The British economy has survived so many crises that it can surely survive Brexit

William Keegan’s memoir describes with ebullient good humour how he covered half a century of bad news.

Nine Crises: Fifty Years of Covering the British Economy from Devaluation to Brexit by William Keegan

Bill Keegan thinks that of all the crises, dating back to devaluation in 1967, which he has covered as a journalist, “the prospect of Brexit is by far the greatest and most worrying”.

We shall see. I take a more complacent view. And some of the previous crises seemed pretty alarming at the time. Inflation peaked in August 1975 at 26.9 per cent.

But good journalists are not complacent. They communicate the drama of events. Keegan is very good at this. He shares his enjoyment and his insights, without pretending to omniscience.

He reminds us of the Queen’s great question about the crash of 2007-08, which had taken pretty much everyone by surprise: “Why did nobody notice it?”

Shortly afterwards, while presenting Keegan with the CBE, she asks him, “And what do you do?”

“‘I write about the economy for The Observer newspaper,’ I replied. There was a brief silence. Then I added, ‘I was one of the people who didn’t warn you.'”

In the hands of this ebullient and often self-mocking author, the dismal science ceases to be dismal. Here is an economist who does not suppose economics explains everything. His favourite subject is history, and in 1960 he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, to read classics.

Keegan expresses his gratitude to the Jesuits at Wimbledon College who taught him Latin and Greek, but he opts to read economics instead, because he wants to understand more about what is going on, and reckons “I could study history for the rest of my life, whereas, if I did not have a go at economics, I probably never would”.

He discovers he prefers words to charts and diagrams:

“most economists…just loved charts. And economics was becoming increasingly mathematical. I was greatly relieved by the story told by a friend of mine, the late Sir Dennis Proctor, who had been a friend of Keynes. Proctor, a classicist, had asked Keynes, a mathematician, ‘Maynard, does one have to be a mathematician to understand economics?’

“‘No, Dennis,’ came the reply, ‘but one does need a sense of proportion.'”

What really interests Keegan is “political economy”, which he defines as “the relationship between economics and politics, and the discussions and battles that go on in public and private between economists and policymakers”.

On joining The Financial Times straight from Cambridge, he is initiated into an indispensable way of finding out about that world:

“It was drummed into me that lunch with politicians, officials, businessmen and City figures was an important part of the job. In effect, I was told to go out and spend the company’s money cultivating contacts.”

There are always people who are prepared to talk, if only they can find someone sympathetic to talk to. Enjoyment and the exchange of information go hand in hand, and the whole thing can when necessary be done discreetly.

After 1979, Keegan struck up a friendship with Ian Gilmour, one of the Tory wets who viewed with horror the economic policies pursued by Margaret Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe. He also plugged himself into the opposition within Whitehall:

“some of the officials who were having to carry out policies they did not believe in were happy to meet me, but only in secret. It was more than their professional lives were worth to be seen with ‘the enemy’ in public. There was one very important source for me who insisted on meeting in a curry house near Leicester Square where we were both quite certain that we would meet no one we knew.”

From 1964-67, the Labour Government of Harold Wilson made a “forlorn attempt to wish the obvious necessity of devaluation away”. Meanwhile the civil service secretly drew up a “devaluation war book”, detailing how the necessary currency adjustments were going to be made and the announcement handled.

This was stored in a safe with a combination lock. In November 1967, when devaluation took place, it turned out that nobody knew the code for the lock:

“The Treasury frantically telephoned Peter Jay, who had been private secretary to its top official at the time, and was now economics editor of The Times. Luckily for them, Jay remembered the code, which was the date of the 1949 devaluation, with the digits reversed.

“Jay did the honourable thing: he told the Treasury the code, but did not embarrass the government and his former colleagues by revealing what had happened, or taking journalistic advantage of it.”

There is a sort of generosity in Keegan’s account. Many of the people he meets are highly intelligent, and are trying to do the right thing, and even when, as often happens, they fail, he is disinclined to write them off as evil or malicious.

Episodes such at the three-day week of 1973 and the IMF crisis of 1976 are described without the sense of pessimism and almost unbearable national decline which they induced in some of us.

Keegan had a brief spell at the Bank of England, but the greater part of his career has been spent at The Observer, where Alan Watkins, whose greatness he recognises, was the political columnist.

There were some wonderful journalists at work in this period, a number of them (though none on the economic side of things) portrayed in Watkins’ book Brief Lives, published in 1982In the introduction he wrote for the new edition of that work in 2004, Watkins remarks:

“The representative figures of the age of Wilson and of Macmillan’s England who are depicted here possessed, with some exceptions, a rationality, an optimism and a capacity for the enjoyment of life which their successors do not always, or even usually, exhibit today.”

With rare exceptions, Keegan is generous about the politicians and officials he get to know during this half century. They include Nigel Lawson, a distinguished journalist before becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Keegan is highly critical of Lawson as Chancellor. “Still writing the same old rubbish,” Lawson delights in saying whenever they meet, to which Keegan replies, “Still pursuing the same old policies.”

But when the owners of The Observer want to sack Keegan for being so hostile to the Thatcher government, Lawson, as Chancellor, confounds them by saying, when lunching at the paper: “I read William’s column. I don’t always agree with it. But I wouldn’t be without it.”

The only Chancellor Keegan cannot stand is George Osborne:

“there was something about the cynical way that Osborne introduced his austerity programme which, frankly, got beneath my skin…It mattered not that in opposition Cameron and Osborne had supported Labour’s public spending programme. With blatant disingenuousness, the new Chancellor and his colleagues now blamed the crisis on Labour’s ‘excessive’ public spending.”

In Keegan’s view, Osborne’s misplaced policy of austerity was not just the wrong way to promote economic recovery, flying as it did in the face of Keynes’s insight that the only way to emerge from recession is to spend your way out.

The policy of austerity also helped cause the No vote in the EU Referendum: a disaster in Keegan’s opinion, though he still hopes “this movement to what I regard as a cliff-edge can be stopped”.

Yet the overall effect of his book is cheering. The British economy has survived and prospered after so many crises it can surely survive Brexit.

How does Jeremy Corbyn compare to past Labour leaders?

