Book review: Francois describes how the unfashionable side won Brexit

8 Jan

Spartan Victory: The Inside Story of the Battle for Brexit by Mark Francois

“Nothing has more retarded the advancement of learning than the disposition of vulgar minds to ridicule and vilify what they cannot comprehend,” Dr Johnson once wrote.

A variant of this problem blighted the furious debates since 23rd June 2016 about how and indeed whether to implement the verdict handed down by voters in the EU Referendum.

People like Mark Francois were ridiculed and vilified. Little attempt was made to understand either him or his Essex constituents, who in the referendum had voted by a margin of 67 to 33 per cent to leave the EU.

Now Francois has written a book which anyone who is interested in why and how Brexit happened should read. An Essex man speaks, and tells us not only about the parliamentary manoeuvrings of the last few years, but about the character of a part of the British nation which cannot bear being bullied or preached at.

Pugnacious, patriotic, loyal, hard-working, quick-witted, emotional, able to distinguish immediately between friend and foe, unworried by class distinction, uninterested in correct spelling, fond of a good joke and a pint: these are among the characteristics of Essex man which leap out from Francois’s account.

He has an unfashionable love of World War Two analogies, as in this passage when he is standing against Ken Livingstone in Brent East in the 1997 general election, and a message arrives from the Conservative Party chairman, Brian Mawhinney, which informs them that the campaign is going “extremely well” and they just need to make “one last great effort in order to secure John Major a record fifth term in office for the Conservative Party”.

“What do you make of this, Mark?” the Chairman of the Conservative Association in Brent East asks Francois, to which he replies:

“Chairman, of course if you and I were in front of the rest of the Association we would have to maintain morale. However, as I have come to respect you over these last two years and we are alone, I interpret this message to mean three things: One: Berlin will never fall. Two: Our great counterattack across the Oder River begins at 05.30 tomorrow and Three: We will break the will of the enemy to resist with the use of the terror weapons and fight on to ultimate victory.”

No mainstream publisher wanted to bring out this book, so Francois with the help of Amazon has brought it out himself. This in some ways makes it a more authentic expression of his point of view: no editor has smoothed away the rough edges, corrected the grammar, toned down the jokes which might be regarded in metropolitan circles as tasteless.

One could be having a pint with Francois, perhaps in an establishment “which is about to kick off massively in about 15 minutes”, as a friend who can sense such things warned him on one occasion: the riot actually started in 12 minutes.

But this is a deeply serious book. Francois really means what he says. He wants so much to work out what Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement means that he reads it: something very few people could face doing.

One of the many virtues of this book is that he quotes the actual words of speeches and other important documents: he realises that the actual words matter, and in the case of the Withdrawal Agreement he concludes that in Article 174, the superiority of the European Court of Justice in the dispute resolution mechanism means that once ratified, this provision cannot be “over-trumped” even by Act of Parliament.

For a long time the European Reform Group of Eurosceptic Tory MPs maintained internal discipline, thanks in part to a secret whipping operation run by Francois which he takes great pleasure in describing.

The ERG split on the question of whether, on 29th March 2019, to vote for the Withdrawal Agreement, or to hold out against it. Some, like the Chairman of the ERG, Jacob Rees-Mogg, thought it was better, in this third Meaningful Vote, to accept the only version of Brexit that was on offer, rather than risk losing everything.

Others, such as Francois and Steve Baker (whose fiery speech to the ERG is printed in this book, and was quoted in the recent ConHome profile of him), decided to fight on to the bitter end.

These are the 28 Spartans, who got their name because, as Francois relates, soon after the second Meaningful Vote he was having dinner with Paul Goodman, editor of ConHome, who said how stressful it must be to be holding out so doggedly against unremitting pressure from the media and the Whips.

Francois agreed, and said “we have felt like the 300 Spartans guarding the pass at Thermopylae.” Goodman proceeded to use the term in a piece for ConHome, “Enter – or Rather Exit – The Spartans” (also reprinted in this book), and the word entered general use.

Goodman predicted, correctly, that “this time round, the Spartans may actually win”. May failed to get Brexit done, and Boris Johnson then got it done in a form more acceptable to the ERG.

