A slightly shorter version of this was published in www.politics.co.uk on May 26, 2016 This version has all the origninal zingers.
The Leave campaign has conclusively lost the opening battles of the EU referendum. It now has a bare month to win the war.
It needs very quickly to find a new reason to appeal to voters who normally vote Labour or otherwise line up on the left side of the political spectrum. So far the Leave campaign has offered them almost nothing. It has been beset with factional fighting and ego tripping and the dominant messages are those of the Tory Right.
This is especially and fatally true on the economy. Vote Leave and what do you get? The main answer voters hear is gaining a fanatical free-market government like Mrs Thatcher’s on steroids. This government would leave Big Business free to ignore the EU’s noble efforts to protect women and workers and health and safety and the environment and cute animals with big eyes. This is a free gift for Labour’s Remainers. It makes it all too easy for them to drum up support for an EU whose policies have brought mass unemployment to member after member.
Even without this problem, it is a mistake for Leave to concentrate on the economy. This is a battlefield chosen by the enemy. The economic benefits of leaving the EU are inevitably uncertain. We honestly cannot tell where the British economy will end up after we leave. But the economic penalties (with the help of unscrupulous lying) can be made to seem real and terrifying – and the Remain campaign can wheel out an inexhaustible supply of political, business and media grandees to say so. The Leave campaign can call on some big names of its own but many of them are box office poison to Labour supporters (not many hedge fund owners on our side of the barricades). Anyway, Leave can never win a war of endorsements. It will always be outnumbered by Remain, if only because so many grandees derive power or income or profit from the status quo – or even direct subsidy from the EU.
So why not turn the Leave campaign into a voter insurgency against those very grandees? Make the referendum a judgement on the way they have run our country. Turn a Leave vote into a demand for something better.
Remain’s grandees are led by the last four British Prime Ministers – Cameron, Brown, Blair and Major. They have all told the British people it is essential for them to remain in the EU – although two of them, Brown and Major, had their greatest success by keeping Britain out of key EU policies.
Also urging us to Remain is the political, administrative and business establishment which held the levers of power and influence behind those four Prime Ministers. With occasional changes of figureheads and slogans, the Remainers have given our country its rulers for the last 25 years. The EU referendum puts a simple choice to voters. Will they say thank you to those rulers, and please carry on? Or will voters look at their record and take the once-and-for-all chance to complain?
During that period our rulers gave us the Iraq war and the failed intervention in Afghanistan: hundreds of soldiers killed, thousands wounded, maimed, permanently scarred, billions of pounds spent, no national interest achieved. True, there were some dissenting politicians, but virtually none in the administrative, military and intelligence establishment. No one has paid any penalty for error and failure in these wars and our foreign and defence policies are still based on the same assumptions which led us into them.
During that period, our rulers handed our banking system to spivs or dimwits trading assets they could not value or even understand – and made us pay when they crashed it
During that period, our rulers gave us an economy dependent on colossal public and private debt, with big disparities not only in wealth and income but in opportunity and expectations. Millions of well-qualified people lost all hope of fulfilling work. Millions of parents lost the expectation that their children will enjoy a better life than themselves. Taxation became voluntary for the richest people and the biggest companies but more complex and oppressive for those unable to create fiction around their affairs. The welfare system remained an expensive shambles, maintaining a depressed underclass but continuing to penalize those who tried hardest to better themselves.
During that period, our rulers gave us an overloaded health service, drowning in debt, and in thrall to constant expensive and pointless reorganizations. Millions of older people, children and mentally ill people are routinely deprived of essential care.
During that period, our rulers tinkered constantly with the school system. Under pretence of freeing schools from the supposed shackles of local authorities they delivered schools to a centralized tyranny of arbitrary tests and targets, with illusory successes delivered by devalued exams and marking. Under pretence of increasing parental power, they reduced it. They forced more parents into desperate measures, even outright lying, to find a good school for their children. They made more and more demands on parents for money and support and tried to make them feel guilty for not providing it. They filled our schools with stressed children and teachers. Our rulers gave us a generation of schoolchildren equipped to tick boxes and less and less equipped to learn anything new, to speculate, to invent, to empathize, to communicate.
Our rulers fiddled constantly with all public services and with local government. Regardless of party label our rulers shared a misplaced faith in management science and a rooted belief that the public sector was always inferior to the private. As a result, one service after another has been battered by fatuous initiatives, stuffed with placeholders with meaningless titles babbling managerial gobbledygook, or carved up into pseudo-markets to give businesses an opportunity for monopoly profits at taxpayers’ expense. During that period, our rulers signed thousands of PFI or PPP deals in public services which were no better than expensive moneylaundering – making public finances look temporarily healthier and in reality giving them a long-lasting burden.
