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.

Friday, 19 September 2014

The day after the Day of Destiny

Following the defeat of the independence proposal in the Scottish referendum, the haggling starts over the constitutional settlement that will result. So here's an extract from my book A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s about the last time the government chickened out on this issue:

All the really difficult issues associated with devolution were similarly shelved. Tam Dalyell’s 1978 query – dubbed by Enoch Powell the West Lothian Question – still remained: Why should Scottish MPs sitting in Westminster be able to pass laws that affected people in England but not their own constituents? ‘It was a perfectly sensible question,’ concluded Blair, ‘and an interesting example of a problem in politics to which there is no logical answer.’

There was a logical answer, of course: an English parliament, or even a committee of the House of Commons, comprising all those elected as MPs for constituencies in England, which would be responsible for decisions related specifically and solely to English matters. This would have created two tiers of MP, with a steep reduction in influence for the lower tier; MPs for Scottish constituencies would have even less responsibility than they already did, since so much domestic policy was devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

The official government response to the proposal was to reject it because ‘at a practical level, there is no room in the precincts large enough to accommodate all 582 members sitting for English seats’. Teresa Gorman voiced an alternative interpretation: ‘It doesn’t take a genius to work out why the English are denied a referendum and its own parliament; England is where most Conservative voters are to be found.’

Likewise there was no attempt to address the matter of the disproportionately high number of Scottish and Welsh MPs who sat in the House. Nor was there any amendment to the Barnett Formula, the stop-gap system introduced in the 1970s which provided Scotland and Wales with high levels of government spending, and which had remained untouched ever since. David Blunkett did argue for a change in early 2001, but Gordon Brown told him: ‘I can’t do anything about the Barnett Formula before the election.’ Blunkett’s response was at least honest: ‘No, I don’t expect you can. I want to win seats in Scotland and Wales as well.’

Thursday, 18 September 2014

A Day of Destiny (copyright all media outlets)

On the day of Scotland's independence referendum, here's an extract from my book Crisis? What Crisis? remembering the 1979 referendums in Scotland and Wales:

The issue of devolution dominated the last period of James Callaghan's administration. Support for some form of separate legislatures in Scotland and Wales was by now running too high for the Labour government to ignore, while there was pressure too from its parliamentary partners in the Liberal Party, who were long-standing supporters: ‘Unlike the other two parties,’ Jeremy Thorpe had pledged in the 1970 election campaign, ‘I would see that Scotland and Wales had their own parliaments, running all domestic affairs.’

Even the Conservatives, while opposing devolution, were wary of sensibilities north of the border. Back in 1973, in the days of Edward Heath, a proposed set of stamps commemorating great Britons had been amended at the last minute to remove Edward I (‘the Hammer of the Scots’) and to replace him with Henry V; to be on the safe side, Robert the Bruce was also included. And behind the scenes was the fear of another Ulster if some sort of concession were not made. ‘I don’t want them to turn to violence, of course,’ said Michael Foot, ‘but I think it’s quite likely.’

And so the Scotland Act and the Wales Act of 1978 were passed, allowing for the creation of assemblies in Edinburgh and Cardiff that would take over the functions of the appropriate Whitehall departments, but only when and if referendums in the territories concerned showed a clear majority in favour. And, controversially, that was defined as entailing not simply a majority of those voting, but also the expressed support of 40 per cent of the entire electorate.

This requirement, this one final hurdle for the nationalists to overcome, was not of the government’s making. Desperate to stay in office, Callaghan was keen to appease the MPs of the SNP and Plaid Cymru and to see the devolution proposals through with as few quibbles as possible, but there was considerable disquiet amongst his own backbenchers. In Wales Neil Kinnock, a rising star of Labour, became known for his vociferous denunciations of nationalism, even claiming that there was a ‘linguistic racism’ operating in the principality against non-Welsh-speaking children.

Since the language question was of paramount importance to Plaid – the party’s first manifesto, written in 1925 by John Saunders Lewis, had insisted ‘We can aim at nothing less than to do away with the English language in Wales’ – it was not surprising that he became the target of nationalist attacks, including a 1977 pamphlet titled ‘Neil Kinnock and the Anti-Taffy League’.

A more subtle approach to linguistic sensitivity was displayed in 1974 when Selwyn Lloyd, as speaker of the House of Commons, allowed the two Plaid MPs to swear their oaths of allegiance in Welsh, so long as they also did so in English: ‘I thought that the two members concerned were slightly disappointed that I had deprived them of the chance of a public protest on behalf of the Welsh language,’ he chuckled.

Also opposed to devolution was Tam Dalyell, who, as Labour MP for West Lothian, raised what Enoch Powell promptly dubbed the West Lothian Question: How could it be right to propose that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs sitting in a Westminster Parliament should be able to pass laws affecting the population of England but not their own constituents? And, as a corollary, what was the point of him representing a Scottish constituency if he couldn’t have any influence over domestic affairs there?

When therefore an amendment was placed before Parliament calling for a mandate of 40 per cent of the electorate, there were many Labour MPs inclined to support the idea, seeing it as a reasonable prerequisite for such a major constitutional change, as well as being a way of snatching victory from the jaws of the nationalists. Thirty-four joined the Conservatives in the voting lobbies and ensured that the requirement was passed into law, despite the opposition of their own government. It was to prove a crucial decision in determining the subsequent fate of the Callaghan premiership, though the assumption was still that some form of devolution was probably inevitable and even perhaps, in some quarters, desirable.

‘Thank God they’re going independent,’ reflected Regan in The Sweeney. ‘We’ll be able to put that wall up again.’

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Sir Edward, Sir Cyril and Sir Jimmy

I've been watching some old episodes of Till Death Us Do Part. Here's a quote from an episode first broadcast in January 1974, where writer Johnny Speight seems to be tying some names together for our edification. Rita, Alf Garnett’s daughter (played by Una Stubbs), is attacking the prime minister of the time Edward Heath, before launching into other people she doesn’t like:

‘Heath makes me sick every time I see him on there with his great porky face wobbling with fat. And that other one, that other fatty – Cyril Smith MP. Have you seen him? You’d think they’d make themselves look decent before they go on the telly, wouldn’t you? You’d think they’d go to one of those health farms or something, wouldn’t you? Did you see it with Jimmy Savile the other day? Did you see them? And they were eating those lamb chops, with grease running down their faces.’

Thursday, 4 September 2014

It's (not) the real thing

The Telegraph is running a great story from the Press Association today, warning that e-cigarettes will turn you into a coke fiend:

'In mice, nicotine was found to alter brain biochemistry and prime the animals to develop a need for cocaine.'

And to think that I've been labouring under the misapprehension that no one actually needs cocaine.

Biba's golden anniversary

It's the fiftieth anniversary of Biba, the fashion label and shop founded by Barbara Hulanicki in 1964.