Embed from Getty Images One of the frustrating things about the current Brexit episode is watching Jeremy Corbyn perform in the Commons. The other day, on the Twitterdome, I compared Mr Corbyn unfavourably with past Labour leader, John Smith. I think it is fair to say that if John Smith were currently Labour leader he […]

Embed from Getty Images

One of the frustrating things about the current Brexit episode is watching Jeremy Corbyn perform in the Commons. The other day, on the Twitterdome, I compared Mr Corbyn unfavourably with past Labour leader, John Smith. I think it is fair to say that if John Smith were currently Labour leader he would, by now, have delivered a rhetorical blow to Theresa May comparable to that which he dealt to John Major with this passage of one of his Commons’ speeches:

In response to the plummeting popularity of the Administration itself, revealed at Newbury and in the shire county elections, we have the Prime Minister’s botched reshuffle. If we were to offer that tale of events to the BBC light entertainment department as a script for a programme, I think that the producers of “Yes, Minister” would have turned it down as hopelessly over the top. It might have even been too much for “Some Mothers Do ‘Ave Them”.
The tragedy for us all is that it is really happening—it is fact, not fiction. The man with the non-Midas touch is in charge. It is no wonder that we live in a country where the grand national does not start and hotels fall into the sea.

It caught the moment. The fact that I am still quoting it 26 years later is testament to its strength.

I have just finished reading Ben Pimlott’s biography of Harold Wilson. It is a great tragedy that Ben Pimlott did not live long enough to write a retrospective commentary about Wilson some years after he (Wilson) died. However, the 2016 edition of the tome did have a forward by Peter Hennessy which allowed some reflection on the place in history of Britain’s Prime Minister from 1964-1970 and 1973-1976.

In the forward, Peter Hennessy spends some time comparing Harold Wilson to Jeremy Corbyn (albeit in 2016). His analysis can be summed up with these of his words:

For all his striking achievement in the course of a single summer in 2015 in capturing the base and the leadership apex of the Labour party (with considerable support from the leaders of the fewer yet larger conglomerate trade unions), Jeremy Corbyn is simply not in the Wilson class. Crucially for Corbyn, his wit, his style, his policies simply do not run in the crucial middle, including th ebulk of the PLP. In terms of jumping and clearing the Labour Party’s internal fences, Wilson was a Grand National winner; Corbyn has yet to win a local point-to-point. The gap between them as parliamentary performers in the House of Commons similarly yawns chasm-like. Wilson was born to excel at Prime Minister’s Questions.

Pimlott’s biography narrates the remarkable long and thorough grounding which Wilson had in politics, as a civil servant and then a minister in Atlee’s post-war government. He resigned from that government in 1951,firmly allying himself with the left of the Labour party. His time as Labour party leader was remarkable in that he managed to work a path through the competing sub-tribes of Labour. Trying to reconcile the leftist Bevanites and rightist Gaitskellites, with fiery characters such as George (“If it’s Tuesday, I’m resigning”) Brown and Barbara Castle also in the mix, was nigh-on impossible and it is one of Wilson’s great achievements that he managed it for many years. But Wilson also had a remarkable skill to martial his party on policy and speech-making so that he often rang rings around his opponent, who was more often than not, Edward Heath.

Indeed, it is possible to look at a long list of Labour politicians of the past: Atlee, Wilson, Gaitskell, Castle, Jenkins, Callaghan, Kinnock, Smith, Blair, Harman, Beckett, Brown, David Miliband etc etc and conclude that any one of them would have rhetorically knocked Theresa May into a cocked hat by now, whereas Jeremy Corbyn never seems to manage it.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

Alastair Thompson: Corbyn – the apologist for the tyrant who rules Venezuela by fear. Let a Commons vote put him on the spot.

Let’s see if Labour stands with Venezuela’s oppressed. For what party could truly say that it supports labour, while lending support to the butchery of labourers?

Alastair Thompson is reading Politics and Economics at Bath University.

Venezuela, the poster child for a nation gone to ruin, is at a precipice. The former jewel of South America has been crippled by a form of typical socialist tyranny – a dictatorship. One whose origins have routinely been praised by not only odious backbenchers within the Labour Party, such as Chris Williamson, but even the Leader of the Opposition himself, Jeremy Corbyn.

Yet earlier this week, Venezuela took a step back from tyranny and a step towards freedom. Juan Guaidó took a public oath swearing himself in as the acting President of Venezuela. A move was recognised as legitimate by the Organisation of American States, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and the United States. Yet his move has not been accepted by some within Venezuela itself.

Nicolas Maduro, the dictator who has overseen the mass murder of protestors and who has overseen political opponents detained, remains in power. His legitimacy lies under the faux authority of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice. This tribunal is the highest court of law within Venezuela: its authority cannot be challenged. Yet Venezuela’s judicial system is so barren of legitimacy that it was declared by the most corrupt in the world by Transparency International in 2014. This corruption was exceptionally apparent when, in early 2016, three lawmakers were stripped of their seats, preventing a challenge to Maduro’s dictatorship.

The United Kingdom should take a stand. The motto of the Conservative Party relating to Brexit has been a “global Britain”.  What could be more global than standing for the democratic rights of oppressed peoples abroad? Let us stand with the people of Venezuala, as we would hope they would stand for us under tyranny.

But let us not simply denounce Maduro, as Jeremy Hunt rightly did yesterday, and have the Government praise Guaidó.  Let’s not just have Theresa May announce that the Government recognises his legitimacy. If we wish to announce our support for democracy, we should do so democratically. Let’s have our representatives, our Parliamentarians, vote on the matter. Jeremy Corbyn and his cabal of appeasers should be challenged on their record, in Parliament – so let’s have them vote. Let’s see if the Labour Party stand with the many oppressed in Venezuela, or the few who oppress them for reasons of ideology and corrupt self-benefit.

Across the pond, Senator Lloyd Bentsen famously said to Senator Dan Quayle “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.” It is time for the Conservative Party to step forward and show that Corbyn is no Clement Attlee, no Harold Wilson. Rather, he is besotted with whichever left-wing dictator is in fashion amongst the Hard Left. He is not the friend to human rights that the other Attlee and Wilson were.  He is simply the friend of tyrants.

Let’s see that truth demonstrated in Parliament itself. If Corbyn is challenged on this matter, the likely outcome is that will he vote, in effect, for Maduro’s dictatorship, and show his support for tyranny in law. How then, could moderate Labour MPs stand with a man who prioritises ideology over innocent life? How can these MPs support a leader who stands by as lives are sacrificed on the altar of socialism?

So let’s bring forward a bill to recognise Venezuela’s rightful president. Let us help to save a country where even such basics as food are so devoid of supply that hard-working citizens have turned to eating their pets. And let us demonstrate to the people of the UK that we are seeing the death of any Labour Party worthy of the name. For what party could truly say that it supports labour, while lending support to the butchery of labourers?

Richard Ritchie: Brexit. Four great Commons debates that show how we got here – and what’s at stake.

That’s to say, those of 1950, 1961, 1967 and 1971. Sovereignty was always the key concern, despite arguments over its meaning.

