Republicans will never understand it, but the Queen is more popular than any politician

2 Jun

The Queen promised in her broadcast on her 21st birthday, 21 April 1947, “that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service”. She has made good that vow with such indefatigable modesty, good humour and dutifulness that even the most puritannical republicans among us generally realise that to attack her would be to damage their cause.

Over the next four days we shall thank her for a lifetime of service. Hearts will be raised by grand ceremonies, but also by the less glamorous pleasures of tea, cake, bunting and a friendly word with neighbours.

And the republicans will not understand what is going on. They draw the wrong conclusion from this spectacle of a monarch triumphant and beloved, which they suppose means that British voters are somehow less free than those who live in a republic such as France, Germany or the United States.

That error was not made by Clement Attlee, in many ways the most admirable of all Labour leaders. In a piece published in The Observer on 23 August 1959 (and reprinted in Attlee’s Great Contemporaries, edited by Frank Field), Attlee observes that a monarch “is a kind of referee”, and goes on:

“The monarchy attracts to itself the kind of sentimental loyalty which otherwise might go to the leader of a faction. There is, therefore, far less danger under a constitutional monarchy of the people being carried away by a Hitler, a Mussolini or even a de Gaulle.”

And he later remarks in the same piece:

“the greatest progress towards the democratic socialism in which I believe has been made not in republics but in limited monarchies. Norway, Sweden and Denmark are probably the three countries where there is the highest degree of equality of well-being.”

How right he was. Democratic socialism is not incompatible with constitutional monarchy. It might even be protected by it, for the monarch, to whom the armed forces, judiciary and other organs of the state pledge allegiance, occupies the space a dictator would need to occupy after a coup d’état.

A monarch who stands above politics and commands popular support is a guarantor of freedom, not an obstacle to it.

This was already apparent in the Victorian period. Bagehot referred to England (then generally treated as a synonym for Britain) as a “disguised republic”. Frederic Harrison, writing in 1875, declared;

“England is now an aristocratic Republic, with a democratic machinery and a hereditary grandmaster of the ceremonies.”

Lytton Strachey wrote of “the royal republic of Great Britain”, while George Orwell referred to the “crowned republic”.

When they attack the monarchy, republicans distract themselves from their true purpose, which is most often to persuade the voters to accept a not very popular form of socialism.

Outside the ranks of the intelligentsia, those voters tend to be sceptical about politicians. They like it that the highest place in the state is occupied not by some candidate who has at last abandoned the egotistical quest for power – Tony Blair, say, or Michael Heseltine – but by an individual who inherited the position.

The Queen did not expect, as a young child, to succeed to the throne. Nor did her father, the Duke of York, for his older brother, the Prince of Wales, would become King when George V died, and was likely, in due course, to get married and have children.

In 1936, George V duly died, the exact timing of that event determined by his physician, Lord Dawson of Penn, and the Prince of Wales succeeded to the throne as Edward VIII. He indicated, however, that he wished to marry Wallis Simpson, an American who had already been divorced once and was now married to Ernest Simpson, a businessman.

Some people objected to the King marrying a woman who had two former husbands still living, while others were more appalled that she was an American.

Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister, took soundings and informed Edward VIII that the proposed marriage was out of the question, insisting as he did so that “in the choice of a Queen the voice of the people must be heard”.

So Edward VIII abdicated in order to marry the woman he loved, and his brother the Duke of York became George VI, and acted as a conscientious monarch until his death in 1952, at the age of only 56.

His older daughter, the present Queen, has continued this tradition of conscientious monarchy, which in many respects had been set by her great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, a woman with a personality of “irresistible potency” (Lytton Strachey) who came to be regarded by her subjects as the epitome of middle-class respectability.

Victoria, and the Victorians, were reacting against the loose manners of an earlier age, including the loose manners of her Hanoverian father and uncles.

The present Queen saw the inauguration, in the 1960s, of a new period of loose manners. In 1952, when she ascended the throne, the Second World War was a recent memory, and the officer class was firmly in control.

Attlee had served with distinction in the First World War. So had Winston Churchill, who in 1951 had led the Conservatives back into power.

The Queen’s husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, was a gifted naval officer, mentioned in dispatches during the Second World War. For a short time, before the untimely death of her father, Princess Elizabeth, as she then was, enjoyed a relatively normal life as the wife of an able and ambitious naval officer.

