Archive for the ‘dead politicians’ Category

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The Audience (NT Live)

22 July 2016

(Cross-posted from elsewhere, considering the links to previous books I’ve read and reviewed here.)

I saw an NT Live showing of The Audience last night, in which Helen Mirren stars as Queen Elizabeth II during her weekly audiences with a number of her prime ministers, from Churchill to Cameron. (It was filmed in 2013, so unlike the recent West End revival it does not do the trick where the dialogue in Cameron’s scenes changes from week to week based on current events. Thankfully for us all.)

I greatly enjoyed it and laughed quite a lot, though the thing I was most struck by was the play’s deliberate choice to focus on illness, physical and mental, of the people in power. Anthony Eden openly takes a dose of what I believe to be dexamyl on stage shortly before his audience with the Queen, and appears to be in a tightly wound, near-manic state throughout his scene as he rants about Nasser, Hitler, and Mussolini at the height of the Suez Crisis. Gordon Brown tries to speak cheerfully and casually as he mentions his new diet and the foods he can’t eat, a direct reference to the rumours swirling in 2009 that he was taking MAOIs to combat depression. (The Queen chimes in sympathetically with an admission of OCD tendencies — ‘pens and shoes must be lined up just so, or I get very vexed‘.) And Harold Wilson’s early decline into Alzheimer’s disease has the most poignant scene at the play’s heart, where even the Queen is shocked at how her prime minister’s once-razor-sharp mental faculties are visibly crumbling into paranoia and forgetfulness. The Queen herself reveals her emotional and physical weaknesses during a scene set in 1992, where she is fighting a terrible cold and watching her children’s marriages fall apart as John Major struggles to convince her that the royal family will have to make changes to their lifestyle or risk greater public displeasure. To me, it seems a reasonable choice to use illness as the vehicle for humanizing both the monarchy and the premiership, though I was a bit surprised that Eden’s terrible physical health (following his botched gallbladder operation) and Wilson’s alcoholism weren’t mentioned as well.

Helen Mirren is a delight throughout, especially in the scenes where she converses with a younger version of herself who seems to embody her rebellious, free-spirited streak. The only scene I found grating was the one with Margaret Thatcher — though I found it difficult to tell whether I was reacting more negatively to Thatcher-as-Thatcher or to Haydn Gywnne’s interpretation of her.

It certainly helps to know something about the politics and personalities of the time, but I don’t think it’s a requirement to enjoy the production. I’m not sure how many more encore presentations it will receive, but it’s certainly worth checking out. It’s certainly prompted me to revisit sections of Peter Hennessy’s book on prime ministers, which might well be good supplemental reading for viewers of the play.

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Links: Revolts.co.uk

23 February 2010

Along with my periodic book reviews, I’ve decided to start posting brief recommendations of various Web sites and blogs I consult on at least a semi-regular basis.

I first came across Revolts.co.uk several years ago, when I was working on research into the delicate powerplay involved in the timing of renewing British oil sanctions on Rhodesia. After coming across information on how initial vote over Rhodesian oil sanctions in 1965 had caused a terrible three-way split in the Conservative Party, I became more interested in looking at backbench dissent and rebellion, and parliamentary voting behavior in general. It was wonderful to come across Revolts.co.uk and explore other instances of backbench rebellion frequency, size, and structure — and all in a way that saved me the trouble of poring over Hansard myself.

The site was in hiatus for a time, owing to a loss of research funding, but I was pleased to read in a recent Lords of the Blog post that Revolts.co.uk is back online and looking at voting patterns once again. So it’s now on my links list to remind myself to check it every so often and see what new developments have been posted. If the forthcoming General Election ends in a hung parliament, or very near to one, the site could prove very useful indeed.

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Conferences: Fiction and British Politics

4 November 2009

Though I’m heading off to the Berlin Wall conference this weekend, I already have one eye on another conference I’m slated to present at in mid-December. The University of Nottingham’s Centre for British Politics is hosting a one-day conference on fiction and British politics, and rather predictably I’m giving a paper on Yes, Minister. (For the curious, here’s the official conference flyer.)

