Alistair Lexden: A century ago today, King George V opened the Parliament of Northern Ireland

22 Jun

Lord Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian. His website can be found here.

At 11 am on a grey, overcast morning, a 21-gun salute rang out across Belfast Lough as the Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert, with King George V and Queen Mary on board, approached Donegall Quay in the City’s Harbour at the end of an overnight journey from Holyhead, accompanied by a magnificent naval escort.

The great shipyards, symbols of Ulster’s (now declining) industrial might, stood silent in honour of the royal visit, an event of momentous importance as a new chapter of Anglo-Irish history began.

Their Majesties were greeted by the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, arrayed proudly in tail-coats, white waistcoats “with Harbour Gilt Buttons” and top hats. These great men in Belfast life were a little taken aback when the glittering casket they brought on board with them was unceremoniously thrust aside, the illuminated address inside it unread, leaving the King without details of the port’s progress since his last visit in 1897. Their Majesties were in a hurry.

An open carriage, surrounded by large (and at times slightly disorderly ) cavalry contingents, sped through some of the principal streets en route to the Edwardian splendour of the City Hall, the temporary home of the new Parliament, elected on Empire Day, 24 May. Loyal Ulster’s joy was unrestrained. “We really got a wonderful welcome & I never heard anything like the cheering”, the King noted in his diary, that dry record of his activities which he maintained dutifully throughout his life.

Disloyal Ulster had its say two days later. A train transporting horses and men who had taken part in the royal procession was blown up. Three soldiers and a guard were killed, along with a large number of horses (others were mutilated).

Faint hearts at Buckingham Palace had urged the King to stay at home. Across Ireland as a whole, some 1,300 people – soldiers, policemen, terrorists and innocent civilians- had died since the beginning of 1919 when the IRA, then (as later) the terrorist wing of Sinn Fein, had unleashed a vicious guerrilla campaign, which historians now tend to dignify as Ireland’s ‘War of Independence’.

Britain’s response, which came to involve arbitrary reprisals for IRA crimes (summed up in three words “ Black and Tans”), stained its reputation, to the King’s great distress, as he made clear to his Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, head of a coalition dominated by Unionists, as Conservatives were then known.

In Belfast, IRA attacks on property in 1920 helped reignite the sectarian violence, endemic in the city since the Nineteenth Century when industrialisation had attracted waves of Catholics from rural Ulster. In a particularly shocking incident, around 5,000 Catholics had been driven from their jobs in the shipyards in July 1920. Sectarian outrages, killing or injuring police and civilians, became depressingly familiar. Suffering was, as always, inflicted on Catholic and Protestant families alike.

No effort was spared to ensure the safety of the monarch and his wife. Cecil Craig, the devoted English wife of Northern Ireland’s new Prime Minister, Sir James Craig (later Viscount Craigavon), recorded the security precautions in her diary .

“Luckily [the City Hall] was not very far, and precautions had been taken of every description, trusted men stationed in each house, and on every roof top, and the closest scrutiny of all in the houses, and of course in the streets too. Every alternate policeman faced the crowd but as there were troops in front, this was not specially apparent.”

Lady Craig naturally had much praise for her husband on this great day. It was not misplaced. An unyielding opponent of Home Rule (as devolution was then known) before the First World War, the Ulster premier was now keen to make it a success in the six counties of Northern Ireland, for which he had become responsible. Lloyd George’s Home Rule scheme, passed into law in 1920, removed the spectre of uncongenial Dublin rule over northern Unionists, first created by William Gladstone in 1886 .

One country, two Parliaments (which might possibly want to merge at some undefined future point): that was Lloyd George’s prescription for Irish harmony in the years ahead. Craig was his conscientious associate in implementing the plan in Belfast; sadly Dublin, where Sinn Fein carried all before it, had other, subversive ideas.

Craig fought a campaign of studied moderation for the Empire Day elections, the first to be held in the United Kingdom under a system of proportional representation. Partnership between North and South, each respecting the other’s boundaries, was his theme. To the astonishment (and disquiet) of many Unionist voters, he went to Dublin during the campaign for discussions with De Valera, recently an inhabitant of British prisons.

