British Politics and Failures of Leadership

Photo: Getty. Retrieved from https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/elections/2019/01/who-ll-blink-first-stand-between-jeremy-corbyn-and-theresa-may

Oh, to be in England
Now that April’s there

Robert Browning

Well, almost there. At time of writing, the end of March beckons. Our gardens and open spaces are reawakening, the evenings are stretching their limbs, the weather is more friendly. Time to look forward to summer? Alas, no. Like an evil sorcerer, Covid-19 has cast its malignant spell over us all, playing tricks with our perceptions of time itself. We are in a race against time to hold back and then defeat the disease, but rarely has time seemed so relative. For those on the front line, under-resourced and overworked, time must be a blur. For the rest of us, meanwhile, confined to our homes for much of the day practising self-isolation or social distancing, time is slowing.

We are currently in partial lockdown. Everything not directly coronavirus-related seems like an irrelevance. But politics and the political process do not stop (though parliament itself has now risen for four weeks). The government still governs and, perhaps more than ever, MPs of all parties have a duty to fulfil one of their key functions — scrutinising those in power and holding them to account.

Our government — like all governments around the world — is being tested like never before in peacetime history, led by a prime minister only months into the job. What follows is not about the government’s handling of the current crisis, but it is a reminder that, when we make our choice at the ballot box — or when we don’t bother, for that matter — we have no idea what perils await those we elect. Events, dear boy. Events.

It is a sobering thought, one that suggests an interesting question: which UK administration ranks as the worst of modern times — ‘worst’ in the sense of ‘dysfunctional, not up to the job’?

The Eden government (1955–57) made a calamitous error of judgement over Suez, and Eden was out of office before really getting his feet under the prime ministerial table. The short-lived Douglas-Home government (1963–64) is but a footnote in the history books. The 1970s was a troubled, tempestuous decade but — though we might argue all day about strategic direction and individual policies — it is less easy to make the case for gross incompetence. Rather the opposite, in fact.

For a long time, my answer to the question would have been the government of John Major. For someone who first took an interest in politics in the Thatcher era — with its endless refrain of ‘competent Conservatives / incompetent Labour’ — it was hard to resist at least a frisson of schadenfreude watching a Conservative government taking ineptitude and mismanagement to new levels — the Black Wednesday debacle, in-fighting over Europe (the prime minister characterised fellow cabinet members as “bastards”), the citizen’s charter, back to basics.

A sorry list of mostly self-inflicted woe.

So the award used to go to John Major’s government … until, that is, Theresa May came along in 2016, picking up the pieces of David Cameron’s twelve-month-long “strong and stable” government. She played a fiendishly tricky hand badly, like a poor poker player on a run of rotten luck. Brexit brought paralysis; like dementors in Harry Potter World, it sucked up all the government’s energy and left devastation in its wake.

To switch metaphors, May charted an impossible course with her ridiculous red lines and appointed hardline Brexiteers to steer the ship. Parliament was treated with utter disdain until the government lost its majority and was forced to concede ground in one area after another. Inflexibility was the watchword, her lack of even basic interpersonal skills brilliantly captured by John Crace’s Maybot caricature in The Guardian.

For nearly three years May’s government tacked to the right rather than seeking a viable way forward, a parliamentary compromise around which elements of all parties might coalesce. This sorry chapter will figure prominently in future histories of the Conservatives — the party of Stanley Baldwin, Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath shunning pragmatic, moderate centrists such as David Gauke, Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve and instead embracing the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Mark Francois and Priti Patel, blinkered, ludicrous and repulsive in equal measure.

Meanwhile, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn — elected, and then triumphantly re-elected, by an unprecedented number of party members, many of them recent recruits — failed to lay a glove.

For a lifelong protester, Corbyn is a surprisingly poor public speaker. He is leaden and flat-footed at the Commons despatch box. With Prime Minister’s Questions the only bit of parliament that many voters see, this matters. Time and again he had May’s hapless front bench at his mercy; time and again he proved incapable of delivering a decisive blow. It was backbench heavyweights who hit hardest — the likes of Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper. The single most electrifying contribution of the last parliament was arguably Margaret Beckett’s speech of 4 December 2018 during one of the many, many Brexit debates.

I have argued elsewhere that Brexit confronted Labour with an impossible conundrum, but Brexit alone did not undermine Corbyn. The fact is, he has proved to be a poor leader. Corbyn is a campaigner, a maverick, an outsider; the march, rally or hastily assembled protest meeting is his comfort zone. He thrives on berating others for their lack of ideological purity but is deeply uncomfortable making the hard choices that leadership requires. To (slightly) rework an old saying, to lead is to choose.

The 2019 election result was neither shock nor surprise: despite nine years of austerity, the implosion of Cameron’s government and three years of utterly shambolic Brexit negotiations, the Labour Party consistently scored badly in opinion polls. The election campaign itself was awful — flat and uninspiring, as wet as the late-autumn season. We read of resources directed to the wrong seats, of poor campaign coordination. We can point to ill-judged policy announcements like broadband and WASPI women, and of a car-crash interview with Andrew Neil. But this runs the risk of deflecting the blame onto party officials or his de facto deputy, John McDonnell. The stark reality is that, in this highly presidential campaign, Corbyn wasn’t up to the job.

With so much hindsightery, it’s worth quoting a tweet from the excellent political journalist Steve Richards. It was written on 17 November, four weeks before election day:

Historians will wonder with good cause why J Corbyn and J Swinson gave B Johnson an election on the date he wanted and at the height of his prime ministerial honeymoon. They were leaders in a hung parliament with considerable powers to determine an election timing and much more.

Steve Richards, political journalist, 17 November 2019 (on Twitter)

Historians will also speculate on what led them to take the fateful decision.

Perhaps it was hubris — pride, arrogance, excessive self-confidence — which, as the ancient Greek playwrights worked out, always ends badly. Facing the pitiful May government in parliament, rarely a speech or intervention seemed to end without an impassioned demand for an immediate general election. But like Bernie Sanders predicting the “beginning of the end” for Trump after the New Hampshire primary in January 2020, it was empty rhetoric, nothing more than bluff and bluster, the cut and thrust of parliamentary swashbuckling. Along came Johnson and called their bluff.

The Liberal Democrats’ support for an election at least made some kind of sense: the party had a clearly articulated (if controversial) position on the central Brexit issue; they were for a time polling above 20% and had performed well in the earlier European elections; and they seemed genuinely to be on a surge, their tally of MPs growing by the week due to regular defections from the two main parties.

Add to the mix a sprinkling of groupthink. All leaders surround themselves with like-minded thinkers and ‘yes’-people. But the Corbyn phenomenon has been something else, more akin to a cult. Consider the signs: a devoted band of followers; a narrative setting out simplistic explanations for what is wrong with the world and equally simplistic solutions; intolerance of dissent and excoriation of non-followers. How ironic, then, that another of the features of a cult — a charismatic, supposedly omniscient leader — is something that Corbyn most assuredly is not.

