Archive for the ‘party politics’ Category

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Commentary: Bagehot on the ‘history wars’

5 October 2009

A recent article from the Economist‘s Bagehot on the history wars among British politicians prompted me to ponder the use of history as a stick with which to beat one’s political opponents.

It’s hard to disagree that hearkening back to past failures is, as Bagehot puts it, ‘a comforting kind of displacement activity….less a way of understanding the future than avoiding it‘. Watching Prime Minister’s Question Time during the Blair years was rather like playing a drinking game, preparing a shot glass in anticipation of the first mention of ‘the shambles we inherited from 18 years of Conservative Government’ or some iteration on that phrase. At some point around 1999 (possibly even earlier), the phrase lost whatever meaning it might have had, and became an almost expected part of Question Time regardless of who was facing the Prime Minister on the Opposition benches. Good for at least one shot in the PMQs drinking game, if nothing else.

I suspect that much of the impetus for the ‘history wars’ comes from New Labour’s own attempts to reinvent itself and distance itself from the problems of the Wilson and Callaghan years, as Anthony Seldon and Kevin Hickson’s collection of articles and essays suggests. Unfortunately, this insistence on disavowing the past seems to have left Labour without much to stand on except its current record, and the Tories aren’t much better when it comes to facing down the demons of the Thatcher and Major years, especially on questions related to Europe. History does make a very good stick for beating one’s opponents, but more often than not it ends up being like the magic cudgel in the Brothers Grimm fairytale that will spring out of its sack and start hitting anyone in sight, indiscriminately, until the right command is found to stop it. At the moment, it seems, no one’s figured out how to make it stop.

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Clem Attlee by Francis Beckett and Alec Douglas-Home by D.R. Thorpe

18 September 2009

Another pair of book reviews originally written for Political Studies Review. In the interests of keeping the article intact as written, I’ve left the two book reviews together.

Clem Attlee by Francis Beckett and Alec Douglas-Home by D.R. Thorpe

The “Great Statesmen” series released by Politico’s Publishing has produced new paperback editions of Francis Beckett’s biography of Clement Attlee and D.R. Thorpe’s biography of Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Both biographies examine career politicians who remain little-known and less-understood figures in post-war British political history, and seek to show why these two men, of all their contemporaries, were amongst the few chosen to hold the office of prime minister.

The Beckett biography of Attlee regrettably falls short of the mark. The first sign of the book’s shortcomings is Beckett’s insistence on referring to Attlee as ‘Clem; throughout — in spite of his own admission that Attlee himself likely would not have approved of such familiarity. This early warning is borne out by Beckett’s tendency towards conjecture and speculation about Attlee’s thoughts and intentions. Statements such as ‘It may have been — almost certainly was — a decision [Attlee] subsequently regretted’ (95) tell the reader very little about Attlee’s way of thinking while revealing rather too much about his biographer’s opinions. And Beckett has no shortage of opinions on Attlee’s fellow politicians, particularly those who at one point or another were not on Attlee’s side—Ramsay MacDonald is a ‘cruel fraud’ (75), Herbert Morrison ‘trusted no-one and loved power’ (121), and Hugh Dalton had ‘neither the glory of being considered above plotting, nor the success which attends effective plotters’ (203). The lack of footnotes makes it all but impossible to test the veracity of Beckett’s opinionated claims, and the bibliography consists solely of a few paragraphs mentioning some of the relevant Public Records Office files and a brief list of memoirs and secondary sources.

Beckett also glosses over several unpleasant aspects of Attlee’s leadership and his tenure as prime minister, such as the chaotic effects of the 1945–51 Labour Government’s policies towards India, Palestine, and Northern Ireland and the vicious infighting over his succession that kept Labour in Opposition for nearly 15 years. Beckett does not even wholly succeed in his attempt to disprove the generally accepted ‘myth of insignificance’ (ix) that surrounds Attlee to this day; without tangible, solid evidence that can be backed up by other scholarship, Attlee still seems much the ‘accidental’ prime minister that Hugh Dalton once claimed he was.

Beckett clearly writes with love for his subject, and the sections of Clem Attlee that focus on Attlee’s domestic life and family relationships are treated with warmth and affection. Attlee’s close relationship with his elder brother Tom, a conscientious objector who went to prison rather than fight in World War I, receives particular care and attention. Even so, the overall effect produced by Clem Attlee is a cross between a hagiography of Saint Attlee of Stepney and collection of fond reminiscences about an eccentric old uncle — neither of which is suitable for a serious biographical study of a prime minister. For a more scholarly and objective examination of Clement Attlee’s life, Politico’s might have done better to reprint either Trevor Burridge’s 1985 biography or Kenneth Harris’s 1995 biography. Either would have been a more fitting choice for the Great Statesmen series.

