‘Honoured that you are writing my father’s biography’ the late Tony Benn, ‘...wonderfully written’ Hilary Benn

‘Sparkles with fascinating detail…a remarkable story of Liberal and Labour politics in the first half of the twentieth century.’ Michael Crick, Political Correspondent, Channel 4 News

‘Casts much light both on the evolution of British radicalism, and on the legacy which he bequeathed to his son, Tony. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, King's College, London

‘Brilliant biography…wonderful reading about the father and...discovering more about the son.’ Steve Richards of The Independent

‘Well-written and carefully researched, this fascinating biography brings to life a major figure in British political history…an excellent job of weaving together the strands of a complex life…as well as filling in the background of the Benn family’ Richard Doherty, military historian

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Cameron accused of Hokey Cokey on Europe

Prime minister David Cameron has to decide whether to suspend collective cabinet responsibility over the EU referendum in a bid to keep his fractious Conservative Party together. Normally ministers must abide by cabinet decisions, even if they do not agree with them, or they have to resign. David Cameron is considering the rarely used, and not always successful, device of allowing ministers to disagree in public and even to campaign on different sides of the debate.

The device was used in 1932 when the Liberal members of the National Government reached an ‘agreement to differ’ over the issue of tariffs, which the Liberals under Herbert Samuel could not support. The agreement only had temporary value, as the Liberals resigned from the government later in the year when tariffs were introduced.

The 2010 Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition agreement included a provision for the Liberal Democrats to abstain on proposals for university tuition fees. The agreement to differ had little practical value. The tuition fee increase was implemented and in the 2015 election of the eight Liberal Democrat MPs who survived, four had voted for the tuition fees rise and four against.

At the recent G7 summit reporters were convinced that David Cameron had definitely said that ministers would be bound by collective responsibility over the EU referendum to be held in 2016 or 2017. He then clarified his position just a few hours later, saying that he had been misinterpreted and that collective ministerial responsibility only applied to the current stage of the renegotiations and that no decision had been made on collective responsibility during the referendum campaign itself.

Do the Hokey-Cokey

In the House of Commons, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn mocked the Conservative position, saying ‘members of the Cabinet who are for out read yesterday that they would be out unless they campaigned for in. Now it seems they might be in even though after all they are probably for out. In, out, in, out. It's the EU Tory Hokey Cokey’.

Hilary Benn’s analogy is apt, but applies more broadly than just to the Conservative cabinet. The Labour Party, and indeed the whole country, has turned about on Europe.

In 1975, under similar circumstances to today, Labour prime minister Harold Wilson released ministers from collective responsibility over whether to support his renegotiated terms for the UK’s continued membership of the EEC, the forerunner of the EU. The renegotiation had achieved few changes, but by a margin of 2 to 1, voters decided to remain with Europe.

Left Foot Out

Released from collective responsibility, several cabinet ministers campaigned for a no vote in 1975, including Hilary Benn’s father, Tony Benn. He was joined by Peter Shore and by others on the left of the Labour Party including Michael Foot who wanted out. Headline writers had almost as much fun with Foot’s position on the EEC as they did when he was appointed to a nuclear disarmament committee, which prompted the headline ‘Foot heads arms body’.

And you turn around

In 1975 the Conservative Party was more pro-European than the Labour Party. Now it’s the other way round. Then the east of England was more pro-European than the west and England was more pro-European than Scotland. Today these positions are all reversed.

Another significant difference between 1975 and today is that now there are politicians whose main purpose for being in politics is to get the UK to leave the EU. In 1975 those campaigning for a no vote were politicians from different parts of the political spectrum, but all of them had other interests. Tony Benn commented after being on the losing No side of the 1975 debate: ‘When the British people speak everyone, including members of Parliament, should tremble before their decision and that’s certainly the spirit with which I accept the result of the referendum’.

That’s what it’s all about

David Cameron must be hoping that the EU referendum will settle matters for another 40 years – at least within the Conservative Party, for that’s what the referendum is really about.

A version of my article above was first published by Democratic Audit.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Political Wings Launch Photos

 Hilary Benn with his grandfather's biography. 'A cracking read' he says.
 A Benn family reunion - three generations came to the launch
Steve Richards amused by the story of William Wedgwood Benn giving his children a ride on the lawnmower!

David, brother of Tony Benn and last surviving son of William Wedgwood Benn, tells the audience how his mother used to say that she considered that his father's 'existence was vital to her wellbeing, but his presence was not.'

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Thank You

Very many thanks to everyone who came to the launch of Political Wings last night. It was a wonderful evening and I couldn't have asked for a more appreciative audience.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Book Launch Event 23 June

On Tuesday 23 June at 18.30 at City University in Islington, I will be hosting an event to launch Political Wings, my biography of William Wedgwood Benn, first Viscount Stansgate.

Members of the Benn family, historians and journalists will be joining me. All are welcome to attend. There is no charge, but places need to be booked at:

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Unlucky Day for Unluckiest Man in British Politics

Today is the anniversary of one of the unluckiest days for the politician dubbed ‘the unluckiest man in British politics’ – Charles Frederick Gurney Masterman.
Masterman contested a by-election in Dulwich as the Liberal candidate in 1903, but lost. In the 1906 Liberal landslide he was elected for West Ham North and was re-elected in January 1910. But in the next election in December 1910, his election was declared void.