During that period, our rulers failed to manage or control immigration. Although our country has become dependent on immigrant labour our rulers have failed to make the British people appreciate its benefits and look down on them when they point out its downside.
During that period, our rulers created cities whose essential workers cannot afford to live in them, cities full of ugly buildings and drably uniform centres and angry frightened neighbourhoods where people do not know their neighbours. Our rulers failed to create any effective control on the consumption of any drug, legal or illegal.
Internationally our rulers still gave themselves the trappings of Britain as a great power, but in the last 25 years there is no country in the world where it has become safer for Britons to visit or work or settle – including their own. They have constantly proclaimed success in negotiations with the EU – most recently in David Cameron’s meaningless concessions – while presiding over a one-way transfer of powers from our country to Brussels. At best, they have turned Britain into the Private Godfrey of the EU – asking permission to be excused when something awful like the euro is about to happen. They prattle about reforming the EU but they have not reformed the fundamentals of the EU and they never will. Private Godfrey is not going to lead the platoon.
In spite of their dismal record on issue after issue, our ruling establishment over the last 25 years have become unshakeable in asserting their right to govern. They do not care very much for democracy and resent debate or criticism. Guided especially by Peter Mandelson, they have awarded themselves the right to lie or cover things up whenever they choose. They feed propaganda to their stooges in the media and know that it will be presented as fact.
They give each other jobs regardless of qualifications or success. The business leaders among our rulers demand world-class remuneration although few of them have created any world-class business. The politicians and administrators among them glide effortlessly after leaving office into lucrative roles with the special interests they were meant to regulate. They have turned public service into a waiting room for the gravy train. While still in power, they pass out public offices to supporters and sympathizers. The EU for them is a convenient extra source of patronage and a parking place for politicians in temporary eclipse.
The ruling establishment constantly insisted that their policies represent a “centre ground” which no reasonable or informed person could reject. In doing so, they minimized the differences between all the mainstream parties. English politics (the ruling establishment actually lost control of Scotland) became a set of dogs fighting for the same lamp post. For a short time it seemed that Jeremy Corbyn would offer a real alternative. But on the EU, this resolution collapsed. He followed the Blairite pack in his party and raised his leg obediently when it was his turn.
Voting Remain entails a vote of confidence in this ruling elite and their record. It means accepting that the next 25 years will be pretty much the same as the last.
Voting Leave means rejecting them and seeking something different. It means taking a chance. There is no guarantee at all of a better future after we leave. Securing it will require a mighty effort, which may be beyond our new rulers. But the British people might just decide that a 10 per cent chance of something new might be better than a 100 per cent chance of more of the same.
One of the joys of being Luke Upward’s official biographer is that I sometimes uncover new information about the life of England’s premier but often elusive man of letters.
I recently discovered that Upward was a diplomatic correspondent in the 1980s, for the influential Noticias Esquitas do Sāo Tomé e Príncipe, while also contributing to Sirius, journal of Thinking Dogs For The Stupid, the charity founded by Beppo the Wonder Dog.
For reasons now unfathomable the two organs sent Upward to a Commonwealth leaders conference in Australia. Upward arrived in time to catch the arrival of Pakistan’s military ruler, General Zia ul-Haq. Recognizing the Terry-Thomas lookalike at a glance, Upward remarked “Ah, I see that General Zia’s here.”
At that stage of his rule, the General was accompanied constantly by a confidential adviser who guided his every decision, an eminence so grise that no one ever discovered his name. Upward saw this man scurry to his master and he commented “Ah, I see the man who has General Zia’s ear’s here.”
The eminence was in his turn guided constantly by a mystic with the purported gift of second sight. Upward noticed this figure come in and noted “Ah, I see the man who has General Zia’s ear’s seer’s here.”
The mystic was clearly beginning to feel the heat and in need of a drink. The Australian hosts seemed to be serving nothing but lager, forbidden to the mystic for religious reasons. However, Upward noticed that a kindly waiter had found the mystic a non-alcoholic version of the amber nectar, which he swallowed in a grateful gulp. This gave Upward the chance to announce: “Ah, I see the man who has the man who has General Zia’s ear’s seer’s near-beer’s here.”
Upward’s despatches were sent in a code so unbreakable that they never appeared in either organ.