D.R. Thorpe’s Alec Douglas-Home, by contrast, provides a far less worshipful account of its subject’s life and career. Thorpe is particularly careful with his manner of addressing his subject, if only because keeping track of the many names by which Douglas-Home was known in his lifetime is no small task. Lord Dunglass MP became the Earl of Home upon his father’s death in 1951, then became Sir Alec Douglas-Home MP after disclaiming his peerage in 1963, and then Lord Home of the Hirsel after receiving a life peerage in 1975 — and Thorpe allows the changing names to illustrate the many changes in Douglas-Home’s life over the course of his political career.

Thorpe had unparalleled access to the Home family’s private papers, and the depth and scope of the biography reflect the extensive research and interviews he conducted with Douglas-Home’s colleagues and contemporaries. Alec Douglas-Home was once described as the sort of young man of aristocratic lineage who, in an earlier century, would have been prime minister before the age of 30, and Thorpe does not shy from depicting his subject as a consummate politician who had been raised with the belief that a life in politics was the noblesse oblige of his class. Indeed, the account of the circumstances surrounding Douglas-Home’s selection as Harold Macmillan’s successor shows Douglas-Home’s political acumen, though it is unfortunate that Thorpe does not fully emphasise the sheer calculated ruthlessness by which Douglas-Home outmanoeuvred his rivals for the premiership. Alec Douglas-Home is an enlightening and highly readable work nonetheless, written with sympathetic interest that for the most part remains as objective as one could wish for in a biography. The detailed footnotes and lists of reference materials ensure that Thorpes work will endure as a well-regarded source of information on this particular great statesman.


First published in Political Studies Review Vol. 6 No. 2 (May 2008): 221–222.
The definitive version is available at www.blackwellsynergy.com.

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British Diplomacy: Foreign Secretaries Reflect, edited by Graham Ziegner

17 September 2009

I occasionally write book reviews for other journals, and often link to them on my Publications page. Now that a few of them are past the standard twelve-month embargo period for re-posting, I can add them to the entries in this book review blog and rearrange my publications list accordingly. Please feel free to follow the link given after the review to visit Political Studies Review for more articles and book reviews in all fields of political studies.

British Diplomacy: Foreign Secretaries Reflect, edited by Graham Ziegner

In 2003, a lecture series at the London School of Economics featured five politicians who had held the position of Foreign Secretary between 1977 and 1997. The lectures are compiled in Graham Ziegner’s edited volume British Diplomacy: Foreign Secretaries Reflect, along with an introduction by Professor William Wallace and a concluding chapter on New Labour’s foreign policy by Professor Christopher Hill and Oliver Todd. Apart from serving as a compilation of this noteworthy lecture series, British Diplomacy: Foreign Secretaries Reflect provides a thought-provoking collection of opinions on the diplomatic challenges faced by Foreign Secretaries in the past three decades.

In his lecture, David Owen (now Lord Owen) examines the increasingly dominant role of the Prime Minister in foreign affairs, particularly during the premierships of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, and criticizes the effects of this dominance on the function of Cabinet government. Lord Carrington’s lecture explores the myriad, ongoing diplomatic problems that a Foreign Secretary must face in office, regardless of his or her party-political or personal interests. Geoffrey Howe (Lord Howe of Aberavon) takes a more personal look at the role of Foreign Secretary, analysing it in the context of his working relationship with Margaret Thatcher—a ‘marriage’, he says, ‘that deserves much more attention than the story of the divorce’ (p. 81). Douglas Hurd (Lord Hurd of Westwell) was Foreign Secretary during a time of great political upheavals in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and his lecture focuses on the future of humanitarian aid and intervention in the wake of the second Gulf War. Sir Malcom Rifkind closes the lecture series with a close, careful look at the oft-mentioned ‘special relationship’ between the United Kingdom and the United States, with reflections on what that relationship has meant in the past and may become in the future.

The additional chapters help to set the speeches in context — the introduction by outlining the changing role of a British Foreign Secretary in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the concluding chapter by examining the position of Foreign Secretary as held by the late Robin Cook and Jack Straw during Tony Blair’s premiership. Those who were unable to attend the LSE lectures (and even those who were fortunate enough to do so) will find this slim volume to be a simple, suitable collection of the speeches, unfettered by lengthy outside commentary on the relative merits of the speakers’ opinions.


First published in Political Studies Review Vol. 6 No. 2 (May 2008): 232.
The definitive version is available at www.blackwellsynergy.com.

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ADMIN: Diaries and Memoirs Collection Page

11 June 2009

In an effort to keep myself organised, I’ve added a new page to this blog that contains information on my collection of British political diaries and memoirs. Most of them, clearly, are from elected politicians, but I also have an interest in writings by civil servants or diplomatic officials.