He made clear that he would himself lead the Unionist delegation of ten on the Council of Ireland, a key feature of Lloyd George’s Irish settlement, when it was set up to oversee all-Ireland services like the railways and fisheries, and (if both North and South wished) work towards the reunification of Ireland under the Crown. Goodwill abounded. Craig declared that “they in the North would be only too delighted to see the harbours of Cork and elsewhere turned into great engines of industry, the same as they had in the North of Ireland. But having said so much, let it be clear that there was to be no tampering whatever with the rights of Ulster.”

On that basis, Craig won 40 of the 52 seats in the new Parliament, which was going to have to function without an official Opposition: non-Unionist MPs refused to take their seats.

That caused no disquiet among the loyal crowds as the royal carriage swept up to the Belfast City Hall on 22 June 1921, the tenth anniversary of George V’s coronation. The speech which the King delivered was like no other King’s speech in modern history. It contained no boring list of measures that would be debated and passed into law.

The dreary language invariably used on such occasions was replaced by striking eloquence, thanks to Edward Grigg, then one of Lloyd George’s Private Secretaries and later Lord Altrincham, an ardent proponent of responsible self-government within the Empire, who redrafted the speech four days before the King left London. George V’s official biographer, Harold Nicolson, recalled its reception: “Those who actually heard the speech never forgot the intense conviction with which it was delivered or the emotion it aroused.”

No one indeed could have listened without emotion as the King appealed “to all Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and forget, and to join in making for the land they love a new era of peace, contentment and goodwill.” He ended by recasting in memorable, idealistic terms the theme of partnership which Craig had deployed during the election campaign:

“The future lies in the hands of my Irish people themselves. May this historic gathering be the prelude of the day in which the Irish people, north and south, under one Parliament or two, as those Parliaments may themselves decide, shall work together in common love for Ireland upon the sure foundation of mutual justice and respect.”

It was the most significant royal intervention in Irish affairs since George III blocked Catholic Emancipation at the time of the Act of Union in 1801, and so utterly different with its wholly constructive purpose. The speech received the national and international applause it deserved. When the King and Queen returned to London by rail the following day, Lloyd George and his Cabinet were at the station to meet them. “We have been deeply moved by the devotion and enthusiasm with which You were greeted”, the Prime Minister told the King.

Lloyd George was also impressed by an upsurge of public support in Britain for negotiations with Sinn Fein to end the armed conflict in Ireland on honourable terms. On 8 July, a formal truce with the IRA was signed in Dublin, paving the way for the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921,which conferred dominion status on the 26 counties of Southern Ireland. The Belfast visit proved the key to Anglo-Irish peace outside Northern Ireland.

As the royal couple boarded their yacht at the end of the visit, the King said to his Ulster premier: “I can’t tell you how glad I am I came, but, you know, my entourage were very much against it”. James Craig replied: “Sir, you are surrounded by pessimists, but we are all optimists over here.”

Their number diminished sharply during the months that followed. The truce in the South enabled the IRA to turn the full force of its enmity on the North. By the end of 1922, the death toll in Belfast amounted to 428 with another 1,766 injured, all now virtually forgotten by the English with their gift of historical amnesia. Dr A.T.Q Stewart, the doyen of Ulster historians, sought to remind them:

“Grenades were thrown into crowded tramcars, into pubs, into churches and even into groups of children playing at street corners…Whole streets were burned down, and in Belfast some of the main roads became like sections of the Western Front, still vivid in the memory of many of the combatants.”

The IRA also killed – deliberately – the spirit of partnership which Craig had fostered in the Empire Day elections. Power, which might in time have come to be shared, was confined to the Unionist majority as long as the Northern Ireland Parliament lasted. The voice of Catholic complaint was never silent. Could this polarisation have been reduced, perhaps overcome? Only by the continued participation of the Westminster government and the exercise of its restraining hand.

The legislation under which the Northern Ireland Parliament operated stated that “the supreme authority of the Parliament of the United Kingdom shall remain unaffected and undiminished.” Partnership within Ulster required a partnership of parliaments. But Westminster in a telling phrase that has become current preferred to “devolve and forget”. It was a tragic error. It is a pity that the King did not warn against it in his great speech a century ago today.