When I first started approaching publishers, at the beginning of this century, with the idea for a book on Biba, the dismissive response was: Who cares about a shop in West London that closed thirty years ago?

I'd already done enough research to know that there was a good answer to that question, that there were thousands of people who'd bought into the Biba aesthetic in the 1960s and '70s who still felt bereft by its abrupt closing in 1975 and who still cherished their memories. Many of them still had their treasured pieces, many still found themselves adopting Biba colour schemes when they decorated their homes.

When we did eventually publish the book ten years ago, however, what took me by surprise was the interest shown by younger people, by those who weren't even born when Biba existed. Sometimes this was because the imagery and even the clothes had been passed down from mother to daughter. But sometimes it was because the story was so perfect and so captivating.

Starting as a tiny boutique in an unfashionable part of London, Biba grew within a decade to become a fully fledged department-store, without ever losing sight of its ethos and its style. That was determined solely by Barbara Hulanicki. In an era before focus groups and market research, Biba represented the individualist creativity of the Sixties. Hulanicki trusted her own instincts and taste, assumed that others would want to join her.

As Biba expanded, so did her vision. Biba pioneered the concept of lifestyle, expanding from fashion out into home decoration, furnishing, household goods, food - every item personally approved by Hulanicki, the whole thing stamped with a single concept of making style available and affordable to anyone who wanted to participate. And it was all sold in an environment that matched the fantasy: this was the theatre of retail.

At the peak of the dream, there were plans for a Biba car and a Biba cinema. Sadly those didn't materialise, lost in the property crash that hit Britain in 1974-75.

The sudden closure was heart-breaking for many, including Hulanicki herself, but it ensured the survival of the legend. There was no steady decline, no sliding into dated irrelevance. One moment it was there - a seven-storey celebration of style and decadence; the next, it was gone forever. It lived fast and it died young. Just like the Sixties.

Its legacy is the example it left of an alternative approach to business, where the emphasis was on the creative rather than the corporate. In an increasingly homogenised world, such individualism remains inspiring. Even to those who weren't there at the time.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Bill Kerr: A modern-shaped person

I'm deeply saddened by the death of Bill Kerr, the last surviving regular from the Hancock's Half Hour cast.

He's not always been as celebrated as he should have been, inevitably a bit overshadowed in the extraordinary ensemble of Tony Hancock, Sid James, Hattie Jacques and Kenneth Williams. But he provided many of my favourite moments, in particular his extended suggestion in The Election Candidate about how to convert a trombone-player into a trumpeter, and his free verse in The Poetry Society.

That latter show is one of the masterpieces of British comedy. In fact the whole of the sixth and final radio series of HHH, when the cast was slimmed down to the core trio of Hancock, James and Kerr, is about as good as sitcoms get.

It was in The Poetry Society that Hancock made reference to 'modern-shaped people', a category from which he specifically excluded Bill. And somehow, in the context of radio comedy and with the quiet genius of Kerr's performance, it somehow made sense.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Yesterday's Papers: Child abuse in Yorkshire

An extract from The Times's review Channel 4's documentary Edge of the City, about social workers in Bradford (27 August 2004):

'The "politically correct" social workers and those from other involved agencies made no bones about the fact that it has been mainly groups of Asian men who have been "grooming" girls for illegal sex, sometimes involving drugging, group-rape and the threat of extreme violence.

'The problem is that, while many underage girls have consented to sex and do not see it as a problem, others have been terrorised into silence. Neither group is willing to press charges. It is the social workers, along with campaigning mothers, who have been pushing the police to help them sort out the problem.'

The programme, incidentally, had originally been scheduled for May 2004, but had been postponed after Colin Cramphorn, the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, asked Channel 4 not to screen it on the grounds that it 'would increase community tension in Bradford'.

There were local and European elections that month, and others supported the police intervention. 'I am concerned that an ill-judged programme, shown at a time when elections are taking place, could inadvertently act as a recruiting sergeant for the BNP,' argued Lee Jasper of the National Assembly Against Racism. 'Investigating older men who are trying to procure underage girls into sex with drugs is certainly a legitimate subject for a documentary,' said Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain. 'But we were concerned that airing such a documentary at this time would inflame passions.'

Eric Pickles, the Conservative spokesman on local government, agreed: 'it would have been an immensely irresponsible piece of journalism to run with this programme, which the BNP itself is describing as its first party political broadcast.'

Ann Cryer, Labour MP for Keighley, despite having earlier 'claimed controversially that young Asian men, tied into arranged marriages, are turning to young girls for sex', this time put her faith in the authorities: 'The police would not have done this unless they were extremely worried.'

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Sherlock Holmes and the Great War

I'm currently reading Anthony Horowitz's Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk (2011). And very entertaining it is too. There are some flaws - the proof reading is poor, and there's some language I suspect is anachronistic (were people really 'gunned down' in Victorian England?) - but it's a strong, convoluted story and Horowitz has a good turn of phrase.

He also has a nice line in gently reprimanding Arthur Conan Doyle for flaws in the canon: the lack of interest in Mrs Hudson's background and circumstances, for example, or the failure to follow up what happened to various criminals after Holmes's investigations were completed.

There's something that's troubling me, though. The story's set in 1890, but Watson is writing in 1915 at a time when 'a terrible and senseless war rages on the continent'.

I don't think that Watson would have referred to the First World War as 'senseless'. Certainly not at such an early stage. I fear that's a modern perception that's colouring the narrative.

In my forthcoming book, The Last Post, I quote a passage from John Buchan's 1926 novel The Dancing Floor, in which Edward Leithen reflects on the emergence of anti-war literature. 'The vocal people were apt to be damaged sensitives, who were scarcely typical of the average man,' he observes. 'There were horrors enough, God knows, but in most people’s recollections these were overlaid by the fierce interest and excitement, even by the comedy of it.'

I suspect that, as a patriot, as an army doctor and as a veteran of the Afghan wars, Watson would have been inclined to agree with Leithen's sentiment. He would surely not have seen conflict with Germany as being 'senseless'. Unhappy and regrettable, perhaps, but necessary.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Instant expertise

'We have a responsibility to protect the Yazidis of Iraq,' is the headline of a leader column in the New Statesman, an attitude mirrored across the British media. 'Yazidi' is the word of the moment, and suddenly we're knee-deep in opinions on, and analyses of, this hitherto unheard-of people.

Unheard of? Well, pretty much, if you broadly rely - as most of us do - on the media's portrayal of the world.

I just looked up on the News Bank data base, and in the first two weeks of August 2014, there were 324 mentions of the word in British newspapers. That's compared to the first seven months of the year, when there were just five such mentions. Looking further back: in 2013 there were two references to Yazidis, in 2013 three, in 2011 four, and in 2010 four.