The takeaway from the 1992 election was that it was John Major’s soapbox ‘wot won it’ for the Conservatives, an unlikely victory when defeat seemed on the cards: good old John, man of the people, doing things the old-fashioned way etc. And so, right on cue on the first day of the 1997 election, there he was on his soapbox, as if this would somehow make a 20-point poll deficit magically disappear. The strategy had spectacularly failed to differentiate between cause and correlation: A followed by B does not necessarily mean that A caused B.

Fast-forward to the 2019 election. The thinking seems to have gone something like this: Corbyn had a good campaign in 2017 (let’s ignore the inconvenient fact that Labour lost) so just do the same thing this time around. Let Corbyn be Corbyn, to borrow an idea from The West Wing: set him free on the campaign trail, meeting real people, generating a sense of momentum (sic) and all will turn out for the best. In other words, ignore the clear signs of popular disillusionment after years of parliamentary paralysis, ignore the polling evidence, ignore the catastrophic impact of the anti-semitism charge on the leadership’s credibility, ignore the time of year — the short days and long, dark evenings, the cold, the rain. All will turn out for the best. Except, it didn’t.

In a few days — voting ends on 2 April — the Labour Party membership will have chosen a new leader and deputy leader. An election campaign that feels like it has been going on forever, without at any point igniting the interest of the wider public, seems like an irrelevance in the midst of a global emergency. It is, in fact, anything but. As was noted in the opening few lines, politics and the political process go on, and there is important work to do in holding the government to account. But there is another reason too. In the 1920s the Liberal Party went through a catastrophic status update — from one of the two great parties of government to third-party irrelevance. The next Labour leadership team may well determine whether the Labour Party goes the same way in the 2020s.

Click to read some thoughts on Brexit, the 2019 election and the state of British politics.

Brexit, the 2019 Election and the State of British Politics

For someone who locates himself somewhere on the political left, the outcome of the 2019 general election was shattering and sobering, though surely not entirely unexpected: a substantial Commons majority for the Conservatives — memo to self: look up the definition of ‘landslide’ — and, what is worse, talk of ‘powerful’ mandates, ten years of Conservative rule and a ‘Boris revolution’. Note: this is the sole reference to ‘Boris’ and deliberately placed in inverted commas.

Unfortunately, election promises — especially Johnson promises — are, like many Christmas toys, cheaply made and easily broken.

Diogenes

It is possible that Johnson’s large parliamentary majority and the largesse promised to, and seats secured in, formerly solid Labour areas will free him of the urge to tack to the right in order to satisfy the whims of erstwhile ERG allies. Unfortunately, election promises — especially Johnson promises — are, like many Christmas toys, cheaply made and easily broken. We will know more after Javid’s next budget (expected in February 2020) and the forthcoming multi-annual spending review, but the early signs do not augur well.

The revised EU Withdrawal Agreement largely stripped away previous guarantees of workers’ rights, regulatory standards compliance and parliamentary scrutiny. Meanwhile, though a New Year’s Eve announcement of a 6.2% increase in the minimum wage is welcome, earlier promises to increase the minimum wage to £10.50 over five years now come with a small-print caveat — “provided economic conditions allow”.

The Labour Party in 2019 faces a threat to its existence as grave as that of 1979-83. The loss of heartland seats such as Bolsover is historic …

Diogenes

Chapter 22 of (probably) my favourite set of political memoirs — Denis Healey’s The Time of My Life — covers the years after Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979: he called it Labour in Travail. The Labour Party in 2019 faces a threat to its existence as grave as that of 1979–83. The loss of heartland seats such as Bolsover is historic, though we don’t of course yet know if this represents a permanent shift in the political tectonic plates.

The facts and figures are not encouraging for Labour supporters. Since Harold Wilson’s 98-seat majority in 1966 — 53 years ago, at the time of writing — Tony Blair is the only Labour leader to be elected with a parliamentary majority. Assuming that the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act is repealed, Labour’s next realistic chance of forming a majority government is likely to be 2028 at the earliest, 23 years after Blair’s last victory in 2005. How we lefties hooted in 1997 when the Conservatives were wiped out in Scotland, with Labour winning 56 of the 72 seats. In 2019, Labour won just a single seat out of the available 59.

The first time I didn’t vote Labour — I usually do, with a greater or lesser degree of enthusiasm — was my first general election in 1987. A student at Reading University (which is actually in the Wokingham constituency), I voted tactically for the SDP–Liberal Alliance candidate, defiantly denting John ‘Vulcan’ Redwood’s 20,000-ish Conservative majority by one.

December 2019 was the latest time that X didn’t mark the spot. I certainly wasn’t the only wandering voter, though I doubt too many people joined me in spoiling my ballot paper by scrawling None of the above. Bring back Tony Blair across it.

The influence of the media

Anti-Corbyn or anti-Labour media bias as an explanation for Labour’s defeat — the term ‘media’ used here to refer to the highly regulated broadcast media, the privately owned print media and social media, which is largely unregulated — lacks plausibility.

It is platitudinous to argue that howls of anguish from both sides means that the BBC has ‘got it about right’. Equally, the claim of overt broadcaster bias is risible …

Diogenes

For every complaint about an anti-Labour agenda or a bias against Corbyn, the attack-dogs of the right make exactly the opposite charge about the broadcast media — though not, of course, about the print media — particularly about the BBC. It is platitudinous to argue that howls of anguish from both sides means that the BBC has ‘got it about right’. Equally, the claim of overt broadcaster bias is risible, from whatever quarter it comes.

Andrew Neil’s skewering of Corbyn needs to be seen alongside the same broadcaster’s no-holds-barred interviews with other party leaders and particularly his five-minute empty-seating of Johnson. Andrew Marr’s fussy interview with Johnson generated 12,000 viewer complaints (some, at least, no doubt submitted at the behest of CCHQ).

For all the accusations of an institutional liberal-left bias at the BBC, we should remember that there are plenty of former Conservative Party personnel who hold key positions in the organisation. I wonder what Sarah Sands and Nick Robinson — both formerly prominent Conservative supporters — think of the (probably) Dominic Cummings-inspired boycott of the Today programme by senior ministers.

Perhaps doubters from both sides need to be force-fed an hour of Fox News.

The print media, meanwhile, has always been overwhelmingly anti-Labour in modern times. When, in 1992, a Sun front-page headline requested that the last person to leave Britain in the event of a Labour victory switch off the lights, the paper was selling around 4 million copies per day compared to around 1.4 million in 2019. Newspapers and their owners still wield influence, of course — it is a worry, for example, how much the daily television news agenda is influenced by newspaper headlines — but influence in what circles?

Social media feeds on our algorithmically determined preferences and prejudices, generating sensationalist soundbites and clickbait headlines, devoid of context or even of meaning. Lies are peddled as fact; ludicrous assertions are left unchallenged, bouncing around the echo chamber.