Published in the Observer May 8, 1983
My day begins by reading the Man’s mail. It starts with five lunatics and Labour’s National Executive. A box of slides. Letters of anguish: five people want the Man to save the world and 40 want him to save the baby seals. A lady wants him to wear darker suits on TV. Three invitations to lunch. One says feel free to bring his political adviser, and I write “Accept this one” on it in red pencil. An old man urges him to reduce estate duty, which he abolished as Chancellor. An air letter from Hong Kong: five paragraphs of gnomic Eastern wisdom signed “A Faithful Fool”. A clutch of requests for a signed photograph.
Invitations to speak. Newcastle cannot get enough of him. Two nice letters from children (one with drawings). A stack of letters about foreign parts from pressure groups. The phrases merge: fascist repression, continuing crisis, hypocritical silence of the British government, demand for a clear statement by the party, by the Man. Multinationals. Arms sales. Liberation forces. Destabilization. Unity of democratic and progressive forces. Terror. Massacre. Refugees. Starvation. Disease. All over the world the four horsemen are saddling up.
Some heavy steps in the corridor. The door crashes open. Some hummed vaudeville music on a rising beat: Yah-Dah-de-Dah-dah-DAH. Arms flung aloft to greet the applause for the star of the show.
The Man gazes at me, puzzled. After all, I have worked for him for only 18 months. With a mighty effort of memory he says “Oh, Richard. Good.” Genuine, pleased surprise that I should be at his disposal. Pennies from Heaven.
The Man moves to his desk. The huge EIIR briefcase thuds down beside the stack of mail. “I was brilliant on TV last night.”
“You were rude and omniscient, as usual.”
“I called Howe a sado-monetarist.” He looks at the mail. He reaches at once for the slides. He opens the box and gobbles the contents, holding each slide to the light with intermittent noises of pleasure. One slide holds his eye. He is almost transfixed. I can just make out the subject, a grandchild holding a small bird.
Reluctantly he puts the slides away. “Anything in the mail?”
“Do we have a spokesman on baby seals?”
“Yes. I’ve checked. We are strongly for baby seals.”
“Good. Can you draft me a reply?”
He riffles through the rest of the mail. He gives a running commentary: “that’s old Tom… I took that up with Willie… we tried that when we were in office…” Then he starts to do his mantra. He says in a faraway voice “That goes there… that goes here… that I’m going to keep in my file… that one goes with me…” while shuffling papers from one folder to another. At length he achieves harmony.
Eventually I hear him say “These are for you.” The same words would announce a gift of flowers or Krugerrands. In fact he hands over a thick pile of newspaper cuttings. He has razored all of the English morning national papers, 10 journals, three foreign papers, two financial bulletins and yesterday’s Hansard. The cuttings are to file against future need. There are already three full filing cabinets. One for foreign parts: Afghanistan to Zimbabwe in permanent suspense. One for domestic and economic. One for the party. This contains one drawer labelled “Goodies” and two labelled “Baddies.”
“What have I got today?” He answers his own question by reading from his diary. “Lunch for the King of G-, Prime Minister’s Questions. Then I want to dictate to Harriet. Then I’ve got this new ambassador. The foreign affairs team. The union people. Then I’ve got to see Bugalugs.”
“Francis Pym” [Then Foreign Secretary] He peers intently at the next entry. “At 7 o’clock it says Dracula.”
The telephone rings. He answers as a Chinese laundry. “Hah-loh-er. No. He not here. This Steam Plessing Loom.” Then he puts the caller out of his misery. “Yes, it is me. You could tell by the brows. “ He listens and repeats for my benefit “Statement on Land Drainage in Wales. I can hardly wait.” He
shuts his eyes. “How many votes have we got tonight?”
“Several. They’re trying to push through a lot of clauses.”
“I have to write a major speech for that bloody Institute. I’ll fit it in somehow when we’re not voting.” He opens his eyes towards heaven. Palms upraised he says passionately “What a life! What a life, eh?”, then, complacently, “Rotten really.”
I indicate assent.
“Can you check a number of things? When did I last go to Cheshire and what did I do for Cheshire when we were in office? Remind me what were Carter’s proposals for deep cuts in nuclear weapons. Can you get me some stuff on the Health Service pay dispute? Oh, and can you look into the sea?”
“The Law of the Sea.”
Of course. He continues “I bought a superb record today.” I sit back to learn when he first bought the work on 78s and where, and with whom, and where he first heard it performed live, and with whom, and when he played the piano part and with whom, and what had happened to everybody.