BIBLIOGRAPHY – D.G. Boyce, Englishmen and Irish Troubles : British Public Opinion & The Making of Irish Policy 1918-22 ( Jonathan Cape,1972). Patrick Buckland, Ulster Unionism and The Origins of Northern Ireland 1886 to 1922 (Gill and Macmillan, 1973 ). Alistair B. Cooke/ Lexden, Ulster: The Origins of the Problem ( Conservative Political Centre, 1988) and “ Lloyd George and an Anglo-Irish Centenary: The Government of Ireland Act 1920” in Journal of Liberal History (2020). St John Ervine, Craigavon, Ulsterman ( Allen & Unwin, 1949). Alf McCreary, Titanic Port: An Illustrated History of Belfast Harbour (Booklink, 2010). Harold Nicolson, King George The Fifth: His Life and Reign ( Constable,1952). Susannah Riordan, “ Politics, Economy, Society: Northern Ireland, 1920-1939” in Thomas Bartlett (ed,), The Cambridge History of Ireland Vol. IV 1880 to the Present ( Cambridge University Press, 2018). A.T.Q. Stewart, The Narrow Ground : Aspects of Ulster,1609-1969 ( Faber & Faber, 1977). C.J.C. Street, Ireland in 1921 ( Philip Allan, 1922). Charles Townshend, Political Violence in Ireland : Government and Resistance since 1848 ( Clarendon Press, 1983

How disgusting Cameron’s critics are. He is a decent man – as were Baldwin and Blair.

7 Apr

David Cameron is a loss to public life. This is not just now the received view, but Lord Lexden, the Conservative Party’s Official Historian, yesterday explained to ConHome why it is the correct one:

“Former prime ministers ought not to be entirely separated from the world of Westminster, which, apart from the benefits of proximity to power, would constantly remind them of the dangers of lucrative enticements which the press and candid friends will always be glad to see exposed in Commons or Lords.

“No ex-PM has wanted to go the Lords for nearly 30 years, the attraction much diminished by the creation of peerages on a massive and unprecedented scale, a process of degradation much assisted by Cameron himself following Blair’s lead. This is a loss to both Parliament and former Prime Ministers.”

Theresa May remains in the Commons, where she continues, when she wishes, to give the House the benefit of her experience.

Blair and Cameron resigned their Commons seats just after ceasing to be PM, while Gordon Brown and John Major each remained in the Commons until the general election after the one at which they had been defeated. All four have declined to go to the Lords.

Margaret Thatcher stayed in the House until the general election after her overthrow, and then accepted a peerage.

Edward Heath remained for over a quarter of a century in the Commons after losing the two elections in 1974 and the Tory leadership contest in February 1975.

Harold Wilson reverted to being Leader of the Opposition after his defeat as PM in 1970, entered Downing Street again in 1974, stepped down as Prime Minister in 1976, but stayed in the House until 1983, when he went to the Lords.

His successor as Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, who was defeated at the general election of 1979, remained in the House until 1987, when he too went to the Lords.

The most graceful example in modern times is afforded by Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who after leaving the Lords at the start of his brief prime ministership in 1963-64, remained in the Commons and served in 1970-74 as Foreign Secretary, his second term in that office, before going once more to the Lords.

Cameron had originally intended to remain in the Commons as a backbencher, but in September 2016, two months after stepping down as Prime Minister, announced he would also step down as an MP, saying in explanation:

“As a former Prime Minister it is very difficult to sit as a backbencher and not be an enormous distraction and diversion from what the Government is doing.”

To traditionalists, it seemed a great pity that Cameron had so quickly followed Blair’s example, cutting and running from Parliament as soon he was no longer the most important person, as if the only point of being an MP is to hold high office.

But just as Blair’s position was rendered excruciatingly uncomfortable by the opprobrium he continued to attract for having led Britain into the Iraq War of 2003, so Cameron’s position was rendered excruciatingly uncomfortable by the opprobrium he continued to attract from Remainers for calling and losing the EU referendum of June 2016.

