practices and other matters.”

The CPRS was one way in which Heath was determined to modernise the machinery of government, by creating a central strategic staff who would engage in long-term thinking and apply the latest management techniques, many of them imported from the United States, to which “two exceptionally able younger Conservatives”, David Howell (now Lord Howell) and Mark Schreiber (now Lord Marlesford) had been despatched on a mission to find out what was happening there.

In 1970, Howell made, in his pamphlet A New Style of Government, the first use in the United Kingdom of the word “privatisation”. According to Waldegrave, these British experts “linked management theory to political doctrine in a more interesting way than is found in most of the American work of the time”, relating “managerial efficiency…to the development of modern liberal free-market doctrines”.

What happened? Heath made a complete hash of things, and in February 1974 the British people threw him out of office. His administration had been characterised, not by long-term thinking, but by desperate short-term expedients which culminated in the lights going out.

And yet all that advice was not entirely wasted. After 1979, privatisation became, with Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, one of the Government’s most significant and successful policies.

She too was tremendously keen on getting good advice. She and her advisers learned from Heath’s mistakes, and for a long time her judgement of what was politically possible proved better than his.

But as Waldegrave goes on to say, both Houses of Parliament continue to feel “a deep suspicion of Bonapartist tendencies on the part of the Prime Minister”.

We don’t want a presidential system in this country, and got the central staffs created by Lloyd George and Churchill to fight the two world wars disbanded as soon as those conflicts were over.

Waldegrave, who served as a minister from 1981-97, regrets “the steady erosion” in recent times

“of a sense of Cabinet collectivity. Mr Blair is perhaps most to blame for this, but Mr Cameron is not innocent either. What the press has called ‘sofa government’ – combined with an over-intrusive regime of freedom of information – has taken us back to the time before Maurice Hankey and the establishment of the Cabinet Secretariat in 1916. Some major items of policy are not discussed collectively at all, and if they are discussed, little is recorded for fear of an immediate and politically driven application under the Freedom of Information Act. This is a recipe for bad decision-taking, as well as for ultimate lack of accountability.”

Boris Johnson became Prime Minister too recently for his behaviour in office to be considered in this volume. But one can’t help wondering whether his critics have been asking the wrong question.

They have assumed he is too weak: that he will soon be swept from office. Perhaps they should have been asking, instead, whether he is too strong: whether Bonapartist tendencies are beginning to manifest themselves.

For whoever occupies Number Ten has a near monopoly of the political advice which other ministers would need in order to make forceful arguments in Cabinet, or Cabinet committee, about any subject beyond their departmental responsibilities.

Sajid Javid refused, on being told he would not be allowed to choose his own advisers, to continue as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Jesse Norman, currently serving as Financial Secretary to the Treasury, contributes to this volume an essay entitled Smith as SpAd? Adam Smith and Advice to Politicians.

The first part of this title has a Wodehousian ring. It prompts the thought that in modern English literature, the greatest provider of advice is Jeeves, and the greatest recipient Wooster.

Adam Smith often advised politicians:

“In 1766-7, he supplied information about French taxes to, and corrected the calculations of, Charles Townshend, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, in relation to the Sinking Fund designed to repay debt incurred during the Seven Years’ War; the fund was topped up in Townshend’s 1767 budget. He also advised Lord Shelburne on colonial policy at this time. Lord North thanked Smith for his advice on his 1777 Budget, when he took ideas from The Wealth of Nations for two new taxes, on manservants and on property sold by auction. He took two more ideas in 1778: the malt tax and a very Smithian duty on the rentable value of buildings. Also in 1778, Smith wrote ‘Thoughts on the State of the Contest with America’, a long and considered memorandum setting out different options for British policy towards the American colonies, then in revolt, at the request of his friend Alexander Wedderburn, the Solicitor General.”

We also find Smith advising on trade between Britain and Ireland. Just now his help would be invaluable. He recognised, as Norman puts it, “that the world was an imperfect place, in which evils could exist and persist”.

Smith was not the laissez-faire ideologue for which he has sometimes been mistaken. Nor was he the kind of generalist with which the Fulton Committee, and latterly Dominic Cummings, considered the civil service to be over-provided. Smith was a Commissioner of Customs, active in the regulation and suppression of smuggling.

