Saturday, 28 June 2008

The Good Samaritan

One of the inexorable laws of writing non-fiction books is that, as soon as you’ve published, new information will turn up that you wished you’d known when you were writing.

A few years back, I wrote a book on the Biba stores and within days of it hitting the shelves, I was contacted by people who’d worked there and who had tales to tell. I even discovered that one of my best friends, the architect and thriller writer Brian Freeborn, had included a rather charming little elegy to Biba in his novel Ten Days, Mr Cain? (Secker & Warburg, 1977).

In the latter instance, I slipped the reference into a subsequent book, Welcome to Big Biba. But even so, it wasn’t until I later re-visited Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man (Secker & Warburg, 1975) that I found another wonderful bit about the hero’s wife nipping up to London on a regular basis to spend a dirty weekend with her lover, occasions which she liked to call ‘Biba weekends’, since she’d always visit the shop when in town.

So I put that bit into my most recent book, Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s, since I figured it was unlikely I’d write a third book on Biba.

Now, however, I find something that should have been included in Crisis? What Crisis? And, in the absence of anywhere else, I thought I’d write about it here.

Towards the end of that book, I suggest that the principal political split in Britain at the end of the 1970s could be summarised by two interpretations of the parable of the Good Samaritan.

On the one side was Margaret Thatcher, who explained the moral of the tale to Brian Walden on Weekend World in her first major TV interview after her election as prime minister in 1979. ‘No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions,’ she remarked; ‘he had money as well.’

And, she said, this confirmed her vision of the society she wished to build, a society that eschewed the socialist obsession with egalitarianism. ‘If opportunity and talent is unequally distributed, then allowing people to exercise that talent and opportunity means more inequality, but it also means you drag up the poor people, because there are the resources to do so.’

On the other side of the political divide, there was the veteran left-winger Ian Mikardo who celebrated in his memoirs (Back-Bencher, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1988) the frequently derided figure of the political activist, as opposed to the much vaunted silent majority.

These latter he characterized as: ‘the people who stay silent, who don’t utter a word of protest against the fruits of social injustice and deprivation; or against the system which hoards mountains of food in cold stores in rich countries whilst millions starve in the waste-lands; or against the erosion for company profit of the world’s natural resources, and the pollution of its air and its rivers and its oceans; or against the slide towards nuclear war and nuclear winter and nuclear holocaust.’

And, he concluded: ‘The Good Samaritan was an activist: those who passed by on the other side were members of the silent majority.’

(There was yet another interpretation of the Good Samaritan, this time from the one serious student of the New Testament in the House of Commons. Enoch Powell insisted that the story had to be understood in the historical context of those who heard it first, an audience who would have understood the racial relationship of the Jews and the Samaritans: ‘If the parable has a “moral”, it is that Jews and Samaritans should remember that they are not merely neighbours (literally) but kinsmen.’)

Having spent some time exploring this dispute over political interpretations of the teachings of Jesus, I was a little miffed today to find another reference in the popular fiction of the era. So I thought I’d mention it now.

I’ve been reading Anthony Price’s splendid Our Man in Camelot (Victor Gollancz, 1975), undoubtedly the best Cold War espionage thriller with Arthurian overtones I’ve ever read. And in it a CIA agent explains that ‘the moment of gratitude was also the most vulnerable one.’ In other words:

‘Remember what the Good Samaritan probably said to the guy as he rolled on the bandages: “Going down to Jericho, eh? Say, maybe you could give me an introduction to the Chamber of Commerce there?”’

Social networking – that’s the point of charity. Apparently.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Gambling on Gordon

The first bet I ever placed was in 1984, and paid off very nicely when Pebbles romped home to victory in the 1000 Guineas at odds of 16-1. The following year I backed Dennis Taylor at the start of the World Snooker tournament to win the title at 25-1, though a last-minute loss of confidence saw me take the each-way option, to my subsequent regret as he came back from seemingly inevitable humiliation to beat Steve Davis on the final ball of the final frame.

Somewhat predictably, I peaked too early, and my sporadic gambling career has been marked by a series of lost stakes ever since. The sequence of ill-considered punts culminated some eighteen months ago, as Tony Blair was preparing to vacate Downing Street, with what I’ve promised myself was definitely my last bet: twenty quid said that Peter Hain would be the next leader of the Labour Party.

As you’ll have noticed, I was entirely wrong. Hain didn’t get the leadership. He didn’t even get the deputy-leadership. In fact, shortly after coming fifth in a field of six for that job, he was obliged even to step down from the cabinet altogether, after some controversy over campaign contributions.

Despite the loss of the money, though, I still reckon my reasoning was sound. I argued that Gordon Brown was so clearly the wrong man for the job that Labour MPs would see the error of their ways and would decide against an act of collective political suicide.

Obviously the party cards were stacked in his favour, but equally obviously he could never put together the kind of cross-class coalition needed to defeat a Tory Party that was so successfully reinventing itself under David Cameron. Why, then, would Labour MPs vote in a leader almost guaranteed to lose them their jobs at the next election?

As we celebrate the completion of Brown’s first year in office, none of this seems to have been invalidated by events.

Admittedly my endorsement of Hain was less prescient – but it’s hard to see how he could have made a worse fist of being prime minister than Brown has done. My logic said that he was old enough not to stand in the way of younger pretenders for too long, and could have made a decent compromise candidate, taking Labour to probable defeat, but leaving Cameron with a minority government or – at worst – a very small majority.