Diogenes

Many ‘ordinary’ voters — as opposed to political geeks and those who inhabit the Westminster bubble — increasingly consume their news via social media rather than from newspapers or TV news. Sadly, this is almost certainly damaging our political culture. Social media feeds on our algorithmically determined preferences and prejudices, generating sensationalist soundbites and clickbait headlines, devoid of context or even of meaning. Lies are peddled as fact; ludicrous assertions are left unchallenged, bouncing around the echo chamber.

But there is no reason why this development — good or bad — should disadvantage the Labour Party over and above their rivals: if anything, social media demographics ought to work in Labour’s favour. An excellent media analysis in the Guardian quoted Dr Richard Fletcher of the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute: “One of the clearest differences is that most of those on the left prefer to get news online, and most of those on the right prefer to get it offline.”

But social media benefits those with the best lines, and in 2019 the best line of all consisted of just three words: Get Brexit Done.

Brexit

One Friday evening sometime during one of Theresa May’s parliamentary debacles — it’s impossible to pinpoint the specific one; there were so many — a brief pub conversation with a friend of a friend about the dismal performances of our local football team somehow strayed into Brexit territory. That I should be discussing politics at the bar of my local with someone I barely know is itself an indication of the extent to which Brexit weaves its malign magic.

And yet this shameless hyperbole was offered up so calmly, so matter-of-factly, as if pointing out a plain, unremarkable, common-sense fact along the lines of night following day, Saturday following Friday.

Diogenes

I was dumbfounded to hear him — an ordinary, unassuming chap in his seventies: friendly, mild-mannered, level-headed — assert that we (the British people) have been slaves for 40 years — yes, slaves. Stunned by this, my immediate reaction was ridicule, to mimic walking around as if lugging a ball and chain. And yet this shameless hyperbole was offered up so calmly, so matter-of-factly, as if pointing out a plain, unremarkable, common-sense fact along the lines of night following day, Saturday following Friday.

The issue of Britain’s relationship with Europe has obsessed the political classes since the days of ‘splendid isolation’ and long before; most ‘ordinary’ people, on the other hand, have been completely uninterested except, obviously, in times of war. An Ipsos MORI poll conducted during the 1992 general election campaign — the year of the Maastricht Treaty — asked voters to identify their top two or three issues of concern: 4% cited Europe and 1% cited immigration. As recently as 2010, an Ipsos MORI analysis of that year’s general election suggests that, though 14% cited asylum / immigration as a key issue, Europe was not one of the sixteen issues that registered at least 3%.

… the impact of Brexit on the Conservative Party has in some respects been at least as transformative, not to say revolutionary, as the leadership of Margaret Thatcher.

Diogenes

The Europe question has bedevilled both main political parties — it was Labour’s Harold Wilson who called the referendum in 1975, suspending collective cabinet responsibility for the campaign’s duration in an attempt to keep the party together — but the impact of Brexit on the Conservative Party has in some respects been at least as transformative, not to say revolutionary, as the leadership of Margaret Thatcher.

Anti-EU zealots, long in the wilderness, now wield significant influence at the highest levels, including in Cabinet. The Conservatives’ Brexit strategy over the last three years has placed severe strains on our constitutional arrangements and conventions. Moderates such as Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve have effectively been cast adrift, some even expelled from the party. Astonishingly, during the election campaign, a former Conservative prime minister and deputy prime minister — John Major and Michael Heseltine respectively — urged voters to vote tactically against official Conservative candidates, with Major earlier threatening to take the Conservative government to court.

Listening to the government’s repeated insistence on the need to leave the EU single market in order to forge new trade deals around the world, it is worth remembering that Conservatives’ Euro-scepticism (as it used to be termed) was always political in origin and nature rather than economic — hostility to what they saw as the federalist project of ever-closer union. It was, after all, Margaret Thatcher who negotiated the Single European Act in the 1980s that paved the way for the single market and, though this is seldom mentioned in Thatcherite circles, monetary union.

In an interview with Sky News as recently as 2013, Boris Johnson said: “I’d vote to stay in the single market. I’m in favour of the single market.” In the same year, arch-Brexiteer Andrea Leadsom said that leaving the EU would be “a disaster for our economy and it would lead to a decade of economic and political uncertainty at a time when the tectonic plates of global success are moving.”

Suddenly, any such ‘Norway-style’ arrangement keeping Britain in or closely aligned to the single market has become a betrayal. This post-referendum Conservative and Unionist government — to give the party its full title — has also agreed a Withdrawal Agreement that puts in place separate customs arrangements for Northern Ireland. This is despite Johnson specifically and unequivocally denouncing the idea at the DUP annual conference in 2018.

Without doubt, the government’s Brexit policy has already severely weakened the Union and could potentially lead to its break-up. The Conservative Party of old used to accuse the left of constitutional vandalism: they, by contrast, posed as guardians of the integrity of the United Kingdom.

No longer, it seems. According to a YouGov poll in June 2019, a clear majority of Conservative Party members are prepared to countenance the break-up of the Union in order to achieve Brexit — 63% with respect to Scotland and 59% with respect to Northern Ireland. Extraordinary stuff.

From nowhere, Europe — more specifically our relationship to it — has become an existential issue for the general public, as bizarre and irrational in the visceral reactions it generates as arguments over religion in days of old …

Diogenes

But Brexit has spread its poison far beyond the Conservative Party. From nowhere, Europe — more specifically our relationship to it — has become an existential issue for the general public, as bizarre and irrational in the visceral reactions it generates as arguments over religion in days of old, when disagreements over such arcana as consubstantiation and transubstantiation, and justification by deeds or by faith alone, were often literally a matter of life and death.

Rather than healing divisions, as David Cameron had naively hoped, the legacy of the referendum has been three years (and counting) of anger, frustration and bitterness and, if claims that this was ‘the Brexit election’ are perhaps overstated — at least to the extent that issues such as health, the climate crisis and leaders’ trustworthiness were also widely debated — there seems little doubt that Brexit swayed many people’s vote.

… ‘Brexit’ stands, at least in part, as a proxy for other issues — from concrete concerns about immigration, about job insecurity and poverty, and about haves and have-nots to less tangible feelings of displacement and disconnect, of unease in changing times and of dissatisfaction with our political institutions.

Diogenes

On the reasonable assumption that people don’t deliberately vote to make their country poorer, ‘Brexit’ stands, at least in part, as a proxy for other issues — from concrete concerns about immigration, about job insecurity and poverty, and about haves and have-nots to less tangible feelings of displacement and disconnect, of unease in changing times and of dissatisfaction with our political institutions.

Concerns such as these resonate above all in poorer communities, particularly the former industrial heartlands that have largely missed out on the benefits of economic modernisation and globalisation — in other words, Labour-voting communities. Here was Labour’s Brexit conundrum: an instinctively Remain party whose traditional base largely voted to leave. It is one that the party leadership singularly failed to solve.