Which, of course, doesn't stop any of us from airing our own opinions in homes and pubs, on the internet and radio phone-ins, as though we have any real idea at all what we're talking about. It's wonderful how quickly we can all become experts.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

When Mary met William (and Jimmy)

I've been reading Quite Contrary (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1993), the - third, I think - autobiography of Mary Whitehouse, a woman who I've written about before on this blog. And I'm very taken by her account of a 1981 debate at the Oxford Union, where - for the first time ever - she actually won a vote.

Her opponent was Victor Lowndes, formerly the chairman of the Playboy Organisation in Britain. It all sounds terribly exciting, particuarly because of the accompanying photograph - there, separating the two antagonists, is our very own William Hague, looking even younger than he had at the 1977 Conservative Party conference:

Mind you, this being written twenty years ago, when Hague was not yet even in the cabinet, he doesn't rate a name-check by Whitehouse at all.

Odd how different things can look in retrospect. Elsewhere in the book, Whitehouse remembers the occasion on which Jimmy Savile was presented with an award by the National Viewers and Listeners Association. In his acceptance speech, Savile reflected: 'While Mrs Whitehouse possibly wouldn't agree with my personal lifestyle, it is through organisations like hers that there is some semblance of decency.'

This was in 1977, just as Whitehouse was launching her great drive against paedophile pornography, a campaign which would culminate the following year with the Protection of Children Act. So he was probably correct in his assessment.

Writing in 1993, however, Whitehouse comments: 'Well, I don't know anything about Jimmy's lifestyle and, in any case, it's no business of mine. What I do know is that, as the years have gone on, so Jimmy has continued to make his highly acclaimed contribution to those in need and for that one continues to be grateful. His knighthood reflects the respect in which he is held by everyone.'

You can't get it right everytime.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

A hundred years ago

A hundred years ago today, the bodies of eight men were retrieved from the Thames Estuary.

On the 5th of August 1914 the first British shots had been fired in the First World War, aimed at the SS Königin Luise, a German steam ferry found laying mines. The ship was sunk, but so too was the British light cruiser HMS Amphion, which struck one of those mines early the next morning.

The bodies that were recovered came from both ships, four from each. They were buried together, four coffins covered by the Union Jack, four by the German ensign, and they were accorded full military honours.

At the end of the ceremony, a British bugler sounded the Last Post.

And that, in miniature, is why I've written my forthcoming book on the Last Post. There's something deeply intriguing about a piece of music that originated in the British Army but was so widely adopted that it became a universal, sacred anthem of death and remembrance, applicable equally to both sides in a conflict.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014


An article by Neil McCormick rightly celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the release of You Really Got Me by the Kinks, on 4 August 1964. (Though he oddly places it with Decca Records rather than Pye.)

It's a slightly disturbing concept that You Really Got Me emerged exactly halfway between the declaration of war in 1914 and today. And slightly disturbing that I was born on the far side of that divide.

On the subject of time - after six years on this blogsite, I've finally found the time setting and adjusted it to London.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Remembering stuff

As part of the saturation commemoration of the centenary of Britain's declaration of war against Germany, LBC Radio has asked the main party leaders at Westminster to pen a letter to the Unknown Soldier. The results can be read and (if you have the stomach for it) heard here.

Ed Miliband's contribution to this exercise encapsulates much of what irritates me in modern politics.

It starts with the greeting 'Dear Friend'. Really? The Unknown Soldier is Miliband's friend? Even though the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition doesn't know who this dead man was, they're still friends?

Miliband goes on to make nervously sure he's ticked all the correct boxes, mentioning troops from 'across the world - from the Indian sub-continent to Africa, from Australia to the Caribbean'. Though you'll notice he manages to avoid saying what all these troops had in common, presumably because he doesn't want to use the word 'Empire'.

And it wasn't just men. There were women on the Western Front too. Indeed the only person named in the message is Edith Cavell. There's even room in a five-paragraph letter to get in a mention of football.

(You can tell he's not really at Tony Blair's level, though; Blair would have managed to get in a reference to those executed for 'cowardice'.)

Finally, we get the lessons that we should learn from the First World War: it's 'a reminder of the brutality of conflict' and a 'warning to those in power to avoid entering into war unless it is absolutely necessary'.

Well, obviously. And let's be entirely fair: Miliband has long said that the invasion of Iraq was wrong, and the greatest achievement of his time as leader has been to prevent Britain - and thereby America - from a military engagement in Syria. (Why he doesn't make more of this, I have no idea.)

But how are we to know whether a war is 'absolutely necessary'? One way to judge Miliband's political thinking might be if he told us whether he thinks the First World War was necessary.

Unfortunately he doesn't have time for that, because his entire attention is on a touchy-feely embrace of the past that focuses on individual experiences (preferably of those who can be categorised as being representative of an oppressed group).

This, of course, is the media treatment of history, and Miliband is merely responding to a challenge laid down by a media organisation. Which is fine. In broad terms, I think the media are entirely justified in their approach. It's probably true that most of the public aren't much interested in the big themes of history, and there's nothing wrong with an account of the past that centres on empathy rather than interpretation.

But Miliband's not just a member of the public. He also (presumably) still thinks he's a potential prime minister. And as such, I expect something a bit more insightful from him. Something that hints at an awareness of the geopolitical implications of 1914-18, for example.

The same mindset is evident in most of his words and actions, in, for example, the way that Labour's main economic attack on the government is that David Cameron doen't 'get' the economic reality experienced by 'hard working families' and 'the most vulnerable in our society'. A potential prime minister should aspire to being more than a sympathetic ear in times of trouble.

Behind this is a real problem, that the media's handling of history is mirrored in its coverage - on our behalf - of current conflicts. The obsession is with getting footage and accounts of the victims of war. All of which tell us nothing more than what we already knew: war is bloody, horrible and destructive. The coverage has an impact, though. Show enough of the suffering and the call will come that something must be done. And we blindly rush in to support the overthrow of governments with little thought of who or what will take their place. Whilst paying sentimental tribute to our 'heroes' in uniform.

Maybe I'm being unfair to Miliband. After all, there was that stand on Syria. And he's far from being alone in Westminster, Broadcasting House or the country more widely. But I want more from him than Blairite emotionalism. I want an alternative, which is supposed to be his job.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Exceedingly good writing

On the eve of the centenary of the First World War, I rather like Andrew Lycett's piece on Rudyard Kipling in the Telegraph. I re-read a fair bit of Kipling earlier this year, when I was working on a book about The Last Post, and it's still remarkably good stuff.

