‘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

Friday, 8 April 2016

Iain Duncan Smith's Gladstonian resignation

It is a rare feat for a part-Japanese Catholic to get his first job in cabinet seven years after stepping down as Conservative Party leader. Iain Duncan Smith (IDS) achieved this unusual order of appointments, but on 18 March 2016 he resigned from David Cameron’s cabinet after six years as Work and Pensions Secretary.

Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation has been the most confusing since Gladstone resigned from the Conservative government of 1845. Gladstone was a member of Peel's ministry which proposed increasing the annual grant to the Maynooth Seminary for training Catholic priests in Ireland. Gladstone had previously argued that a Protestant country should not pay money to other churches, but he supported the increase in the Maynooth grant and voted for it in the Commons. However, he resigned rather than face the charge that he had compromised his principles to remain in office. Peel confessed himself confused over Gladstone’s actions.

David Cameron claimed that he was ‘puzzled’ over Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation from his cabinet, writing: ‘I regret that you have chosen to step down from the Government at this moment. Together we designed the Personal Independence Payment to support the most vulnerable and to give disabled people more independence…we collectively agreed – you, No 10 and the Treasury – proposals which you and your Department then announced a week ago. Today we agreed not to proceed with the policies in their current form and instead to work together to get these policies right over the coming months. In the light of this, I am puzzled and disappointed that you have chosen to resign.’
IDS perversely claimed that he had relinquished responsibility for his departments as he was ‘unable to watch passively whilst certain policies’ were enacted. He also insisted that his resignation was nothing to do with the forthcoming EU referendum.

Iain Duncan Smith’s correspondence with the Prime Minister ranks among the more terse, turgid and ungrateful of resignation exchanges. David Cameron (unnecessarily) pointed out in his letter that he and IDS are on opposite sides in the EU referendum debate. But, Duncan Smith’s supporters in the debate have been offering him conspicuously faint praise, as in the case of Jacob Rees-Mogg who said that IDS had been ‘as important a welfare secretary as I can think of…I think it is deeply concerning that a man of the stature and standing of Iain Duncan Smith should be pushed into this position’. None of which really explains anything at all.

But all of this is part of a pattern in Iain Duncan Smith’s career. His record suggests that he has not been entirely comfortable with his own position at several stages of his life, leading a certain amount of obfuscation and inauthenticity.

Earlier versions of his cv stated that he went to the University of Perugia (1998), but this was later corrected to say that he had attended Universita per Stranieri (2005), which he left without a qualification. Different versions of his entry in Dod’s Parliamentary Companion suggest that he was a director of Bellwing Property (1994), but this was later changed to Bellwinch Property (2005). 

Duncan Smith served in the Scots Guards from 1975 to 1981, but only received one promotion during this time and retired as a first lieutenant. He then left the army without another job to go to. His education then continued at Dunchurch College of Management, according to his cv (1998). It was later clarified that the college was the in-house training centre for GEC, which ran short courses attended by Duncan Smith during his time with the company.

IDS’s discomfort with himself was most clearly displayed in his ‘quiet man’ speech. As Conservative Party leader since William Hague’s resignation in 2001, IDS struggled to find his political voice. Two years into the role, and fighting for his career, he claimed that ‘the quiet man is here to stay and he’s TURNING UP THE VOLUME’. However, his parliamentary colleagues did not like what they heard and he was ousted in a vote of no confidence in October 2003. His awkward reference to himself in the third person calls to mind other prominent examples - Margaret Thatcher ‘We have become a grandmother’ (1989) and more recently Donald Trump announcing that: ‘Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims…’ (2016).

IDS has built his career on obfuscation and confusion. His resignation may seem as opaque as Gladstone’s but Gladstone, of course, did go on to serve four terms as prime minister of another party. 