The question of Brexit quickly became the unilateral nuclear disarmament issue of our times, exposing a key fault line in the party’s cross-class coalition of support. Like unilateralism in the 1980s, opposition to Brexit was a policy espoused passionately and instinctively by Labour’s middle-class membership — young, university-educated, city-based, cosmopolitan in outlook and lifestyle — but largely alien to its traditional working-class base.

But Brexit alone cannot explain Labour’s catastrophic election …

Click here to read more thoughts about British politics and failures of leadership.

Enlightenment Now: Book Review

We live in dark times. The forces of irrationalism and anti-progressivism are on the rise across the world – fascism, populism, nativism, authoritarianism, racism, religious fundamentalism. Enlightenment Now is thus a profoundly welcome book, a worldview diametrically opposed to that offered by populists, demagogues and religious fanatics. It is a bible for progressives and a rallying cry for moderate, secular liberal democracy.

Enlightenment Now by Stephen Pinker (2018 edition)

I agree with Bill.

Gates, that is. Bill Gates. The front cover of the paperback edition of Enlightenment Now boasts a striking quote from the co-founder of Microsoft, multi-billionaire and philanthropist: “My new favourite book of all time”. Hyperbole? Well, perhaps, but Enlightenment Now is good, very good — an absolute must-read for progressives in these benighted times.

Steven Pinker Enlightenment Now review Darren Waterworth

Steven Pinker first appeared on my radar about six years ago when I took a chance on The Better Angels of Our Nature, the ‘other’ book in a Waterstones ‘Buy one, get one half-price’ offer. Something of a punt in the dark, this impulse purchase demonstrated the influence the high-street chain exerts through its store layout choices and promotional campaigns. Would I have selected the book in any other circumstances? Almost certainly not. Knowing nothing of the author (of whom, more below), the book was shouting ‘trendy’ (to be clear, that’s a bad thing), but I was intrigued by its self-stylisation as “a history of violence and humanity” as well as its breathtaking ambition. It wasn’t always like this.

By way of background, a mea culpa: I plead guilty to years of appalling narrow-mindedness. From sixth-form days way back when, my reading interests extended little further than modern British and European history and politics. One shelf after another filled up with books drawn from a narrow circle of academic historians, political biographers, politicians, broadsheet journalists — or some combination of the above, people like Michael Foot. Hidebound by conservatism, I indulged year after year in comfort reading, to the extent even of skipping the arts and culture surveys to be found in most general histories.

The rigid compartmentalisation condemned in CP Snow’s Two Cultures (which Pinker references) — the one scientific, the other literary — ensured that I neglected even to entertain the notion that a science-grounded book could be read for pleasure. This was less intellectual snobbery (Snow’s charge) and more the absence of three key intellectual attributes on my part: a solid grasp of basic science and mathematics, confidence and — most important of all — curiosity. Reluctant to sail beyond the near horizon, seasickness struck whenever I dared venture out of sight of the calm, comforting shores of modern political history.

Steven Pinker Enlightenment Now review Darren Waterworth

My own enlightenment — if that is not too grand a word — came achingly slowly, beginning with the occasional history of some earlier time or place; my interest in Marxism led me to the English Civil War, for example. Peter Ackroyd’s felicitous prose was a sure guide through the byways of early England, having chanced upon the initial volume of his planned six-volume history from a shop specialising in remaindered books (volume five came out recently). The Shield of Achilles by Phillip Bobbitt was a challenging but rewarding introduction to multi-disciplinary writing. By the time I picked up Peter Watson’s Ideas: A History about ten years ago, I was sold: an ambitious, sprawling ‘intellectual history’ of just about everything — from the beginnings of civilisation, language, religion and writing to the turn of the twentieth century and Freud, Nietzsche and modernism. Watson’s A Terrible Beauty is equally good on modern times.

I credit the incomparable Richard Dawkins with curing my myopia, enabling me to see that the scientific community is equally capable of writing in an elegant and arresting manner. The God Delusion combined an impressive knowledge of religion and ethics with science, history and philosophy. Now I read the likes of Climbing Mount Improbable and The Ancestor’s Tale for pleasure, even if the science quickly passes over my head (though Dawkins’s more recent The Magic of Reality — written for young people but great for buffoons like me — is a splendid introduction to the mysteries of the scientific world). A Damascene conversion of sorts.

Better Angels, then, chimed with my new-found interest in culture and ideas, principally science, philosophy and religion, and sprawling thematic histories. It delivered in spades. A Harvard professor, Pinker’s field is cognitive science, which (as best as I can narrow it down) involves the study of the use of language, the workings of the brain and psychology, the mind and human nature. But Pinker’s writing is a polymathic tour-de-force: he seems equally at ease with history, philosophy, political science, linguistics and statistics. He writes with utter believability, supporting his arguments with a staggering array of empirical evidence, regularly citing up-to-date research and effortlessly deploying pithy quotes from thinkers old and new.

His recent Enlightenment Now picks up the same central argument as Better Angels that — notwithstanding your everyday impressions and assumptions — the world is in fact becoming a better place. Not perfect, note, but better. Not the smallest achievement of the book is the reproduction of 88 graphs, carrying data on everything from calorie intake and childhood stunting to retirement, life satisfaction and loneliness, in order to demonstrate in visual form his core argument about human progress.

At first read, his thesis feels counter-intuitive and simply wrong, at odds with the news that confronts us every single day (he has a convincing theory about this too, of course). Just in the last few days, for example, we have read of an appalling massacre in Sri Lanka, of civil war in Libya, of unrest in Algeria and Sudan, of continuing austerity, cuts and rising debt, of rising knife crime, of air pollution, of species extinction and of other climate-change perils. A typical newsweek, in other words.

The sceptic might choose to start with Pinker’s thought experiment. Ask yourself when in history you would want to be born, assuming that you had no control over where in the world you were born, your economic and social circumstances, your gender, your skin colour, the state of your mental and physical health and so on. The answer, he says, is an emphatic one: you would want to be born now.

Pinker focuses not on the ephemeral, the quotidian or the blip — the stuff of the daily headlines — but on longer-term patterns and trends. The core of the book is a demonstration of his belief that human progress is an empirical hypothesis that can be tested. In one scintillating chapter after another, he does exactly that, examining everything from personal safety and war to education, health, longevity and so on.

Pinker is clear-sighted about the enemies of progress: intuition, religious faith and scripture, authority and unquestioned obedience. Too often, we deny the very fact of progress, and he outlines a variety of fallacies and cognitive biases — the availability heuristic, confirmation bias, negativity bias and so on — to which we are all prone. This is gripping stuff, our all-too-human flaws and failings. We are often unreasoning and irrational, generalising from anecdotes, seeking to confirm prior beliefs, reasoning from stereotypes, ignoring evidence that disconfirms and so on. Nevertheless, his case is that, since the Enlightenment two hundred years ago, we have used reason and science to improve our knowledge and understanding, to overcome our cognitive weaknesses and thereby enhance human flourishing.