Big Ben chimes and he breaks off. “I’ve got to do this King now.”
“That’s what Hamlet kept saying.” He grimaces and tells an anecdote about a former Danish statesman, whose name, and the point of the story, is pronounced like a mild obscenity. It is funny, but also a reminder. The Gang Boss tells the Bag Carrier: I make-a de jokes.
He leaves for lunch with the King. I start drafting a press release about Central America, about which he is to talk next day. I begin “Central America is a charnel house.” After some sentences I stop. The whole thing is too purple, too “literary”. The Man would never say it or release it. When he does issue a press release it will be plain and direct, a combination of insult, analysis and masterplan. I turn away and draft some routine letters for his signature. Requests for fraternal greetings to remote outposts of socialism. A reply to a clergyman about the Bomb. A nice reply to the child who sent the drawings. I remember to leave a big space at the bottom of the letter.
The door crashes open. A snatch of opera. “Dreadful lunch. I had Onslow.” He makes it sound like a sudden illness. [Cranley Onslow MP was a pompous junior Foreign Office minister]. The telephone rings. He answers in the Chinese laundry voice and then again owns up. He listens for a while, then says levelly: “No, it really didn’t happen like that at all.” He runs through the story of his darkest moments as Chancellor, which have acquired a thick layer of legend and shibboleth. He narrates the events with no attempt at retrospective heroism, no denial of responsibility. He hangs up and makes a face. “He’s a baddie. He won’t print any of that in his article.” He looks at the annunciator: “PM’s Questions.” He disappears. I look at the blank folders on my desk, and start writing some letters about baby seals. I try to make them sound friendly and determined. Why should people trust us to save the world if we cannot save baby seals?
He returns with a number of Labour MPs. They are discussing the subject he intends to raise that evening in a meeting with Francis Pym All the MPs are part of a different spectrum in the party from his own. All have invariably voted against him. They all have a great deal to say. One uses the phrase “worldwide solidarity with the toiling masses.” The Man scrawls notes and asks occasional questions. Then he says slowly “Obviously the government are just trying to please the Americans again. None of the Europeans are taking our line. The American policy is self-defeating because it forces people into the arms of the Soviets or the Cubans. Quite apart from the question of double standards on intervention,” he adds hastily as he sees the MPs preparing to speak again. “I’ll have a good go at Pym.” There are smiles and thanks.
The MPs leave. He looks at his watch. A moment of flurry, a touch of the White Rabbit. “I must get Harriet.” He telephones for her. “We can do a few letters but then I’ve got this ambassador. I know… rotten life, really.”
I hand over some of my letters. “That’s very nice,” he says about the reply to the child who sent the drawings. He draws some funny faces in the blank space at the bottom. “That’s a bit hard,” he says about the reply to clergyman about the Bomb. “I don’t really want to say anything like that. The real problems in this area…” I listen to the real problems. They are obstinately practical and political. Can one find a policy which will avoid blowing up the world, the NATO alliance or the Labour Party?
Harriet comes in. She has been his secretary for some years. She is married, with grown-up children.
“Hullo, gorgeous.” He blows her a kiss. Harriet looks harassed but chic. “You look mean, moody and magnificent.” But before he can talk about Jane Russell Harriet gives him some telephone messages, all requests for meetings or interviews. He replies successively “There are no votes in Peru… he’s an old bore… that is a very good constituency… I’ll put it to one side.”
He starts to dictate some letters. The running commentary resumes: “he’s a twerp… she’s forgotten what we did in office… they’re a bunch of baddies.” Quite frequently he says “I’ll put that to one side.” At one letter he stops dead and gives the history of the family in question for the last 25 years. At another letter he sighs, “This chap’s in a hopeless muddle. It’ll take years to sort him out,” but then he looks closely at the address and glances at the street map of the city he represents. Then, beaming, he dictates “Dear Mr -, I was sorry to hear about your difficulties but I am afraid I cannot help you since your MP is in fact Mr –, and I have sent your letter on to him. Heh-heh-heh.”
The piles of letters goes down slowly but there are still a lot left when the ambassador arrives.
The ambassador represents the Socialist Republic of M-. I introduce his Excellency to the Man. It is a “courtesy call” devoid of real diplomatic or political significance. I sit back to watch the performance. The Man rattles off several phrases in the M- language. He gives an account of his visits to M- just after the war. He asks after several M- personalities. He praises the Opera House and a blend of vodka. He quotes Marx and Engels, repeating the best jokes in German. The ambassador delivers an invitation to visit M-. The Man makes a wide gesture with both hands, expressing simultaneously the unimaginable delight of visiting M- and the hopeless odds against achieving it.