Colin Burrow remarks, in his essay entitled How Not To Do It: Poets and Counsel, Thomas Wyatt to Geoffrey Hill:

“The figure of the frank speaker condemned to the margins of political life, and thus unable to deliver counsel to his monarch, became one of the major literary personae of the later Henrician period.”

Twitter is just now infested with such frank speakers, who do not turn out to be gifted poets, but spend their days denouncing with hysterical self-righteousness anyone with whom they disagree.

The adviser has to be willing to compromise; often works for palpably inadequate leaders; but is at least on the field of play.

Oborne condemns Johnson as a liar, and cannot understand why many voters believe the PM is telling the truth

6 Feb

The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism by Peter Oborne

Boris Johnson is a liar. This charge is often made by the Prime Minister’s critics, and Peter Oborne makes it with tremendous vehemence:

“Standards of truth telling, I will prove, collapsed at the precise moment Boris Johnson and his associates entered 10 Downing Street in the early afternoon of 24 July 2019.”

Older readers may remember that in 2005 Oborne brought out The Rise of Political Lying, in which he declared: “Britain now lives in a post-truth political environment.”

In the book under review, Oborne recalls the justification used by New Labour apparatchiks for departing from the truth:

“They felt (with good reason) that a venal Tory-supporting press had distorted, misrepresented and often lied about Labour policy. So Blair and his advisers felt there was no way that Labour could win power, let alone retain it, if it relied on telling the truth.”

It now turns out that although Blair’s lies were appalling, things were going to get worse:

“Tony Blair paved the way for Boris Johnson, who has created a new epistemological universe… As a liar he cannot be compared to Tony Blair. He has never needed a noble justification for lying. He lies habitually, with impunity, and without conscience. This puts his dishonesty into the same category as Donald Trump’s. Although far below Trump’s in scale and stridency, it is epic by British standards.”

Oborne contends that neither Trump nor Johnson “possessed the moral seriousness to cope with a public health catastrophe like coronavirus”. He holds up Angela Merkel as a leader who has moral seriousness, which is “why many fewer Germans died”:

“It is excruciating and a matter of deep national embarrassment to compare Angela Merkel’s good sense with never-ending iterations of bombast, exaggeration and falsehood from Boris Johnson once he had returned to work towards the end of April [2020].”

Johnson’s mendacity was also shown during the general election campaign he fought at the end of 2019, which according to Oborne consisted of “one lie after another”:

“The Prime Minister’s biggest lies involved Brexit… In Parliament on 22 October [2019] he said: ‘There will be no checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.’ This bare-faced lie in all its moral squalor remains on the Commons order paper.” 

I have just read the Hansard which contains the words he quotes, and it seems to me that taken together, though there is room for honest disagreement about this, the Prime Minister’s replies to MPs, many of whom challenged him about Northern Ireland, are slightly less disgraceful than Oborne thinks.

Some may wonder to what extent, during an almost intolerably complicated negotiation such as Brexit, an unwearying regard for truth can be the only guide while discovering a way through innumerable difficulties and inconsistencies and maintaining sufficient levels of parliamentary and public support.

Theresa May is in many ways an admirable woman, a model of Anglican conscientiousness, but she was not subtle enough to be a successful negotiator. She kept tying herself in knots by making promises she could not keep.

However keen one may be during a negotiation to build trust by telling the truth, one might find oneself treated with a degree of scorn if one’s opening bid consisted of a full account of the concessions one was prepared, if necessary, to make.

Any Prime Minister is bound, as a matter of honour, to obtain the best possible result for their country, and then to promote that result. The methods by which a leader finds out what it is possible to get may well include bluff and feint, likely to be followed by a degree of wishful thinking about whatever settlement has actually been reached.

Oborne is absolutely right that ministers must not lie to the House of Commons. His commitment to this point is admirable. If no one ever got hot under the collar about this, the rule would become even harder to uphold.

But it is also vital that MPs do not call each other liars. This is not just some antiquated point of good manners.

The problem with calling your opponent a liar is that debate then becomes impossible. Here is a fatal drawback to Oborne’s approach.