I would note, though, that it's not true that Kipling 'personally paid for Last Post to be played every night at the Menin Gate at Ypres'. He paid for a bugler to sound the call every night at the cemetery in Loos, where his son was killed.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Top Eight: Planet of the Apes movies

Having just seen Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, I was slightly disappointed. This is where it fits into the rating of the films so far:

1. Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) - starts off satirical, with intelligent apes exploring modern America, before it gets a bit darker. (10/10)

2. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) - the political one, with the rising of the underclass. (9/10)

3. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) - great music, effects and story, with a brilliant set-piece battle. (8/10)

4. Planet of the Apes (1968) - dulled a bit by familiarity, but still has its moments. (8/10)

5. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) - mostly a mess, but the worshipping of the atomic bomb makes it all worthwhile. (7/10)

6. Planet of the Apes (2001) - generally ridiculed, but the architecture is stunning and Helena Bonham-Carter makes a fine ape. (6/10)

7. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) - looks good and has its moments, but lacks wit and the fighting has no charm. (5/10)

8. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) - the pointless one with no budget. (4/10)

The TV series (1974) comes below that, and the animated series (1975) doesn't really count.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Top Ten: Still Costing the Country

A couple of years back, I listed some recent reports and studies on how much the British economy is losing as a result of specific failures.
The problem clearly hasn't gone away, as the following show:

1. Obesity costs Britain £5 billion a year - link

2. Cyber crime costs Britain £27 billion a year - link

3. Child poverty also costs Britain £27 billion a year - link

4. Violent crime costs Britain 'almost £30 billion' a year - link

5. Migrants claiming benefits for children living abroad cost Britain £30 million a year - link

6. Poor language skills cost Britain £50 billion a year - link

7. Family breakdowns also cost Britain £50 billion a year - link

8. Bovine tuberculosis costs Britain £100 million a year - link

9. The erosion of organic matter in soil costs Britain 'more than £120 million a year' - link

10. Mental health issues cost Britain £70 billion a year - link

This is a random collection of recent stories, and I stopped after the first ten, so it's hard to know how far the problem extends. But that list alone would add around £250 billion to the UK economy. It's extraordinary to think how rich we could all be, if only we made the effort.

Just to be clear about these stories. Here's one I saved up to illustrate why we need to take them so very seriously. A report published last month revealed that small and medium-sized business in Britain are losing £2.5 billion a year by dealing in cash. The equivalent of two weeks a year is wasted counting cash and taking it to the local bank. This research was 'commissioned by online payment provider PayPal'. All credit to PayPal. If they hadn't so unselfishly taken the trouble to enlighten us, we'd never have known.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Bigotgate - the prelude

A further extract from Joe Ashton's 1977 novel Grass Roots. This is a Labour voter berating his MP, shortly after hearing that the steel-plant where he works is to be closed, and that the Labour government isn't going to save it:

'This country, us, the working people, have had enough of you lot down there! Don't you know this country is bleeding to death? You bastards do anything for the Irish. They can blow Belfast to pieces and flatten it to the ground, and you will pay our taxes to rebuild it again. You do anything for the sodding French to keep their farmers rich in the Common Market. You lean over backwards to keep those bloody Scotchmen happy and give them all the oil. And if it is West Indians and Pakistanis, then they can come here and live on the dole for ever. But when it comes to your own English working-class flesh and blood, then we can be thrown on the scrap-heap and you'll let us go bankrupt.'

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

The rot sets in...

An extract from Grass Roots, a novel by Labour MP Joe Ashton, published in 1977:

'And who speaks for you at Westminster? Do you know how many of the MPs ever helped to build a ship, to make a motor car, to put up a school, to weave cloth, to cut wood, to forge steel, to generate electricity, to dig coal, or run a railway or hospital? I'll tell you. About ten per cent of them. Do you know that many of them have never even sat on a local council? Do you know that of all the MPs in Parliament the number under the age of forty-five who have ever done manual work can be counted on the fingers of one hand?

'And the reason is that politics has become a career. It's become a step-ladder. A pat of progress from the debating chamber of the students' union at Oxford to the dispatch box and the front bench in the House of Commons. And it has meant that MPs have become tame, placid, docile sheep. Frightened to speak up. Never having the guts to stand up and be counted because if they do then it will affect their career prospects.'

Baroness Butler-Sloss: a clarification

In an earlier blog entry I wrote about the non-prosecution of Sir Peter Hayman in the early 1980s, and noted that 'the whole thing stank of the suggestion that Sir Michael and Sir Tony were looking after Sir Peter'. Obviously this should in no way be taken to mean that I think Sir Michael's sister is not an absolutely appropriate person to lead an enquiry into historic cases of child abuse. Just wanted to make that clear.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Child abuse inquiry

In the wake of the conviction of Rolf Harris and of the story that Geoffrey Dickens's dossier on high-ranking paedophiles has gone missing from the home office, Theresa May has now announced a wide-ranging enquiry into historic child abuse.

In the words of the Guardian: 'She stressed the exercise would look not only at state institutions, but would bring the church into its scope and would also examine the role of political parties including the conduct of whips' offices at Westminster.'

There's one other area that might be worth considering, since we now take Dickens seriously (even if we don't go so far as to think that 'the Hayman affair is the biggest cover-up of the century').

In 1983 Dickens asked for a meeting with May's predecessor, Leon Brittan, saying: 'I am going to give him a glimpse inside my private files, where people have written to me with information.' Amongst those cases of which he had details was 'a civil servant receiving fifty-seven photographs involving children.'

But, The Times added: 'Mr Dickens refused to go into details of the case allegedly involving an employee at Buckingham Palace.'

Presumably, this time the new enquiry won't stop at the Palace gates.

Naming names: Geoffrey Dickens vs the Establishment

In 1981 The Times printed a typically sharp cartoon by Mel Calman. 'Hurry,' a woman calls to her husband, as the TV news starts; 'they're naming names.'

The reference was to the Conservative MP Geoffrey Dickens, a man who has made such a spectacular return to the news media over the last week, nearly twenty years after his death. Dickens, we learn, compiled a dossier of information and allegations about paedophilia amongst those in public life. This was handed to the then home secretary, Leon Brittan, in 1984. The fate of that dossier, together with any description of its contents, is unknown. An enquiry is promised.

Whilst we wait for that (no rush), let's look instead at what is on the record, and specifically at that 1981 case that prompted Calman's cartoon.

The story goes back to 1978, when a package was found on a London bus, containing 'obscene literature and written material'. No further details were officially given, but it was understood that the material related to paedophilia. The owner of the package was traced, along with several others who had shared 'correspondence of an obscene nature', until eventually a circle of nine people - seven men and two women - had been identified.

Under section 11 of the 1953 Post Office Act, all were liable for prosecution for the offence of sending obscene matter through the post. No charges, however, were brought in this instance.

But one of the men involved was discovered to be also carrying out a separate correspondence with another man (outside the original circle of nine). Their communications were more extreme and concerned 'the systematic killing by sexual torture of young people and children'. These two men were prosecuted and given a conditional discharge.

Meanwhile another trial was making its way to court, this time of Tom O'Carroll, a member of the Paedophile Information Exchange and the most vocal advocate for a reduction in the age of consent. He was charged with conspiracy to corrupt public morals, found guilty and jailed.

Both these court cases involved members of the original circle of nine correspondents, whether as witnesses or as names that were mentioned in evidence. And amongst those named was Peter Henderson, the owner of the package that had been left on the bus.