He rejects the idea of any kind of ‘Grand Plan’, a cosmic force of God, nature or history propelling us inexorably forward. Progress has been hard-won and must not be taken for granted. We have learned to use the tools of reason to combat unreason and irrationality: free speech and open criticism, fact checking, empirical testing and sober, logical analysis. Pinker is a champion of science and scientific reasoning, and of humanism, the belief that the ultimate moral purpose is to enhance the flourishing of individual human beings (as opposed to the tribe, race, faith etc). He argues that forces of cosmopolitanism — education, art, mobility, urbanisation — have helped develop what he calls our ‘circle of sympathy’, our sense of compassion, our ability to empathise and our concern for the welfare of others. I remember a similar point being made about the rise of the novel in the eighteenth century by, I think, Sebastian Faulks.

Pinker is difficult to categorise. It would certainly be far too simplistic to pigeon-hole him as a ‘lefty liberal’. He believes in the efficacy of free trade, market-based economics and free enterprise (though not of unregulated, red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism), detests ‘political correctness’ — something else that he believes inhibits progress by feeding the false narrative of populists and anti-progressives — and espouses a variety of policy positions anathema to many on the left. He is sanguine about developments in artificial intelligence, adopts a moderate position on climate change (in a nutshell, we have serious problems but it’s not all doom and gloom, and extreme solutions are not the answer) and supports nuclear power and genetic modification of crops.

We live in dark times. The forces of irrationalism and anti-progressivism are on the rise across the world: fascism, populism, nativism, authoritarianism, racism, religious fundamentalism. Enlightenment Now is thus a profoundly welcome book, a worldview diametrically opposed to that offered by populists, demagogues and religious fanatics. It is a bible for progressives and a rallying cry for moderate, secular liberal democracy. Michael Gove famously claimed during the 2016 Brexit referendum that “the people in this country have had enough of experts”. Pinker loudly and proudly proclaims the value of learning and of experts. He offers hope, but it is hope grounded not in faith but in reason and in evidence, welcome sustenance for even the most Panglossian of optimists.

Darkest Hour: Film Review


‘Darkest Hour’ offers us drama and tension aplenty, emotional highs and lows, and the usual cast of heroes and villains. In a welcome challenge to the ‘great leader’ myth, Churchill himself commits numerous tactical blunders, shows himself prone to wishful thinking, and is overcome by doubt and indecision — his own darkest hour. As the tension mounts, with Britain’s position seemingly hopeless and his critics ranged against him, his spirits reach their lowest ebb.

Diogenes

The year is 1940 and Britain is in dire straits. Abroad, the German army is sweeping across western Europe, a defeatist mentality paralyses the French top ranks, and the British army faces imminent annihilation at Dunkirk, probably to be followed by the invasion of Britain itself. At home, Churchill must negotiate a fragile coalition government, a divided Conservative Party, and rebellious and ambitious cabinet colleagues.

Darkest Hour, the 2017 film starring Gary Oldman that deals with Churchill’s first few weeks as prime minister in May 1940, inevitably resonates in this time of Brexit-related angst: the UK’s relationship with the European continent is currently under the microscope as never before in peacetime, with not a little hyperbolic talk about existential threats to our freedom and independence.

An example of a meme circulated on social media during the Brexit debate.

These tumultuous events of 1940 and Britain’s survival were, of course, exhaustively mined by Britain’s wartime propaganda machine, turning calamitous defeat and near-disaster into a form of national triumph. Ministry of Information shorts, such as Channel Incident (starring a young Peggy Ashcroft) and Neighbours Under Fire, trumpeted the indomitable will of the British people – the ‘Very Well, Alone’ mood of popular defiance also captured in David Low’s cartoons of the time and the ‘spirit of the Blitz’ in the face of the Luftwaffe’s aerial onslaught.

Widely circulated on social media in October 2018

I have discussed elsewhere the issue of ‘fake history’ and film — questions of historical accuracy and fidelity to the facts, the portrayal of people and events from the past, and the inevitable trade-off between historical ‘truth’ and entertainment. What makes Darkest Hour compelling viewing — beyond undeniable echoes in our current political travails — is the knowledge that those wartime propaganda lines about defiance and British exceptionalism have now been resurrected and shamelessly peddled by cheerleaders in the diehard Brexit camp to support their views about the Brexit negotiations, the opportunities and threats posed by a no-deal outcome, and our current crop of political leaders.

Darkest Hour includes virtually no scenes of actual fighting, though the reality of Britain’s perilous strategic position casts its shadow across virtually every scene. The focus of the film is essentially Winston Churchill, hailed by many — especially on the right — as our national saviour. In 2002 (Golden Jubilee year, of course), he was proclaimed the greatest Briton in a BBC poll, and ‘he’ featured prominently in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. To be fair, and perhaps in an indication of our changing national temper (or maybe just a reflection of the BBC2 audience), he lost out to Alan Turing and others in a 2019 BBC poll of the twentieth century’s greatest icon.

Churchill is arguably the most instantly recognisable figure from our past: the huge cigar, the V-for-Victory salute and the wobbly jowls delivering soaring oratory are etched into the popular consciousness. One effect of biographies and biopics (the good ones, anyway) is to flesh out and ‘humanize’ distant figures, uncovering something of the real person behind the myth. In Darkest Hour, we see glimpses of the husband and family man, the man of privilege baffled by the Tube map, the playful man giggling with the secretarial staff and (crucially) the man of doubt. His eccentricities and larger-than-life character are fully on display, dictating memos from his bed (and from the bathroom), consuming prodigious amounts of alcohol, berating his personal staff for the slightest of errors.

One cannot help but feel that aspects of Churchill’s personal conduct, long dismissed — perhaps even applauded — as quirky, eccentric and idiosyncratic, would in today’s #MeToo climate be condemned as unacceptable bullying and sexist behaviour. Films about personalities and events from the past nevertheless reflect the mood, norms and expectations of the times in which they were made. With diversity and inclusion society’s current watchwords, any film about events dominated almost exclusively by socially privileged white men will throw up interesting challenges for director and scriptwriter.

The secretary Elizabeth Layton is assigned a key role in the script.

In the film, a key role is therefore assigned to a woman, Elizabeth Layton. Though a lowly secretary, the script manoeuvres her close to the action and the locus of power, often involving her in intimate, one-to-one situations with Churchill (intimate in the sense that both can reveal hidden worries and doubts). Her role is as a proxy, a personification of the British public at large, their hopes and fears, their questions and concerns. She is fearful but resilient, curious to know more, and able to handle the unpleasant, unvarnished truth. Meanwhile, Churchill’s wife, Clemmie, is the steadying influence behind the scenes. More than just the dutiful wife, she gently admonishes the great man when he behaves like an ass.