By condemning Johnson as “a fabricator and cheat”, he makes it pointless to say, “The Prime Minister repeatedly assured us there would be no checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, yet we are reliably informed that such checks are being carried out. Can the Prime Minister please account for this discrepancy?”

Such an inquiry, if persisted with (and the Commons gives much scope for persistence), becomes embarrassing.

Trump’s opponents thought, wrongly, they could sink him by proving to the world that he was a liar. It would be a pity if Johnson’s opponents were to make the same mistake.

For it leaves those opponents in possession of an untrammelled but intolerant self-righteousness which makes them sound like so many ranting, holier-than-thou hypocrites.

Hillary Clinton ended up in that trap in 2016. She and her supporters in newspapers like The New York Times were unable any longer to comprehend why any decent person could decide to vote for Trump. Her priggish moralising became a barrier between her and her compatriots.

Oborne’s approach is in danger of degenerating into such a crude simplification of how politics is or can be conducted that it too becomes a barrier rather than an aid to understanding.

Does Johnson ever tell the truth? In their eagerness to condemn him, his opponents do not pause to ask that question, or even to see its relevance. For them, the Prime Minister is an infinitely despicable populist, who does not deserve a fair hearing.

Yet many of Johnson’s voters thought he was telling the truth about Brexit, and couldn’t care less whether on some of the points with which he adorned his case he was indulging in hyperbole.

To them it didn’t matter whether the £350 million figure on the side of the bus during the 2016 referendum was literally true. The general truth that we were sending quite a bit of money to Brussels was scandalous enough.

As a woman in West Bromwich put it to ConHome during the last general election:

“I will definitely vote for Boris, liar, cheat and fool! And for Brexit! I want to get out.”

Such voters are not interested in the points of detail which Oborne cites, with footnotes, in order to prove Johnson a liar. They reckon all politicians are liars. What they want to know is whether Johnson is on their side and will get things done – whether in that respect he is honest.

To give another example, they want to know whether he can be relied on to support the NHS, not whether he will get round to building the implausibly large number of hospitals he has promised to build.

Oborne is a brilliant journalist, but in this book he has allowed himself to become blinded by moral indignation.

Among the qualities one would hope, in addition to honesty, to find in a Prime Minister are courage, persistence, resilience, judgement, intelligence, eloquence, firmness, flexibility, principle, pragmatism, and when necessary a degree of cunning in defence of the national interest.

An ability to form some connection with the wider public is also required, which may demand a willingness to exaggerate certain aspects of your programme (“You want to have your cake and eat it? I think you will approve of our manifesto”), a certain brio, even a certain impudent lightness of touch.

Moral seriousness is not enough. Oborne recognises this when he quotes Malcolm Muggeridge’s remark:

“To succeed pre-eminently in English public life it is necessary to conform either to the popular image of a bookie or of a clergyman.”

Muggeridge went on:

“Churchill being a perfect example of the former, Halifax of the latter.”

Oborne omits the two examples, but admits that by making such harsh charges against Johnson, he is suggesting that standards used to be higher:

“It is unimaginable that a compulsive liar such as Johnson could have been chosen to lead the Conservative Party in a previous era, let alone elected prime minister. There was a time, before the emergence of political parties as we know them today, when it was normal for ministers to lie, cheat and bribe. In the eighteenth century, many of Britain’s most famous writers and journalists were paid by the government to apply their literary skills to undermine opponents. Meanwhile ministers made huge sums from corruption…”

These fulminations are unfair to many writers, and also to many Prime Ministers. Sir Robert Walpole, conventionally regarded as the first Prime Minister, was assailed by the best writers of his time, including Swift, Pope, Gay and Fielding.

Walpole was so annoyed by the portrayal of himself as a thief in The Beggar’s Opera, and by offensive allusions in the same work to his mistress, that he arranged for the passing in 1737 of the Licensing Act, under which, until 1968, all new plays had to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain. Gay, the offending author, had his next play banned.

Walpole and his family did, unquestionably, make a packet. Visit his house, Houghton Hall, and wonder at it.

But Walpole was also a genius who restored confidence after the South Sea Bubble, encouraged trade, lowered taxes and for many years kept the country at peace. As he remarked to Queen Caroline in 1734:

“Madam, there are fifty thousand men slain this year in Europe, and not one Englishman.”