And so, finally, to Geoffrey Dickens.

In March 1981, Dickens used parliamentary privilege - the legal convention that the laws of libel do not apply in the Houses of Parliament - to reveal that 'Peter Henderson' was actually a pseudonym, concealing the identity of Sir Peter Hayman, a sixty-six-year-old former diplomat, who had been High Commissioner in Canada. Dickens wanted to know whether Sir Michael Havers, the attorney general, would initiate proceedings against Hayman under the Post Office Act. The answer to that question was 'no'; Havers agreed with the decision made by the office of Sir Tony Hetherington, the director of public prosecutions, not to bring charges relating to the correspondence within the original circle of nine.

There were many who felt that this didn't really deal with all the issues involved. In particular, there was a strong suspicion that the reason there was no prosecution was simply that the establishment was protecting one of its own, a senior retired diplomat who was also - it was rumoured - high up in the security services at MI6 (as well as being a member of the Paedophile Information Exchange). Furthermore, some believed, this was the reason that Hayman was not called as a witness in either of the two trials and why his name - uniquely - was kept out of the court record: he was simply referred to as Peter Henderson.

In short, the whole thing stank of the suggestion that Sir Michael and Sir Tony were looking after Sir Peter.

But there were others who felt that this wasn't the real issue here at all, that the main area of concern was the action of Geoffrey Dickens, which might bring Parliament into disrepute.

'I do not believe Sir Peter Hayman should have been named,' wrote Alan Watkins in the Guardian, 'and I hope MPs will now curb the absolute privilege they possess.' David Steel, then the leader of the Liberal Party, suggested that Dickens might have been abusing parliamentary privilege. Sir Michael Havers had attempted to persuade him not to name Hayman in the first place. And the Metropolitan Police called Dickens in for questioning over the source of his information, which he refused to reveal.

Much of this response was shaped by the nature of the man himself. Geoffrey 'Bunter' Dickens was a figure of great ridicule on the liberal left. A rotund man (he was a former heavyweight boxer) who spoke with a London accent, he called on a regular basis for the reintroduction of capital and corporal punishment, and was noted for his 'monomania' (to use the Sunday Times's word) on the subject of paedophilia. He was clearly obsessed, and few took him seriously when he argued, for example, that there was a connection between paedophile rings and Satanists: 'Children are sacrificed sexually to the lust and gratification of the coven,' he told the press in 1988. (To be fair, he went on to suggest that skeletons were also being sexually abused.)

By that stage in the late 1980s, of course, the question of paedophile rights was not on anyone's agenda. But a decade earlier, it had existed on the fringes of liberal thought, and PIE had found that, in some quarters at least - including the National Council for Civil Liberties, Mind, Release and the Campaign for Homosexual Equality - its arguments were not rejected entirely out of hand.

The fact that it was the likes of Dickens and of Mary Whitehouse who spoke out so strongly against paedophilia, and that their cause was taken up by the tabloids, made some feel that the paedophile scare was being blown up out of proportion. Here, for example, is an extract from a somewhat jokey leader column in the Guardian in 1981 concerning Dickens's naming of Hayman, complete with mockery of the tabloids:

'Straight sex, kinky sex and gay sex are all now looking a bit passé for the purpose of raising a scandal, and it may be thought that paedophilia (an even smaller minority interest than most) has surfaced only just in time. As the Daily Mirror remarked in a thoughtful leader, "The Daily Mirror is a tolerant newspaper. But tolerance has its limit. AND THIS IS IT."'

But times have changed, and here is an extract from the Guardian's leader today about the fallout from the Dickens dossier:

'It is now obvious that the scale of child sex abuse has been greater and has gone on for longer than many people might have imagined. So the question that most urgently needs answering is who knew, and why didn't they act.'

Maybe we're getting to the stage where that Calman cartoon could be dug out for a reprint.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Back home (we won't be thinking about you)

As England make their excuses and leave the competitive bit of the World Cup after just two matches, there seem to be plenty of people quoting Einstein's definition of insanity as doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result. Danny Kelly cited it on his TalkSport show this morning, for example, as did Matthew Norman in the Daily Telegraph.

But the endlessly repeated pattern of England underperforming at major tournaments (when they qualify) reminds me instead of Russell Braddon's excellent satire The Year of the Angry Rabbit (1964). This is the Australian prime minister explaining why he's appointed such a duffer as minister of defence:

'General Sir Alan Jacks has never once, since 1940, been right about anything. It is totally unreasonable to expect that any man, unless he be possessed of supernatural powers, can sustain such a record much longer. Soon, therefore, he's going to break it. Any day now, General Sir Alan Jacks is going to be right. And when, soon, he is, I want him, gentlemen, to be right not just on behalf of my government, but also on behalf of Australia.'

I know that England have been getting everything wrong for forty-eight years, but surely it's just a question of holding their nerve?

Saturday, 14 June 2014

The Lost World (Cup)

As the England football team 'limber up' (copyright all media outlets) for their World Cup match against Italy this evening in Manaus, one's thoughts naturally turn to Britain's other great moment in this Amazonian town.

Because it was here, in 1911, that Professor Challenger joined his colleagues - Professor Summerlee, Lord John Roxton and Edward Malone - at the start of their first adventure together.

'Outside lay the yellow, brassy glare of the sunshine, with the shadows of the palm trees as black and definite as the trees themselves,' wrote Malone, in his account of the expedition. 'The air was calm, full of the eternal hum of insects, a tropical chorus of many octaves, from the deep drone of the bee to the high, keen pipe of the mosquito.'

Sounds idyllic. Of course, the four men were later to find themselves assailed by pterodactyls, iguanodons and the odd megalosaurus. But that's what happens when you stumble upon an elevated plateau that's home to a prehistoric lost world. Tricky blighter, Johnny Jungle.

Not that I'm suggesting the Italian team are a load of dinosaurs with all the slow-moving, slow-witted charm of a stegosaurus, of course...

Saturday, 7 June 2014

A circular matter

A long, long time ago, back in the 1980s when I was young, I used to sing (for want of a better word) with a band called the Circle of Shit. I'm not quite sure why that name wasn't instantly on everyone's lips, but somehow we never became successful.

If you go searching the internet, you'll find no reference to us existing. So, as a small step to remedying this situation, I made a video for one of our early demos.

And here it is.

Also in the group: Phil Hughes and Martin Herring on guitars, Millree Hughes on bass and Peter Hewitt on drums.

Friday, 6 June 2014

They also serve

I wrote a book once about the Second World War. It wasn't very good and it sold very badly, but I enjoyed the research.

The structure of the book called for each regiment and corps in the British Army having its own short chapter and, perhaps inevitably, the most interesting stuff was about those who served in a non-combatant role - the kind of people who tend not to get much mentioned in the media's memory, but without whom the war effort would have ground to a halt.

I think there should be greater celebration of the contribution made by the Royal Army Pay Corps, for example, or the Royal Army Veterinary Corps.

