Monday, 10 November 2014

Not Hatchards

I was scheduled to speak on the subject of The Last Post at Hatchards tomorrow, to mark Armistice Day. I'm afraid I've had to cancel this. My apologies.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Armistice Day 1945

To mark Remembrance Sunday, this is an extract from my book The Last Post, about Armistice Day in 1945:

Shortly after VE Day on the 8th of May 1945, leaders of various churches, together with representatives of the British Legion, met Herbert Morrison, the home secretary in the wartime coalition government, to discuss the form that national remembrance should take once hostilities were concluded.

Their view was that a single day should be chosen ‘in commemoration of two national deliverances and of the fallen in both of the wars’. This, they argued, should not be the 11th of November, partly because of ‘the uncertainty of the weather’ and partly – a somewhat obscure note – because it tended ‘to collide with Civic Sunday, which follows the election of new mayors’. Instead, they proposed that some time in May might be appropriate, and Morrison seemed sympathetic to their view, being personally inclined towards VE Day itself.

As the coalition dissolved, it fell to Morrison’s successor, Donald Somervell, to bring the matter to cabinet. With no certainty that the war with Japan would be finished by November, he proposed that for this first year, the commemoration of Armistice Day should continue, a decision made easier because in 1945 it fell on a Sunday. The final decision could then be put off until the following year.

And so, for what was assumed in official circles to be the last time, the Cenotaph again became the focus of the nation’s thoughts on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. King George VI, accompanied by his daughter Princess Elizabeth in her Auxiliary Territorial Service uniform, joined large crowds for ‘the sudden well-remembered silence’, and laid wreaths on the monument. It was noted, however, that in some cities and towns, the numbers of those attending were not quite what they had been in the 1920s and 1930s.

It was a world in which peace seemed scarcely sustainable, despite all attempts at reconciliation. In Berlin, it was reported, Germans commemorated the day for the first time, alongside the troops of the occupying Allied armies, and in Jerusalem, Arabs and Jews attended a service in a British military cemetery, where prayers were offered for the future of Palestine. But in Washington, the newly elected British prime minister, Clement Attlee, joined the American president Harry S. Truman and Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King to lay wreaths on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier ‘before boarding the Navy yacht Sequoia to discuss the atom bomb and other grave problems’.

In 1919 the first Silence had been staged against an international backdrop of the Bolshevik revolution and British involvement in the Russian Civil War; now it was held in the shadow of the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As one Australian newspaper wrote of the leaders of the free world: ‘They are afraid of a third and worse world war, which almost inevitably would mean the end of civilisation as mankind now knows it...’

Saturday, 8 November 2014

The Last Post in the media

My book on The Last Post has now been published and received its first (four-star) review, courtesy of Peter Parker in the Sunday Telegraph.

An edited extract was published in the Daily Mail yesterday and is available online.

I can also be heard speaking on the subject on a BBC World Service documentary about memorialisation.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Damned stats

Last week one of those polls about public perceptions showed that we in Britain exaggerate the number of Muslims in the country by a factor of four. And we're wrong about the number of immigrants and unemployed as well. We are all, apparently, pig-ignorant and there is no hope in us.

Happily, however, this week the government has announced that we're all going to be sent a statement of what they've been buying with our income tax and national insurance tax. So we won't be quite as ignorant about one thing at least.

It feels to me that this should be a cause for mild celebration, but Frances O'Grady, general secretary of the TUC, disagrees. She thinks it's all propaganda. 'The chancellor is relying on the fact that many people think spending called welfare all goes to the unemployed,' she says. 'This is softening us up to a major cut to the welfare state safety net to which we all should contribute so that it is there if we need it.'

Obviously it's propaganda - it is, after all, information issued by the government - but I fear that the left is self-aggrandising if it thinks that this is a first shot in a post-election attack on the welfare state. That may be an added bonus; it's certainly not the primary target. Everything now is about the election, not about what happens after.

So the real issue is not the benefits section at the top of the list, but the overseas aid and EU contributions at the bottom. These latter are the two smallest items of public expenditure apparently. Which makes a nonsense of claims that that's where some real savings could be achieved. In other words, the whole exercise is aimed at UKIP, whose economic policy - such as it is - is based on cutting these two areas.

Which is not to deny that after the election the benefits bill be attacked. Of course it will be. No matter what government is elected, benefits are going to be cut.

But to return to the principle of the thing. The left is making another silly mistake if it simply attacks this idea as propaganda. Allowing people to know how their money is being spent is a perfectly reasonable exercise in democracy. If a Labour government had had the intelligence to come up with the initiative, maybe they could have determined the categories and weighted the presentation in their favour. They didn't, and it's bugger all use bleating about the Tories skewing the stats. That's what governments do; it's what Labour should have done.