Venality does not necessarily prevent someone being a successful Prime Minister, but in any case, most holders of the office have been more attracted by power than money, and many of them ended their careers poorer than when they started.

In January 1784, shortly after becoming Prime Minister, Pitt the Younger made a good impression on the country, and confounded his opponents, by declining to award himself the Clerkship of the Pells, a sinecure office worth £3,000 a year.

Pitt’s father had likewise made a good impression on the country, and demonstrated his patriotism, by declining to enrich himself at public expense during his nine years as Paymaster General.

Oborne is right to say that “the Victorians erected a series of protections against deceit and corruption”, but wrong to imply that all Prime Ministers lived up to these standards.

Benjamin Disraeli observed pre-Victorian standards. He was described by Lord Salisbury as an “adventurer” who was “without principles or honesty”, yet he won even Salisbury round, and became the only Conservative – indeed the only Prime Minister – to inspire a posthumous cult.

A few years ago Oborne wrote a wonderful book, reviewed here, about Trump’s use of Twitter in order to become President.

Oborne worked for Johnson at The Spectator, so knows him better than he knows Trump, yet one would think from this book that he does not know him at all.

Peel increased the burden of taxation on the rich – perhaps Sunak and Johnson will too

8 Jan

The Prime Ministers: 55 Leaders, 55 Authors, 300 Years of History edited by Iain Dale

The brief life can be one of the most delightful of all literary forms. While putting off the awkward task of writing this review, I turned for purposes of comparison to Alan Watkins’ volume, Brief Lives, a book it is impossible to open without within a few paragraphs bursting out laughing.

Here is Watkins on Anthony Crosland, who died in 1977 while serving as Foreign Secretary:

“He could also be very rude indeed. Tony Benn once publicly announced that he was concerned to lose the stigma of the intellectual. Crosland replied that, in order to lose a stigma, it was first necessary to acquire one. For some reason – maybe sexual, but it is profitless to speculate – he could be very rude to young and attractive women who intended no harm but were merely trying to make serious conversation to the best of their ability.”

We feel at once that we begin to know what Crosland was like. This is something a brief life can do better than a long one.

A pencil sketch often conveys a likeness, character, personality, better than the massive official portrait in oils. What a relief for the writer, and for the reader too, not to try to say everything.

Winston Churchill wrote brilliant brief lives in Great Contemporaries, as did Roy Jenkins in The Chancellors and elsewhere. Here is Jenkins on Bonar Law, Prime Minister from 1922-23, but a crucial political figure from 1911, when he became Tory leader:

“he was the first leader to exhibit some aspect of the ‘poor white’ mentality which has been a growing and marked feature of the Conservative Party in much more recent times. He was a partisan, sometimes a bitter leader, with a stronger sense of ‘we was cheated’ than of the natural (and sometimes tolerant) authority of an assured right to govern…

“On the long march back to the Commons after listening to the King’s Speech which opened his first session as leader, Law was reported as saying: ‘I am afraid I shall have to show myself very vicious, Mr Asquith, this session, I hope you will understand.’ Whether or not Asquith ‘understood’, Law certainly succeeded in being ‘vicious’…”

Again, one begins to get an idea of Law, and indeed of Jenkins.

But to write a brief life can be even harder work than to write a long one. I know this from personal experience, having written brief lives of the 40 Kings and Queens since 1066, the 55 Prime Ministers since 1721, and the 44 American Presidents from George Washington, inaugurated in 1789, to Donald Trump (known as the 45th President, but the Americans double-count Grover Cleveland, President in 1885-89 and 1893-97, as both the 22nd and the 24th President).

Iain Dale had the bright idea, on the 300th anniverary of Sir Robert Walpole becoming Prime Minister, of getting 55 writers to take one Prime Minister each.

He has recruited an eclectic mixture of academics, historians, politicians and journalists. Looking down his list, one thinks repeatedly, “I’d like to see what he makes of him”.

Each entry begins with a drawing of the Prime Minister in question by Zoom Rockman, which should have been printed larger, for they are generally more accomplished than the words that follow.

Few of the 55 authors have given much thought to the art of writing a brief life, or appear to have devoted much time to the task of doing so. It is one thing to recruit good people, quite another to get them to do their best work.