Or, this being the seventieth anniversary of D-Day, the Army Catering Corps - because those who landed on the Normandy beaches would soon need feeding. Then there were those in the Pioneer Corps whose responsibility it was to unload stores, to evacuate the wounded and to bury the dead.

Nor should we forget the Army Dental Corps. Medical personnel comprised four per cent of the British forces in Normandy seventy years ago, and for every thousand men who landed on D-Day, one was a dentist. Landmines can do terrible damage to a man's jaw, and it was a key part of the dentists' job to perform emergency surgery.

Not quite as dramatic or cinematic as the image of infantry storming the beaches, but it takes a certain courage to do your work under fire when you're unarmed.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

The embers next time

A final (maybe) word on UKIP and the fallout from the European elections...

The Daily Telegraph reports a poll suggesting '86 per cent of people who voted for Nigel Farage’s party will do so again next year'. I'm not sure this is a particularly valid reading of the poll (commissioned, incidentally, by UKIP's financial backer Paul Sykes). What the poll results actually show is that 37 per cent will 'certainly' vote UKIP at the next general election, and 49 per cent said they were 'likely' so to do. I think we can assume that a fair chunk of that second group shouldn't be taken for granted.

But let's start by taking the Telegraph interpretation at face value. That would give UKIP the votes of 3.76 million people at a general election. A very impressive result, four times as large as the vote they got in 2010. And if the Lib Dem support collapses from the 6.8 million achieved last time, it might be enough to put UKIP in third place in the popular vote - though almost certainly not in number of seats.

On the basis of this poll, there are Conservative MPs and some rightwing commentators (such as Simon Heffer) suggesting that the Conservatives need to make some kind of electoral pact with UKIP.

This would be a mistake for UKIP. The point of a third party in the British electoral system is to provide a repository for protest votes from across the political and class spectrum. As soon as such a party does a deal with one of the two major parties, it removes a large chunk of that support. That's the problem the Lib Dems are now suffering from. All those who cast a vote for the Lib Dems from the left now feel like they were betrayed. That would have been mirrored - to a slightly smaller extent - on the right if the party had gone into coalition with Labour. Why would UKIP want to drive away those voters who want nothing to do with the Tories?

And for the Tories? A governing party doing a deal with a party that has no MPs hardly looks like a statement of strength. Heffer argues that a precedent exists with the relationship between the Conservatives and the National Liberals in 1951, but it's not very convincing. Apart from it all being a long time ago, in a different political world, the Tories were then in opposition, and the National Liberals had sixteen MPs to bring to the feast. Oh, and the Conservative Party was led by Winston Churchill - the electorate didn't believe for a second that he was a dog that any tail would wag. To put it mildly, David Cameron is not as convincing a leader.

Some sort of electoral deal between the Tories and the Lib Dems is possible, but not between the Tories and UKIP. Which, despite all their denials, leaves the latter as a passing protest.

In the excited heat of the moment, comparisons are being made in some quarters between UKIP and the SDP/Liberal Alliance three decades ago. But the Alliance got around 7.5 million votes in 1983 and in 1987. That's well out of reach. Here's my guess for the 2015 election. UKIP will get around 2.5 million votes and fewer than five MPs (quite possibly none at all).

Monday, 26 May 2014

I blame the BBC

As UKIP win a European Parliament seat in Scotland, Alex Salmond criticises the London-centric BBC for giving the party publicity north of the border, and thereby encouraging people to see that there might be an alternative.

Meanwhile, commentators from Janet Daley to Rod Liddle berate the London-centric BBC for not understanding the depth of feeling that produced a strong UKIP vote.

The tide is high

So that's the election to the European Parliament pretty much done and dusted for another four years. The final results from Scotland and all of those from Northern Ireland have yet to come in, but they're not going to make much difference to the UKIP vote, which turns out to be around 4.35 million people, pretty much where I said they should have been.

This is the important figure: not the share of the vote, but the raw number of voters. Because, while many, many more people will turn out for each of the three main parties in a general election, this is high tide for UKIP - if you didn't vote for them last Thursday, you're unlikely to do so next year.

Unless, of course, the party changes radically. If UKIP is to get any further, it's going to have to make greater inroads into old Labour territory. And that probably means thanking Nigel Farage for all he's done, but telling him that he's gone as far as he can. A bit like Ian Holloway, he might get you promoted to the Premier League, but he won't keep you there. Or you could see him as the Moses of politics, the man chosen to lead his people back to their promised land but destined not to take the final step himself. But that's a tad heroic, as a comparison.

In any event, it's time for Farage to lay down his burden. UKIP needs to change if it's to mean anything. Now if they could recruit Alan Johnson and make him leader...

Just as a postscript, it's a pleasure to see erstwhile Mail Online blogger, Janice Atkinson-Small, elected as a UKIP MEP. At last, one of the great heroes of this blog is to get a decent income from the state.

Friday, 23 May 2014


It's 'a political earthquake', according to Nigel Farage. Well, er, up to a point. As I write this, not all the results have been declared in the local council elections, but the majority are in. And of the 2,886 seats announced so far, UKIP have taken just under five per cent of them. Not really time just yet to go back to your constituencies to prepare for government.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Vote, vote, vote for Nigel (Barton)

I love election day. Even when it's only for members of the European Parliament, an occasion that's always spoiled a bit by not getting the results until the following Sunday.

So I've been out to do my voting and was somewhat surprised to find that there were other parties putting up candidates apart from UKIP. Judging by the coverage in the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph (the two papers I read most frequently), I had thought this was a one-horse race, but it turns out that other people fancy their chances as well.

Last time round, in 2009, UKIP got around 2.5 million votes in the Euro-elections. The BNP got nearly 1 million, most of which - I assume - are now available, while many of the 2 million who voted LibDem (when that party was still in opposition) will also be looking for somewhere else to register a protest. Combined with the blanket media coverage, that means that UKIP should be very disappointed if they fall short of 4 million votes today; and they should be getting around 4.5 million.

And that, I suspect, is going to be their highpoint in their current form. If you don't vote UKIP this time, you're unlikely to do so at a general election next year. There's a chance that they might hit 30 per cent of the vote today, but on a general election turnout the same number of voters would produce around 14 per cent. And even that's optimistic.

Not that UKIP are irrelevant or unimportant. It seems to me that Nigel Farage is asking some very pertinent questions. It's just that UKIP don't have the answers. And nor, unfortunately, do any of the other parties, which is why they're so desperate to shout 'racist' in the hope that the questions aren't heard. This won't work. It will quite possibly restrict the possibility of UKIP support growing any further, but it leaves the problems untouched.

At the heart of those problems, the issue that resonates most strongly is quite clearly not Europe but immigration. And, for those who would like to see a Left alternative in Britain, the question that needs answering is: what benefit does the presence of large numbers of, say, Polish workers in the country bring to the British working class?