This history is so recent that it has obscured earlier events. Francois entered the Commons in 2001 as Member for Rayleigh, in Essex, having cut his teeth as a councillor in Basildon, was soon on friendly terms with George Osborne, and served on the front bench under David Cameron both in Opposition and in Government.

He was not, as the more ignorant of his critics may imagine, a crank who refused ever to be satisfied with what the leadership was doing.

During the referendum campaign, he at first thought “the odds were very much against us winning”, but started to change his mind when he heard Osborne on the Today programme “effectively threatening the British people with a ‘punishment Budget’ if we were to vote to Leave the EU”:

“Both George and I had read history at university, and one thing that runs as a golden thread through British history is that you cannot bully us. Many have tried and all have failed. The British are an inherently reasonable people, often far more patient than many of their counterparts, but there is a point beyond which they simply will not go. And what sounded like a blatant attempt to bully or frighten the British people to vote to Remain in the EU, seemed to me a fundamental error…”

A free people cannot be coerced: Francois at this point showed a better grasp of the temper of the British people than Osborne did.

Francois was born in London in 1965, but when he was only six his parents took him to live in Basildon, a new town in Essex, to a house on an estate which looked like a prison, so was known as Alcatraz. His father did heavy manual labour, such as scrubbing out the inside of large industrial boilers.

His mother was from Italy, where they went on holiday each summer. Mark was sent to the local comprehensive school, and was one of two pupils out of the 226 who arrived that term who went to university.

When he was 13, his father gave him a copy of If, by Rudyard Kipling, and told him that “if ever I was anxious or uncertain and for whatever reason he was not around to offer advice, then I should read the poem again and it would help me decide what to do.”

The following year, his father died of a heart attack, a sudden and terrible blow from which his mother never recovered.

Before the third Meaningful Vote, Francois looked out a copy of If, read it, and found by the time he got to the end that “I was absolutely settled in my mind about what to do”.

The next day, when the ERG met to debate how to vote, Francois quoted the first stanza in his speech:

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, 

But make allowance for their doubting too

Kipling is not a fashionable poet, but If still has claims to be the nation’s favourite poem, and one can imagine the emotion with which he would invest Brexit if he were alive now.

The people who take pleasure in mocking Francois will never read his book, but if they did, they might learn something.

Cockerell’s greatest hits remind us that many of our PMs have been extremely odd

11 Dec

Unmasking Our Leaders: Confessions of a Political Documentary-Maker by Michael Cockerell

Short of a Christmas present for a friend who is interested in politics? Buy this book.

Michael Cockerell, born in 1940, has asked nine of our leaders, beginning with Harold Wilson,

“Do you have any doubts about your ability to fulfil the role of Prime Minister?”

A simple but brilliant question, for the respondent is in danger of avoiding insufferable arrogance by veering into the admission of inadequacy.

Edward Heath just said: “No.”

Boris Johnson, at the time Mayor of London, replied:

“I think people who don’t have doubts or anxieties about their ability to do things probably have something terrifyingly awry. You know, we all have worries and insecurities. And I think it’s a very tough job being Prime Minister. Obviously, if the ball were to come loose from the back of a scrum – which it won’t – it would be a great, great thing to have a crack at.”

Cockerell had induced Johnson to go further than ever before, and the bit about the ball coming lose from the scrum became a big story.

How does one encourage a politician, or indeed anyone else, to reveal bit more of themselves? A contradictory set of qualities is required.

Many political interviews are sterile because the interviewer has an agenda; wishes to be regarded by colleagues, and also by viewers and listeners, as a noble seeker after truth, never afraid to pose the tough, newsworthy questions.

The interviewee has a different agenda; is determined to stick to the line previously agreed with colleagues, and to give no hint of frailty or division.

These two agendas seldom bring out the best in each other. Self-righteous stridency intensifies official obduracy, which in turn provokes greater stridency.

How is the interviewer to handle a politician who has decided exactly what to say, regardless of what he or she may be asked? Cockerell recalls,

“On one occasion, as Sir Robin Day set off for one of his major Panorama interviews with Mrs Thatcher, he said to me: ‘Why don’t I start the interview, “Prime Minister, what’s your answer to my first question?”‘”

Wit helps, and so does a kind of sympathy with the subject. If one simply belabours a politician, one is unlikely to understand much about them, or to receive much in the way of confidences.