The liberation of being able to throw away 99 per cent of what one knows, keeping only the most vivid and characteristic material, has itself been thrown away by those writers who conceived it their duty to provide a digest of every not very exciting transaction in which their Prime Minister was involved.

Many of the authors suffer from a tendency to exaggerate the importance, or lament the obscurity, of whichever Prime Minister they have agreed to cover. Nor could the entanglement of these careers – for many PMs have done more remarkable things during the ascent than when they reached Downing Street – have been sorted out except by a prodigal application of editorial time.

But there are wonderful things in the book. Robert Saunders brings the stiff figure of Sir Robert Peel to life:

“Peel grew up under the shadow of the French Revolution, and was perhaps the last British statesman to hear the whirr of the guillotine in his dreams… For Peel, the ‘Dantons, and the Marats, and the Robespierres’ of revolutionary history were not ‘monsters peculiar to France’. They were ‘the foul, but legitimate spawn of circumstances’, born of the same volcanic passions that boiled beneath British society too. At any moment, a breakdown of political authority could produce ‘the same consequences, the same men, and the same crimes, here as in France’.

This strikes home in part because it uses Peel’s own words. He is allowed to speak directly to us, without, as happens in so many of the entries, the writer substituting a banal paraphrase of the original. We are given the story of how this Prime Minister strove to avert revolution:

“Peel took office in the summer of 1841, amid some of the worst economic conditions of the century. A prolonged industrial depression was producing horrifying levels of suffering: in just one Scottish town, Paisley, 17,000 workers were at risk of starvation. Chartism was resurgent, and in 1842 an attempted general strike swept across the north. A year later, Peel’s secretary was shot dead by an assassin, who had mistaken him for the Prime Minister…

“Peel began with a daring financial stroke: the reintroduction of the income tax. This had previously been thought of as a wartime measure, and its introduction in time of peace was hugely controversial. Since it was only levied on the highest earners, it marked a significant shift in the burden of taxation towards the Government’s own supporters. Yet Peel insisted it was ‘for the interest of property that property should bear the burden’. The goal was not simply to close the deficit, but to send a signal about the willingness of the propertied elite to make sacrifices for the public good. Accepted ‘voluntarily and with a good grace’, the tax would be ‘a cheap purchase of future security’.

This is interesting both for its own sake, and for the light it throws on what Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson might decide to do about the burden of taxation on the rich. I hazard a guess that they will decide to increase it, while at the same time bringing in, as Peel did, measures to promote growth, and to relieve the burdens on the poor, so that, as Peel put it, “thoughts of the dissolution of our institutions should be forgotten in the midst of physical enjoyment”.

The one thing most Conservatives remember about Peel is that he split the party by repealing the Corn Laws. Saunders conveys the mentality which estranged the Prime Minister from his followers:

“As relations with his party deteriorated, Peel became increasingly contemptuous of his own backbenchers: ‘men with great possessions and little foresight…whose only chance of safety is that their counsels shall not be followed’. After a collision with his party in 1845, he boasted privately that ‘people like a certain degree of obstinacy and presumption in a minister. They abuse him for dictation and arrogance, but they like being governed.’ It was an approach that would soon bring the destruction of his government.”

There are many other good things in the book. Julia Langdon describes what it was like travelling as a journalist with Margaret Thatcher:

“In the course of her years in office, she attended 32 European summits, 12 Group of Seven (G7) summits of the leading economic nations, seven Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM) – ‘This place Choggum,’ said one of my colleagues, arriving in the Bahamas, ‘is it the capital?'”

That is worthy of Evelyn Waugh. The parliamentary lobby “once went round the world backwards in six days” with Thatcher. Before another extraordinary expedition, with no more than one night anywhere for about ten days, Langdon asked the Prime Minister what she thought of the schedule that lay ahead. Thatcher replied: “We can’t do any laundry until Bangkok!”

Such small touches bring the stateswomen closer to us. She too thought about laundry, and about the difficulties that not being able to wash clothes would inflict on her staff, and even on the accompanying journalists.

Dale himself has dashed off a life of Johnson, whom he describes as “the most intellectually capable Prime Minister Britain has seen”. That sounds unfair to Peel, Derby, Gladstone, Salisbury and quite a few others.