The typical Left response is that this is the wrong issue, that it's low wages, bad employment practices and underinvestment in social infrastructure that should really be the focus. Which may well be true, but isn't an answer; it's just telling people that they don't understand their lives well enough to ask the right question.

Nor is it an answer to say that we should celebrate the social diversity brought by immigration. Unless, of course, you can then point to the specific contribution made by those Polish workers. (My apologies for singling out Poles, by the way: it's intended merely as a shorthand, which is how I hear it being used by many of those who are discontented with mainstream politics.)

The real issue for the Left is why it's a rightwing party that's attracting the protest votes of the dissatisfied. The standard allegation is that UKIP are exploiting people's fears, which merely raises further questions: Is 'exploit' the correct word, or should it be 'articulate'? Is it fear or dislike?

We've been here before, of course. In fact we've been here for the last fifty years, and the tactic has always been to stifle dissent. 'Every year the head office gets a lot of resolutions for the union's annual conference from branches all over the country which are stongly colour prejudiced,' a TGWU official noted in 1968. 'The senior officers see to it that none of them comes up in debate.' The same year, Jeremy Isaacs, then a producer on Panorama, admitted: 'Television programmes deliberately underplayed the strength of racist feelings for years, out of the misguided but honourable feeling that inflammatory utterances could do damage.'

The significance of those comments coming in 1968 was that that was the year of Enoch Powell's 'rivers of blood' speech. Isaacs added: 'The way feelings erupted after Enoch Powell's speech this year was evidence to me that the feeling has been under-represented on television, and other media.'

Powell's last contribution to British politics came in 1993 when he spoke on behalf of Alan Sked in the Newbury by-election. The man deputed to give him a lift to and from the constituency on that occasion was Nigel Farage. So inspired was Farage by Powell's arguments during their journey that he resolved to dedicate himself to a career in politics. Two decades later, and he seems to be doing alright for himself.

The fact that we seem to be going round and round the same issue decade after decade might be perceived as being a little depressing. So, to end on a cheery note: a fortnight after the 'rivers of blood', a poll found that 74 per cent of the British population supported Powell's views on immigration. If that were still the case, then Farage would be doing a whole lot better than he is.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

He's your yesterday man

What a pleasure it was to hear Nick Griffin again on Radio 5 Live this morning. I'd forgotten he was still with us, indeed that he's still an MEP (for another week at least).

If dictionaries could talk, their definition of a busted flush would sound just like Griffin did today. Hard to remember how big a bogeyman he was just five years ago, when the BNP were on the rise.

As one might imagine, there was no attempt on the part of Nicky Campbell to conceal his loathing of Griffin in the interview (and I use the word loosely), but it felt a bit like kicking a blind beggar. The BNP thunder has long since been stolen by UKIP, and Griffin was just flailing wildly as he sinks into irrelevance.

One of the few points he managed to get in, during his allotted three minutes, was a claim that the BNP's poll ratings had gone up after he appeared on BBC One's Question Time in 2009. Having just checked, it's clear that he's not entirely lying, though there is an element of exaggeration.

Which reminded me of Nigel Farage on Question Time last week. That appearance provoked complaints on Twitter and elsewhere about how much airtime the UKIP leader was getting, but the reason for that was simple: all the other panellists had decided to gang up on him. Just as they did against Griffin five years ago. And if the response to someone as personally unappealing as Griffin was to increase his poll ratings, what is the likely effect when the same tactic is applied to Farage?

It seems that no one learns. If a fringe politician makes as his central appeal a claim to be against the establishment, then it does him no harm at all when the establishment behaves in such a way as to demonstrate that point for him on national television.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Unsafe in his hands

I've said here before that I've never believed Ed Miliband was capable of winning the next general election. I still don't believe he will. And part of the reason for that belief is contained in his much heralded big speech on the NHS yesterday.

Firstly, it's not a good sign that - a week before European and local elections - Miliband feels the need to scurry back to Labour's comfort zone of the NHS. It's got nothing to do with this round of elections.

And then we come to what we might politely refer to as the substance of his speech. There was the usual flim-flam about how the NHS isn't safe in Tory hands. ('Some of you might remember what it felt like in the 1980s,' he said, as though he were talking to pensioners about the blitz - it wasn't that long ago, for pity's sake.) Then he got on to his concrete proposals, of which there were three:

1) Some old people hurt themselves in falls, but we can prevent this from happening by installing grab-rails in their homes.

2) Under a Labour government, there would be 'a guaranteed GP appointment for all within 48 hours'.

3) There will be a reduction in competition within the NHS, a scaling back of consultancy costs and a repeal of the NHS and Social Care Bill - all of which will save 'at least £100 million'.

So them's the big ideas then. To take them in reverse order:

The budget for the NHS in England alone is roughly £100 billion. The projected savings amount to 0.1 per cent.

It would be nice to see a GP when you actually want to see them, but in my anecdotal experience, no one I know has had any satisfaction from seeing a GP in years. Lord knows what they learn during those long years of study, but over the last decade they seem to have turned into little more than receptionists and the best you can hope for is a referral to someone else. I'd be more impressed by a promise to improve the service that was on offer. Even an assurance that during a consultation your GP looked at you, rather than at a screen, would be a start.

On the other hand, the grab-rail promise is a surefire winner. It's a terrific idea. As good today as it was when Miliband first came up with it two months ago.

So, having abandoned any of the issues that he should be talking about in the run-up to the elections next week, this is the best that Labour can come up with. Truly it's pitiful.

But of course, this isn't the real reason why Miliband won't win a general election. This is just a symptom. The main problem is that ever since, oh about 2010, it's been impossible to see where the new voters were going to come from. Labour hit a level of support in the polls that seemed to stand no chance whatsoever of going up.

Miliband doesn't look even vaguely like a prime minister. He still doesn't even look like the leader of the opposition. To overcome that, he needs to present a really serious alternative, and this ain't it.

Monday, 12 May 2014

What I did on my holidays

There was a long gap between my last two posts here, but I wouldn't want anyone thinking I've been entirely idle. Apart from doing my various day-jobs, I've also been writing a book on the story of the Last Post bugle call, due out later this year And the early indications are that it's one of my better efforts. I think.

John Smith - twenty years on

Twenty years on from the death of John Smith, on 12 May 1994, and it's almost as though he never existed. Admittedly he was the leader of the Labour Party, in opposition, for only just under two years, and served in cabinet - as trade secretary - for barely six months, in the dying days of Jim Callaghan's government in the 1970s. But he was a significant figure and deserves a higher standing than I think he currently enjoys.

When Smith took over the Labour leadership from Neil Kinnock in the aftermath of the disastrous 1992 general election defeat, much of the talk among commentators and politicians alike was that Britain might very well be turning into a de facto one-party state, on the model of Japan or Mexico. As the newly elected Labour MP Tony Wright put it: 'We live in a dominant party system, where political changes occur through shifts in the dominant party.'