Darkest Hour offers us drama and tension aplenty, emotional highs and lows, and the usual cast of heroes and villains (with, in this case, Neville Chamberlain perhaps somewhere in the middle). In a welcome challenge to the ‘great leader’ myth, Churchill himself commits numerous tactical blunders, shows himself prone to wishful thinking, and is overcome by doubt and indecision — his own darkest hour. As the tension mounts, with Britain’s position seemingly hopeless and his critics ranged against him, his spirits reach their lowest ebb. He becomes forgetful and — the ultimate catastrophe for a politician feted for his ability to communicate — struggles to find the words, before rediscovering his mojo with the help of the great British public in the controversial ‘Underground’ scene — controversial in the sense that it is purely fictional.

The George VI portrayed here is very different from the vulnerable king in The King’s Speech

The George VI presented to us is also of interest. Though the icy relationship between Churchill and the king thaws somewhat as the film progresses, the viewer will struggle to reconcile this monarch with Colin Firth’s portrayal in The King’s Speech. In the latter, he is warm, vulnerable and all-too-human. Here, he is remote, cold, bigoted and snobbish. The scene where he surreptitiously wipes his hand behind his back after it has been kissed by Churchill is particularly telling. Later, in an ironic turn, it is the king who urges the prime minister to listen to the voice of the people, precipitating Churchill’s journey of rediscovery on the Underground.

The role of arch-baddie is, however, reserved for Lord Halifax, the king’s confidant and political puppet-master, pulling Chamberlain’s strings in a bid to engineer a compromise peace with Hitler, thus preventing a German invasion and safeguarding the British Empire. He is calculating and scheming, refusing to take on the role of prime minister after Chamberlain’s resignation as the time is ‘not yet right’. The England (sic) he cherishes and seeks to preserve is that of the upper-class gentleman and country estate, a land of strict social division, of privilege and entitlement. Compare this with the portrayal of the ordinary Englishman and Englishwoman: patriotic, decent and resolute.

Films recreating events from the past must find imaginative ways to contextualise events, plugging gaps in the viewer’s historical knowledge and ensuring that the storyline makes sense. Here, for example, Churchill explains to someone who would have known the situation perfectly well that the king disliked him because he (Churchill) supported his (George’s) brother’s desire to marry Wallis Simpson. To establish the reasons for Churchill’s unpopularity with many Tories, we are offered a montage of politicians in whispered discussion, each with a gripe against Churchill: it is a ‘greatest hits’ of his errors and failings — serial infidelity to the Conservative Party, Gallipoli, India and the return to the Gold Standard.

The House of Commons as theatre

The scenes in the Chamber of the House of Commons are pure theatre — the bear-pit atmosphere and the dramatic lighting, as if a solitary spotlight were picking out the speaker at the despatch box, with the surrounding benches (front and back) almost in darkness, the more so to accentuate order papers furiously batting the air.

The debates themselves do not (inevitably) ring particularly true. For example, the two-day debate that led to Chamberlain’s resignation is here shortened to about five minutes. Labour’s Clement Attlee is forensic and withering, far too much so, if the recent biography by John Below is to be trusted. Crucially, the damning verdict of backbench Conservative MP Leo Amery, invoking Cromwell to the Rump Parliament — “In the name of God, go!” — is expunged from the record, as it wouldn’t serve the narrative, namely that Churchill did not have the Tory backbenches behind him and that his support came from the Labour benches. To the end, Chamberlain appears to command the loyalty of the Conservative MPs, a surreptitious wave of the handkerchief his signal to the backbench troops whether or not to show their support for the new prime minister.

Some of the points made in this article were also made in the article ‘Fake History’ and Film.

Ralph Miliband Biography Review

A strength of the book is that, throughout, the reader senses that judgements made are balanced and fair, sympathetic to the man but not blinkered to his mistakes, failures and personal foibles — not least a tendency to irascibility and impatience towards others as well as moments of self-doubt and, on occasion, fierce self-criticism.

Ralph Miliband and the Politics of the New Left by Michael Newman

Twenty years on, I can still vividly recall scanning the shelves of the university library — me, an eager second-year history/politics undergraduate — in search of a Marxist critique of fascism and happening across a book by Nicos Poulantzas. Three hours, one much-thumbed dictionary, two headache tablets and five pages later, I gave up. My next encounter with the World of Marx was Professor David McLellan’s 1973 biography of Marx himself: well researched and worthy, to be sure, but dense and daunting for the uninitiated. Finding Ralph Miliband was something of a revelation, therefore, for here was a academic — what’s more, an avowedly Marxist academic — with both the ability and the willingness to elucidate Marxist ideas in an accessible way.

Miliband’s most influential book — The State in Capitalist Society — transformed the political sciences in the 1970s and provoked a famous debate with the aforementioned Poulantzas, in part concerning the role and importance of abstract theorising. Poulantzas championed an ultra-theoretical school of Marxism that shunned empiricism and seemed to glory in abstruse theorisation. For these ‘Althusserians’, Marxism had its own discourse, purposely distinct from much of the terminology and assumptions of ‘bourgeois’ debate and thus intelligible only to those who could decode its arcane meanings. Miliband, on the other hand, always sought to test even the most basic of assumptions within the Marxist tradition with reference to the ‘real world’. Moreover, Marxism was much more than a theory for Miliband: it was a guide to action.

As Michael Newman’s book shows, Miliband was an academic, a teacher but, above all, a committed socialist, happiest when he felt he was contributing to the advancement of the left. Thus, in Parliamentary Socialism — the book that secured his international reputation in 1962 — by analysing the reasons for the Labour Party’s failure to implement ‘socialism’, he was implicitly offering a guide to future action. Apart from a brief flirtation with the Bevanites in the 1950s and the Bennite left in the 1980s, Miliband kept his distance from the Labour Party, highly sceptical as he was of its efficacy as an agent of socialist change. He spent his adult life in the ultimately fruitless search for a suitable vehicle to secure a political breakthrough, wedded to the belief that only a class-based political party could do so.

Born in 1924 into a Jewish home, Miliband’s political consciousness was awakened by the Nazi menace in the late-1930s. Though the death camps cast a dark shadow over his childhood and youth, Miliband was one of a number of European refugees who escaped the clutches of the Nazis, finding sanctuary in Britain and going on to form the nucleus of a radical intelligentsia that helped shape the cultural, academic and — to an extent — political landscape of the 1960s and early-70s. Indeed, Miliband lived through a remarkable, if turbulent and ultimately unsuccessful, period for the left. This book is in part, therefore, also a history of the British left from the twin crises caused by de-Stalinisation and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 through the upheavals of 1968 to the challenge of Thatcherism and the collapse of Soviet-type communism.

In writing the book, Newman had access to family, friends and Miliband’s own letters and papers, including a diary and notes made in 1983 for a planned but never completed autobiography. Newman uses this impressive selection of primary source material to paint a convincing portrait of the ‘private’ man as well as the more familiar public figure. His style is — like Miliband’s own — both accessible and, on the whole, eminently readable. A strength of the book is that, throughout, the reader senses that judgements made are balanced and fair, sympathetic to the man but not blinkered to his mistakes, failures and personal foibles, not least a tendency to irascibility and impatience towards others as well as moments of self-doubt and, on occasion, fierce self-criticism.