Rather than complain, Labour should offer its own proposals about educating us. Maybe about the numbers of immigrants and unemployed or something. It's not a bad thing to have some information.

(Incidentally, I did rather like Clive Bull on LBC explaining to his listeners what a pie chart is. It looks like a doughnut, apparently.)

Saturday, 18 October 2014

November gigs

I shall be making a handful of public appearances in November. Do come along if you're in the neighbourhood and at a loose end:

11 November, 8 pm - London - Hatchards, Piccadilly Circus - talking about The Last Post.

15 November, 3.15 pm - Manchester - Palace Hotel, Oxford Street - interviewing Don Powell of Slade.

22 November, 6 pm - Taunton - Brendon Books, Bath Place - talking about The Last Post.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

...but to be old was very Essex

Some thoughts in the wake of the by-election results in Clacton and in Heywood and Middleton, with the impressive results for UKIP...

One of the joys of posing as a historian is that it kind of absolves you from the need to predict the future - that's someone else's territory. But fortune-telling is all the rage at times like these, so I thought I'd better have a go at it myself. Or rather, I thought I'd dust off some of my previous predictions and see if they still stand up (in my eyes).

After the European elections earlier this year, I said that I thought UKIP had reached its peak level of support at around 4.35 million votes. If you hadn't voted for them on that occasion, I reckoned, you were unlikely to do so in the 2015 general election. I still think that's true. For the last couple of years, UKIP have been enjoying high turnouts while supporters of the established parties have had a tendency to stay at home. This is likely to be reversed in the general election.

But I'd also restate the same proviso that I made in May: UKIP could do a whole lot better if they changed their leader. Nigel Farage has won as much support as he's ever going to; if you've not been convinced by him yet, you won't be in the next six months either. But now - for the first time since the frabjous days of Robert Kilroy Silk - there exists a potential rival for the leadership in the shape of Douglas Carswell. It's too late to change before the election, but I would assume that by this time next year Farage won't be the leader.

(Incidentally, I wish commentators would stop talking about a swing to UKIP in Clacton. Our constituency system is based on the premise - or at least the pretence - that we vote for individuals, not parties. So Carswell's share of the vote went up from 53 per cent to 60 per cent, while he lost 1,750 actual votes.)

My prediction for UKIP in the general election was 2.5 million votes and fewer than five seats. On sober reflection, I now think that might creep up to eight seats, but I still think five more likely. Which would make them the sixth largest party in the House of Commons. I still expect David Cameron to be the prime minister.

But all of this might seem to run counter to another post on this blog two years ago, when I wrote about my conviction that the political system as it stands is unsustainable. 'New political forces will emerge, whether within the existing parties or outside of them,' I wrote. 'It feels to me that there is a parallel with the 1970s, and that things are about to change quite radically.'

That does still seem to me to be the case. The parties as they currently exist are clearly inadequate. But I don't think UKIP are yet a significant element, save perhaps to hasten the change. Under Farage, they're a symptom of uncertain times, not the future. The psephologists I've heard all talk about UKIP's support being disproportionately comprised of the old and the academically unqualified, a finding that chimes with the radio phone-ins to which I listen with such enthusiasm. That's not the basis for a major national party. It's not an image that inspires converts, as Carswell's acceptance speech at Clacton seemed to indicate; he didn't sound overly enthused by the company he's now keeping.

So maybe UKIP do well enough next year that they decide to present a serious challenge. They change their leader, change their identity and become a coherent - if hard-right - party. I still think Cameron can win an outright majority, but if not and he has to cobble together a new coalition that excludes UKIP, there will be unhappy Tory MPs who could defect. And there'd be even more unhappy Tories after a European referendum, when a majority of the country decide that they don't want to be associated with UKIP and vote to stay in the EU. On balance, I think UKIP are likely to recruit more defectors in the next parliament than in this.

It's also perfectly possible that we see the dissolution of the LibDems, with the party effectively being absorbed into a Euro-friendly Conservative Party on the one side and into Labour on the other. Which would result in a new two-and-a-half-party arrangement on the old model, but now with Tory, Labour and UKIP, the centre of politics having moved more decisively to the right

And yet that's not sustainable either, because the country is not moving to the right at all. It feels to me as though there's a strong centre-left consensus waiting to be built.

And in this context, I should be clear that my point about 'new political forces' did not necessarily refer to new parties. I pointed out that the last time there was this much dissatisfaction in the country, it resulted in Margaret Thatcher staging a coup within the Conservative Party. And still, above everything else, the most frustrating thing in modern British politics is that fact that Labour Party have missed so comprehensively their opportunity to articulate a new vision for the party in the same way that Thatcher did for hers.