John Major had just won the Conservatives' fourth victory in succession, despite the country being in the pits of a recession that could hardly be blamed on anyone else, and the likes of Giles Radice were asking, perfectly seriously: 'Can Labour ever win?'

By the time Smith's leadership was cut short by his heart attack, that talk seemed a long way distant. Opinion polls had Labour with a twenty-point lead over the Tories, and were showing that nearly 80 per cent of the electorate agreed with the statement 'Labour is a much more moderate and sensible party than it used to be'. He had changed the party, and the public perception of the party, leaving a perfect legacy for his successor, Tony Blair. Victory in the next general election, whenever it came, was certain.

Some of this was due to Smith's own persona and politics. He was a mix of the old right and the mainstream left in the Labour party. On the one hand, he had, in 1971, joined Roy Jenkins in rebelling against the party whip, siding with Ted Heath's government in the vote to join the European Economic Community (as we used to call it). On the other, he had remained in the party a decade later, when Jenkins and others split to form the SDP. Asked why he hadn't defected, his answer was simple and revealing: 'I am comfortable with the unions.'

And that felt about right. He seemed quite comfortable generally: unflappable, reassuring and convivial. He was unmistakeably part of the Labour movement, but couldn't be painted as an extremist. He gave the appearance of speaking common sense; to quote Tony Wright again, he had 'the great gift of making ideological declarations sound like a request to call and rad the gas meter'.

He could also, despite the contented image, be a radical thinker. The party was reformed on his watch, not simply by reducing the power of trade union leaders, but also by introducing all-women shortlists. On a wider stage, I was particularly taken by his call for the remaking of the United Nations Security Council, suggesting that it be expanded to include ten permanent members, with the addition of Germany, Japan, India, Brazil and Nigeria. (Though I always felt the Arab League needed to be included as well.)

In a nice tribute to Smith, published today in the Guardian, John McTernan argues - I think correctly - that he would have been a successful prime minister. He wouldn't have won such a big majority in 1997 as did Blair, but he would have made far better use of it. McTernan suggests he would have gone on to win a second term and, having refused to join America in the invasion of Iraq, a third.

I'm not quite so sure about that last bit. He would have been in his mid-sixties by then, and I suspect pressure from the next generation would have persuaded him to stand down before attempting a third election. There were some notably disloyal members of that generation - primarily Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson - who took great delight in plotting and in undermining those with whom they didn't agree. Indeed even during Smith's brief tenure, there was a lot of talk about a potential coup by Brown and Blair to oust him from the leadership.

But all this praise shouldn't obscure the one great failing of Smith.

Apart from his own personal virtues, the other reason why he made such extraordinary progress in the polls after 1992 - and one of the reasons why the Conservatives haven't won an election since then - was Black Wednesday, when Britain was forced out of the ERM. This gift for an opposition landed in Smith's lap within a month of him taking over the leadership. The Tories' reputation for economic competence (which had somehow, miraculously, survived two massive recessions) was severely damaged and is only now recovering. John Major, claimed Smith, had become 'the devalued prime minister of a devalued government'.

But Smith himself had been on the same side of that argument as had Major. As shadow chancellor, he had been an enthusiastic cheerleader for the ERM. He was wrong. And it was quite a big thing to have been wrong on - probably the most important policy decision of the time.

Worse still, he gave no indication of recognising that he had been wrong. His enthusiasm for the European project - going all the way back to that vote in 1971 - overrode other considerations, and it's hard to avoid the conclusion that, had he been elected prime minister, he would have made the same mistake again, but on a larger scale. Under a government led by John Smith, Britain would almost certainly have been in the first wave of countries joining the single currency.

Which, ultimately, is why, in John Smith, the Labour Party chose the wrong man to succeed Neil Kinnock. The right choice - as I've claimed here before - was the only other candidate in the leadership election, Bryan Gould. For an account of how that would have turned out, can I direct you to the Inane Ramblings of a History Graduate.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Clegg-Farage - The View from the Stalls

I was in the studio audience for the BBC's Nigel Farage vs Nick Clegg debate this evening. It was an irritating and disappointing experience.

To start with, even by TV standards, the arrangements were self-important. We had to be there for 4.30 pm, two and a half hours before kick-off. Nothing happened in that period except for an absurd level of security. An old man was being given grief because the number on his driving licence had a digit different to the number he'd given when contacted by the silly marketing company who were handling the tickets.

So I was far from gruntled even before we started. I was slightly cheered up by the soundcheck, when the two protagonists were asked what they'd done today. Clegg looked smug as he namedropped that 'actually' he'd met Bill Gates. Farage said he'd failed to live up to his attempt at self-discipline: he tries not to drink till 6 o'clock, but he yielded to temptation and went to the pub at lunchtime.

But then I got annoyed again by the debate itself. I want to believe in the European Union. I want to be convinced that Britain should remain a member. But Clegg, as the most Europhile party leader in the country, has nothing to say except for childish jibes at Farage for being out-of-date and for daring to voice a dissident argument on the Ukrainian crisis.

Clegg says that being in the EU makes us 'richer, stronger and safer'. As opposed to that poverty-stricken, weak, terrorist-infested Switzerland, presumably.

Asked about the philosophical underpinning to his support for the EU, Clegg can offer us only 'jobs, jobs, jobs'. Is that really it? That's not philosophy. That's not a belief. I know there's an economic argument to be made, but if that's all there is, then we might as well give up and leave the EU. It needs something more than that to justify the pooling of sovereignty. (I'm trying to be reasonably neutral in my language.)

Clegg repeats that we have to have a seat at the table if we're going to shape the future of Europe. But we've been a member for over forty years. It's time to point to our achievements. What have we done in all that time to shape Europe? How is the EU different because of our membership? What use have we made of our seat at the table?

I don't know the answers to those questions. And Clegg didn't tell me. Perhaps he doesn't know either. And perhaps that's because we've actually achieved sod all. If so, then maybe we've been wasting our time all these years.

Then there were the bits where Clegg was deliberately lying. He says that being in the EU means that we can negotiate trade deals as part of a big economic power bloc. But if we leave the EU, we'd have to negotiate new deals with each of the 27 member nations. What? They'd stop negotiating as a bloc if we left?

Farage claims that our imports from the EU exceed our exports to the EU and that therefore they'd be keen to do a deal if we left. Clegg's response is that 50 per cent of our exports go to the EU, but only 7 per cent of their exports come to Britain. That's not comparing like with like. That's apples and eggs.

Why is Clegg dissembling and trying to mislead? Is it because the case for Europe is so weak that all he has in his locker are ad hominem attacks on Farage and lies? I hate to think so, but I fear it may be the truth.

I learnt something this evening. I went in wanting to be enthused about Europe. I came out feeling (yet again) that Farage is a likeable buffoon who has some reasonable questions. Sadly, I didn't hear a single answer from Clegg. And he's the one who supports the EU. Piss poor.