All that changed in 1952. She had to become Queen, and he had to give up his career. They buckled down and got on with it.

The start of her reign was a period of excessive deference, which yielded in due course to outrageous impertinence.

The media from the late 1950s became less and less deferential; in due course more and more shameless. When the Duke of Edinburgh dismissed them to their faces as “scum”, the royal correspondent of the Sun newspaper responded, “Yes, but we are the crème de la scum.”

The Queen and the Duke kept going. Three of their four children got divorced, with many of the most salacious details reported in the press. In November 1992, just after part of Windsor Castle had burned down, she gave a speech to mark the fortieth anniversary of her accession:

“1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an annus horribilis.”

High position is no defence against “the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”. But the Queen came through, she smiled as she went about her duties, she spoke each year in her Christmas broadcast of her Christian faith, and in these days of her Platinum Jubilee we give thanks for her faithful service to her people.

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.

Sarah Ingham: The Duchess, the Queen – and that Oprah interview. It’s time for Johnson to step in.

14 Mar

Dr Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant: Its Impact on Civil-Military Relations in Britain.

Boris Johnson may have wanted to be the reincarnation of Winston Churchill, but it looks increasingly likely that he has to be the next Stanley Baldwin.

Baldwin played a crucial role in the Abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936: as the leader of Her Majesty’s Government,  Johnson must step in and help sort out the constitutional mess that is being created by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

Make no mistake, the fall-out from the Sussexes’ interview with Oprah Winfrey is perilous for the future of the Crown. The monarchy is the symbol of Britain’s national unity or it is nothing.

Thanks to the insinuations by Prince Harry and his wife, the heir to the throne and his successor stand accused of being racists. At the time of writing, it is not known who speculated about the skin tone of the Sussex’s unborn child: although the couple deigned not identify the culprit, they intimated that such conjecture was made from the basest of motives.

The Queen’s response to the interview, which has now been watched by tens of millions, stated that the matter will be dealt with privately. No one can blame her for not wanting any more royal monogrammed linen to be washed in public, but the Sussex’s accusations are a matter of state.

Racism is a grievous accusation to level against any individual or institution. It is often career-ending, as the Duchess’s close friend Jessica Mulroney can attest.

In the last 12 months, British society has become increasingly polarised about race. Taking the knee, Black Lives Matter, the Edward Colston statue, slave-ownership and National Trust properties, Covid and the BAME community …we are living in fractious, fissiparous times. This is all the more reason why the Crown must be believed not only to be above the political fray, but, more importantly, above suspicion in connection with that most socially divisive of all political issues: racism.

In a constitutional monarchy, the personal is political. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have raised the spectre that a future head of state is a racist. Should any politician have a similar accusation made against them, it is highly unlikely that they would ever become Prime Minister, having weekly audiences with the sovereign.

And not content with doing their best to destabilize the monarchy, the Sussexes are threatening free speech and the freedom of the press.

Reports that a Royal Duchess brought pressure to bear on ITV, one of Britain’s national broadcasters are alarming. Can we look forward to the company’s new series – Britain’s Got Feudalism?

Just as ITV’s share price began to plummet following the departure from Good Morning Britain of that Scourge of Sussex, Piers Morgan, The Sun was carrying another report on media interference by the Duke and Duchess: their PR people allegedly told the BBC not to use just ‘old white men’ in any post-interview analysis. Shall we all sit down to Are You Being Serfs?

Holly Lynch, a Labour MP, demanded that a media environment be created ‘where a woman isn’t hounded in the way we saw Meghan Markle being hounded’. Presumably, she is not talking about Vanity Fair cover stories or guest editorships of Vogue.

“What Meghan wants, Meghan gets” should have remained the outburst of a besotted fiancé, never becoming the guiding principle of a publicly-listed television company or of our state broadcaster. It certainly should not be a call-to-arms by a Labour MP, whose Halifax constituents are probably wondering why she is choosing to channel her energies into the plight of a wealthy duchess living the dream in California.

Of course, Britain could be thanking the Sussexes for providing us with a much-needed diversion from the longueurs of lockdown. Giving us plenty to pick over, the Oprah interview raised questions in households up and down the land, not least how the American duchess can cope with Harry’s English teeth. Indeed, slanted a different way, injected with a bit more gratitude and grace, the programme might have been considered an act of ‘universal’ service that the couple alluded to last month when they lost their royal patronages.