Since my article on the impact and influence of Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister went to press before I found out about this conference, I decided to look through the rest of my research on the series to see if there was another aspect of fiction and British politics that captured my interest. And then I recalled that my earliest interest in researching the series had been sparked when I read that on 9 January 1986, when Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine walked out of Cabinet over the furore known as the Westland Affair, Margaret Thatcher spent that evening watching the first episode of Yes, Prime Minister. That juxtaposition of political fiction and political reality ended up becoming the basis for my planned paper: ‘Yes, Prime Minister and the Westland Affair: A Tale of Two Resignations’.

As it’s a one-day conference, I’m sure the whole thing will be a bit of a whirlwind. (I do wish it was longer; there’s certainly enough material on fiction and British politics to fill up several days’ worth of panels and papers and plenary lectures.) All the same, I’m greatly looking forward to it — the scheduled conference papers sound fascinating, as do the invited guest speakers. Two conferences in two months is daunting, but I wouldn’t miss either of them for the world.

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British Electoral Facts: 1832–2006, edited by Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher

3 November 2009

Another review that made it into Political Studies Review. I’m not a psephologist by nature or training, but over the years I’ve developed a certain fascination with election statistics and the study thereof. I know that I will greatly miss Peter Snow at the next General Election; the swingometer simply won’t be the same without him.

British Electoral Facts: 1832–2006, edited by Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher

British Electoral Facts has run into seven editions now, and this most recent edition compiled and edited by Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher continues to uphold the tradition of the indispensable reference book first assembled by the late F.W.S. Craig. The editors have added a new table of contents and comprehensive index to aid readers in their search through the book’s numerous tables, enabling more efficient analysis of any number of useful and esoteric electoral statistics.

The first half of the book contains results and summary data on General Elections from 1832 to 2005, including information on the voting statistics for specific political parties, data on political parties and the electorate, information on the members and prospective candidates elected, This section also includes miscellaneous statistics for General Elections, such as a table showing which constituency was the first to declare an official result in any given election (Sunderland South has held this record since 1992) or brief accounts of the weather on polling day (on 8 October 1959, for instance, voters went to the polls on a ‘dry autumn day’). The remainder of the book is divided into smaller sections on other elections held within the United Kingdom. This part includes figures on parliamentary by-elections; elections and by-elections for the European Parliament; General Election results broken down by UK region; elections for the devolved Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, and Northern Ireland Assembly; and basic results and turnout information from local government elections since around 1945. Information on referendums, electoral irregularities, and public opinion polling data from organisations such as Gallup and MORI complete the raw statistical information found in the book. A separate appendix at the back contains a half-dozen pages of election records and trivia from 1918 to 2005, such as the largest and smallest recorded majorities, record swings, and other extremes of turnout percentages and votes cast.

Most of the statistics in British Electoral Facts 1838–2006 are meant for psephologists and other researchers who take an interest in the raw numerical data produced by the polls. Yet Rallings and Thrasher have produced a neat, compact reference book which provides a wealth of information about the changing British electorate, and which is likely to remain the definitive guide to British electoral history until a forthcoming edition adds new data on elections yet to come.


First published in Political Studies Review Vol. 6 No. 3 (September 2008): 385-86.
The definitive version is available at www.blackwellsynergy.com.

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Never Had It So Good and White Heat by Dominic Sandbrook

27 October 2009

I’ve had these books for quite a while now, and finally have had a chance to pull my thoughts on them together into a single combined review. For those who might be interested in another set of opinions, David Edgar also reviewed these two books in the 7 June 2007 issue of the London Review of Books (subscription required to view the full article).

Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles by Dominic Sandbrook

When Historian Dominic Sandbrook wanted to write a history of Britain in the 1960s, he soon realised that merely covering the years 1960-1969 wouldn’t do justice to a period that refused to be confined by something as arbitrary as a set of dates. As a result, he split his work into two parts: the first volume covering 1956 to 1963 (from the Suez Crisis to Harold Macmillan’s resignation), and the second volume covering 1964 to 1970 (the span of Harold Wilson’s first Labour Government). The title of the first volume comes from a comment made by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan — not the phrase ‘you’ve never had it so good’, as it is often misquoted. The actual comment comes from a speech made in mid-1957, in which Macmillan attempted to reassure the public on the state of Britain under his new Conservative Government:

Let’s be frank about it, most of our people have never had it so good. Go around the country, go to the industrial towns, go to the farms, and you will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my lifetime — nor indeed ever in the history of this country. What is worrying some of us is ‘Is it too good to be true?’ or perhaps I should say ‘Is it too good to last?’