Richard Ritchie is the author of The Progress Trust (Without Hindsight: A History of the Progress Trust 1943-2005). He is Enoch Powell’s archivist and is a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.

The reading of past debates in Hansard is a salutary exercise. I learnt this in researching my recent history of The Progress Trust where I was constantly impressed by how often political arguments seem to repeat themselves. But no more so than on the question of Europe.

Before joining the European Community, the Commons held three debates on the question of principle – four, if one includes the debate concerning the Labour Government’s refusal to countenance the Schuman plan in June 1950. All of them were considered historic by their participants. The final debate lasted six days (21st – 28th October 1971), sitting often until 2am and on one occasion until 7am.

In passing, it’s impossible to ignore changes in Parliament’s character between then and now. In 1971, speeches were still of unlimited duration, there were far fewer female contributions, and the Speaker (unlike now) was polite and impartial. The only time a Speaker came near to issuing a rebuke in all these debates was when Selwyn Lloyd on October 27 1971 exploded “It is really not tolerable that the Rt. Hon. Member for Leeds East (Denis Healey) should continue to interrupt from a sedentary position.”

But what strikes one most is how, with hindsight, the inevitability of today’s crisis is apparent. The issue of sovereignty was always acknowledged as crucial, and politics took precedence over economics from the start. Moreover, the Commons was always divided on the issue, with a constant sense from opponents of entry that the Government of the day was exceeding its democratic mandate.

– – –

The debate on the Schuman Plan is instructive, because it shows how the Conservatives were as willing as Labour to say one thing in Opposition, and another in Government. Churchill criticised the Labour Government for its refusal to consider a plan which he himself, as Prime Minister, was to judge unacceptable. The kernel of the argument was whether Schuman’s plan necessitated a “supra-national authority” as claimed by Attlee, but denied by Churchill who described it as “an odious phrase.”

And yet, Churchill took Attlee’s view once he regained office. Incidentally, it was during this debate that Edward Heath made his maiden speech, urging the Labour Government to “go into the Schuman Plan to develop Europe and to coordinate it in the way suggested.” Heath, at least, was always consistent. The most striking comment was uttered by the left-wing intellectual, Richard Crossman – “The amount of enthusiasm for federal union in any country is a measure of its defeatism and of its feeling of inability to measure up to its own problems.”

– – –

It was not until Harold Macmillan’s attempt in 1961 to join the ‘Common Market’ that the Commons again fully debated the principles involved – although only in respect of authorising negotiations. The debate contained many interesting statements, including Macmillan’s assurance that “it is quite unreal to suppose we could be compelled suddenly to accept a flood of cheap labour.”

Of special relevance to today was the distinction between applying for membership under Articles 237 and 238 of the Treaty of Rome. The Labour Party preferred the latter because it simply meant joining ‘a customs union’. But as Macmillan pointed out, this amounted to no more than becoming “country members” (it was typical of Macmillan to use a club analogy). He continued: “it would raise all the same problems without giving us any position in which we could share in the decisions of the Community in all its aspects.” In other words, precisely the same objection as is made today of Theresa May’s approach.

On the economic side, the debate was between those who feared economic exclusion from a large market, and those who felt this country was betraying its farmers, and the Commonwealth. On the political side, the argument was over sovereignty. Derek Walker-Smith was the main Conservative opponent of entry, urging the Commons to consider “the direction and destinations” to which membership would lead, and emphasising that “for the Community economic union is a prelude to political union.”

He was not alone in warning of what came to be known as the ratchet effect. The word ‘sovereignty” was discussed frequently during this short two debate in August. It’s a myth to suppose it was of lesser concern in 1961 than in 1971 or indeed today. And from the start, it was divisive. As the Conservative MP Sir Robin Turton warned, “there are hundreds of thousands of Conservatives who hold the views that I hold” on sovereignty, and continued “I fear that the Government will split not only the Commonwealth but the Conservative Party.”

– – –

Because this attempt to join the Common Market was blocked by de Gaulle, the Commons was never required to debate the actual terms of entry. By the time Harold Wilson launched a second attempt to join the Community in 1967, there was a greater appetite to debate in detail the economic dimension.

A three day debate took place between 8th and 10th May, by which time Edward Heath was leader of the Opposition. While resentful of the lack of support offered by Labour to his negotiations in 1961, Heath offered the Government almost unequivocal backing on condition that, as he had stated a few months earlier, Wilson’s application was based on full acceptance of “the Treaty of Rome, the common external tariff, the abolition of the internal tariff, the common agricultural policy and the movement towards economic union.”

Wilson opened the debate with a speech lasting nearly one and a half hours, and most of it was devoted to economic matters relating to agriculture, the movement of capital and the Commonwealth. On the political dimension, Wilson was mostly interested in how membership would affect relations with Russia, and issues of peace and security in general. He was less concerned with ‘sovereignty’ although he did make the extraordinary claim that “by far the greater part of our domestic law would remain unchanged after entry.”

There was also greater concern than in 1961 over the dangers of exclusion. Sir Alec Douglas-Home argued “the country is in danger of being put out of business” although he conceded that “the difficulties of grafting Britain on to a Community which will achieve complete integration by 1970 are much greater than they would have been five years ago.” By 1967, immigration was also a much bigger issue than in 1961, but this did not prevent Wilson from echoing Macmillan in his emphasis that “the Government do not believe that there is likely to be any large net increase in the number of EEC nationals coming here to work.”

Backbenchers of both parties preferred to debate the issues of principle. Duncan Sandys, for example, was the precursor of Michael Heseltine in arguing that “in this age of super-states, Britain by herself is no longer in a position to exercise any really effective influence in international affairs.” Socialists such as Michael Foot feared a capitalist conspiracy (just as Corbyn does today). Internationalists argued that internationalism does not “reside behind tariff walls.” And it was the Ulster MP Captain Lawrence Orr who expressed most succinctly the sovereignty concern: “It is a loss of sovereignty which can never be regained. Once we sign the Treaty and are in, every kind of sanction could be used against us, and would be used against us, if we sought to abrogate it.” The Labour MP Manny Shinwell urged that more attention be paid “to what is being said on the other side, on the Continent”, a warning ignored by the Foreign Secretary, George Brown, who stated “we expect to get in.”

But what distinguished this debate from its equivalent six years earlier was that Conservative opponents of entry tabled their own critical amendment, albeit unsupported by the official Opposition. While only 26 Conservatives supported the ‘rebel’ amendment (although 62 MPs voted against the application itself), it was the first manifestation of divisions to come. Before leaving the 1967 debate, the temptation to quote Percy Grieve, Dominic Grieve’s father, is too great to resist in illuminating the family atmosphere in which his son grew up: “The changes in law resulting from accession to the Community would not affect the ordinary man or woman in this country, who simply would not realise the changes resulting in the laws dealing with commerce and restrictive practices.”