Instead, a family psychodrama has been played out in public, creating one of the biggest crises in the Queen’s long reign. What are Commonwealth countries making of the Sussexes’ allegations?

Living in the United States, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are no longer invested in this country. They are heedless of the damage they are currently doing to Britain or to the Crown. How many more incendiary interviews will there be in the years ahead? There are also the long hours of podcasts and broadcasts the Sussexes have to fill for Spotify and Netflix, who will be wanting their multi-million dollar of flesh.

As a British Army Officer, Prince Harry took an oath of allegiance to ‘honestly and faithfully defend Her Majesty, her heirs and successors’. We can infer from the interview that this is now irrelevant to him. Why should he remain one of those successors?

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex received their titles and status as working royals, but they resigned more than a year ago. Boris Johnson must find his inner Stanley Baldwin and act.  Her Prime Minister should advise the Queen that as private citizens, the Sussexes can intervene in politics, jeopardise the monarchy and try to muzzle the press and free speech all they like.  He should suggest that, however, Britain cannot risk allowing them, in any royal capacity, to trash this country or its institutions ever again.

From Disraeli to Johnson, the Left has never understood the Right, and Fawcett shows us why

31 Oct

Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition by Edmund Fawcett

Edmund Fawcett, “a left-wing liberal” (his term), here performs, with grace, acuity and good humour, a signal service for conservatives. He introduces us to each other.

Reading his book is like being at a vast family party, where as one glances round the marquee one is struck by the affinities between people who have never met, but have much in common.

Here one encounters cousins of whom one may, perhaps, have heard, but about whom one knows next to nothing.

In one of the most delightful parts of his book, published as Appendix C, Fawcett in under 40 pages gives us brief lives of over 200 conservative politicians and thinkers, drawn from Britain, France, Germany and the United States, all of whom have attained some degree of eminence since the French Revolution.

This brevity is wonderful. It is not difficult to find a long book about any of these people. To find a dozen lines that are worth reading can be almost impossible.

And conservatism is itself an almost impossible subject. As Fawcett remarks in his preface, “A chaos of voices has often made it hard to say what, if anything, conservatives stand for.”

He notes a paradox:

“Puzzling as it sounds, conservatives have largely created and learned to dominate a liberal modern world in which they cannot feel at home.”

He remarks that he is not writing solely or even primarily for the benefit of conservatives:

“Readers on the Left will get a view of their opponent’s position, which they are prone, like rash chess players, to ignore.”

And he adds a pointed question for his companions on the Left:

“if we’re so smart, how come we’re not in charge?”

Part of the answer to that question is that the Left often fails to take the Right seriously. Moral condemnation forestalls understanding.

Another part of the answer is that the Right does take the Left seriously, is indeed terrified of the damage it can do. Fawcett begins with two conservative opponents of the French Revolution, Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre.

Burke is for British and American conservatives a marvellous source of wisdom, endlessly invigorating and enjoyable. Few of us have ever felt at ease with Maistre’s savagery, but Fawcett insists that although “Maistre was never going to sit well in conservatism’s front parlour”, he “belongs in the household as much as Burke”.

We are happier to be told that Friedrich von Gentz (1764-1832), a Prussian who studied under Kant, worked for the Austrians and took a retainer from the British, translated Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution into German, “teasing out Burke’s thought in long footnotes that tidied up the argument in rationalist spirit”.

Gentz, Fawcett suggests,

“was an early model of a familiar present-day figure, the clever policy intellectual with top degrees circulating between right-wing think tanks, conservative magazines, and political leaders’ private offices.”

And Gentz in his essay “On the Balance of Power”, published in 1806, developed the ideas which would guide the post-Napoleonic settlement, upholding peace between nations while retarding not just revolution but democracy.

Fawcett is excellent at giving us a feeling for his conservatives by quoting remarks which a less worldly Lefty would not find funny, and might therefore be inclined to censor.

So at a dinner at the Congress of Aix in 1818 we get Gentz telling Robert Owen, pioneer of utopian socialism and of the co-operative movement:

“We do not want the mass to become wealthy and independent of us. How could we govern them if they were?”