My post above orignally appeared on the Democratic Audit blog.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Perverse benefits of messy Corbyn reshuffle

Jeremy Corbyn has just made a minor, unnecessary, protracted and botched reshuffle. It has received a huge amount of media coverage. This was quite a perverse feat for a minor opposition reshuffle. Who noticed when Michael Howard or Ed Miliband shuffled his pack? If the reshuffle had not been so over-hyped, slow and clumsy, it would not have received so much attention. As former spin doctor Damian McBride pointed out in his book Power Trip, the Blair/Brown feud kept the Labour Party in the media and the Conservatives in the shadows. Corbyn’s clumsy reshuffle has kept the Labour Party in the news, raised the profile of some of the key shadow cabinet figures and even increased the name recognition of some barely-known Labour MPs. Corbyn has once again confounded expectations.

Jeremy Corbyn achieved more coverage than the Prime Minister last week, even though David Cameron made the important announcement that his cabinet ministers would be allowed to disagree over the forthcoming EU referendum without having to resign. Maybe the tolerance of dissent in the Labour Party has made it easier for Cameron to allow some open disagreement among the Conservatives. Revealing dissent within political parties is not necessarily a bad thing. If it is not open, then the media will be looking for it anyway and are likely to find (or help to create) it.
So, does the era of open disagreement spell the end of the major political parties or the beginning of a new politics?

Harold Wilson allowed his ministers to disagree during the 1975 EEC referendum. When the referendum was over, the Labour ministers accepted the result and got on with their jobs. However, the Conservatives may find that party unity does not follow the EU referendum, whatever the outcome.

History suggests though that harmony does not always bring rewards at the ballot box or robust and lasting policies. Anthony Eden’s loyal cabinet did nothing to prevent the Suez Crisis. John Major’s all-male cabinet of chums watched united as the pound was forced from the ERM - although it did bring in the Dangerous Dogs Act and the Cones Hotline. Ted Heath liked to keep his faithful, leak-proof team intact and when he won the 1970 election virtually all his ministers moved into the jobs which they had been shadowing. It worked for one month, until his chancellor, Ian Macleod suddenly died. There was no obvious successor challenging for the job and Macleod’s hastily-chosen replacement, Anthony Barber, was not a success.

Successful ministers have emerged from shadows many times and from many parties. Since the devolutions of the 1990s, ten parties have provided ministers for the Westminster, Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh administrations. Proving the sceptics wrong, all these parties have managed to field competent ministers.

Jeremy Corbyn’s problems in assembling his team echo the difficulties which Ramsay MacDonald had in 1924 to appoint the first ever Labour cabinet. He had a limited pool of talent to fish in and had to include defectors from other parties and members of the House of Lords. However, MacDonald went on to lead a competent, if undramatic, administration which confounded expectations of incompetence or extremism. Relations with Russia did not turn out to be the crucial issue then and attitudes to nuclear weapons are probably not going to be the defining issue now.

It may be wrong to assume that Labour has damaged its prospects by the messy reshuffle, but it may also turn out to be wrong that the Conservatives will benefit from following Labour’s example of open dissent. Most of us will never actually know if Trident ever really existed. Europe, on the other hand was definitely still there last time anyone looked.

This post first appeared on the Democratic Audit blog

Sunday, 1 November 2015

William Wedgwood Benn's recipe for a healthy life

As a teetotaller, William Wedgwood Benn's health was preserved from the ravages of alcohol which affected so many politicians, including Asquith, Masterman, Clement Davies and John Smith. Benn was a tea drinker - but not to quite the extent of his son, Tony who was calculated to have drunk 29,000 gallons over the course of his life. The timing of Benn’s tea drinking may not have helped his overall well-being though, given that a good night’s sleep seems to correlate with good health. Benn used to take a thermos of tea to bed with him. He found that if he woke up in the night (typically at about 03.00), his mind was usually clear and he could have a productive thinking session, prolonged by the tea. As most people have found out though, this is not an ideal way to get back to sleep. As with most other aspects of his life, Benn kept detailed records of his health. In amongst mentions of ‘bad nights’, ‘coughs’ and ‘tight chest’ are more prosaic entries such as ‘left nostril closed’ and ‘slight vomiting’ [an unusual ailment, as for most people it tends to be more of an all-or-nothing occurrence], but there were other more positive entries, even past the age of eighty, such as ‘very well’ and ‘all night party at the Savoy did no harm’.

