‘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, 31 May 2013

Battle of Bosworth 1927

Today is the anniversary of the Bosworth by-election of 1927. Bosworth has a reputation for bloody encounters, as Richard III found out to his cost in 1485.

The 1927 by-election was a contest in a three-way marginal seat held by the Conservatives, under a Conservative government, at a time when the Labour Party was making progress and the Liberals were undergoing a revival under the new leadership of Lloyd George.

The by-election was caused by the resignation of the sitting Conservative MP, who had emigrated to Australia.

The Conservative by-election candidate was General Edward Spears, a chameleon of a character with French, English, German, Irish and Jewish ancestry. He had changed his name from Spiers to Spears, his country of residence from France to England, his wife from Mary Borden (the author) to Nancy Maurice (daughter of  General Maurice, after whom the 1918 parliamentary debate was named), his career from soldier to politician and his political party from Liberal to Conservative.

The Labour candidate, John Minto hoped to gain enough support from the coalmining areas around Coalville to snatch victory.

The Liberal candidate was William Edge, former MP for Bolton in Lancashire and a close ally of Lloyd George.

In the event, William Edge did just have the edge over his Labour rival in second place – 271 votes behind him and Spears came in third, trailing Labour by over 4,000 votes.

The Liberals went on to make further by-election gains at Lancaster, St. Ives and Eddisbury over the next two years and made 19 gains at the following general election in 1929.

General Spears did not give up and was returned eventually to the House of Commons for Carlisle in 1931. Although a courageous and many-faceted character, he was not an electoral asset to any party.  He won only two contested elections of the seven which he fought, even though on every occasion he was fighting for the incumbent party.

The Labour Party eventually won Bosworth in 1945.

All in all the 1927 Battle of Bosworth was not quite as bloody as its namesake of 1485, but both were won by Lancastrians. At least the losers of the 1927 battle did not end up under a car park in Leicester!

Thursday, 30 May 2013

'Safety First' fails to win election for Conservatives

Today is the anniversary of the 1929 general election - the first election when women voted on the same terms as men.

The three major parties all seemed to be in contention. Lloyd George was leading the Liberal Party, armed with a library of policies more radical than those of his opponents, including the booklet ‘We can conquer unemployment’ – a far-sighted, but rather impractical, set of policies to reduce unemployment in an unfeasibly short time through road-building and other public works.

The Conservative Party literally took a safety first approach and fought the election under the slogan of ‘Safety First’.

The Labour Party had a manifesto fairly short on detail, but one of its key passages was entitled ‘The Old Bogey’, a rebuttal of Conservative scare stories about the dangers of a Labour government.

In the event the Conservatives had played it too safe, the Liberals too radical and the Labour Party was just reassuring enough.

The Liberals came out of the election with 59 seats – almost the same total as the Liberal Democrats in 2010. The Conservatives won the most votes at 38.2%, compared to Labour’s 37.1%, but the Labour Party won the most seats - 288 - short of an overall majority, but 28 seats ahead of the Conservatives.

It was to be the first of three elections since 1918 where the party with the most votes did not win the most seats, the others being 1951 and February 1974.

The outcome was the second minority Labour government headed by Ramsay MacDonald.

In retrospect, it was actually a good election to have lost. By October of that year the world was sinking into depression as a result of the Wall Street Crash.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Price of Political Forgiveness– Excruciating Honesty

Why did Alan Clark manage to get away with affairs, traffic offences and being drunk at the despatch box, but the much-more-able Chris Huhne had to forfeit his cabinet place and his membership of the privy council over one speeding offence?

Why did Jack Profumo end up being liked, honoured and admired, when he had been unfaithful to his wife, endangered national security and lied to parliament? But, the glamorous and charming prime minister and three-times foreign secretary, Anthony Eden is still rated as the worst post-war prime minister because of the Suez crisis.

Why was John Major, as prime minister, regarded as grey and dull, but retired John Major is relaxed, humorous and well-liked.

Why did David Laws and Ron Davies suffer very different fates over the consequences of their private lives?

Why did the Iraq invasion turn so many people against the charming, open and clever Tony Blair?

The answer is the same in every case – honesty, and in most cases, excruciating honesty.

Alan Clark treated us to so much information in his diaries that we cannot believe that he had anything left to hide. Chris Huhne hid the truth about his traffic offence for too long and by then the consequences had ratcheted up.

In some ways the detail of the press coverage of Profumo’s affair and his lie to parliament may well have helped in the long run, as there is no detail still hidden. He died with his reputation high, after decades of charity work. He commented shortly before his death ‘You know, I have enjoyed my life’. Anthony Eden on the other hand lied to parliament over Suez and never admitted that he had done so, although documentary evidence now proves that he did.