– – –

Everyone was agreed that the final debate of principle, in 1971, was different from its predecessors because here Parliament was asked to approve a final decision to join “the European Communities on the basis of the arrangements which have been negotiated.” Inevitably, therefore, the debate was not just about the principle but also the terms of entry.

The consequence of this was an inordinate amount of time was taken up by a boring quarrel between the two front benches as to whether Harold Wilson and the Labour Party had again changed their minds and could have negotiated something better. Wilson denied the former, and asserted the latter. Heath and the Conservatives in turn accused Wilson of subterfuge and lack of principle. It was a forerunner of what we are seeing today. Wilson had no more chance of winning better terms in 1971 than Corbyn has in 2019. But the farce of pretending otherwise has to be enacted, while the issues of principle are evaded.

However, a six day debate afforded plenty of opportunity to debate every angle, and the arguments expressed on this occasion retain a resonance for us today. Dennis Healey described the debate “as the end of the beginning of an argument which has lasted for more than 15 years.” Peter Shore put it better in saying “I sense that neither here nor in this country are we at the end of this great debate but rather at the beginning.”

When it came to the economic dimension, the quarrel was over familiar ground, although regional policy had assumed greater importance for Labour because of its radically different approach. Also, this debate contained for the first time detailed discussion over Britain’s net contribution to the EEC Budget, which the Government was keen to downplay but where Labour was ultimately vindicated – culminating in Margaret Thatcher’s struggle to reduce this country’s net contribution in 1984. Nevertheless, much of this argument was about statistics, growth rates and forecasts about which, like today, neither side had any justification for certainty. One could almost substitute the numbers cited then for the numbers extrapolated now, and be none the wiser. As in 1967, for Sir Alec Douglas-Home the question was simple: “Where do we find the jobs for our people unless we take advantage of an opportunity like this?”

But the political implications were not to be crowded out by disputes over “the terms” or economic projections. These implications now included to a greater extent than before the issue of defence, as Heath was suspected by an increasingly unilateralist Labour Party of planning an Anglo-French nuclear force. Essentially, the sovereignty argument was still between those who, like Keith Joseph, believed “it will never be requisite upon us once we are in the Community to take any decisions, or to join in any decision, against our national interest”; and those like the Labour MP Michael English who pointed out that “if every member of the Cabinet had a right of veto, there would be no Cabinet decisions.”

A Conservative MP called Peter Trew predicted “The British people could find themselves on a bandwagon travelling in a direction not of their choosing and at a speed which they could not control.” Tony Benn argued that defence and foreign policy “are to be put in for harmonisation with tariffs and taxation.” Derek Walker-Smith referred to “the new fashionable expression” of ‘elitism’ and concluded “If this is the product of elitism – government by community decree, with Parliament a rubber stamp – new elitism is old autocracy writ French. If this is elitism, then give me democracy.”

– – –

So, what are the main lessons of these debates for today’s MPs? It was Benn who said in the debate: “I think that history is unlikely to confirm any of our certainties expressed, and that what the historians will want to know is how deeply we thought about the possibilities.” Events have occurred which were not fully perceived. Perhaps the most important is the unification of Germany and the break-up of the Soviet Union. The second is the enlargement of the EU. It is harder now than then to argue that the EU does not embrace most of Europe. Another development not fully acknowledged was Scottish nationalism, although the Tory MP Lieutenant Colonel Colin Mitchell (known to his contemporaries as “Mad Mitch”) got it right when he argued that “nation states are being eroded, but are being eroded not only from above but from below as well, and with the weakening of nation states there are supra-national groupings and sub-national independence movements.” The Northern Ireland border was hardly discussed, although Stanley McMaster, the Unionist MP for Belfast East, feared the movement of labour from Eire to Ulster.

But just as striking are the similarities. For example, then as now there was concern over Britain’s influence in any alternative grouping. The Labour MP Ronald Brown, who was George Brown’s younger brother, stated “I object to this country joining any grouping (such as EFTA) in which we have a subordinate role. This is the great value of our joining Europe, that we will be on equal terms with our partners.” This is precisely what is argued by today’s critics of ‘Norway-plus’ and its variations. It was also frequently argued that the Government failed to listen to the Community. One can’t help wondering whether it would not have been better for everyone if the advice of “people of some authority” in the Common Market, quoted by George Brown in 1961, had been followed: “If you are coming in believing that this is no more than an economic arrangement, we would much rather that you did not come in.”

Finally, there is the issue of public consent. There were just as many complaints then as now over the Government’s attempts to influence public opinion and the illegitimate use of taxpayers’ money. There were frequent calls for either a general election or a referendum. Benn again put it best when he said “There are such sharp differences of opinion within each party that it would not be possible to decide the issue at a general Election, even if the leadership of the two major parties were taking contrary views.”

That was the dilemma then, as it is today. Parliament and Parties have always been divided on this issue. ‘Sovereignty’ was always the key concern, despite arguments over its meaning. The question now is whether those divisions within the Conservative Party which have been apparent ever since Macmillan made his first application (and before) are finally bringing about its destruction. If so, nobody can say they weren’t warned.

The first department to need boosting post-March. The Treasury? Business? Transport? No: Northern Ireland.

The challenge to “our precious union” will be as much constitutional as economic – Deal, No Brexit…or No Deal especially.

Liz Truss wants to merge three smaller departments into a bigger one in the wake of the spending review.  Business, Culture and Transport would be folded into a new Ministry of Infrastructure.  B.I.S.C.U.I.T.S lives!

More prosaically, there is a danger, in weighing up the idea – the Chief Secretary believes bold measures are needed to raise productivity – of confusing three different though linked aims.

The first is saving taxpayers’ money through more efficient administration.  Amalgamating departments can help to achieve this end.  But it is always possible to find savings within the present set-up.  For example, Jeremy Hunt cut staff costs in one of those departments, Culture, by the best part of half, during his term as Secretary of State under the Coalition.

The second is restructuring departments to deliver political priorities.  Again, this shouldn’t be Mission Impossible.  However, it can go wrong.  The classic example is Harold Wilson’s Department of Economic Affairs, a “department of long-term go” created to balance the Treasury, the “department of short-term stop”.  Led by George Brown, it fought the Treasury.  The Treasury fought back, under Jim Callaghan.  Short-term stop is still with us and long-term go left very quickly.