All Cameron’s earlier achievements were forgotten. Modernising the Conservative Party, leading it back into power in 2010 in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, restoring the economy and governing the country well enough to win a narrow overall majority in 2015, now counted for nothing.

People find it hard to remember more than one thing about any Prime Minister, and all they now remembered about Cameron was that he had accidentally led Britain out of the EU.

He gracefully recognised at breakfast-time on the morning after the referendum that he must step down. There followed a period of silence from him, and this too seemed graceful.

In 2019 he brought out his memoirs, in which he confessed:

“The latent Leaver gene in the Tory Party was more dominant than I had foreseen.”

But his book was not candid enough to arouse any great interest. He had been only 49 when he stepped down, younger than any Prime Minister at the end of their term in office since Lord Rosebery, Prime Minister from 1894-95.

Rosebery was only 47, and for a long time his admirers hoped he would come back. He was a great orator, who could master huge crowds and who still displayed, at unpredictable intervals, star quality, and shafts of insight which showed an admirable independence of mind.

In 1904, when everyone else was cheering the entente cordiale with France, Rosebery greeted a rising Liberal star, David Lloyd George, with the words: “You are all wrong. It means war with Germany in the end.”

Cameron has less brilliance but a steadier temperament than Rosebery, and seemed to have mastered the awkward art of retiring before the age of 50.

In an interview by Emma Barnett with his wife, Samantha Cameron, in January 2021, we learned:

“Dave has shopped and cooked virtually every meal in the last few months.”

Now the Lex Greensill affair threatens to supplant the EU referendum as the one thing for which Cameron is remembered. The audacity which carried him to the Tory leadership, and into Downing Street, also led him to back an Australian banker who promised to make him rich beyond the dreams of avarice, but has instead gone bust, leaving thousands of jobs in the British steel industry in peril.

Greensill had been granted an unusual degree of access to Downing Street, and even a No 10 business card, while Cameron was Prime Minister, and Cameron has since lobbied Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, on Greensill’s behalf, though without managing to extract any funds.

On Sunday, the first signs of a fight-back by Cameron could be detected, in a piece by Dan Hodges for The Mail on Sunday:

“David Cameron has let himself down. And he knows it. ‘He was adviser for a company that went bust in a very public way. And he’s told me he recognises that’s embarrassing,’ says a sympathetic Cabinet Minister who spoke to the former Prime Minister last week.

‘”But he does think all the other stuff is way over the top. This idea he was getting No 10 business cards printed out for all these dodgy people. His attitude is that he had a lot of responsibilities as PM and dealing with the Downing Street stationery wasn’t one of them.'”

It is just possible that by refusing to respond in person to the Greensill story, Cameron will so starve it of oxygen that it dies out.

But the story serves also as a reminder of how hellish it can be to be an ex-Prime Minister. As long as one is in office, one can at least indicate to potential critics that if they start to chuck mud, they can abandon all hope of promotion.

That sanction falls away as soon as one falls from power. From then onwards, anyone who wants to take a crack can do so with impunity.

Consider the case of Stanley Baldwin, Prime Minister in 1923-4, 1924-29 and 1935-37, the dominant figure of the inter-war years, who in 1936 with masterly skill united the British and Imperial Establishment behind the policy of replacing the feckless Edward VIII with the dutiful George VI.

The following year, Baldwin at a moment of his own choosing stepped down, became a Knight of the Garter, and was elevated to the Lords as Earl Baldwin of Bewdley, an earldom being the usual reward for a PM.

Three years later, he became one of the guilty men who had left Britain unprepared for the fight for national survival against Nazi Germany. George Orwell wrote of him:

“As for Baldwin, one could not even dignify him with the name of stuffed shirt. He was simply a hole in the air.”

Baldwin was by now so unpopular that he did not care to appear in public, and despite being old and infirm was denied a seat while travelling on a train. Lord Beaverbrook, in an act of spite, had the gates removed from Baldwin’s house, a gift from Worcester Conservative Association when their leader retired, under the pretence that the metal was needed to make Spitfires.

At Baldwin’s final appearance in public, for the unveiling in 1947 of a statue of George V, a feeble cheer was raised in his honour, and he asked whether he was being booed.