On the other hand, given the breadth of Miliband’s interests and concerns, judicious editing might have resulted in a more balanced book. Several extracts from Miliband’s work are quoted verbatim and at excessive length. Elsewhere, 13 pages are devoted to ‘the troubles’ at the LSE in 1968 and an entire chapter to his involvement in a campaign for academic freedom. This particular reader frankly hoped for less description and rather more in the way of reflection on matters such as Miliband’s position on academic freedom (which was somewhat inconsistent), his widening disagreements with others on the New Left vis-à-vis the nature and role of the working class by the 1980s and the wisdom of his wish to see a Marxist party of a non-dogmatic nature filling the void between the Labour Party and the Leninist CPGB (which he held in little short of contempt). Tightly written summaries of Miliband’s ideas and actions and relevant narrative would have given Newman more space for his own analysis, commentary and judgements.

This review relates to the edition published in 2002 by Merlin Press. It was uploaded to Amazon in 2004.

Aneurin Bevan Biography Review

Bevan was a passionate man, a man of unimpeachable integrity and honesty, a great orator (indeed, one of the towering parliamentary speakers of the century) and an able minister and administrator — a true political heavyweight. Yet, we sense also an imperious temperament, a restless and ambitious spirit, prone to bouts of petulance and arrogance, and demanding unquestioning loyalty from his devoted followers.

Diogenes

Nye Bevan by John Campbell

Arguably, Aneurin Bevan, the miner-turned-politician who became in roughly equal measure the darling of the British labour movement and the bête noire of the right-wing establishment, is better remembered than any other member of the historic 1945–51 Labour government — better than his colleagues Ernie Bevin (part-architect of NATO), Stafford ‘Austerity’ Cripps and even the prime minister himself, Clem Attlee. This is because Bevan’s name will be forever linked in the public consciousness with the NHS, which, as minister of health, he brought into being in 1948.

Unlike every other political issue of that era — it pre-dates serious squabbles over Europe by more than a decade and outlasted the Cold War— the health service continues to excite debate and controversy today. In this splendid biography, John Campbell examines the pertinent issues: the extent to which the NHS was Bevan’s own creation; his dealings with interested parties such as the BMA; the administrative and financial structures put in place to support this audacious social experiment; and the post-1948 political fallout.

Tellingly, however, Campbell devotes a mere 30 or so pages directly to the NHS — though indirectly it casts a lengthy shadow across the latter half of the book and the final decade of his life — because there was, in fact, so much more to this remarkable figure, a combustible mix of self-taught intellectual, instinctive rebel, eager, ambitious minister and charismatic leader. Campbell provides us with a fully rounded portrait of the man as well as analysing his impact on the Labour Party. He tackles with impeccable balance the highs and lows of Bevan’s life: the (relatively few) periods of triumph as well as the more frequent times of struggle, failure and schism — not to mention odd moments of bathos, most notably the publication of an eagerly anticipated book In Place of Fear in 1952.

Bevan was a passionate man, a man of unimpeachable integrity and honesty, a great orator (indeed, one of the towering parliamentary speakers of the century) and an able minister and administrator — a true political heavyweight. Yet, we sense also an imperious temperament, a restless and ambitious spirit, prone to bouts of petulance and arrogance, and demanding unquestioning loyalty from his devoted followers. Moreover, it becomes apparent that his judgements about politics, about future developments, about the nature of mankind no less, were often seriously flawed, a consequence of a deterministic Marxism that he learnt in his youth and carried almost to the grave.

The controversies surrounding Bevan did not end with his untimely death in 1960. The party wounds of the 1950s, patched up for the 1959 hustings, were reopened well before the election of Wilson’s unhappy government in 1964. Thus, the first volume of Michael Foot’s biography, published in 1962, brilliantly written to be sure, is hagiographic and tendentious and reads best, as Campbell himself says, as “an episode in the long-running civil war” within the party.

Foot, himself a born rebel and Bevan’s acolyte-in-chief, refused to serve in Wilson’s first government and then renewed the fight with a second volume in 1973. In an excellent introduction, Campbell deals with Bevan’s political legacy, particularly the claim made for Bevan’s imprimatur by a host of Labour politicians (the latest, to update Campbell, being John Reid, Blair’s health secretary since 2003) as they re-brand and re-invent policies — or (increasingly) consign them to the dustbin — and seek to sell a new manifesto to a deeply sceptical and conservative movement.

John Campbell is a fine, experienced biographer, scrupulously fair in the judgements that he reaches. The book is authoritatively written and meticulously researched, marred only by a handful of proofing errors. I confess to finding one ‘Wildean’ slip (a reference to Alan Bullock’s book Earnest Bevin [sic] in the bibliography) highly amusing but, as a reader with no knowledge of the publishing world, I am puzzled as to why such errors should remain to blight later editions of published works. This book was originally published under the title Nye Bevan and the Mirage of British Socialism in 1987 and re-issued with an abridged title ten years later, presumably to mark the coincidence of the centenary of Bevan’s birth and Blair’s first landslide.

Reading Campbell opens a window on the politics of a bygone era, allowing us to draw comparisons with modern times. Take age, for example. With Tony Blair having been prime minister for seven years by the time he reached 50, it is fascinating to learn that Bevan himself was the most junior member of the 1945 Cabinet aged 47. Or, take the press. Setting the headlines Bevan received c1951 alongside the obituary notices of a decade later, reminds one of the kicking meted out to Tony Benn, Bevan’s successor as Labour’s bogey man in the 1970s and 1980s — now rather fondly admired as a harmless, slightly eccentric, elder statesman.

The writer uses a 1997 introduction to update us on important political developments in the decade since the first edition; the main text, however, seems to be untouched and, as Campbell went to some trouble to relate the political controversies in Bevan’s life to the issues of the 1980s (particularly Neil Kinnock’s battles to modernise party policy vis-à-vis nationalisation and unilateralism), the reader is left with an unmistakeable sense of the ephemerality and sheer unpredictability of modern politics. For example, writing in 1987, Campbell was obviously taking seriously predictions of the Labour Party’s terminal electoral decline (p253 — “Some would say [the 1951 election defeat] was the beginning of the end of the Labour Party”); a mere 14 years later in 2001 it was the Conservatives about whom such prognostications were being uttered.

I thoroughly recommended this marvellous book to political animals and the intelligent general reader alike.


This review relates to the edition published in 1997. It was uploaded to Amazon in 2004.

Bill Clinton Autobiography Review

A thematic approach might have allowed a more coherent analysis of Clinton’s overall record in office. On the other hand, the book at least has the advantage of raising issues as Clinton experienced them at the time (with occasional — and brief — pauses for reflection); day-to-day events are not neatly compartmentalised. One is frequently astonished by the bewildering pace of modern public life as Clinton lurches from one critical issue to the next.