The ambassador takes his leave. By the time I return from showing him out the Parliamentary foreign affairs team have arrived to discuss tomorrow’s Foreign Office Oral Questions. They plough through the Order Paper, deciding how to intervene on any particular question, how to embarrass the Government, express party policy or “do something” for a friendly pressure group. The discussion on each question ends almost always with the same conclusion: “we’ll just have to see how it all goes, really.” They settle the world thus in 10 minutes. In another month’s time they will meet and decide to see how it all goes really again.
The telephone announce the arrival of the union delegation. They have travelled from the Man’s city to talk about some government proposals for privatisation. He has a strong constituency interest. I meet the delegation in the Central Lobby and give them a little guided tour on the way to the office. I point out various sights: statues, kings and Alan Clark. I show the delegation into the office. The Man leaps to his feet in a boxing stance. “Now then, young Sid”, and he aims a series of jabs at young Sid, who is about 60. There are equally expansive greetings for the rest. Young Sid hands over a long brief, from which he reads out highlights. The Man occasionally mutters commendations and asks questions: “the government gave no undertakings about jobs or pension rights?” Then he runs through several pages of financial projections. The proposed privatisation appears completely pointless, with no gains to competition, efficiency, investment or public revenue. He lets young Sid finish and asks the other members of the delegation to contribute in turn. They discuss tactics: lobbying, questions in the House, a short debate, use of the media, use of the House of Lords. Then they chat. He remembers details of spouses and children. They are well into reminiscences of 30 years ago when I remind him about the meeting with Pym.
He rises to his feet. Again there is a momentary flurry: where are the cuttings, the folder, the scrawled notes from the meeting with MPs? Then he says “Don’t bother. I’ve got all that stuff in my head.”
He says goodbye. I show the delegation out, making a point of apologizing that he had to go to see the Foreign Secretary. “Terrible week of meetings for him,” I continue, and drop a series of names, stopping just short of the Pope. Is it for their benefit or mine?
I am alone again. The telephone rings. It is a mad person. I promise the voice that the Man will do something about the Beast whose number is 666.
The door flies open again. He is humming “Your Feet’s Too Big.”
“I had a very good go at Pym. They really are in hock to the Americans. I don’t think Pym believes any of it. It’s She Who Must Be Obeyed.”
The Man stretches. “Bloody hell, I’m tired.” The phone rings and he answers. It is his wife: I can tell because he puts on the strangulated German voice. Then he sighs and says in a normal tone that he cannot come home, there is a series of votes, between which he will see people and write a major speech. He gestures that I am free to leave and I nod good night. I hear him say “I am now going to show my face in the Tea Room in a suggestive manner,” and then “I know… rotten life, really.”
Luke Upward could not stand the Prince de Millecrêpes, first husband of Annie Oldiron, who later married his patron, the affable Marquis de Tarpaulin, and helped him create a “big tent” for writers in their regular Friday salons where she poured out the Clicquot with considerable verve.
However, Upward was intrigued by his ancestor, the Sieur de Millecrepes, who was awarded the family circumflex by King Charles VI (the Mad) for his services at Agincourt. Even a deranged monarch (he believed he was made of glass and was terrified of being broken by his courtiers) might be expected to realize that Agincourt was a disaster. Why would he hand out orders and diacritical marks to any of his commanders?
Upward discovered that the Sieur was one of the more clear-headed Frenchmen of his time. Bearing proudly the nickname of Foie de Lys, he rode into battles on his destrier, Pegasu, subject of a ballad by the popular troubador, Boudé Auxlaits. Pegasu had been trained to gallop on the spot, and although Upward did not know it, she was the common ancestor of all the horses he backed on the racecourse centuries later. This equine skill allowed her master to create the impression of a fierce charge at the enemy while being overtaken and passing unnoticed into the rear.
The Sieur and Pegasu very soon realized that Agincourt would end in tears or even in tiers of dead French knights. Pegasu added a few bucks and kicks to her normal repertoire and soon became a back marker, defying the apparently frantic efforts of her master to urge her towards the English lines. When the first wave of English arrows flew, under the expert direction of Sir Laurence Olivier, the Sieur turned tail and Pegasu showed a hitherto unknown speed on the flat and over the jumps. The sight of the legendary Foie de Lys at full gallop inspired a band of other French knights, later immortalized as the Vol-a-Vents (in flight with the wind up). They found him, still on Pegasu, in a clearing some way from the battle, calmly filling in his bank details for his ransom from any English captor. The spectacle inspired the fleeing poltroons to rally and ask him to be their leader. They knew that Foie de Lys would know the safest and swiftest way out of Agincourt.