Macmillan’s assessment did indeed reflect the real improvement in the general standard of living. By 1956, the last official remnants of the years of austerity following World War II were finally fading. Rationing had ended, National Service was on the way out, and with unemployment figures at markedly low levels a new sense of consumer confidence translated into increased spending. And yet as Never Had It So Good presents it, Macmillan’s statement reflected the very real concerns that many people had about the changes taking place in British society in the late 1950s, in a world where many of the old political, social, and economic standards no longer seemed to apply.

For the political highlights, Sandbrook’s chapter on the events of Suez crisis is fascinating and tightly written, illustrating Anthony Eden’s sudden and steep decline from one of the more capable and experienced British politicians of his time to an ‘enraged elephant’ utterly obsessed with engineering Nasser’s downfall. Sandbrook also provides concise assessments of the 1962 Cabinet reshuffle known as the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ and the various upheavals within the long-suffering Labour Party. Never Had It So Good‘s chapters on social history cover the big developments very well, examining broad trends in drama and art and literature, the growth of teenage culture — and, of course, the rise of the Beatles and other popular music groups that profited from the new affluence. Throughout the book, though, Sandbrook constantly emphasises that the trend-setting youngsters flocking to London and Liverpool around this time were by no means the majority of the population. If anything, he attempts to push the pendulum in the other direction, suggesting that most people were far likely to go home and listen to the cozy dramas of The Archers than to any of the more esoteric productions aired by the Third Programme. Though it’s an admirable attempt at balancing out the narrative, Sandbrook seems so determined to protect his silent majority that he seems to dismiss off-hand many of the real changes that were affecting the United Kingdom at the time. The shifts in public attitudes on immigration, women’s rights, abortion and divorce, and other social issues would receive greater prominence in 1960s, but the groundwork for their changes was laid in the Macmillan years.

Never Had It So Good concludes with the various scandals that plagued the end of Harold Macmillan’s time in office, followed soon after by his resignation due to ill health and the Conservative Party’s leadership fracas from which Lord Home (shortly to renounce his hereditary peerage and become Sir Alec Douglas-Home) emerged as Prime Minister. Yet Sandbrook does not end on the sour note of the resignation — he is already looking ahead to 1964, with the Beatles at the top of the charts and the new television programme Doctor Who sending thousands of children racing to hide behind the sofa as the terrifying Daleks advanced across the screen. After almost 13 years of Tory rule, a country whose people had never had it so good were looking for the new, the fresh, and the exciting, and were preparing to vote in (by a very narrow margin) a Government whose leader promised all of those things and more, with a buoyant optimism that he hoped would be contagious. Never Had It So Good does not invite the reader to linger on the Macmillan years. Everyone, including Sandbrook, seems to be on the way to somewhere else — in this case, on to the next book.

White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties by Dominic Sandbrook

White Heat takes its title from a quotation from the Leader of the Opposition Harold Wilson, given during a speech at the 1963 Labour Party Conference. Wilson urged his fellow party members to equate Labour’s socialism with the seemingly boundless capacity of scientific progress, ready to revolutionise how Britain saw itself at home and abroad:

The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated measures on either side of industry….In the Cabinet room and the boardroom alike, those charged with the control of our affairs must be ready to think and to speak in the language of our scientific age.

Wilson’s words reflected the themes of science, progress, and revolution that were a constant background of the early 1960s. The pressure to be ‘new’ and ‘modern’ produced visible changes, as glass-and-concrete tower blocks replaced Victorian terraced housing and designers embraced synthetic materials and sleekly futuristic lines in fashion and furniture. The Labour Government, despite the slim majority with which it entered power in 1964, intended to push Britain forward to meet the challenges of the Space Age, and the public seemed quite happy to go along — for a time, at least.