This is an extract from Political Wings, my biography of William Wedgwood Benn, first Viscount Stansgate, published by Pen & Sword

Friday, 21 August 2015

Corbyn for Leader – One Foot in the Grave for the Labour Party? Not necessarily

A left-wing Labour Party leader very close to his seventieth birthday, leading a divided party which had lost the previous election, trying to unseat a female Conservative prime minister. This was the situation in 1983 and it could be the situation in 2020, if Jeremy Corbyn wins the Labour Party leadership and Theresa May takes over from David Cameron. Both are well within the realms of possibility.

What would happen then? In 1983 the Labour Party under Michael Foot went down to a crushing defeat. It is very tempting to assume that history would repeat itself in 2020.  The Conservative Party already seems confident that it would. Most of the press will try to draw parallels and hope for a repeat of 1983. The newspapers will be very hostile to Jeremy Corbyn, although, like Margaret Thatcher, he claims not to read them, and daily newspaper circulation is now less than half what it was in 1983.

More than ever we are aware of the dangers of predicting the future of British politics. The opinion polls failed to predict the outcome of the 2015 general election even days before the ballot. Former Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King warned that the party implementing spending cuts after the 2010 election could be doomed to be out of power for a generation. Instead the spending cuts came to be seen by voters as prudent financial management and the Conservatives were chosen by the electorate to implement more of the same.

Many on the right of the Labour Party (including Tony Blair) have said that a Tony Blair-type leader is the only hope for Labour’s return to power. But, Tony Blair was successful at a time when the Conservative Party was failing to do its own job properly. He correctly identified an empty middle ground for Labour to occupy at that time. There is no vacancy there now.

Looking at the electoral positions of the parties in 2020, it is likely that the SNP will have passed its high-water mark at Westminster. Labour could only possibly lose one more seat to the SNP, but have plenty of scope to go up. The Liberal Democrats may begin to recover under Tim Farron’s leadership, but as they lost more seats to the Conservatives than to Labour at the last election, any recovery in seats may be more likely to come from the Conservatives than from Labour. UKIP achieved second place in many Labour-held constituencies in 2015, but were well short of threatening to take large numbers of seats from Labour. A Farage-led UKIP would no longer be a novelty and a more-electable replacement for Nigel Farage does not seem to be on the horizon. The Greens seem to be destined to continue their steady, but very slow, headway. The Labour Party’s performance in 2020 is likely to hinge on its success or failure against the Conservatives, and this could depend on two things - whether it splits, and whether the Conservative Party splits.

The Conservatives are riven on the issues of Heathrow expansion and, more importantly, Europe. They will have fought the EU referendum in two factions and will have to choose a new leader in the aftermath, if David Cameron keeps his promise to retire.

Labour perhaps has less at stake than it first seems in experimenting with a Corbyn leadership. There is no sure-fire election winner among the other three leadership candidates. If Jeremy Corbyn loses the next election he will almost certainly be replaced as Labour leader and a different, newer generation of potential leaders could be in the running. If Jeremy Corbyn wins the election for Labour, which is not unthinkable if his party remains united and the Conservatives split, then the Corbyn experiment may change the face of British politics to a position where there are multiple parties, each with a clear minority position. It may illustrate that voters look for authenticity more than a position on a left-right scale.

If a Corbyn-led Labour Party recovered somewhat at the next election, say better than Ed Miliband’s 232 seats and better than Gordon Brown’s 258 but not enough to win, the party would be left still out of power and with the trickiest of dilemmas. Should it move even further to the left? Should it try a different leader with the same brand of policies?