Masterman was returned to parliament at another by-election in 1911, this time at Bethnal Green South West. In 1914 he was appointed to the Cabinet. This may not sound too unlucky, but under the rules at the time, newly-appointed ministers had to resign their seat and re-contest it. Masterman lost the resulting by-election in February 1914. He tried again in a by-election at Ipswich on this day in 1914, but again failed and had to resign from the cabinet.

Masterman eventually returned to the House of Commons in the 1923 general election, as MP for Manchester Rusholme, but he again lost his seat in the 1924 general election.

After this his health declined rapidly, hastened by drug and alcohol abuse. He died in 1927.

So 23 May 1914 stands as one of the unluckiest days in the career of the very talented, but very unlucky, Charles Masterman.

Monday, 18 May 2015

How often are cabinet ministers unseated at elections?

The 1997 general election is probably best remembered for its ‘Portillo moment’, when John Major’s Defence Secretary, Michael Portillo lost his seat at Enfield Southgate. But he was not alone. A bumper crop of seven cabinet ministers lost their seats at that election. This was the largest haul since 1906.

The previous record was in 1945 when the Conservatives went down to their landslide defeat at the hands of their former coalition partners, the Labour Party. Five Conservative cabinet ministers lost their seats in that election, including Harold Macmillan. However, he later returned and became prime minister.

The 2015 election ranks next with the losses of Vince Cable, Danny Alexander and Ed Davey from the Liberal Democrat ranks in the cabinet and several other senior ministers including David Laws, Simon Hughes and Lynne Featherstone. The Conservative ministers from the cabinet all escaped unscathed and David Cameron continues as prime minister. This election was also remarkable for the loss of some of the Labour Party’s big beasts including Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander.

Going down in a group provides some consolation compared to an individual defeat. Chris Patten, the Conservative Party chairman who helped his party to a surprise victory in the 1992 election against the trend of the opinion polls, lost his seat at Bath. The 1992 election bears strong similarities to 2015, with opinion polls putting the Labour and Conservative parties neck and neck during the campaign, only for John Major’s Conservatives to win the actual contest with an overall majority of 21 seats. 

However, by the end of the parliament this majority had been eroded by defections and by-election defeats. Major’s party was split, primarily over Europe. David Cameron’s joy at winning may well be tempered by the memory of the slow public demise of John Major’s authority and his defeat in the following general election.

The defeat of Patrick Gordon-Walker at the 1964 election was notorious. He was appointed Foreign Secretary in the new Labour government although he lost his seat at Smethwick in a bitter contest tainted by racial slurs. He remained in the cabinet until he tried and failed to be re-elected in a by-election. He then had to resign from the cabinet.

Perhaps the saddest case was that of Charles Masterman, who has been dubbed the ‘Unluckiest Man in British Politics’. Journalist and social reformer, Masterman was elected in the 1906 Liberal landslide for West Ham North and was re-elected in January 1910. He published his well-known book The Condition of England and worked closely with Churchill and Lloyd George on the People's Budget, but in the general election in December 1910, his election was declared void. He was returned to parliament at a by-election in 1911. In 1914 he was appointed to the Cabinet. Under the rules at the time, newly-appointed ministers had to resign their seat and re-contest it. Masterman lost the resulting by-election. He tried again in a by-election at Ipswich, but again failed and had to resign from the cabinet. His health deteriorated, hastened by drug and alcohol abuse, and he died in 1927.

The biggest beast of all though, Winston Churchill, was defeated when he had to contest a by-election on his appointment to the cabinet in 1908. Nevertheless, he soon found another seat. During his lengthy career, Churchill suffered a total of five defeats in his 21 contests. This may be some consolation to those big beasts felled in the 2015 election, although for some there is unlikely to be a resurrection.

A longer version of this article first appeared on the Conversation

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

How John Major lost his Majority

Against expectations and opinion poll predictions, John Major managed to win a 21 seat majority for the Conservative Party in the 1992 election, gained the most votes any leader has for any party before or since and won a personal majority of over 36,000 votes in his Huntingdon constituency. 

While serving briefly as Chancellor of the Exchequer before becoming premier, Major had persuaded Margaret Thatcher to allow the Pound to join the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) – the forerunner of the euro. In September 1992, just five months after the election victory, the Pound was forced out of the ERM. In reaction, the Conservative Party became more euro-sceptic and less-disciplined, its economic policy had to be re-written and Major's reputation sank.

Despite vigorous and visible attempts to control his party (including Major’s resorting to resigning and re-contesting the leadership) the Conservative majority in Parliament leaked away, leaving Major running a minority government as he limped towards defeat in 1997.

Four Conservative MPs died and their seats were won by Liberal Democrats in by-elections (Newbury, Christchurch, Eastleigh and Littleborough & Saddleworth). Four others died and their seats were won by other parties (Dudley West, Staffordshire South East and Wirral South by Labour, Perth & Kinross by the SNP). 

Two Conservative MPs defected to the Liberal Democrats (Emma Nicholson and Peter Thurnham). Alan Howarth defected from the Conservatives to Labour and George Gardiner defected to the Referendum Party. If the four defectors had remained in the party, the Conservatives would still have held a fragile majority in parliament.

After his election victory, David Cameron must be wondering what could possibly go wrong?