But Gentz was not some blinkered reactionary, who supposed the ruling classes could restore to themselves the privileges they had enjoyed before 1789:

“Revolution had to be fought, Gentz insisted, not with nostalgia but with modernity’s own weapons.”

Here is another part of the explanation for conservative incomprehensibility. Intelligent conservatives are at once more attached to the past than their opponents, and more anxious to understand what will work in the future.

This mixture of mixture of emotion and pragmatism cannot be reduced to an ideology – the very thing that leftish commentators consider it a mortal weakness not to possess.

Fawcett’s book is brilliantly organised, so one can without difficulty find what conservatives in Britain, France, Germany and the United States were saying and doing in any particular period.

He himself worked for The Economist as its chief correspondent in Washington, Paris, Berlin and Brussels, and also as its European and literary editor.

As in that magazine, his eye for what is happening overseas is very good, but the texture of British politics is sometimes smoothed away in order to make it fit some editorial analysis.

Fawcett does not get Benjamin Disraeli. Few historians of ideas do, for by the time the butterfly has been pinned to the page, he is dead.

Millions of voters did get Disraeli, loved his patriotism and felt exhilarated by his impudence. He is the only Prime Minister who has inspired the creation of a posthumous cult: the Primrose League.

When he comes to Stanley Baldwin, Fawcett attributes his description of the new Conservative MPs elected in 1918 as “a lot of hard-faced men who look as if they had done very well out of the war” to Lloyd George, as if only a Liberal could see how repulsive the Tories were.

Baldwin succeeded in part because he well understood how repulsive the Tories might seem, and took enormous pains to create a more favourable impression.

In 1980, Fawcett introduces us to “the hard right”. It is an unsatisfactory label, for the word “hard” makes it sound more defined, and less yielding, than it really is.

Fawcett knows the term is not satisfactory, for he keeps worrying away at it, and trying to justify it. In the course of a passage about Donald Trump, he writes:

“The hard right, in sum, was not weird or extreme. It was popular and normal. Indeed, it was alarming because it was popular and normal.

“Lest the term ‘hard right’ here sound loaded, and the account of events overdrawn, the passion and dismay with which mainstream conservatives themselves reacted needs recalling. They did not, in detached spirit, dwell confidently on the hard right’s visible weaknesses and incompatibilities. They did not ask if there was here a pantomime villain got up by the liberal left.”

Trump was and is an opportunist, a huckster who has belonged to three different political parties, and who seeks, as American presidential candidates since Andrew Jackson have sought, to get himself elected by expressing the anger of poor white voters who loathe the condescension of the East Coast establishment.

When he comes to consider Boris Johnson, Fawcett quotes The Economist‘s description of him as “indifferent to the truth”, and its advice to voters last December to vote Liberal Democrat – a way, perhaps, of feeling virtuous, but also of opting out of the choice actually facing the country.

Fawcett goes on to attribute a “forceful hard-right style” to Johnson, and a “disregard for familiar liberal-democratic norms”. The author is worried, for as he declares in his preface:

“To survive, let alone flourish, liberal democracy needs the right’s support… When, as now, the right hesitates or denies its support, liberal democracy’s health is at risk.”

The conservative family is in danger of going to the bad. This is true, but has always been true, and sometimes the warnings have turned out to be exaggerated.

Johnson enjoys teasing liberals, but has lived much among them, craves their approval and himself possesses many liberal characteristics.

Fawcett will know this, for he is the Prime Minister’s uncle: a brother of Johnson’s mother Charlotte.

The near impossibility of defining Johnson, something of which his critics complain, could even be a sign that he is a conservative.

These quibbles about the last part of the book in no way diminish admiration for it as an astonishingly accomplished survey of the last two centuries of conservative thought.

Daniel Hannan: Politicians can’t win. When they don’t give us what we want, we protest. And when they then do, we carry on.

19 Aug

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

The exam fiasco is a neat demonstration of what is wrong with our administrative state, our media culture and, frankly, our own double standards.

A bad thing happens. We demand, in an angry but unfocused way, that Something Be Done – in this instance, that schools be closed. When confronted with the consequence of our own demand – i.e: that there is no way to be fair to exam candidates other than to let them sit the papers – we howl with protest.