In any event, the Labour Party evidently wasn’t thinking what I was thinking, and now it’s stuck with a leader who appears destined to emulate Jim Callaghan’s unenviable record of being prime minister without ever winning a general election.

The similarities between Brown and Callaghan are striking. Both followed a prime minister who had proved adept at winning elections (three triumphs for Blair, four for Harold Wilson), but who had lost the support of the party, was considered a bit too shallow and gimmicky, and seemed exhausted by office. In both cases, the new incumbent was a former chancellor who was regarded as a good Labour man, a safe pair of hands with a strong emotional and structural attachment to what used to be known as This Great Movement of Ours.

And yet, once in office, they disappointed their followers, pursuing right-wing economic policies almost indistinguishable from those of the Conservative Party, and finding themselves locked in damaging pay disputes with public sector workers whose support should have been automatic.

Both have been castigated for failing to call an election: Callaghan in autumn 1978, and Brown in autumn 2007. In both cases they would probably have won, Brown by virtue of novelty at least. Callaghan went on to lose to Margaret Thatcher the following year; Brown has the comfort of another two years before time runs out.

Both faced rising enthusiasm for nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales. And both were vulnerable to English suspicion for representing constituencies outside England.

The differences between the two men, however, are proving ever more significant as the months pass.

Callaghan was, above all, distinguished by his enormous breadth of experience in office. He had been a minister in the government of Clement Atlee (at the department of transport, he’d introduced cats’ eyes and zebra crossings to the nation’s roads), and apart from being chancellor, had also served as home secretary and foreign secretary. Quite possibly he will prove to be the last ever prime minister to have also held the other major offices of state. And while he hadn’t been a conspicuous success at any of those previous jobs, he did at least know in some considerable detail how government and Whitehall worked.

Brown, on the other hand, spent fourteen years on the opposition benches before being catapulted into Number Eleven. He’s never run – or even participated in running – a spending department. For someone who, unlike Blair, hasn’t shied away from the word ‘socialism’, it wouldn’t have done any harm to have known what it was like to argue for more resources, rather than simply to hold the purse-strings.

Beyond the economy, the difference in style was evident in the Crewe & Nantwich by-election last month, where the Tories celebrated taking their first by-election seat from Labour since Ilford North thirty years ago.

That election, back in 1978, came just weeks after Thatcher’s famous World In Action broadcast in which she successfully appealed to the supporters of Enoch Powell, warning that ‘People are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture’. In the election itself, Sir Keith Joseph built explicitly on this position, with a direct plea to the Jewish vote: ‘Therefore I say that the electors of Ilford North, including the Jews – who are just like everyone else, as the saying goes, only more so – have good reason for supporting Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party on immigration.’

The effect was all that could have been hoped for, and the defeat of Labour’s Tessa Jowell was greeted with dismay on the left: ‘The party is depressed at the apparent success of Thatcher’s exploitation of the race issue,’ noted Benn glumly in his diary

In Crewe & Nantwich it was the Labour Party that was accused of playing the race card, from their slogan for Tamsin Dunwoody (‘One of us’) downwards. Callaghan was not exactly in the progressive vanguard when it came to race and immigration (‘We don’t want any more blacks in Britain,’ he’d told Benn in 1970), but under his leadership, at least Labour didn’t descend to the dog-whistle. To do so, and then to lose, looks like the tactics of desperation.

Then there’s the question of temperament. Callaghan’s public persona was that of Sunny Jim, a cheerful calming presence in times of trouble. His image of unflappable reassurance may have cost him dear in the winter of discontent (prompting the famous ‘Crisis? What Crisis?’ misquote in the Sun), but mostly it stood him in good stead and saw him retain a high level of personal support: before, during and after the 1979 general election, he scored higher in opinion polls than did either his party or Thatcher.

Nowadays, Brown trails even Labour’s lowly standing in the polls. And despite all attempts to re-vamp his image and all the encouragement to smile more often, he still looks as though a slightly sulky gloom is his default position. One can’t help but be reminded of P.G. Wodehouse’s comment that ‘It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.’

Most important of all is the difference between the two men’s assumption of office. Callaghan came through in 1976 as the victor in a contest that saw a host of substantial and weighty challengers: Roy Jenkins, Anthony Crosland, Tony Benn, Denis Healey and Michael Foot, any one of whom could make a plausible case as a potential prime minister. They were the best and brightest candidates available, and they came from right across the spectrum of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Had Brown faced a similar field a year ago, he would probably still have won, but he would have emerged with the kind of unquestionable authority that he now so patently lacks. It would have been hard for the press to indulge in the promotion of, say, David Milliband’s cause if he’d already been seen off by Brown.

And of course it would have given me at least an outside chance of seeing a return on my stake.

But then again, to return to one of my few successes at the bookmakers, in 1985 Dennis Taylor was eight frames to nil down before he staged that remarkable comeback to snatch victory from Steve Davis. A rotund, uncharismatic figure from the Celtic fringes proved capable of overcoming the golden young star who everyone thought was invincible. And he did it by sheer resilience and a refusal to accept defeat when it was staring him in the face.

Maybe, just maybe, Brown is not the new Callaghan at all; maybe he’s the new Dennis Taylor.

But I wouldn’t bet on it.