Cockerell is mischievous, and his programmes are so enjoyable to watch because he sees that politics is often a theatre of the absurd, but he also has a kind of fellow-feeling with his subjects.

Heath could be wonderfully rude. On one occasion he asked Cockerell, “do you have any training at all for this?” Cockerell arranged to interview him in Broadstairs, where Heath was born and brought up.

Rather unusually, Heath was in a good mood: “Smell that air – wonderful isn’t it – the best in the world,” he says as he steps from his car. Cockerell goes on:

“He had never before talked publicly about his girlfriend from Broadstairs. She was Kay Raven, the daughter of the local doctor, who went out with Heath before the war and for six years waited patiently for his return from the front. Heath did take up with her again after the war and his friends expected the couple to marry. But he never got round to proposing. Why was that? I asked. ‘She decided she would marry someone else, but I don’t discuss these things,’ said Heath.

“‘Did you get over it?’

“‘Yes.’

“‘It was said you kept her photograph by your bed.’

“‘Yes.’

“‘Did you?’

“‘Yes,’ and Heath looked away, as if he was close to tears.”

This goes a long way beyond conventional political interviewing, as do all Cockerell’s documentaries. He wants in each of them to find the person as well as the politician.

But this book also works as a survey, delightfully brief and unportentous, of our politics since the 1960s: a sort of “greatest hits” compilation, and none the worse for that.

There is always a temptation to regard the embarrassments of the present day as the most dreadful we have ever had to endure.

“The worst since the Second World War” and “the worst since Suez” are two phrases indispensable in the reporting of any diplomatic setback.

And the present Prime Minister’s failings are quite frequently discussed, by his critics, as if these eclipse the failings of any previous holder of the post, and public life has fallen to the lowest level ever known.

Cockerell reminds us that after Harold Wilson called the 1970 general election, he appeared on a BBC TV programme, Election Forum, which had solicited questions from viewers, and Robin Day began the programme by saying:

“This question represents an angry theme running through many of these cards. In view of your past record of lies and broken promises, do you really expect the electorate to place any reliance on your word?”

Wilson’s Press Secretary, Joe Haines, suspected BBC dirty tricks, for the studio was “intolerably hot”, which meant sweat was pouring down Wilson’s face and he seemed untrustworthy, whereas the studio had been so cold for his opponent, Edward Heath, the floor manager had to send out for a cardigan.

Lies, or alleged lies, are by no means a new feature of British politics, nor is suspicion of the BBC.

In the “hysterical era” of the late 1960s, “all kinds of lurid rumours about conspiracies against Wilson were circulating, many involving high public figures such as Lord Mountbatten”.

Cockerell gives an enjoyable account of the 1975 referendum on whether Britain should stay in Europe. The big money, some of it supplied by the European Commission, favoured staying in, so Cockerell asked Alistair McAlpine, Treasurer of the Yes campaign, who ran things from a top-secret headquarters in the Dorchester Hotel, whether his lot were in danger of being seen as fat cats who wanted to stay in Europe.

“We were the fat cats,” McAlpine said. “But we were the intelligent cats.”

McAlpine explained how they set out “to depict the anti-Marketeers” – figures such as Enoch Powell, Tony Benn and Dr Ian Paisley – “as unreliable people, dangerous people who would lead you down the wrong path.”

David Cameron remarks that because of what Europe was doing to his party, “Not once during 11 years as Conservative leader did I feel secure for any length of time.”

This sense of transience ought to be felt by every Prime Minister. We have the right to throw the rascals out at any moment of our choosing.

But not, one hopes, before their oddities have been recorded by Cockerell.

Barwell’s memoir. The more conscientious he becomes, the less illuminating this book is

13 Nov

Chief of Staff: Notes from Downing Street  by Gavin Barwell

Advisers, Gavin Barwell says, are too important. That is an admirably un-self-important conclusion for an adviser to reach.

Barwell served as Theresa May’s Chief of Staff from just after the disastrous general election of 2017 until at last she sank beneath the waves in the summer of 2019.