John Major used to appear uncomfortable about his unusual background. No other prime minister had a father who was a trapeze artist and gnome manufacturer. Eventually, after he retired from parliament, by writing and talking about his exotic ancestry, John Major has given us a full, humorous and rather endearing picture of the person he really is.

David Laws tried to hide his relationship with his landlord, but when confronted about it, made an excruciatingly honest explanation and resigned from the cabinet immediately. He is now back in government. Ron Davies, for reasons which we can still only speculate about, had a ‘moment of madness’ on Clapham Common, which somehow involved his car being stolen. His ‘Emmental’ explanation, left everyone to imagine what the gaps in the story were all about. He did not come back into government.

Tony Blair had seemed trustworthy, open and honest until the issue of Iraq. His explanations for the invasion did not satisfy many people and Iraq hangs around the neck of his reputation almost as Suez does to Eden.

Admit, apologise, explain, go (quickly) – and your reputation may be redeemed. Deny, blame, avoid, hang on and be forced out and you will probably not be called again.

To survive in politics you don’t have to be perfect, you just need a high embarrassment threshold.

Was it just luck that Cameron and Clegg were ‘coalitionable’ leaders?

Was it just luck that we ended up needing to form a coalition government in 2010 at a time when the leaders of the two parties involved were ‘coalitionable’ politicians? They were not selected by their parties for their coalitionability, but if they had been unable to negotiate, compromise, trust and work together (the essence of coalitionability), the current government could not have been formed.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg are not alone as coalitionable leaders, but some past leaders probably could not have filled the brief. So which ones were which?

We know that Asquith, Lloyd George, Baldwin, MacDonald, Austen and Neville Chamberlain, Bonar Law, Churchill, Samuel, Sinclair, Attlee, Cameron and Clegg have all led their parties (or a faction from their party) within a coalition. Also, Jenkins and Steel led their parties in the SDP/Liberal Alliance. So, all these leaders were proven to be coalitionable.

Additionally, Tony Blair, Clement Davies, Paddy Ashdown and Jeremy Thorpe had personalities which would have suited them to a role in coalition government, but they were prevented from pursuing it by the party situation at the time.

Other leaders whose temperament suggested that they almost certainly would have been coalitionable include John Major, Jo Grimond, Hugh Gaitskell, Neil Kinnock, Charles Kennedy, Alec Douglas-Home, Harold Macmillan, William Hague, Harold Wilson and Ming Campbell.

But which leaders really were uncoalitionable? Probably Margaret Thatcher, Antony Eden and Gordon Brown were temperamentally unable to perform this role. Also, Ted Heath, David Owen and Jim Callaghan all dipped their toes in the coalition or collaboration water, but failed to make their alliances work effectively, in large part due to their temperaments.

This just leaves a few unknowns. Michael Foot, Michael Howard and Ian Duncan Smith probably, perhaps with some difficulty, could have been coalitionable, but we don’t know, and perhaps they don’t either.

The one other unknown, and the one which may prove crucial, is Ed Miliband. In terms of personality, he probably is coalitionable. We may find out in 2015.

With the high likelihood of future coalition governments, should parties take coalitionability into account when choosing a new leader? They won’t want to, but to fail to do so, could deprive their party of power.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Do Jack Russell owners vote LibDem?

Some political theories are easier to test than others. My theory linking geology to voting patterns can be seen to work fairly well by comparing a geological map of Britain with a political map. The broad sweeps of chalk land correspond very closely to the Conservative heartlands of rural England, Labour has its historical strengths in the coalfields and the Liberal Democrats have a near-monopoly on the granite uplands around the Celtic fringes of the country.

Paddy Ashdown has a theory that among potential defectors, it is the ‘toffs’ who will take the plunge and change parties. I put this theory to the test and have managed to prove statistically that Paddy Ashdown is correct. Richer, better-educated politicians are indeed more likely to defect than their colleagues.

Paddy also has another theory, which is much harder to test. He calls this Jack Russell Protocol. It says that Jack Russell owners tend to vote Liberal Democrat. He added weight to his argument by quoting an example from when he was canvassing for the 1983 election and he spotted a man with a dog which was half Jack Russell and half dachshund. The man said that he had ‘half-decided to vote Liberal’. I am tempted by this idea, as my parents had a Jack Russell and voted Liberal.

There is no dog map or detailed survey of Jack Russell ownership, so this theory is going to be harder to prove than the others. The (not at all scientific) anecdotal evidence so far suggest that Jack Russell owners are often Lib Dem supporters, sometimes Conservatives, but rarely Labour, Ukip or Green.