This is not - not this time - a criticism of Ed Miliband. It's a criticism of Tony Blair. The possibilities that were open to Blair in the late-1990s, before he got into invading other countries, were almost limitless. All squandered, all lost. It'd be nice to think that a new populist party of the left could emerge, but it doesn't seem very likely somehow - the chance has gone.

In short, something's going to change. But I'm a historian and I have no idea what. There's no point coming here looking for predictions.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Labour's tactical masterstroke

Credit where it's due. On hearing the news that Jim Dobbin, MP for Heywood and Middleton, had died on 6 September, the Labour leadership rushed to call the by-election for 9 October. Indecent haste, some said; should at least wait till the man's been buried.

But there was a remorseless logic at work. The Clacton by-election was already scheduled for that date, and UKIP were expected to throw all their resources at getting Douglas Carswell returned to Parliament as their first elected MP. By holding their own vote on the same day, Labour clearly hoped to split UKIP's forces, obliging them to campaign on two fronts.

And last night we saw why the leadership was so worried. On an admittedly low turnout, Labour's vote collapsed by nearly 7,000 votes and UKIP registered 39 per cent. In a rock-solid Labour seat in the north. If just 309 additional voters in Heywood and Middleton had switched sides from Labour to UKIP, then the seat would have been lost.

So credit where it's due: Labour recognized the threat posed by UKIP. But that's all. The only answer to the problem the party could come up with was a tactical manoeuvre. Apart from choosing the date of the by-election, everything else was astonishingly inept.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Have I got satire for you

To greet the new series of Have I Got News For You, the Daily Telegraph has a piece by Olivia Goldhill about the history of television satire. In discussing That Was the Week That Was, she writes: 'The programme's sketches and songs were relatively tame by today's standards.'

Well, yes, some of the show - most of it perhaps - has dated over the last half-century, but I'd recommend watching Millicent Martin singing about racism in Mississippi if you want to see how powerful and chilling real satire can be. Nothing on television today comes even close. That's because today's television really is tame.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

How Cameron could neuter UKIP and win the general election

Obviously the fact that Britain has decided it's time to go out bombing again is the bigger news story, but the defection of Mark Reckless to UKIP is still a major problem for David Cameron. It's really not a good look when your own MPs decide to abandon you, particularly on the eve of your conference.

On the other hand, it being the eve of conference means that Cameron has the opportunity next week to make a grand statement against UKIP in an attempt to stop the rot (in all senses).

But there's no point in imagining that dog-whistles on immigration and multiculturalism will be sufficient. That's territory that UKIP are always going to claim as their own. Instead, the real weak link in UKIP's armour is, oddly enough, Europe itself. Most people don't care much about the issue, but some do, they care very much indeed and - from a Conservative perspective - they're a worryingly significant minority. Cameron's offer of a referendum gained him a little time, but by now the UKIP response has clawed back some of the initiative; you can't trust his promises, goes the argument, look at the betrayal over the Lisbon Treaty.

So Cameron should take the opportunity at conference to do the one thing that only he, and not Nigel Farage, can do: announce the exact date on which the referendum will be held.

He's already said that it'll be before the end of 2017, but that's still too vague. There is a round of local elections due on Thursday 4 May 2017. That'd be a good date to choose.

Announce now that, in the event of a Tory, or Tory-led, government, an In/Out referendum will be held on that specific date, and suddenly the airy promise becomes concrete reality. He'd seize the initiative entirely. Every front-page would have a graphic of a calendar showing 4 May 2017. Eurosceptic commentators and Tory backbenchers would be delighted; Europhiles would reluctantly have to accept the concept of democracy.

It would leave Cameron no wriggle-room, of course, but the reality is that he can't afford the luxury of wriggle-room anymore; the UKIP threat is too great. He needs to squash comprehensively the impression that somehow he'll twist and turn and renege on his promise.

For those Tory voters tempted to desert because of Europe, there would no longer be any incentive to their votes elsewhere. Farage isn't, and never will be, able to match such a pledge. As long as it's credible, it would trump any card UKIP can possibly play. Which would leave UKIP to carry on making inroads into the Labour vote, where its appeal isn't rooted in the European issue in the first place.

Obviously there will still be disgruntled Tories, but their real bone of contention is with having a pro-European leader in the first place. And if they want to change that, they need to mount a more efficient challenge. Which they would undoubtedly lose, because there is no plausible Eurosceptic alternative to Cameron, and they've already tried - with Iain Duncan Smith - having an implausible one. Much good that did them.

I'm also fairly certain that in such a referendum, Britain would vote to remain in the EU. And since that's the result the EU would want, it will swiftly get over its cries of outrage and start working to ensure that some concessions - however cosmetic - are made in order to strengthen Cameron's hand.