He took his band on a wide circle to the right of the battlefield, pausing briefly for directions at the visitor information centre, and they arrived without incident at the main road behind the English position. But there they found themselves blocked by the English baggage train. The Vol-a-Vents made ready to turn tail, but their keen-eyed commander rose to the occasion, and rallied them with the cry: “Ce sont des gosses!” (They’re only kids!) The baggage train was guarded only by teenagers displaying designer underwear, armed with a few cans of Taureau Rouge, the local energy drink which Henry V had used to pep up his dispirited army on the night before the battle. Even the quaking Vol-a-Vents realized that these would be no match for mounted men-at-arms whose weapons were still in mint condition.
The subsequent carnage is treated with revulsion in Shakespeare’s Henry V. It moves Fluellen to zeugma: “Killed the poys and the luggage! ‘Tis expressly against the laws of arms; ‘tis as arrant a piece of knavery, mark you now, as can be offert.”
However, its perpetrator, the Sieur de Millecrepes, had prudently employed his own chronicler, Pierre de Mandlespin. In his hands, the incident was re-packaged as a desperate rearguard action in which the Sieur had led a gallant band of French nobles against a rampaging mob of feral youths in clear breach of their Asbeaux. Mandlespin’s version was imposed on all the other French chroniclers with a mixture of blandishments and threats (“je connais votre rédacteur…”). Thus it reached King Charles VI. Although batty, he still knew a bit about spin himself. He knew that a decoration for a national hero would take some coverage away from the disaster at Agincourt.
That is why the Sieur de Millecrêpes acquired his circumflex which the family has sported ever since. Agincourt remained its only battle honour, but its aptitude for banking and a series of loans to cash-strapped monarchs propelled its advance from Sieur to Prince.
published in the Yorkshire Post October 5, 2015
With Denis Healey, we have lost not only a political giant but a piece of our history and our collective memory.
Born during the First World War, he fought with distinction in the Second and helped to shape the postwar world. He knew every Prime Minister since Winston Churchill, and his conversation was peppered with great contemporaries, especially American Secretaries of State. He enjoyed name-checking them in the House of Commons, and enjoyed even more giving them advice.
Although born in Kent, he had a Yorkshire boyhood and education of which he was deeply proud. As a truant schoolboy he saw Don Bradman score a triple hundred at Headingley. He served his Leeds constituents for forty years and stood by them despite many tempting international offers.
His place in history is secure. He once described himself as a clean-up man: he cleaned up defence, he cleaned up the economy and he started the process of cleaning up the Labour party.
As Defence Secretary in 1964 he inherited a mess: a nasty, undeclared war against Indonesia, unsustainable commitments, inter-service rivalries, expensive prestige projects and no coherent strategy. The war was won with minimal casualties to either side or to civilian. The prestige projects and unsustainable commitments were abandoned (sometimes painfully). Combined defence planning became a reality and Britain’s forces were given coherent and achievable missions. In 1968, not one British soldier was killed in action, a record never since repeated. For the first time since the war, the British government spent less on defence than on education – but nonetheless our forces were better equipped, better paid and better housed.
Apart from his own prodigious specialist knowledge of defence issues, Denis Healey’s policies were shaped by his wartime experience. Throughout his life he despised all politicians who went into war lightly, exultantly and without proper planning for their execution and their aftermath. His wartime service included being a beachmaster in Sicily, Anzio and Salerno – which required him to make good decisions under fire when things were going wrong.
It was good preparation for Defence, but still more so for his next job as Chancellor of the Exchequer during the almost perpetual crisis years of 1974-79. Again he inherited a mess – the quintupling of world oil prices and the domestic crisis of the three-day week. Britain was on the edge of hyper-inflation. The outgoing Heath government announced itself incapable of governing and then had the cheek to ask the British people to re-elect it.
To meet this multiple crisis (in a government with a tiny majority or none at all) Denis Healey became the hardest-working Chancellor of modern times. For good or ill, he made more policy decisions and introduced more economic measures and packages than any other. His diary, usually rich and informative, became terse: “terrible day… sterling crisis… bloody tired.”
By autumn 1978 he had an economy ready to display to the voters. Inflation falling month after month and employment rising (without statistical manipulations), public finances restored, debts to the IMF paid off ahead of time and rising living standards, especially for poor and disabled people. Unfortunately, that proved to be the election that never was. The “winter of discontent” led to his ejection from government: Labour turmoil in opposition ensured that he never returned.