At the end of his 400-page account, he says:

“If I were to do it all again, my first piece of advice to Theresa would be that she should invest more time in her relationships with senior colleagues. The Thatcher ministry was sustained by the support of people like Cecil Parkinson and Norman Tebbit; the Blair ministry by John Prescott and Peter Mandelson; the Cameron ministry by George Osborne and William Hague. Theresa didn’t have key lieutenants of this stature around her. Thirty or forty years ago, the House of Commons sat late most nights, but today it only sits late on Mondays. This has helped to make it more family-friendly, but at the expense of ministers spending more time together. At the same time, there has been an explosion in the number of political advisers. They are the people ministers now spend most of their time with, and that’s a mistake.”

He makes a good point. There has been a growing tendency, when anything goes wrong, to call in new advisers, to replace or supplement those already there.

The deficiencies in the Downing Street machine, its inability to run smoothly under Boris Johnson and the frequency with which faulty decisions have to be reversed, have become a staple of political commentary.

But as Barwell observes, “When the chips are down, politicians depend on the support of their [ministerial] colleagues.”

At Chequers, in the summer of 2018, May’s problem was that she could not carry David Davis and Boris Johnson with her.

It is impossible as Foreign Secretary – the post to which she appointed Johnson in the summer of 2016 – to achieve much unless the Prime Minister of the day takes you into his or her confidence.

This May never did with Johnson. When she was in her pomp – a period hard to recall, but it lasted until she made a hash of the 2017 general election – she made jokes at his expense and shut him out of any serious discussion of how to get Brexit done.

Barwell was not at this stage at her side, but one doubts whether he would have been able to get her to behave in any other way. As Home Secretary, she was notoriously disinclined to confide in colleagues, and this habit served her well.

In Number 10, it did not serve her well. Before Chequers, a row blew up about the Northern Ireland backstop, and she held meetings with several senior ministers in order to try to square them:

“The conversation with Boris was probably the worst meeting of her premiership. He was so rude that I came close to interrupting and asking him to leave. He said we’d made a massive mistake in signing up to the Joint Report. Why had we agreed to all this mumbo jumbo about Northern Ireland? He was normally the person telling us to get a move on, but now he was arguing that we shouldn’t publish anything.”

One begins to see Barwell’s limitations as an historian. He doesn’t give us the actual words spoken by Johnson, which must have been vivid. We are fobbed off with a paraphrase: more scrupulous, but less illuminating and enjoyable.

And this is a problem throughout the book. Barwell was there, but is too well-behaved to tell us what he heard.

We instead find ourselves wading through an official report in which any dramatic moment is deliberately rendered less dramatic. Here is part of his account of how at the end of 2017 the Joint Report came about:

“Then, just a few days before the Prime Minister was due to meet President Juncker, the EU negotiating team presented our team with revised text on Northern Ireland, which went much further than we were expecting. The key section was what would become paragraph 49 of the Joint Report that was published a week later. It said that the UK was committed to protecting north-south co-operation and avoiding a hard border, and that we hoped to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK future relationship, but should this not be possible, we would propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland; in their absence, we would maintain full alignment with those rules of the internal market and the customs union which supported north-south co-operation…

“The Prime Minister was hugely frustrated when Olly told her about this text. She was exasperated at being asked to make commitments about what we would do if we couldn’t reach an agreement about our future relationship before we’d even had a chance to talk about it…

“Nevertheless, it was clear that if we rejected the text outright, we would not be able to achieve ‘sufficient progress’. What, then, should we do? We were the ones under time pressure; the EU could stick to its position, safe in the knowledge that a parliamentary majority was opposed to no deal, so the UK would have to compromise sooner or later. The Prime Minister began to think about whether we could live with the text…”

One would not guess, from Barwell’s dreary language, that a fatal concession is being made. This stuff goes on for page after page, and what is particularly infuriating is that the book has no index, which makes it of far less value to historians and other researchers.

If one wishes to check some particular point, or to see whether Barwell has anything illuminating to say about a particular individual, one has to wade one’s way through bureaucratic language which has the effect of obfuscating, unless one is a bureaucrat, what is actually going on.

The whole sorry story is set out in Roderick Crawford’s authoritative account, The Northern Ireland Protocol: The Origins of the Present Crisis, published at the start of this month by Policy Exchange.

Lord Frost’s preface to that account has already appeared on ConHome. Frost was at that point a special adviser to Johnson. It was immediately clear that “a crucial pass had been sold”, but also that if the Foreign Secretary resigned, on what could be made to seem like a horribly dull technicality, it would be impossible to explain to the public what all the fuss was about.