The third is signalling priorities through ministerial appointments.  Consider the department at the head of the Chief Secretary’s list, Business.  Gordon Brown galvanised it by sending in a big hitter, Peter Mandelson.  David Cameron responded by appointing another as his shadow – Ken Clarke.

In that particular case, structural changes were made.  (Mandelson’s new department gained responsibility for universities.)  But these aren’t always desirable or even necessary.  By way of illustration, we offer a post-March 29 example.

If Theresa May’s deal eventually passes the Commons, Great Britain and Northern Ireland will have different regulatory regimes, assuming the backstop eventually kicks on.  Some argue that the two parts of the UK will potentially have different customs arrangements too.  This aspect of the deal has knock-on implications for Scotland, and therefore the Union, as a whole.

In the event of No Deal, it is possible that support for Irish unity and/or Scottish independence will grow faster than would otherwise be the case.  There is no way of knowing.  But Unionists should be alive to the possibility.  Relations with Ireland would certainly be tested in these circumstances, with an obvious read-across for Northern Ireland.  Whatever happens, we have paid for neglecting them.

In short, the latter will need a senior Tory player as Secretary of State when the next Cabinet reshuffle comes.  That person will need to know the Irish political scene, be on civil terms with the DUP and have a feel for how the island ticks.

Our suggestion is David Lidington.  He won’t be top of the DUP’s Christmas card list, but the party knows him well from his time as David Cameron’s Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, and vice-versa.  As a former Europe Minister he is familiar with the Irish side of the political equation: indeed, he has already been operating, in effect, as Theresa May’s emissary to Dublin.

Meanwhile, it follows that his replacement in the Cabinet Office would be tasked, as Lidington now is, with establishing how the whole UK can best work post-March 29.  In the event of No Deal, the challenge will be obvious – testing the UK Governance Group, presently charged with constitutional matters, to its limits.  In the event of No Brexit, it will be more subtle, but still present.

Our reflex is to send for Michael Gove when new thinking and action are required.  Perhaps we yield to it too readily.  And in any event, he can’t be everywhere.  Who else fits the bill?  Required: energy, brains, eloquence, seriousness and a passionate attachment to the Union.  These qualities are not in long supply.

The bold solution would be to send for a rising politician who has all five.

Rory Stewart is a Scot representing an English borders seat who is across the independence issue, having campaigned against it fervently in 2015.  He would not, repeat not, be Scottish or Welsh Secretary – any more than Lidington is now.  But a feel for what happens north of the border in particular would come in very useful.

These changes could be made without any structural change at all.  Or else DexEU could be folded into a new Department of Constitutional Affairs, with Stewart in charge, Chloe Smith staying on as the junior Minister, and perhaps a Scottish MP coming in too.

In which case, Steve Barclay could run the Cabinet Office.  Or Oliver Letwin return to do so.  Or Dominic Raab, if you prefer.  What’s that, you ask? B.I.S.C.U.I.T.S?  Well, it’s a long story.  Our theme today is shorter: mind “our precious Union”, post-March 29.

Labour has forgotten its eurosceptic heritage and left the working classes behind

Labour’s autumn political broadcast Our Town told viewers “we lost control” and “we’ve been sold short by a political and economic system that has been unchallenged for far too long.” Labour’s bait-and-switch broadcast was a clear attempt to reconnect with blue-collar Leavers in marginal English seats. Yet these voters are amongst those most alienated by Labour […]

The post Labour has forgotten its eurosceptic heritage and left the working classes behind appeared first on BrexitCentral.

Labour’s autumn political broadcast Our Town told viewers “we lost control” and “we’ve been sold short by a political and economic system that has been unchallenged for far too long.” Labour’s bait-and-switch broadcast was a clear attempt to reconnect with blue-collar Leavers in marginal English seats.

Yet these voters are amongst those most alienated by Labour as it cartwheels over the horizon to the left, turns its back on 70% of all Labour constituencies and elopes with the elitist ‘People’s Vote’ campaign.

Indeed the neglect of Labour’s Eurosceptic tradition shows the party has left its erstwhile working-class supporters behind.

Activists at Labour’s Annual Conference in Liverpool who agitated for a ‘People’s Vote’ seemed oblivious to their party’s history of opposition to the European Project.

The first post-war Labour government opposed participation in the European Coal and Steel Community. Labour Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin said: “If you open that Pandora’s Box you never know what Trojan Horses will jump out.” Labour Deputy Prime Minister Herbert Morrison said of the Community: “It is no good, the Durham miners will not wear it.”

Former Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee summed up Labour’s antipathy to ‘ever closer union’ when he observed: “The idea of a politically integrated Europe is historically looking backward… We have always looked outward, out to the new world, and to Asia and Africa.”

Attlee’s successor Hugh Gaitskell told the 1962 Labour Party Conference the aim of the founding fathers was federation” and “if we go into this, we are no more than a state, as it were, in the United States of Europe, such as Texas or California.” This meant “the end of Britain as an independent nation state” and the “end of a thousand years of history”.

Tony Benn called for a referendum on entry in 1970 and wrote to his constituents: “It would be a very curious thing to try to take Britain into a new political entity… by a process that implied that the British public were unfit to see its historic importance for themselves.”

Harold Wilson was forced to seek a renegotiation of Britain’s Community membership and called the European Communities Referendum of 1975. The Parliamentary Labour Party had previously voted against joining. Labour’s Conference had split two-to-one against the Common Market. Seven Cabinet members campaigned as ‘Antis’ and Wilson’s wife Mary voted out.

And under Michael Foot, Labour advocated leaving the Common Market without a referendum, a policy that subsequently became a manifesto pledge.

Fast forward to the present and the Sunday Times reported recently that Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, Member of Parliament for 58% Leave-supporting Hayes and Harlington, had held secret talks with the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign and has hosted Alastair Campbell and ‘People’s Vote’ Communications Director Tom Baldwin in his House of Commons office.

National director of Momentum Laura Parker attended a rally in November in support of a second referendum.

Then The Times discovered a motion that is being circulated among Constituency Labour Parties calling for a Special Conference with one motion on the agenda for a ‘People’s Vote’ with Remain as an option.

It is ironic that the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn is slowly moving towards their third-way Blairite doppelgängers on a second referendum.

Then again, why wouldn’t they? They are equally worlds apart from these totemic figures of post-war Labour history in having no attachment to parliamentary sovereignty and little real connection to Britain’s working-class communities.

Labour is now a very different party from what it once was. The very notion of Labour as a party for blue-collar voters is a social, cultural and electoral anachronism.

Firstly, when Labour talks about “Our Town” it doesn’t really have in mind the sociology of Leave-voting Macclesfield or Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland. Labour’s imaginary ‘town’ is the parallel universe of ‘high status city dwellers’ and faux left opinion formers living in metropolitan London.

