Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Every historical precedent is against a successful premiership for Brown

It would be churlish to begrudge Gordon Brown his assumption of the premiership tomorrow. As architect of New Labour, he helped to make his party electable again. As chancellor, he has avoided the economic crises that proved the undoing of previous Labour governments. And despite the ongoing feud with Tony Blair, he has stayed the course, not resigning nor being so overtly disloyal that Blair could sack him. In the process he has seen all his potential challengers for the Labour leadership fall by the wayside.

Nonetheless, Brown should enjoy such honeymoon period as he gets, because none of the historical precedents suggest that his will be a successful premiership. In the past century or so, none of the prime ministers who have succeeded long-serving party leaders while in office have enjoyed much success. Brown is known to be obsessed with the Anthony Eden example: the second-in-command who waited years for Churchill to retire only to crash and burn within two years of reaching Number 10. Leo McKinstry recently drew a comparison between Gordon Brown and Lord Rosebery, who was Gladstone’s successor in 1894 – both chippy Scotsmen with poor people-management skills. Rosebery led a divided and ineffective government for 15 months before seeing his party go down to a spectacular defeat that marked the start of a decade in the political wilderness.

Other examples tell a similar story. Balfour, succeeding his uncle Lord Salisbury in 1903, took over a party that had won two successive landslide majorities and led it to a landslide defeat in 1906. Neville Chamberlain, Baldwin’s de facto deputy and unchallenged successor in 1937 never faced the electorate as party leader, but his premiership was brief and ended with the catastrophe of the second world war, with his appeasement policy discredited. Callaghan succeeding Wilson in 1976 was much admired as prime minister by his colleagues, but presided over the Winter of Discontent and his electoral defeat in 1979 ushered in the era of Thatcherism. Of course, John Major took over from Thatcher in 1990 and went on to win the election in 1992, but this is perhaps not the happiest of precedents.

A further bad omen for Brown is that governments who have seen their majorities reduced have never been able to turn the tide. In 2005 Labour’s national share of the vote fell from 40.7% to 35.2% and their majority from 167 to 66. Every historical precedent says they will fall further next time. In 1900, the Conservatives saw their majority slightly reduced. In January 1910, the Liberal landslide majority was wiped out and Asquith was thereafter dependent on third and fourth party support to remain in office. The Liberals, of course, never won another general election. In 1935 the electorate slashed the record majority of the Conservative-dominated National government and voted the Conservatives out of office altogether the next time they got a chance in 1945. Five years later, the Labour government’s landslide majority was converted into a very narrow one and the party lost office at the general election of the following year. And the Conservative government of 1979–87 reached its electoral zenith in 1983, had diminished majorities in both 1987 and 1992 and then suffered devastating defeat in 1997.

As if all this is not enough, during the twentieth century on each occasion that a government took the country into a prolonged war, the electorate delivered a harsh verdict at the first general election AFTER the war was over. This was the case for the Conservatives in 1906, following the South African War, the Liberals in 1918 after the first world war and the Conservatives in 1945 after the second world war. Of course, in these three cases there was strong public support for the war while it was in progress – the backlash came afterwards. By contrast there was strong public opposition to the Iraq war from the start and it may be that the electorate will feel that they gave Labour a bloody nose last time. But, equally, in 2005 it was still possible to believe that the Iraq war might have a positive outcome and to celebrate the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Unless, as seems unlikely, British troops come home leaving behind a stable, democratic Iraq, voters may use the next election to reach a very severe judgement on a failed enterprise.

Of course, there are no inevitabilities in history and in many ways New Labour have already rewritten the electoral rules of the last 100 years, keeping the Tories out of office for the longest period since the eighteenth century. Brown may look to the example of Harold MacMillan, who took over after the disastrous Suez enterprise and, even though he had supported it, managed to put it behind him and win an increased majority at the subsequent election. However, unlike Brown, MacMillan inherited a party that was on an electoral upswing.

How does all this affect the Liberal Democrats? Well it is perhaps no wonder that Brown is trying to cosy up to us. If he is re-elected with a reduced majority, Labour’s vote share is likely to be so low as to call into question the government’s legitimacy – for example, if it has an overall majority but less than a third of the national vote. However, there is a real question mark as to whether it would be right to maintain in power a government that had lost the confidence of the electorate. In such circumstances, Brown may need us more than we need him, so we ought to be in a position to drive a hard bargain, if we want to deal at all.

On the other hand, if Brown’s fortunes follow the historical pattern, that spells bad news for the Liberal Democrats. Historically, our worst results, in terms of loss of votes and seats have come when Conservative governments have replaced Labour ones. The 1924, 1931, 1951, 1970 and 1979 election results varied between disappointing and disastrous for the old Liberal party. But then, in most of these elections there were few constituencies where we could mount a genuine challenge to the Labour party. So with our growing strength in urban areas, we have may a chance of bucking the trend next time even if Cameron does end up victorious. And of course, as Michael Portillo has pointed out in the Sunday Times, the wheels may already be coming off the Tory revival.

Friday, June 15, 2007

How the media loses those shades of grey

The previous posting put me in mind of a story that a former colleague of mine used to relate about the ways in which subtleties and shades of opinion get lost amid journalists’ wish to simplify news coverage.