I’ve been building this collection for the past few years, trying to acquire good condition volumes and the occasional signed or first edition copy. Like most collections, it’s very much a work in progress. I do have limits on how much I am willing to spend on individual acquisitions — recently, I passed up an absolutely beautiful signed first edition of Jim Callaghan’s Time and Chance because the price was a little too dear. With a little luck and persistence, though, I hope to build a fine little library in which I can take pride.

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Commentary: SPADs

17 April 2009

Reading the various articles and blog posts (such as Lord Tyler’s post in Lords of the Blog) about the Damian McBride affair, my mind keeps coming back to the use of the term ‘Spad’ (or ‘SpAd’, or however one chooses to write it) as an abbreviation of ‘special adviser’. As both a political and trainspotting anorak, I have to say that I can’t read ‘Spad’ without thinking of the railway use of SPAD: Signal Passed At Danger.

In this case, as I commented in Lords of the Blog, the trainspotting term seems surprisingly apt to describe this situation. A whole series of extended metaphors could be employed about special advisers ‘misjudging the braking distance’ — or more wicked ones that might refer to ministers or civil servants as ‘dim or dark signals’. But again, as with automatic signals, signals can be passed at danger if drivers receive explicit clearance from a signal operator (a minister, perhaps?). I wonder, would it be worth looking to the new rules and technology established by the railways after the 1999 Ladbroke Grove crash for even a hint of guidance on how to proceed with a suitable code for the SPADs in Westminster and Whitehall?

Or perhaps I’ll just go back to my line diagrams and/or book reviews, and leave the political commentary to my fellow anoraks.

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Commentary: London Review of Books articles

6 October 2008

Not really a true commentary from me, but rather links to two particularly interesting articles in recent issues of the London Review of Books.

1) From the 11 September 2008 issue, Ross McKibbin on the currently skewed ideological alignments in British politics. It ends with a fascinating thought-experiment on what a reformed three-party House of Commons might look like, even if you don’t agree with how he chooses to parcel out certain MPs.

2) From the 25 September 2008 issue, Donald MacKenzie on the importance of Libor, one of the more crucial but least understood aspects of the world’s current economic woes. Even if you’re suffering from information overload on matters financial, it’s worth reading as a well-written introduction to an often confusing subject.

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Commentary: New Labour, Bad Writing

21 July 2008

John Lanchester’s London Review of Books assessment of the recently published memoirs of Cherie Blair, John Prescott, and Tim Levy ties in rather neatly to a post I made a few months ago about the unsettling similarities between John Prescott and George Brown.

I’ve been looking into the history of political memoirs, focusing at the moment on the National Archives files regarding the legal squabblings that surrounded the publication of Richard Crossman’s diaries in the mid-1970s. Crossman claimed, before he died, that the purpose of publishing his memoirs was to expose the secretive inner workings of government and give the reading public a more realistic view of the everyday life of a Cabinet Minister. (This he certainly did, in what Cabinet Secretary Sir John Hunt shudderingly called a ‘blow-by-blow account’ of everything from dissention during Cabinet meetings to rows within Crossman’s private office.) Crossman almost assuredly sought to one-up Harold Wilson, whose The Labour Government, 1964-1970: A Personal Record was rushed to press in 1971 in hopes of earning its author a bit more money to support the lifestyle (i.e., the political staff) to which he had become accustomed as Prime Minister. But when Crossman was diagnosed with cancer, the publication of his diaries became a good deal more pressing a concern to him — and after his death, his executors (including Michael Foot) took up the call to ‘respect his final wishes’ and see the diaries into print.

I’m still pondering various opinions about whether the publication of the Crossman diaries has done more good than harm, but there’s one thing that certainly sets Crossman apart from most of his literary successors. With the possible exception of Alan Clark (who published one volume of diaries during his life and provided enough material for two more volumes after his death), most of the flood of political diaries and memoirs that have come on the market since the 1970s are by authors who are still alive; some are even still in office, or not very long out of it. The incentives to rush out a self-justifying memoir are even greater now that so many of them are on the market, if only to get the jump on any other colleagues (or enemies) who might have a book of their own ready to go. But I’d imagine that there’s something oddly unsatisfying about attempting to respond to posthumous diary or memoir, like Crossman’s. It’s too final, somehow — like getting into an argument over the telephone and then having the person at the other end suddenly hang up on you when you’re in mid-sentence. To paraphrase a comment supposedly made by a disgruntled Harold Wilson during a Cabinet meeting in the middle of the Crossman affair, ‘If any of you are looking to publish a diary, too, for God’s sake don’t die first. We need a chance to reply.’

Lanchester suggests that the memoirs in his review are as much as exercise in self-definition as they are in self-justification:

Since [the electorate] so manifestly aren’t grateful, or understanding, they feel a strong need to tell their version of their own story, to restore the complexity and inwardness to the public version of selves which, very often, exist purely as caricature.

Considering the content and tone of many of the memoirs that have been published since Crossman opened the doors, I’m inclined to agree with him.

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