Sandbrook writes a crisp political history of the 1960s, drawing heavily on published diaries and memoirs of politicians and other celebrities for good gossip and anecdotes. But when it comes to social history, Sandbrook warns readers against taking a romantic view of the period. He is of the opinion that most of the fashionable movements and trendy ideas of the 1960s lacked real permanence: the protesting students go home at the end of term, the daringly avant-garde play closes within a month, the popular new boutique shuts its doors when the losses from shoplifting and poor business management become too great. To remain popular in the music world, he suggests, even the Beatles had to move away from their cheerful clean-cut image and experiment with mysticism and drugs. Meanwhile, many people distrusted the changes taking place, fearing that immigration and the always-scare-quoted ‘permissive society’ were eroding traditional values and doing irreparable damage to the British way of life. Sandbrook chips away at the myths of a carefree Swinging Britain, focusing more on the fracture points (such as Northern Ireland and growing labour unrest) that would lead to the greater trouble and strife of the 1970s.

Though the concluding chapter of Never Had It So Good looks ahead with interest to the Wilson years, White Heat closes with a wistful look at the popularity of the World War II sitcom Dad’s Army, a symbol of the growing cult of nostalgia that Sandbrook claims is the real legacy of the 1960s. Poets like Philip Larkin and John Betjeman wrote paens to a simpler Britain of sleepy country churches and soot-covered northern towns, and the Kinks and the Beatles popularised openly nostalgic songs like ‘The Village Green Preservation Society’ and ‘Penny Lane’. Even miniskirts, one of the most iconic symbols of the Swinging Sixties, warred with ankle-length Victorian-inspired dresses in fashionable circles towards the end of the decade. Sandbrook’s melancholy message is really that Britain in the 1960s was not all that keen on change; at least, not at the speed with which it seemed to be happening. And in spite of the real advancements that was made during the decade in the women’s movement and in other broader campaigns for social progress, White Heat suggests that the decade burned itself out long before it actually came to an end.

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Dictionary of Liberal Thought, edited by Duncan Brack and Ed Randall

13 October 2009

Continuing with posts of reviews originally written for Political Studies Review. I wrote several for the September 2008 issue, so I’ll probably spread them out over a few weeks in the interests of typing up reviews for a few other books.

Dictionary of Liberal Thought, edited by Duncan Brack and Ed Randall

The Liberal Democrat History Group, as its name suggests, is a study group dedicated to historical research and discussion on the Liberal Democrats (and both the predecessor parties, the Liberals and the SDP) and on liberalism as a political philosophy in general. The Group has compiled and published several reference books on liberalism, including the Dictionary of Liberal Biography and the Dictionary of Liberal Quotations. Now, in its most recent publication, the Group has looked at the broader history of liberalism in the Dictionary of Liberal Thought, a book which claims to cover the key theorists, ideas, and organisations that have shaped more than three centuries of liberal philosophy in Great Britain.

The Dictionary of Liberal Thought is organised alphabetically, but the ideas, organisations, and thinkers included in the text have their own separate indexes for quick reference. The book’s scope is slightly broader than might be expected — the entries on individuals, for instance, include not only classical liberals such as John Locke and John Stuart Mill but also individuals who have contributed to the overall development of British liberal thought, such as John Milton and Edmund Burke. More modern ‘liberals’ given a place in the dictionary include former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, Labour MP Anthony Crosland, and academic and Liberal Democrat peer Conrad Russell. Seemingly contrary ideologies and philosophies of liberalism are likewise included; barely three dozen pages separate Keynesianism and Libertarianism, for instance. A brief summary of the key ideas and a short list of suggested further readings on the individual, idea, or organisation in question serve as the introduction and conclusion to each of the entries in the dictionary.

Liberalism has had almost as many definitions as it has had people to define it, and the changing philosophies and ideologies that have accompanied these shifting perceptions of liberalism make it a challenge to compile a concise but comprehensive dictionary on the subject. As a reference book, the Dictionary of Liberal Thought provides a single-volume resource for those who are interested in studying these changing perceptions. And even though the dictionary’s primary focus is on British liberalism, the wide-reaching range of entries may prove useful to those curious about liberalism as it developed in Europe and America.


First published in Political Studies Review Vol. 6 No. 3 (September 2008): 361.
The definitive version is available at www.blackwellsynergy.com.

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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.