In 1990, the Tory Cabinet Minister Nicholas Ridley created a sensation and was forced to resign as a result of accusing the Germans of wanting to ‘take over the whole of Europe’ in an interview in the Spectator.

During the media furore over this, one of the broadcasting channels visited Cirencester, in Ridley’s constituency to get his constituents’ views on his comments. My ex-colleage, who lived in Cirencester, was one of those stopped and asked his opinion. Being a contrary type he said that he thought Ridley was completely wrong, but didn’t think he should resign, because it was a good thing when politicians spoke their minds.

Watching television that evening to see if he would be ‘on the news’, he realised that his remarks didn’t fit the journalists’ pre-ordained script. And indeed the interviewees whose comments were broadcast either said ‘Yes, I agree with him the Germans are a rotten lot’ or ‘No, I disagree, he must resign’. Any opinion that was nuanced or quirky didn’t stand a chance.’

Blair and the feral beasts

Perhaps the moment has passed, but I have been reflecting on Tony Blair’s ‘feral beasts’ speech. He tries to play the dignified statesman, the ‘pretty straight’ guy, having to do battle with the feral beasts.

It seems to be though that it is difficult to think simply in terms of a relationship between politicians and the media, because there is so much overlap between the two. It isn’t just that many journalists seek an alternative career in politics, as MPs or spin-doctors, and politicians moonlight on the op. ed. pages of newspapers and magazines.

It’s also that both are to a great extent in the same business – purveying information, news and opinion that we hope will be of interest to a particular audience. For journalists this is their core business – done to sell newspapers or attract viewers and listeners. For politicians it is a means to an end – that of winning elections and carrying out the business of public administration. But it is a great and increasing part of the job. The skills required to produce newsletters (whether Focus, Rose or In Touch) MP’s reports, tabloids and election addresses, websites and blogs are essentially journalistic skills.

They share the same sins too – sensationalism, oversimplifying issues in order to make them seem exciting or interesting, presenting shades of opinion as clear-cut contrasts, as well as making factual errors or writing something in the heat of the moment that doesn’t stand up to later scrutiny. But if we are all to some extend guilty, I can’t help feeling, however biased my view, that Blair and New Labour are that bit more guilty than others. It’s not a question of the Iraq dossiers – the whole message has been to reduce debate to near absurdity – Labour are against crime so everyone else is in favour of it; Labour are against Saddam so everyone who disagrees favours him. (More examples at Millennium Dome Elephant). These have not arisen, as Blair claims, in the early years of New Labour when they were in opposition and struggling to deal with a hostile press, but well into the Blair project when they were in power.

So while some of Blair’s arguments may have some validity, he is in no position to take the moral high ground with the media.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Is political meddling really devaluing the school curriculum?

Is political meddling really ruining lessons as the think-tank Civitas claims and as reported on the
front page of today’s Daily Telegraph?

I heard the discussion on this morning’s Today Programme between Chris McGovern, one of the authors of the Civitas report and Peter Hyman, Downing Street Spin Doctor turned comprehensive school teacher. The strange thing about their argument was that they appeared to describe two entirely different national curriculums for history – the one infected by fashionable policitical nostrums to the point that history has become a bogus subject, the other a highly traditional outline of 1,000 years of British History. Both can’t be right.

The reason for this, I suspect, is not simply that the truth lies somewhere in between, but that the national curriculum includes a strange mixture of both elements. Of course, I am neither a schoolteacher nor a recent pupil – indeed my schooldays are so long ago that they didn’t even have GCSE’s back then. But helping my stepchildren with history homework gave me at least a little bit of insight into the way students are expected to learn.

While they did indeed learn about the Tudors, the Victorians etc., it seemed to me that these were dealt with in a funny order without a clear sense of chronology. And homework projects were rather different from those of my schooldays. Rather than having to outline the key events of 1066 etc., students would have to examine a picture or other contemporary document and then write about how an Anglo-Saxon woman would have felt at her husband leaving home to fight in Harold’s army and then having all their land taken away by the Normans. Or something like that. So rather than what happened, when and why, pupils were invited to make up stories about historical events.

My suspicion is that the history curriculum has become a bizarre amalgamation of the traditional ‘island’s story’ that the Tories wanted when they introduced it and the postmodernist ideas of those who theorise about the learning of history and who reject the idea that we can ‘know’ what happened in the past and instead see it as any number of equally valid stories. (Richard J. Evans’s book In defence of history deals at length with the baleful influence of postmodernist theorists on the historical profession.)

Of course, one wonders also whether the ‘political-correctness-gone-mad’ lobby are protesting just a little too much. Anyone who has read 1066 and all that, whose authors, Sellars and Yeatman subtitled their work ‘a memorable history of England’, will know that there are only two dates in British history that most people remember – 55BC and 1066. The year of the Gunpowder Plot was excised because it was not ‘memorable’ So people having only a vague notion of the key events of British history has a long genesis. Sellars and Yeatman were of course writing in 1930, before political correctness, postmodernism or the national curriculum.

There is indeed a danger in making history about empathy rather than knowledge. But neither should history simply be a story of kings and queens and great men, as many conservative historians might wish. It ought to be possible to give children studying history at school a clear sense of the high politics of British history, alongside the social, cultural, ethnic and religious elements. These things are important too and it is possible to teach them in an academically rigorous way.