Labour is politically dependent on the metropolis. In the six months following Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, 81,000 Londoners joined his party, double Labour’s total membership in Wales. Corbyn, Starmer, Thornberry and McDonnell all sit for London constituencies (two in the London Borough of Islington alone).

They share the same geographically narrow worldview as that of Stronger In whose four principle staffers grew up in London within two square miles of each other. Two went to the same school. One was the son of a Labour Home Secretary and another was Lord Mandelson’s Godchild.

And whereas in the 1970s less than a third of Labour MPs were graduates, now 90% are. When the mask slips, it reveals a prejudice about working-class Leave voters such as when Huddersfield’s Labour MP Barry Sheerman claimed “better educated people” voted Remain and when Owen Jones talks about ‘gammons’.

Secondly, Corbyn’s bien pensant ‘Global Villager’ values don’t resonate in the Brexitlands of Wales, the Midlands and the North. Harold Wilson told Bernard Donoghue: “I don’t want too many of these Guardianisms. I want my speeches always to include what working people are concerned with.”

Yet the modern left’s disillusionment with the workers has become a post-Brexit antipathy. The social democracy of earlier generations has given way to identity politics, a political style that increasingly inflects the voice of Continuity Remain.

Consequently, the pro-EU left can’t understand blue-collar political interest in sovereignty and democratic oversight of our laws, borders, trade and money.

Thirdly, the ‘peak Corbyn’ electoral coalition was beaten by the Conservatives in C2DE vote share, prompting the New Statesman to write of Labour’s middle-class populism: “the property tycoons of Chelsea must be congratulating themselves for having seen off a threat to their children’s inheritances.”

Former Vote Leave Co-Chair and former Labour MP Gisela Stuart did her party a service when she said Brexit was a “wake-up call” to Labour. But the party’s Remainist ‘People’s Vote’ tendency would re-empower the ‘lobbyists, multinationals and Brussels elites’ Labour Leavers voted to dispossess.

Indeed, according to the British Social Attitudes survey, before the Brexit victory, nearly one in two workers felt ‘people like them’ no longer had a voice in the national conversation and Brexit won in 140 heavily working-class and historically Labour districts.

Flirting with the elitist ‘People’s Vote’ is therefore potentially disastrous for many Labour MPs. A recent IQR survey for Global Britain of the 25 most marginal Labour seats found 19 Labour candidates would face defeat if Labour attempted to frustrate Brexit and 63% of voters said MP’s decisions in Parliament should respect the result.

Labour should heed the advice of UNISON General Secretary Dave Prentis who recently told Labour’s leadership to “never, ever forget your base.” Supporting a coup against five million or so of the party’s Leave voters would reinforce the perception that those who voted to take back control in the referendum would stand to lose the most control, in the political and cultural sense, from a Labour government that will only speak for Remoania.

Ironically, Labour’s Eurosceptic tradition was channelled by Vote Leave in its referendum broadcast featuring images of Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan in which voters were asked to “imagine our money being spent on out priorities”, which we could do if we voted to taken back control.

By contrast, Labour’s Our Town is part of the “give back control agenda” of a party that has long forgotten the people it was founded to represent.

The post Labour has forgotten its eurosceptic heritage and left the working classes behind appeared first on BrexitCentral.

May is miscast as Prime Minister because she takes far too little trouble to find the right words

A new study of the 2017 general election shows May failing to insist on a message and a manifesto which supported each other.

The British General Election of 2017 by Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh

We have heard an awful lot from Theresa May in recent days, and it is not clear this will be to her advantage. For although she deserves, and receives, respect for her dogged courage, she also reminds everyone of her limitations, which include a use of language so wooden even her admirers feel their spirits sink as they listen to her.

I cannot be the only person who sometimes switches off one of her performances before the end, because it is too painful to go on hearing such trite, repetitive, tin-eared, well-meaning but inadequate stuff.

The sense grows that she has been miscast, and cannot find the words to sell a Brexit deal which proves on examination to contain various highly contentious answers to some admittedly very difficult questions. Nor does her obstinacy – her propensity, once she has adopted a policy, to cling to it for dear life and refuse to admit that it might require modification – allow her to manoeuvre her way through.

One of the virtues of this book is to remind us that we have been here before. May’s limitations, and her inability under pressure to transcend them, were exposed in the 2017 general election campaign.

Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh cast much new light on that campaign. Her advisers realised she remained popular, in the first year of her prime ministership, in part because she was not over-exposed. People found this a refreshing change from what had gone before, when David Cameron, who has a wonderful facility with words, embraced with enthusiasm the task of being “commentator in chief”.

May could not fill, morning after morning, the Thought for the Day slot, and the public quite liked the fact that she could not fill it. Inarticulacy, the use of polite smiles and bland phrases to indicate generalised goodwill without actually saying anything or getting too closely involved, is a British characteristic. We warm to the person like May who prefers looking after the tea urn to making a series of listen-to-me remarks over a bottle of champagne.

In that sense, she is well-suited to being an anti-Establishment politician. Members of the Establishment are always so damn sure of themselves, always so ready to explain to lesser mortals why their view of the world is the correct one. May does not possess that eloquence which so easily slips into arrogance.

Chris Wilkins, who had worked for her when she was Conservative Party Chairman and in 2002 drafted her famous “nasty party” speech, at the start of 2017 wrote with James Johnson, who was doing some polling for Number Ten about how she was seen as Prime Minister, a paper, quoted in this book, about how she should be used:

“Harness the strength and popularity of the Prime Minister when it is appropriate… But one of the things people like about her approach is that it is business-like, and that she is quietly getting on with the job, and not always in the public spotlight… The very strength of the PM’s presence is that she is not always present.

Wilkins and his colleagues in Downing Street wanted May to be the “change candidate”, which was how she had presented herself when she entered Number Ten and promised to be driven “not by the interests of the privileged few”, but by the just about managing: “I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle.”

She was going to be the candidate not so much of Middle England as of working-class England, going after voters who had shown in the referendum that they wanted not just to leave the EU but “a fundamental change to how the country works”.

Lynton Crosby, who ended up running the 2017 campaign, later dismissed this line of thinking as “classic woolly populist bullshit”. One of the Number Ten advisers who produced it tells Cowley and Kavanagh that it was at least “very effective and strongly researched classic woolly populist bullshit”.

Crosby insisted the line to be used when launching the 2017 manifesto must be “strong and stable” – words May repeated so often during the seven-week campaign that she soon started to sound like a parody of herself.