May persuaded herself that “we could live with the text”, even though it failed to take account of relations between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

It is easy, of course, to be wise after the event, and to forget how weak her position had already become. At the time, it seemed bizarre that she could stagger on for as long as she did.

Why this life in death? Barwell reminds us that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act “had taken away the Prime Minister’s ability to call an election at a time of their choosing, removing the ultimate threat with which a government could get rebel MPs to back its key policies”.

But May had already fired that weapon without any pressing need to do so: in 2017 she called an election and was then unable to present the public with a convincing reason for asking their opinion, which they reckoned they had made clear in the 2016 referendum.

Barwell came on board after that election, in which he lost his seat, Croydon Central, held since 2010. May evidently felt at ease with him, and it is clear that he possesses many of the same virtues as her: he is honest, conscientious, masters the detail and has a deep knowledge of Conservative politics, in which he has been engaged in various capacities since leaving Trinity College, Cambridge in 1993.

These are valuable qualities, but as May demonstrated, they are not sufficient.

At the start of a chapter entitled Media Relations, Barwell remarks: “Theresa wasn’t very interested in communications.” He adds that “Part of me admires her for this”: he would prefer a Prime Minister “who was focussed on getting the decisions right to one who was more interested in photo opportunities”.

But part of the trouble with putting off the moment of communication is that you can suppress your doubts about whether you are doing something which, when presented to the public, will prove justifiable.

In his memoir, Barwell gives scant sign of being interested in communications. Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, texts him after they have attended the weekly meeting of permanent secretaries to say: “All my colleagues think you would make a great perm sec.”

The compliment is deserved, but is perhaps why this book reads like a civil service training manual, with virtually no attempt to interest the general reader.

Andrew Mitchell’s entertaining memoir shows the British Establishment riven by dissent

23 Oct

Beyond a Fringe: Tales from a Reformed Establishment Lackey by Andrew Mitchell

A distinguishing feature of present-day members of the Establishment is their insistence, usually quite sincere, that they do not belong to it.

Andrew Mitchell says in his Preface that he “resigned” from the Establishment in 2013. He makes it sound like the Garrick Club, from which it is indeed possible to resign.

Leaving the Establishment is more complicated. Mitchell was born into it: his father, Sir David Mitchell, was a Conservative MP for 33 years.

And Mitchell himself has passed, as he writes, “through most British Establishment institutions”, including prep and public school, the Army, Cambridge, the City of London, the House of Commons and the Cabinet.

His account of his experiences is often highly entertaining, though there are moments, oddly enough, when one could have wished for more detail, as in this scene from 2007 after David Cameron had addressed the Rwandan Parliament:

“Inevitably tempers frayed and later in the day David had to intervene physically to stop a fight breaking out between me and Steve Hilton, who has a ferocious temper. In spite of being nearly a foot shorter than me, he was poised to spring into a violent attack.”

In this vignette, we begin to see that the Establishment, which may seem from the outside, or in lazy journalistic usage, to be a monolithic organisation with a single Establishment view, is actually riven by dissent.

Hilton wants to beat up Mitchell. No doubt from Hilton’s point of view, Mitchell had been unbelievably annoying, probably by insisting on some point with which Hilton disagreed.

All three men were under severe strain, for there were floods in Witney, Cameron’s constituency, and the press was attacking him for instead being in Africa, advertising the Conservative Party’s new approach to international aid.

The Establishment engages in continual argument. Its greatest institution, the House of Commons, is set up for argument, so too are the law courts and so is the press.

The Conservative Party has survived, indeed flourished, by having the necessary arguments, including the argument about Europe.

This is something which people who see disagreement as a sign of failure – who presume, in their innocence, that politics can be reduced to an ideology, a set of immutable principles – will never understand. To them, Boris Johnson will remain incomprehensible, and so will the Conservative Party.

Mitchell has an amusing chapter entitled “Boris: My Part in his Ascent”. In 1992, John Major had made Mitchell the Vice-Chairman in charge of the Candidates’ Department at Conservative Central Office.

In June 1993, Johnson applied to become a Conservative candidate. He wanted at that point to be an MEP, not an MP.