What a fearful warning to Cameron. We write about these things as if they were fair, but that is seldom the case.

We find instead an overwhelming desire to blame someone. The most liberal-minded people are particularly liable to yield to this urge to flog some poor wretch, and to feel better about themselves as they inflict the punishment.

It is especially satisfying to flog someone who formerly adopted a high moral tone. Baldwin liked to strike that note, as did Blair and Cameron.

They were very good at it, but their critics saw the discrepancy between the high-sounding rhetoric and the slightly less elevated behaviour, and pounced.

How disgusting those critics are. Cameron is a decent man, and so were Blair and Baldwin. All three did about as well as anyone could do in the circumstances, and all three, so far as one can see, are doomed.

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.

Bevin, the working-class John Bull who stood up to Stalin and has no successors in today’s Labour Party

11 Jul

Ernest Bevin: Labour’s Churchill by Andrew Adonis

Andrew Adonis has chosen a magnificent subject. Ernest Bevin was recognised by everyone he met in the 30 years before his death in 1951 as a tremendous figure, a man of power who invigorated any transaction in which he took part, “a working-class John Bull”, as Winston Churchill put it, who did not allow anyone, Stalin included, to push him around.

From 1945-51 Bevin served as one of the great Foreign Secretaries. The brilliant young men who worked for him at the Foreign Office respected and adored him.

This book carries a photograph, which one could wish had been reproduced larger, of the last of his private secretaries, Roddy Barclay – tall, thin, alert, languid, deferential, wearing an elegant double-breasted suit, a grave demeanour and a moustache, “a clever man who chose not to seem clever” as his obituarist in The Independent put it – holding a paper for the Foreign Secretary and indicating on it some matter of importance.

Bevin is sitting at an ornate desk, a massive figure, head on one side, cigarette in the corner of his mouth, pen held, as Adonis points out, like a chisel, giving the paper his undivided attention and probably about to deliver a brutally funny retort.

In Adonis’s best chapter, entitled “Ernie”, we get Bevin at the height of his powers, with Barclay and Nico Henderson preserving some of the best things they heard him say:

“If you open that Pandora’s Box you never know what Trojan ‘orses will jump out.”

Or of a speech by Nye Bevan:

“It sounded as if he’d swallowed a dictionary. ‘E used a lot of words but ‘e didn’t know what they all meant.”

One of the reasons why Bevin has faded from the public mind is that his name is so similar to Bevan, who eclipsed all others to carry off the glory of founding the National Health Service.

Unless one is an expert, one has to make an effort to remember which Labour politician is which, and although Bevin was a big figure for a longer period, and had greater achievements to his name, none of those achievements is so easy to explain or to approve of as the NHS.

He was born into rural poverty in Winsford, a remote village in Somerset where another Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, was to spend part of his childhood.

Bevin’s mother, Mercy, whose photograph he kept all his life on his desk, was single, and died when he was eight. He left school at the age of 11 and became a farm labourer, which he called “a form of slavery”. His favourite poem was “The Deserted Village” by Oliver Goldsmith:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,

Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

At the age of 13, Bevin managed to join two of his older brothers in Bristol, where he became a drayman, a Baptist preacher, a socialist and a trade union organiser, and before the First World War made common cause between the Bristol carters and dockers.

He was an organiser and negotiator of genius and in 1922 founded the Transport and General Workers’ Union, which he built into the biggest union in the world, all the time fighting off attempts by Communists to take control.

This was his school of politics. He saw that Churchill’s decision to go back on the gold standard in 1925 had “pushed us over the cliff” and was a disaster for wages, which would have to be cut if British industries were to survive.

Hence the General Strike of 1926, precipitated by proposed cuts in miners’ wages. It is good to be reminded of the remark by Lord Birkenhead, who as F.E.Smith had won a name as one of the most brilliant Conservatives of that or any other generation:

“It would be possible to say without exaggeration of the miners’ leaders that they were the stupidest men in England if we had not had frequent occasion to meet the owners.”

Adonis calls F.E.Smith “the Boris Johnson-esque Tory extrovert of the day”. One sees what he means, but the description isn’t quite right. Smith was harsher than Johnson, and had a more cutting wit.