The greatest threat to the Labour Party could be a modest success for Jeremy Corbyn in 2020 and the greatest threat to the Conservatives remains Europe. Jeremy Corbyn would probably gracefully leave the scene if he lost the election, but Europe will not go away.

This article first appeared on Democratic Audit

Thursday, 6 August 2015

The only lasting impression - the colour of Lord Sewel's bra

A former politics lecturer has hit the headlines for allegedly wearing an orange bra, smoking a cigarette, snorting powder from a woman’s breasts and making rude comments about the prime minister. Bizarrely, this is threatening to cause a constitutional upheaval. John Buttifant Sewel’s behaviour has attracted so much attention because he was a member of the House of Lords, although he has now resigned.

The furore has once again stirred up a clamour for House of Lords reform. However, Lord Sewel’s behaviour has not raised any issue of great constitutional importance. The situation was very different in 1909, when the Conservative-dominated House of Lords blocked the Liberal government’s budget. This led to the 1911 Parliament Act, which curtailed the power of the House of Lords and prevented it obstructing money bills.

At this stage, a peer could only leave the House by dying or could be temporarily excluded through bankruptcy or imprisonment. An act of Parliament could also be brought in specifically to remove an errant lord, as was the case in 1917 with two lords who had supported the King’s enemies.

There are now many more ways to leave the Lords. In 1963 the Peerage Act allowed hereditary peers to disclaim their peerages for their own lifetime, but to enable their sons to resume the title and membership of the House of Lords. The first person to take advantage of the reforms was Labour MP Tony Benn, who had inherited a peerage on the death of his father, former Labour cabinet minister, the first Viscount Stansgate.

In 1999 Tony Blair’s government started a, still-unfinished, reform process by which most of the hereditary peers left the Lords. However, 92 places were reserved for hereditary peers (42 of them for the Conservatives), elected by their own party group. When Lord Ferrers died, the ensuing by-election in 2013 attracted a selection of 27 Conservative candidates for the 48 voters to choose from. Politicians are always arguing for more choice. They also tend to regard a high turnout at elections as a good thing and by this measure the 2003 Lords by-election following the death of Labour perr, Lord Milner was exemplary. All three eligible hereditary peers turned out to vote - 100% turnout.

The House of Lords Reform Act of 2014 allowed peers to retire or resign, as Lord Sewel has done. There is still no compulsion to retire at any set age or length of service. Lord Carrington, aged 96, is still a member of the House of Lords after 74 years’ service.

Had Lord Sewel not resigned, the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015 allowing peers to suspend or expel members could have been employed.

Over the last century or so the volume of House of Lords reforms has increased, but the impact of each successive piece of legislation has been diminishing. The fact that a bra-wearing, powder-snorting incident involving one peer has triggered a new debate on further reforms suggests that the appetite for change is much greater than the level of agreement about what should be on the menu.

The expenses scandal of 2009 demonstrated that public opinion can be raised to boiling point over parliamentary misbehaviour, but little distinction was made in the media between serious fraud and accidental claims for single portions of dog food. Duck islands, dog food, orange bras and trouser presses make for better headlines than issues such as human rights or climate change.

In a parliamentary ‘coat-of-arms race’ David Cameron has managed to play the situation to his advantage. Citing his failure to pass reforms of the Lords to create a mainly-elected chamber during his coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, he has decided not to introduce any new legislation, but to even up representation among the parties in the second chamber by creating new Conservative peers.

In contrast to the situation in 1909, the Liberal Democrats now have 101 peers but only 8 MPs, while the Conservative Party with an overall majority in the Commons, has fewer life peers than the Labour Party. David Cameron, however, forgot to mention that the 2012 reforms failed when 91 of his own MPs voted against a three-line whip.

So far the Lord Sewel affair has led to the prospect of a further bloating of the House of Lords and a debate on its future, which all the major political parties seem to be content to lead nowhere. Meanwhile the media will be hoping for some more good headlines. For many people though the one fact which is likely to stick in their memory will be the colour of the bra. 

An earlier version of this article appeared on the Conversation.

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.'