‘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

Thursday, 19 September 2013

I agree with Nick, but this is not the whole story

For most of the period since the Second World War it was reasonable to refer to British politics as a two-party system. Only the Conservative and Labour parties could reasonably claim to be parties of government.

Yesterday in his leader’s speech to the Lib Dem conference, Nick Clegg made the claim that the Lib Dems are now also a party of government. As far as his claim goes, it seems perfectly fair to me, and fully justified by events.

What Nick did not say though, was that since devolution in the late 1990s, there are also another seven parties which have provided ministers for the devolved administrations.

The most remarkable feature of the period since 1999 may well come to be seen as the fact that, instead of two, or even three, there are at least ten parties of government in Britain and all of them have proved competent in office.

The mantle of party of protest has now landed on Ukip, the Greens and Respect.

Nick Clegg was right, as far as he went, but in reality things have already moved even further than he claimed.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Politicians not rated highly? It's not all their own fault.

YouGov has some interesting polling showing that the three main party leaders are all unpopular. In the past this has not been the case. Until the 1950s it was quite normal for both Conservative and Labour leaders to have positive ratings. As the Liberals began to feature in the polling, at least one of the party leaders was always popular at any one time. Why are all three main party leaders now unpopular?

YouGov suggested some plausible reasons, such as the wartime records of the post-war leaders and the faith which deprived voters placed in life-changing policies such as the NHS.

The low ratings could be because the current leaders are simply not as good as any of their predecessors. However, it would be hard to argue that David Cameron is a worse leader than Anthony Eden, or that Ed Miliband is worse than Michael Foot or Nick Clegg worse than Clement Davies. So, even if you do not think that the current leaders are the best which their parties have had, they are certainly not the worst.

Part of the answer is mathematical. There are more parties than ever before in real contention in British politics. Ten different parties have served at Westminster or in one of the devolved administrations, and this does not even include the Greens, Ukip or Respect. Most voters are partisan and will give a favourable response about the leader of the party which they support, but will be very grudging in rating the leadership of another party positively. The more parties which there are, on average, the worse will be the leaders’ ratings.

Another reason is the lack of deference. In an age when a university education was a rare achievement, where few people featured in the press or on television, many voters were impressed by an Eton and Oxbridge education, a title or a track record of working in a coal mine for twenty years. These days there are plenty of backgrounds which would be a disadvantage to a politician, but very few which automatically command respect.

Another reason is scrutiny. Today’s politicians are subject to minute scrutiny of every aspect of their life. Naturally, this encourages most to play safe in order to avoid negative coverage. But, when other professions are subject to the same scrutiny, many appear much worse than the politicians. Television presenters, police, Catholic priests, journalists and bankers, to name a few, have not exactly appeared as paragons of virtue when they have been subject to scrutiny.

Having worked with industrialists and politicians, my impression is that on average the calibre of the politicians is higher than that of the industrialists. But, politicians tend to fear industrialists, while industrialists tend to have contempt for politicians – even when they are phoning the chancellor of the exchequer to demand money when their bank is about to fail or, as in the US, when they need the president to save their car manufacturing plants.

Industrialists and politicians used to treat each other as respected equals – particularly because many of them were the same people – Jeremiah Colman, Arnold Rowntree, Alfred Mond, David Davies, Geoffrey Mander and Stanley Baldwin were all top industrialists who sat in Parliament. Liberal Party leader, Clement Davies was managing director of Unilever. Today the only FTSE 100 chairman to have sat in the Commons is Archie Norman, former chairman of ASDA, who was a Conservative MP from 1997 to 2005.

So, if politicians are not held in high regard, it is not entirely their fault. We do tend to judge them by a standard which most other humans are not able to match.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

A Liberal Defector who came back to the Party

On this day in 1894 George Garro-Jones was born. He was one of only five new Liberal MPs to be elected in the 1924 general election, and the only one to have fought as a Lloyd George supporting National Liberal candidate in 1922. Garro-Jones served a single term as the Liberal MP for Hackney South from 1924 to 1929, during which time he displayed a confident and combative approach, speaking on a wide range of issues and being willing to challenge the Speaker’s authority. Despite his earlier loyalty to Lloyd George, Garro-Jones decided to abandon the Parliamentary Liberal Party, even though it was now under the sole control of his former mentor. He did not stand again in 1929; he would almost certainly have lost, had he done so, as Herbert Morrison won the seat for Labour with a majority of over 7,000 against Conservative, Communist and Liberal candidates; the latter coming third. In early November 1929, Garro-Jones left the Liberal Party to join Labour, writing to MacDonald that in his opinion ‘all virile progressive opinion…must identify itself with the Labour movement.’ However, his political association with MacDonald was to be brief. Garro-Jones remained within the Labour Party after the 1931 split, but he did not contest that year’s election. 
He did stand again for Parliament in 1935, and was successful as the Labour candidate in Aberdeen North – the seat which William Wedgwood Benn had held for Labour from 1928 until his defeat in 1931. Garro-Jones’ election in 1935 gave him a ten-year lease on his parliamentary seat, during which time he was appointed to the newly-created war-time post of parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Production. He stood down from the Commons at the 1945 election and was created Lord Trefgarne in 1947. 
 However, his allegiance to the Labour Party eroded and in 1952 he decided to become a cross-bencher, explaining that he had been concerned to see the tendency to swing ‘from one extreme to another, which is bound to be very damaging to certain industries…I have always been a believer in compromise as being the essence of politics’.  
 In 1958, disillusioned with his isolated position in the Lords, he re-joined the Liberal Party, by then under the leadership of Jo Grimond.  Garro-Jones was a bold and talented individual, with a successful track record in the armed forces, a qualified barrister, a combative politician and later chairman of the Television Advisory Committee. He was driven more by achievement than by party considerations and was never firmly attached to any political grouping. He was a ‘disillusioned progressive’ at many stages of his career, and not just when he decided to defect from the Liberal Party.
His son, the second Baron Trefgarne was a minister in Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government and still sits in the House of Lords as one of the elected hereditary peers.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Fighting the Last War

Researching aspects of the First World War for my forthcoming biography of William Wedgwood Benn, I have been struck by the truth of the old adage that military figures tend to focus on fighting the last war.

This was certainly borne out by Benn’s experience of joining a cavalry regiment which shipped its horses all the way to Egypt, only to leave them behind (with a third of the troops to look after them), before the regiment went into battle in the Dardanelles in 1915.

One of Benn’s political roles before the war had been as parliamentary private secretary to Reginald McKenna at the Admiralty, where the focus had been on accelerating the construction of the vastly-expensive, steam-powered, heavy-gun, Dreadnought battleships. In the event the only significant naval engagement of the First World War involving the Dreadnoughts was the indecisive Battle of Jutland in 1916.

Benn ended up in the RAF on its formation and was involved in dropping the first parachutist at night behind enemy lines, through a trap door cut into the floor of the plane. He also served on one of the earliest aircraft carriers, a cross-channel ferry with a large shed stuck on the back. Ironically, this hybrid contraption saw much more action than did most of the Dreadnoughts.

As is often the case, the most expensive and politically-controversial weapons never really get used. Let’s hope that this turns out to be the case with the Trident nuclear missiles too.