As Chancellor he was mocked for contrasting the progress of “the real economy” – the output of traded goods and services – with the vagaries of financial markets. Today, his contrast seems remarkably prescient, and for the rest of his life he called for international action to control the gigantic and unregulated flows of capital which destabilized the world economy, especially the fantasy financial products which their traders could not value or even understand.
In opposition, Denis Healey’s fate was to save a Labour party which had rejected him as leader. His campaign for that post was lacklustre and inept, but ultimately he lost because too many Labour MPs proved to be flinching cowards in search of a quiet life under Michael Foot, or sneering traitors who wanted an excuse to defect to the newly-formed SDP. Almost immediately he was forced to defend his consolation prize of Deputy Leader against Tony Benn’s challenge. Tony Benn is now a National Treasure: not so in 1981, when his campaign was one of the most selfish and destructive in British political history. It showed an equal contempt for truth and for the democratic wishes of Labour party and trade union members, and was utterly indifferent to its impact on the electorate. It was, however, well-prepared (with rules stacked in Benn’s favour), well-funded, and lavishly staffed: by contrast, Denis Healey’s lone full-time assistant was an affable amateur, a Bertie Wooster in bad need of a Jeeves.
At first reluctantly, but then with increasing passion and conviction Denis Healey beat off Benn’s challenge and saved Labour as a mainstream progressive political party. For the first time in his career, he built a personal following in the Labour movement. He even learnt to be patient with fools and bores. If he had lost, Labour would have imploded, the Liberal/SDP Alliance would have taken over as the main opposition and ultimately as the government. Without Denis Healey there would have been no New Labour, not that its creators ever showed any gratitude, since to them the world began with Tony Blair. He himself had no regard for Blair, but rated Gordon Brown a better Chancellor than himself. This was a generous assessment given that he inherited an economy near ruin and restored it to health, whereas Gordon Brown…
Denis Healey had a giant political career, yet it was almost dwarfed by his personality. He was credited with inventing the term “hinterland” of a politician – his or her interests and passions outside politics. In fact, it was coined by his beloved wife, Edna. Denis Healey had a prodigious “hinterland”, perhaps too great for his own good as a politician. Apart from the prestigious international jobs he turned down, he could have chosen to be an art historian, poetry editor (he enjoyed reciting it in six or seven languages), a music critic (and Palm Court pianist), a photographer, a book collector, a philosopher, a soldier – and an entertainer.
As much as anything he did in politics, he treasured his appearances with Mike Yarwood and Morecambe and Wise and he more than held his own with Dame Edna Everage. Even off-screen he loved performing. He regularly entered his Commons office with dance steps and dramatic chords and answered its telephone with an appallingly inept pretence of being a Chinese laundry (once to a bemused Henry Kissinger). He hammed it up in overdrive on the campaign trail, where he broke an ancient showbiz rule and had himself photographed in a pet parlour with a dog whose eyebrows were a match for his own.
In and out of politics, Denis Healey’s life was enriched most of all by his family and his partnership with a woman of singular intellect, generosity and magnetism. After 64 years of marriage, his eyes would still light up when Edna came into the room: her death in 2010 left an unimaginable void in his life.
For once, the cliché is true: we shall not see his like again. Some people still wonder why a man of such singular gifts missed out on the highest prize in British politics. Late in life, he gave the question a wry dismissal: “I would rather people wondered why I didn’t become Prime Minister than wonder why I did.”
Letter published in Sunday Times September 20, 2015
It was gracious of Peter Mandelson to admit that New Labour bears some responsibility for Jeremy Corbyn’s victory. [His article September 13, “I’m partly to blame for this mess but let’s fight back to win back Labour”]
Tony Blair led the Labour party the way Basil Fawlty ran his hotel on Gourmet Night, insulting and abusing the long-stay residents in the hope of attracting a better clientèle. He and his acolytes maintained this approach in a decade of unbroken arrogance and condescension towards party critics. Our doubts were dismissed as childish or spiteful. We were told repeatedly that New Labour’s outlook and policies were the only possible path for Labour in government and the only alternative to the Hard Left nincompoopery and electoral carnage of the 1980s.
It is especially galling to be lectured in this way by people who left frontline British politics to make money.
The guests in Fawlty Towers eventually revolted. Labour supporters have done the same.