And she was presenting a manifesto for change, including what quickly came to be known as the dementia tax. Two months ago, Paul Goodman published on this site the radical, anti-establishment, change-focused election launch speech Wilkins had written to go with the manifesto.

As it was, the speech she gave did not go with the manifesto she was launching. One or other should have been jettisoned.

And the ultimate responsibility for that lies with May, not with Crosby or with anyone else. These authors write in a scrupulously impartial manner, but indicate that May was often astonishingly uncritical of the material put before her:

“Blessed with an extremely good memory, the Prime Minister had the ability to read a full statement and repeat it almost verbatim. As one of her team noted: ‘She reads it through once, it’s an almost photographic memory. And I mean word-for-word, not paraphrasing.’ But unlike some Prime Ministers, May did not get closely involved in preparing speeches. She would occasionally cut things out, but there was never much back and forth. ‘At times,’ said another aide, ‘I found it a bit worrying just how easy it was to get the Prime Minister to say things.'”

One could call this professional of May. If you have a good speech-writer, why not just use what they provide? But it is in the process of writing a speech that you discover what it is possible for you as Prime Minister, or indeed you as a less significant person, to say with conviction. You find out what you actually believe, and how to set about taking the public into your confidence. With May – and in fairness to her, with many other politicians too – listeners generally feel they are being kept at an insultingly safe distance from both her head and her heart.

Margaret Thatcher devoted enormous effort to her most important speeches, often destroying in the process all the best stuff that had been served up to her by such figures as Ronald Millar, John Selwyn Gummer, Matthew Parris and Ferdinand Mount, the last of whom has written, in Cold Cream, a wonderfully funny account of the horror of writing things for her.

The manifesto was hard going too, for as Mount relates,

“all concerned were determined that the document should be as bland and inoffensive as possible. This was not Mrs Thatcher’s view. She kept on sending back the draft with ‘Dull, nothing exciting in this’ scrawled in her manic sprawly hand. The manifesto group then tried to think of a different way of being dull which at least sounded a bit livelier. ‘Couldn’t we have a sentence about our magical heritage of moorland and mountain?’ I said wistfully. This was greeted with derision, especially by Nigel Lawson.”

Thatcher’s way of doing things was by no means perfect, but at least it meant the major documents she was going to have to present and defend had been subjected to ferocious scrutiny before they saw the light of day. May’s willingness to spout her lines like an obedient schoolchild seems by comparison culpably negligent, indeed culpably unimaginative. It is as if she does not even realise how much what she says matters.

The book under review takes its place in a series of studies of all 20 general elections since 1945. It makes use of Mark Wallace’s “devastating account” on this site of how the Conservative Party’s “rusty machine” failed to function in 2017.

The 500 pages provide a quarry of materials on which other historians will be able to draw for many years to come. The authors adorn their text with some of the best cartoons published during the election, as well as with learned tables.

And they start to place May in a wider perspective. Harold Wilson in 1970 and Edward Heath in 1974 called elections earlier than needed, and lost, but James Callaghan in 1978 and Gordon Brown in 2007 declined to call elections which they might have won. Here are the authors comparing May to the latter figure:

“Whilst neither might like the comparison, there were multiple similarities between May and Brown. One was a son of the manse, the other a vicar’s daughter; both had a belief in public service and in trying to do what they thought was right for their country; both had enhanced their reputations with extended periods of ministerial office in one department; both followed prime ministers who they and especially members of their teams saw as superficial; both had loyal, perhaps excessively loyal, consiglieres who had dysfunctional relationships with others in their party; both experienced honeymoon periods after taking office, in which they enjoyed high levels of public popularity (often to the surprise of those who knew them well), after which both then struggled to articulate their vision; both appeared to suffer from a lack of emotional intelligence, often failing to connect or at least appear to empathise with the public; and both – in different ways – were to come a cropper over snap elections.”

Henry Newman: A Brexit deal isn’t certain, but it’s within reach – and it could still make it through Parliament

The process is hard and risky, but it still seems unlikely that the Labour Party would really torpedo an agreement in the last resort.

Henry Newman is Director of Open Europe.

Without a breakthrough on Brexit over the next few days, there may be no November summit, and the prospect of a deal will slip back to December. It will still be possible to get something through Parliament if one is agreed pre-Christmas – and perhaps even into the New Year. But the delay means that some of the Government’s No Deal plans will need to be switched on. I’m told that these are more advanced than is often believed, and that Dominic Raab has taken a particular interest in ramping up preparations since his appointment.

Senior figures in the European Commission are concerned that as No Deal plans are activated (on both sides), there’s a danger that we get set on a slippery path towards such an outcome. No Deal could become self-fulfilling. But many of the mitigation measures for No Deal simply can’t be turned on at the last second.

At this point, it is hard to be definitive about what will happen over the next few weeks. A deal is almost done between the negotiators, with just the backstop left to resolve. The draft Political Declaration is largely agreed, ready and waiting in a Whitehall cupboard. Agreement seems within grasp – as briefings from Brussels to the Financial Times yesterday suggest. But although the Prime Minister is determined to secure a deal, she hasn’t yet been able to get the negotiating teams over the line. On Sunday, the talks reportedly continued until close to 3am, yet left “substantial issues still to overcome”.

It may just not be possible to find a way through. Some have assumed that Theresa May would ultimately cave in. But as Damian Green put it a few weeks ago, a bad version of the backstop would be “worse than no deal”.

There are few MPs advocating No Deal as a preference. And there’s certainly no majority demanding that the Prime Minister just pick up her papers and walking away from the table. But what if May stood up in Parliament and explained how she had sought compromise and considered unpalatable options, but that she simply could not agree to a backstop which divided the UK? Some MPs clearly prefer any deal to no deal, but it’s not clear how Parliament would actually act in a circumstance where a Unionist Prime Minister refused to agree to something she described as unacceptable, particularly if it created new internal barriers.

Overall, Brussels has consistently said that if there’s no agreement on the backstop, there can be no so-called side deals. The Commission say it’s Deal or No Deal. All paths to a deal, they insist, come via a backstop. If we don’t agree to the backstop there can be no other agreements in areas such as aviation, data, or citizen’s rights. Nor can there be a No Deal Plus option unless the EU changes its mind on side deals.

A “No Deal No Deal” – exit without any side agreements – would mean that the EU was willing to treat the UK in a manner akin to North Korea, rather than as a partner and close ally. It’s hard to see this situation lasting, with Ireland in particular in line for a huge economic shock, and an enormous hole blown in the Commission’s budget. Open Europe’s research has shown that over the medium term, No Deal would have a limited effect on the UK’s growth rate, especially if the Government took mitigatory steps. But the extent of the short-term disruption of No Deal, for both the UK and EU, will depend on whether Brussels holds to its no-side-deals mantra.