Richard Simmonds, the senior MEP on the selection board, said Johnson would be admitted to the candidates’ list “over my dead body”. At the crucial meeting of the assessors, the merits of the 47 other applicants were quite quickly decided, but a tremendous argument developed over Johnson:

“Ned Dawnay was firm: Boris was a most impressive applicant; he was clearly a proper Conservative; his intellect, knowledge and energy marked him out; he must be admitted. Richard Simmonds, supported by the other five MEPs, was adamant: Boris was a cynical journalist, a chancer, a brand not a politician, a less than honest political thorn in Prime Minister Major’s side; taking him into the party’s candidates list would be embarrassing for the Conservative group in the European Parliament. Were he to be elected as an MEP it would be a nightmare.”

Mitchell gets Johnson on the list by one vote; tells the Party Chairman, Norman Fowler, that he, Mitchell, will resign if the decision is overturned; but is summoned to see John Major in the Prime Minister’s office behind the Speaker’s chair in the House of Commons:

“The meeting did not start well. As I entered his office, he was standing by the fireplace. ‘Ah, Andrew, thanks for coming: what the fuck do you mean by putting Boris Johnson on the candidates’ list?'”

As part of his explanation to Major, Mitchell says he has extracted an agreement from Johnson not to stand in a winnable European seat. Johnson scrapes through onto the list, soon afterwards tries to stand in a winnable European seat, is dissuaded by Mitchell from doing so, but in 1997 stands instead for the then unwinnable Commons seat of Clwyd South.

We see the Conservative Party having the necessary argument about whether or not Johnson is a fit and proper person to become one of its candidates, and perhaps, in due course, a senior member of the Establishment.

Anyone thinking of embarking on a political career could with profit read Mitchell’s memoir, and so could anyone who wants to know how Conservative policy on international aid was revolutionised after 2005, with the author serving first as Shadow International Development Secretary and then from 2010 in the actual job.

A paradox of elective systems is that one needs, generally speaking, to possess more than normal push in order to put oneself forward. A reluctant sense of public duty is not generally speaking enough.

Mitchell is a gung-ho character: he goes for things; at an early stage runs for and gets the Presidency of the Cambridge Union, a school of argument.

The question in politics, perhaps in life generally, is when, having gone for something, to settle, as the lawyers put it. And this is what goes wrong in Plebgate, the wretched altercation in 2012 between Mitchell and the police officers guarding the Downing Street gates.

Some of the officers behaved abominably: that was established by, among others, the journalist Michael Crick. There was a public interest in having the necessary argument about this: almost a decade later and after much worse failings have come to light, the condition of the Metropolitan Police continues to be a cause of grave concern.

But Mitchell overplayed his hand: as he himself says, instead of walking away with his reputation “largely restored”, he made the “fatal mistake” of suing The Sun for libel, and lost. The ordeal is set out here.

Part of the delight and terror of politics is the sheer unexpectedness with which one can rise and fall, the snakes and ladders aspect to it. Perhaps that unpredictability is one of the things people like about Johnson.

In 2019 Mitchell obtains various assurances from Johnson – the preservation of the 0.7 per cent aid target, DfID to remain an independent department, Mitchell himself to play some key though not quite specified role – and backs him for the leadership:

“I was genuinely surprised and dismayed at the incredibly strong and angry reaction of many of my closest friends who regarded my support for Boris as simply unconscionable. The reaction of my children was unprintable. At a Robert Harris book launch attended by many of my old friends from Cambridge days I was literally put up against a wall, interrogated and denounced.”

The Establishment was divided against itself. In the 1990s Mitchell served as a Whip, and one evening was told to go and give Sir Peter Tapsell “a bollocking” for voting against the Government. This Mitchell could not do: Tapsell was far too senior and dignified a figure to be bollocked.

So Mitchell instead walked silently at Tapsell’s side, in the early hours of the morning, down the stairs through the Members’ Lobby and out through the cloakroom at the Members’ Entrance, hoping “he would feel the reproach of a younger colleague through my silence”.

As they left the Members’ Entrance, Tapsell turned to him and said:

“You see, Andrew, there is nothing I want from your office. I am rich – very rich – I advise central bankers around the world; I am already a knight and I certainly have no wish whatsoever to be a member of this benighted government. The only thing I want is to have my dead son back, and there is nothing you can do about that.”

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.