The Rival Candidates’ Song from Membear Of Parliament
Candidate 1 (Mr Aardvark): In all my time in politics,
My friends will all agree
I never dodge the issue
I say just what I see.
That’s why I tell you firmly
(It’s what I’ve always said)
The past is now behind us
The future lies ahead.
All together: Politics, quick fix, old dogs new tricks,
Spend, spend, spend, I’m everyone’s friend.
I spin, he spins, she spins, sweep in -
No matter what you choose, we win you lose.
Candidate 2 (Ms Abacus): My friends, you know my record,
It’s there in black and white,
I’ve heard what you’ve been saying –
And you’re absolutely right.
We’ve always been together,
And I say it now with pride
Whatever is the issue
I’m always on your side.
All together: New wealth, new birth and promise the earth.
Mom’s apple pie in the clear blue sky:
I talk, he talks, she talks, de-tox -
Trust us if you choose, we win you lose.
Candidate 3 (Dr Acula): The other guys have failed us
On every policy.
We need a new beginning -
Begin right here with me.
I’ll get us moving forward
To somewhere really new.
A vote for me, I promise,
Will be a vote for you.
All together: Hope on a rope and the old soft soap
Clear belief and a clean set of teeth.
I smile, he smiles, she smiles, free style,
Smile back if you choose, we win you lose.
Anti-SNP Letter published in Evening Standard (London) 30 March 2015
It is increasingly likely that the next government will have to take office on terms dictated by the SNP, a party which treats the English as an enemy and does not want to remain in the same country. So the new Parliament must meet immediately after the election. All UK MPs could then take charge of the process of forming a new government, rather than waiting on the sidelines as they did in 2010.
Meanwhile, all London candidates, regardless of party, should refuse to commit themselves to any deal which transfers more money or power to Scotland at London’s expense.
Letter sent to seven major party leaders in Great Britain 6 March 2015
I hope that you share my belief that religious politics are a scourge to any nation. For that reason, I am asking all the leaders of the main political parties in Great Britain to make some simple pledges for the period up to the General Election:
1) Your party will not solicit financial or electoral support on religious grounds (any religion);
2) Your party will not give any form of special access to policy-making or campaigning to any religious group;
3) Your party will publicly repudiate any person or organization who solicits support for it on any religious basis (for or against any religion);
Each of these pledges should be applied at both national and local level. None would preclude your party and its candidates from answering questions from religious organizations or individuals, or taking part in open meetings organized by them.
I am writing in identical terms to all the other leaders of major parties seeking election in Great Britain, and copying this letter to the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association. I would appreciate an early reply, which I would intend to make public. I will assume from any protracted silence that your party is unable to make these pledges.
Dear Prime Minister,
Delayed publication of the Iraq inquiry report
I have written to you several times on this matter, but I would now like to give you a fresh proposal, which should allow for early publication of the major part of the Iraq inquiry’s report. It was aired by Mr Greg Mulholland MP at yesterday’s (January 27) meeting of the Commons Select Committee on Public Administration with Sir Jeremy Heywood, and is likely to attract further support at tomorrow’s (January 29) Commons debate.
The inquiry team should deliver to you a “narrative verdict” on the Iraq war, as an interim report by the end of February, that is to say a full account of all the key decisions and events in the relevant period, citing all the sources they had used as far as they were allowed. This report would not pass judgment on any individual. The British people could then draw their own conclusions from it. The Inquiry would complete the so-called Maxwellisation process and submit its final report, with its judgments on individuals, to the new Parliament after the election.
At the Select Committee meeting, Sir Jeremy suggested that Sir John Chilcot and his team might find it impossible to “disentangle” their judgments from the factual passages in their report. Respectfully, I completely disagree – assuming that the team have done their job properly, and based their judgments on the full evidence that they have studied and presented. Their report is written: they have identified the critical passages and put them into Maxwell letters. All they need to do is remove those critical passages from the report and publish all the rest. (The excisions might conceivably create some discontinuities or non-sequiturs in the report, but these should be easy to remedy). Preparing this “narrative verdict” should not be too onerous a task for the inquiry team – who currently have nothing to do but wait for Maxwellisation responses. They could be given additional temporary staff. As Mr Mulholland pointed out, this proposal would circumvent all the delays created by “Maxwellees”, whether these are reasonable or deliberately obstructive.
I believe that such a narrative verdict could be a valuable resource for British voters before the election. It could go some way to meeting the feelings of the victims of the Iraq war, who have waited so long for this report. May I urge you to commission it from the inquiry, at the earliest possible date, and then present it to Parliament for publication?