Although a deal isn’t certain, it’s within grasp. And if it is agreed, and passes Cabinet with the Government still broadly intact, then my hunch is that it will ultimately pass Parliament. Despite Keir Starmer’s insistence on his impossible six tests, the Labour leadership shows little real interest in trying to reverse Brexit. And if the EU (and with them the Irish Government) are happy that the backstop protects Northern Ireland – which by definition they would be if they sign off on a deal – would Labour really turn round and say they disagreed with them? Voting down the deal would also mean attacking jeopardising citizen’s rights and the transition which Labour claim they called for in the first place. We now expect that a Brexit deal will mean a UK customs union for as long as it takes to negotiate a new relationship, which addresses another of Labour’s objections.

It’s always seemed possible to me that Labour ultimately won’t stand in the way of a deal in Parliament. Of course oppositions like to oppose, and there are examples of how in the past Labour was willing to use Europe as a stick with which to beat a Conservative Government. But voting against the Maastricht Treaty didn’t risk imploding our relationship with Europe. And Maastricht hadn’t just been backed by the public in a referendum.

Some MPs like to think that Parliament will step in and control the process both in the event of No Deal and if a deal fails to pass the “meaningful vote”. But can the legislature really force the executive to pursue a path to which it is implacably opposed? Anyway, Article 50 means the UK leaves the EU, deal or not, at the end of March.

That’s not to say that things in Westminster won’t get bumpy – potentially very bumpy – over the coming weeks. It’s likely that if a deal is reached, endless amendments will be attached to the Withdrawal Agreement Implementation Bill. It’s also possible that Parliament initially votes the deal down.

But I believe that if a deal passes Cabinet with the Government broadly intact, it’s likely to pass Parliament eventually, perhaps with rebels on both sides of the chamber. After all, that wouldn’t be too unprecedented: the European Communities Act in 1972 only passed second reading by 309-301 with 39 Conservatives voting against the Government, and 68 Labour MPs backing the Government. The Opposition leader, Harold Wilson, accused the Prime Minister of failing to secure the “full-hearted consent of Parliament” and of not getting “through on Tory votes in a majority of this House”. Heath pressed ahead nonetheless.

The unknown names that live for evermore

These acts of remembrance may in some slight measure salve grief, and enable those who have not had to endure such things to give thanks for those who do.

Most of us have walked at some time through a war cemetery. We read a few of the inscriptions, and see how young they were.

A gardener is perhaps at work. We admire how well the Commonwealth War Graves Commission looks after things, and how fitting everything looks, the stones and the greenery, and how peaceful.

Without making any particular attempt to do so, we find the graves not only of English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish soldiers, but of Indians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Poles, and wonder how a member of the Royal Hellenic Air Force came to be buried here.

This week I went for the first time to the Field of Remembrance outside Westminster Abbey, which I had glimpsed each year from the road, but never entered. One of my brothers had suggested that on the hundredth anniversary of our great-grandfather’s death, we should place a cross for him.

What a density of small crosses is found on the grass, each with a small hand-written inscription, standing in lines as neat as one of the cemeteries.

Here is an equality of remembrance, as of sacrifice. Each of the fallen gets the same headstone, the same cross.

It was recognised from the first that there were some who would have no named grave, because their remains would never be identified. On their tombstones are found the words “Known unto God”.

And in Westminster Abbey, the “Unknown Warrior” was buried on 11th November 1920, to represent the hundreds of thousands who have no known grave.

Over a million men lost their lives in the service of the British Empire during the First World War. In earlier wars, almost no attempt was made to mark such graves. Thomas Hardy described what happened in the Boer War:

They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
Uncoffined – just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
That breaks the veldt around:
And foreign constellations west
Each night above his mound.

From 1914, it was felt such informal arrangements would no longer do. The story of how the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission was amid angry argument formed is told in David Crane’s book Empires of the Dead: How One Man’s Vision led to the Creation of WWI’s War Graves, and more briefly in this piece in Prospect by Joshua Neicho and Kath Temple.

The result was what Rudyard Kipling called “work greater than that of the Pharaohs”, a vast expression of atonement, remembrance, reconciliation, gratitude, guilt and grief.

And yet to us, a century later, it seems quite natural, and done with a modesty that seems just right. We would be appalled if it had not been done. The numbers were so great, the grief so deep and wide, that something had to be done, to show that these sons and brothers, friends and lovers were not forgotten or taken for granted; not left unmourned or unthanked.

Nor, in a democratic age, was it any longer tolerable to raise general memorials, or monuments only to commanders. So far as possible, every individual soldier had to be remembered by name.

The success with which this was done is attested by the internet. How astonishing it is to be able, with a few clicks, to find the record of an uncle or cousin whose name one may not even remember quite accurately, and discover in which cemetery or on what monument his name is inscribed. Here is a rejuvenation of memory which could not have been expected.

We are fortunate to be able to remember like this. In Germany, it was too difficult, after the Nazi period, to try to remember the sacrifice of individual Germans. The term Opfer – victim – was used instead, to cover everyone who had suffered from war, or from fascism.

Only in recent years, as the war generation dies out, has a more individual approach become possible. The Stolpesteine, or stumbling blocks, which so far commemorate about 70,000 people who perished in the Holocaust, were devised by a German artist in 1992, and are set into the pavement as small brass plaques outside an individual’s last freely chosen place of residence.

Perhaps another century will have to elapse before we can begin to see in a true perspective how the two world wars have marked our country. From 1834, when the Duke of Wellington’s last brief prime ministership occurred, to 1940, when Winston Churchill took over, not a single British Prime Minister had served in the armed forces.

British politics was a civilian affair. We were intensely proud of the Royal Navy, but the ancient prejudice against standing armies took a long time to die out, and our leaders had the sense to realise that large-scale fighting on land was better avoided – a view which the Crimean War served to reinforce, while at the same time bringing the sufferings of the ordinary soldier to wider attention.

From 1940 to 1979, every Prime Minister, with the exceptions of Harold Wilson (a wartime civil servant) and Sir Alec Douglas-Home (debarred by illness), had served in the armed forces, and so had hundreds of MPs. Clement Attlee and Harold Macmillan were wounded in the First World War. The nation was bound together by a shared experience of suffering.

Those who had lost beloved brothers in the First War feared the same was going to happen to their sons in the Second. Children mourned and still mourn parents who fell, and savage if less total wars have caused many deaths since 1945.

Common acts of remembrance, such as we engage in today, may in some slight measure salve grief, and enable those of us who have not had to endure such things to give thanks for those who do.