We don’t blame ourselves, obviously. Nor do we blame those who made it impossible for schools to reopen: teachers’ unions, hostile councils and, indeed, reluctant parents. Nor yet do we blame the people who actually drew up and applied the grading system. No, we focus all our anger on the politicians – the same politicians whom we insisted should “step back and trust the professionals”, should “let teachers get on”, should “stop using our kids as a political football”.

It’s the same story every time. Voters demand that technical agencies be free from political interference, but then rage at ministers when those agencies screw things up. Thus, in an inversion of Stanley Baldwin’s quip about the press barons, ministers have responsibility without power.

There is, for example, an unwritten media rule that, whenever failures in procurement by Public Health England or the NHS are reported, these bodies must always be called “the Government”. The verbal trick allows us to draw a distinction between public sector officials (who are presented as undervalued heroes) and politicians (who are vaguely assumed to be malevolent as well as incompetent).

No one suggests that ministers were directly involved in the procurement failures, any more than that that Gavin Williamson personally drew up the grading algorithm (which drew on input from hundreds of interested parties, including the teaching unions, who were perfectly happy with it). No one needs to point to anything specific, because politicians enjoy the automatic disbenefit of the doubt.

It has long been a convention in this country that ministers carry the can – a good and necessary one. The problem is when ministers have had nothing to do with the can until it is thrust into their hands.

Let’s go back to those grades. Most of us will have come across cases of individual injustice. A young friend of mine, who was top of her year, had had 15 A*s at GCSE and was predicted 4 A*s at A-level, knew as soon as she learned how the algorithm had been drawn up that she was likely to be penalised (one of her predicted A*s was in further maths, so she understands how these things work).

Her school – not an underperforming inner city comprehensive, but a successful private girls school – had had two dud years in two of her subjects, and she knew that no computer would award her the grade that she would have achieved in the exam itself. Sure enough, the algorithm did its work and she missed her university offer.

People in her situation were rightly furious. A computer model had deleteriously altered the course of their lives. Those on the other side – of whom there must have been a great many, since results overall rose this year – naturally attributed their good fortune to themselves rather than to the system. That is how these things work.

When ministers stepped in to redress the grievances of the losers, they created new losers. They reversed years of work against grade inflation and gave many students artificially high marks. The losers thus include those who took their exams last year or will take them next year, those who took them this year and would have done well without the boost, and, not least, universities which now face an administrative nightmare.

As Phil Taylor reminded us on this site yesterday, the algorithm had in fact worked in most cases: “Indeed, 88 per cent of students had got their first choice university place on results day. The number of 18 year olds going to university was at a record high, as was the number of disadvantaged students set to attend”.

My point is not that the U-turn was wrong. My point is that all our options were bad once we had made the calamitous decision to close schools – despite the fact that there has still not been a single identified case of anyone catching Covid-19 from a child anywhere in the world. The time to complain was then, not now.

I know I have banged on a great deal about the hopelessness of our quango state, but the past six months have made my case for me. It’s not just the obvious incompetence of PHE and NHS administrators. It’s every unelected agency, from an immigration service unable to deport illegal migrants to our super-woke police constabularies.

In a powerful article for The Atlantic, Tom McTague argues that “Britain was sick before it caught the coronavirus.” His article, which sets out in pitiless detail our various cock-ups, has had a huge impact, reminiscent of the gloom provoked by the valedictory despatch of our Paris ambassador, Sir Nicholas Henderson, in March 1979, which unflinchingly set out the mess that Britain was then in.

In fact, though Sir Nicholas didn’t know it, Britain was on the cusp of a national revival. Its administrative state was failing, but the country as a whole was not. In the 1980s, free to pursue their ambitions, the British outperformed every European economy and resumed their place at the world’s top tables.

Now, as then, we should avoid the mistake of thinking that the failure of our bureaucracies denotes a general national failure. Going into the Covid-19 crisis, we were a prosperous and successful country, leading the world in biotech and artificial intelligence, higher education and the audiovisual sector, legal and financial services. We face a specific and remediable problem, not a general decline.

The good news is that, even before the pandemic hit, this Government was determined to tackle the quangocracy. Back in January, that might have seemed a slightly recherché and eccentric priority. Not any more.

Politicians should indeed carry the can – over the electoral cycle. Ministers must by now be aware of how rusted and useless the machinery of state has become. They have four years to fix it.

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.”