In the (unlikely) event that Cameron does not emerge from the general election as prime minister, the referendum presumably wouldn't happen. And that in itself would be a nice legacy for Cameron's successor. S/he can still make a big deal of 4 May 2017, using it as a rallying-point against Ed Miliband's by-then beleaguered government. The Day That Democracy Forgot would make a nice slogan.

It'd be a big step for Cameron, who isn't a notably adventurous politician. But things are getting tight and it's time for a bold move. Played right - with sufficient statesmanlike gravitas - it could be decisive. It would lose him no support whatsoever and would bring sufficient numbers of disaffected Tory votes back into the fold to ensure victory in the general election.

I've got to be a macho man

For the third year running, Ed Miliband delivered his speech to the Labour Party conference this week without notes. This has attracted a great deal of adverse comment, but none more odd than a claim that it was 'macho'. That was the charge laid by both Janet Street-Porter on BBC One's Question Time on Thursday and then again by David Mellor on LBC this morning. 'Very few women would do that,' sneered Mr Street-Porter.

It's difficult to know how to take this. I mean, there are many things one can say about Ed Miliband and about his tenure as Labour leader, but macho? It's not really the first adjective to spring to mind, is it?

In fact, surely one of the attributes that Miliband has going for him is the fact that he so obviously isn't macho. Because there are enough genuinely macho politicians around already and they seldom do us much good. I'm reminded of another Labour leader, Michael Foot, speaking to the conference in 1983, when he mocked David Owen's tough stance on nuclear weapons and quoted the words of Zsa Zsa Gabor: 'Macho isn't mucho.'

Mind you, it's probably not good that Miliband should prompt thoughts of Foot, particularly in 1983. That conference was held in the wake of a general election when Labour secured the support of just 27.6 per cent of the vote, or, to put it another way, just one in five of the registered electorate. That's the back-marker that Miliband has to beat if he's not going to be remembered as the most disastrous Labour leader since George Lansbury.

But anyway Street-Porter is simply wrong, as he so often is. The modern fashion for paperless speeches was established by a woman. Here's an extract from my book A Classless Society:

'Following her character assassination of Michael Howard, [Ann] Widdecombe became shadow health spokesperson and took the 1998 party conference by storm. Speaking without notes, and roaming the stage in a manner that would one day become associated with David Cameron, she earned a huge standing ovation with a speech that combined passion and humour in a way not seen since the great days of Michael Heseltine. Mocking the Labour health minister Tessa Jowell, whose picture appeared thirty-two times in an eighteen-page booklet designed to promote public health policies, Widdecombe shrugged: "Now I could understand it if she had my good looks . . ." She became the Conservative equivalent of John Prescott – the butt of media jokes, but seen by the rank and file membership as their plain-speaking representative at high table.'

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

London mansions

The Labour Party's proposal for an additional property tax on houses worth more than two million pounds has, according to the New Statesman, been rejected by most of the party's potential candidates for the London mayoralty.

The details are a bit vague (to be polite), but Labour is briefing that there are around 100,000 such houses in the country. And of those, some 90 per cent are in London. That's 90,000 properties. Assuming two voters in each, that'd make 180,000 people with a fairly substantial interest in not voting Labour.

And, to put that in context, the only time that a Labour candidate won a mayoral election, Ken Livingstone beat Steven Norris in the second round in 2004 with a majority of just over 160,000.

Many of the properties that would be affected aren't actually occupied by anyone on the electoral register in Britain. And many of those who are part of the electorate are probably much not inclined towards Labour. But some are. And so are some of those who live in properties not far off those prices. It's an odd place like that, London. And although Labour are hot favourites to win back the mayoralty in 2016, there's not much margin for error.

Apart from all of which, the mansion tax proposal is still a poor substitute for adding, say, another five bands at the top of council tax.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Scottish referedum results

There have now been three referendums in Scotland over devolution and independence. In 1979 a proposal to institute a Scottish Assembly was not passed; in 1997 a proposal to create a Scottish Parliament was passed; now a proposal for full independence was rejected. Here are the figures for the Yes campaign in the three cases:

1979: 1,230,937 votes
1997: 1,775,045 votes
2014: 1,617,989 votes

Despite a hugely increased turnout, the number supporting independence was lower than the number who supported devolution in 1997.

Or one could look at the results in terms of the share of the electorate; again these are the results for the Yes campaigns:

1979: 32.9 per cent
1997: 44.7 per cent
2014: 37.8 per cent

I'm not sure quite what that tells me, except that it helps me to keep a sense of perspective when I read, for example, Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian, saying: 'yesterday 45% voted to repudiate British sovereignty, to end this arrangement once and for all. When close to half the population of a nation inside a union wants to break away, the state of that union is not strong. It is fragile.'

Well, maybe. But in thirty-five years the growth in support from devolution to independence has amounted to just under five percentage points.