If Bevin had been able to take charge of the union side of the talks with the Government, the General Strike might have been averted. He was not dominant enough at the start of the crisis to do that, but had emerged by the end of it as a “leader of leaders”.

Men of imagination and intellect – David Lloyd George, John Maynard Keynes – recognised Bevin as a kindred spirit, more Keynesian than Keynes, someone who saw without needing to work out the theory that one answer to mass unemployment must be to leave the gold standard, while another must be to institute programmes of public works.

Men devoid of imagination – Stanley Baldwin, the Conservative leader, and Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour leader – formed a coalition to uphold economic orthodoxy and keep Lloyd George, who championed Keynes’s ideas, out of power.

In 1935, Bevin was instrumental in getting rid of George Lansbury, described by Adonis as “a 1930s Jeremy Corbyn”, from the Labour leadership. “Bevin hammered Lansbury to death,” as their Labour colleague Hugh Dalton put it. When reproached for brutality, Bevin said,

“Lansbury had been going about dressed in saint’s clothes for years waiting for martyrdom: I set fire to the faggots.”

Bevin supported Clement Attlee as the new leader, and in the years to come upheld him through numerous attempts by Labour colleagues to overthrow him.

In 1940, when Labour joined Churchill’s wartime coalition, Bevin came in as Minister of Labour and a member of the War Cabinet, and with characteristic dynamism set about mobilising the work force.

In 1945, as the new Foreign Secretary, Bevin was plunged at Attlee’s side into hard bargaining with Stalin at the Potsdam Conference, and saw at once – much quicker than the Americans – that here was a Communist who was trying to take control of Western Europe, and must be resisted.

There was no false modesty about Bevin. He knew what he could do. He worked incredibly hard, without showing off about it, and “used alcohol like a car uses petrol”. On the plane back from Potsdam, he told Nico Henderson:

“You see, I’ve had a good deal of experience with foreigners. Before the last war I had to do a good deal of negotiation with ships’ captains of all nationalities. These people, Stalin and Truman, are just the same as all Russians and Americans; and dealing with them over foreign affairs is just the same as trying to come to a settlement about unloading a ship. Oh yes, I can handle them.”

Adonis keeps saying, in a somewhat repetitive way, how crucial Bevin was in resisting Stalin’s attempts to neutralise or take over the whole of occupied Germany.

This is not really why we are interested in Bevin. He is a fascinating political personality. We want to read about Churchill whether or not it can be proved he stopped Hitler, and about Bevin whether or not it can be proved he stopped Stalin.

In each case, the more stridently one advances the claim, the more insecure one is liable to sound.

It is true that the creation of what became West Germany was a triumph of British statecraft for which Bevin deserves credit.

Every so often, when I was a correspondent in Berlin in the 1990s, I was reminded of this, but found it hard to dramatise events which had happened 50 years before.

And after all, the success of West Germany had an awful lot to do with the Germans.

Bevin did not get pious about the postwar settlement. He said of the Germans to General Brian Robertson, Governor of the British zone: “I tries ‘ard, Brian, but I ‘ates them.”

This book is dedicated to Roy Jenkins, “friend, mentor, inspiration”. Unfortunately, the disciple was in too much of a rush to maintain the high standards of eloquence and wit set by his master.

There are sentences in Adonis’s book which are too clumsy ever to have been written, let alone allowed to pass into print, by Jenkins.

But there is also a love of anecdote, and an understanding of the way it can illuminate history, which are worthy of Jenkins.

This book can be recommended to anyone interested in Bevin who lacks the time or will to read Alan Bullock’s three-volume biography, on which Adonis acknowledges his reliance.

Another reason why Bevin has faded from public view is that it is impossible to say who his successors were. The unions became a source of trouble more than of statesmen. Alan Johnson is the last major figure to have come up through one.

The mighty T & G merged in 2007 with Amicus and was renamed Unite the Union, led by Len McCluskey. What a falling off. Adonis concludes of Bevin,

“He was lionised in his day as the first of a new breed of ‘common man’ who would manage the British state in a new democratic era. But Bevin wasn’t the first of a kind: he was the first and last.”