My Life by Bill Clinton

Jed Bartlet, the fictional US president in TV’s The West Wing, is a political hero of mine, so it’s perhaps not surprising that I find myself instinctively warming to Bill Clinton. The Bartlet character is, in part, a reflection of Clinton — a deeply religious, hard working, liberal internationalist, driven by the desire to serve community and country.

A self-styled ‘New Democrat’, Clinton first came to national prominence as governor of Arkansas in the 1980s. Architect of the once-fashionable ‘Third Way’, Clinton modernised the progressive message by co-opting core ideas from the conservative agenda (fiscal hawkishness, family values, work not welfare) and infusing them with a strong belief in social justice and opportunity for all. Along the way, he revitalised a factious Democratic Party, forced the Republicans to the wilderness of the radical right and blazed a trail for his soulmate Tony Blair to follow in Britain after 1994.

I approached this autobiography with some trepidation — as well as a dictionary of American idioms and an atlas. Though a keen student of politics, I am a novice with regard to American government; its systems, structures and procedures seem arcane and baffling. Another potential obstacle for the British reader is the vernacular of American politics, a problem compounded by the folksy, conversational style of Clinton’s writing. Hence, I’m still not au fait with the politics of campaign finance reform, ‘soft money’ and the rest and Clinton’s confession that, during preparations for the 1996 presidential TV debates, George Mitchell “cleaned my clock” just mystified me.

Aside from the Bartlet parallels, it is evident that the Clinton presidency has proved a rich seam of storylines and subplots for The West Wing, as well as helping this reader negotiate his way through the White House labyrinth. Thus, I was suitably prepared for the bizarre tradition of pardoning a turkey each Thanksgiving; meanwhile, issues as diverse as brinkmanship in the Taiwan Straits, America’s refusal to sign an anti-landmines treaty and backstairs haggling with congressional movers and shakers all have a familiar feel.

My Life is really two books spliced together – the one more enjoyable than the other. The weaker ‘Book 2’ covers the years of Clinton’s presidency. Written as a breathless narrative, this diary of events is a whistle-stop tour of domestic and (especially) international politics — a handy primer, perhaps, for first-year politics undergraduates — with everything from trade relations with South America to climate change negotiations meriting a paragraph or so.

A thematic approach might have allowed a more coherent analysis of Clinton’s overall record in office. On the other hand, the book at least has the advantage of raising issues as Clinton experienced them at the time (with occasional — and brief — pauses for reflection); day-to-day events are not neatly compartmentalised. One is frequently astonished by the bewildering pace of modern public life as Clinton lurches from one critical issue to the next. Even opportunities for mourning — whether for family (his mother), close friends and colleagues (Vince Foster) or political leaders (Yitzhak Rabin) — are sharply curtailed in the maelstrom of activity, and Clinton himself questions the extent to which he was truly master of ceremonies.

Less welcome is the overwhelming sense that everyone, but everyone, merits a line; My Life reads in places like a roll-call of thanks, of debts acknowledged and repaid. Yet, we are told that the final draft omitted “countless” numbers of people along the way. Central to Clinton’s survival and success in the cut-throat world of American politics was his remarkable ability, from a young age, to stockpile friendships (the so-called FOB — ‘Friends of Bill’) and build up networks of powerful acquaintances across the social spectrum who could be mobilised when required to campaign tirelessly on his behalf.

This is a major thread running through ‘Book 1’ — the years before 1993. At times, the young Clinton comes across as almost too earnest: the reader comes to expect each paragraph to end with a lesson gleaned from each experience or happenstance of life. Nevertheless, it’s an appealing story of an intelligent and thoughtful young man raised in a poverty-stricken southern state struggling to come to terms with trends in postwar society, through university (including two years at Oxford) under the shadow of Vietnam and ultimately to a career in politics.

Some readers will buy this book to read about the scandals that bedevilled his time in office. It is, of course, Clinton’s opportunity to present his own version of events but there is enough soul-searching and self-criticism throughout the book to convince me of his basic integrity, humanity and overwhelming commitment to public service. If his version of the ‘Whitewater’ story is one-sided then it is arguably a welcome corrective after incessant mudslinging by a largely hostile and partisan media, happy to accept financial backing from implacable opponents of Clinton and to weigh in with presumptions of guilt. Revealingly, Clinton refers to ‘Whitewater World’. He is implying, in effect, that the obsessives who lived the story year-on-year were ‘on another planet’ but it also suggests a psychological need to ‘box off’ Whitewater in his own mind in order to get on with the day-to-day job of governing.

The absence of prurient detail is welcome but his sexual shenanigans did have a major impact on his life story: they put his marriage under intense strain, almost cost him the Democratic nomination in 1992 and led to an impeachment trial. Yet, the first reference to his adultery only comes during his account of the Gennifer Flowers furore at the time of the New Hampshire primary in early-1992. Politicians are, of course, entitled to a private life that is private but this politician has written his autobiography — My life not My Political Life — and one is left in this case with a nagging sense of a lack of full disclosure.

This review relates to the hardback edition, published in 2004. It was uploaded to Amazon in August 2004. Other than stylistic updates, the only alteration to the text is the addition of several paragraph breaks and of the word ‘nagging’ in the final sentence. 

‘Franklin Delano Roosevelt’ Review

One is left with a nagging sense of disappointment that the Grand Old Man of the British centre didn’t bequeath to us the definitive story of this liberal internationalist and champion of progressive politics — a man very much like Jenkins himself, in fact.

Diogenes

Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Roy Jenkins

A ‘Note on the Text’ declares that Roy Jenkins died “[s]hortly before completing the final text of this book”. We are further told that the text was completed by Professor Richard Neustadt to whom Jenkins was intending to show his manuscript. Perhaps Jenkins then planned to flesh out the book; for, in truth, this slight work has much more the feel of a draft rather than the finished product.

Its focus continued Jenkins’ penchant for tackling the ‘greats’ of modern political history; FDR is certainly in the top rank of American presidents. This book probably arose out of the writing of his excellent Churchill, as the stories of these “two great superstars” so obviously converged in the years 1940 to 1945; there are also many parallels as well as points of contact in their lives — as Jenkins is quick to draw out.

However, the myriad references to Churchill (and to a lesser extent Gladstone) eventually become irksome and increasingly feel like fillers — evidence, in fact, of an unpolished, unfinished work. Frankly, after Gladstone and Churchill, 720 pages and 1024 pages respectively, this book seems altogether too slight for a political giant such as FDR.

Of course, there is nothing intrinsically inferior about the slim biographical volume (see Norman Stone’s Hitler, for example) but, if this really was Jenkins’ intention, then the reader is left questioning the overall shape and balance of the book. To cite one example from page 99, Jenkins devotes a lengthy paragraph to details of the international context of the later-1930s. And yet, major events in FDR’s career worthy of in-depth exploration — his time in the federal government before and during the First World War and his governorship of New York between 1928 and 1932, to cite two glaring examples — are all but passed over or sketched out in cursory detail. Elsewhere, storylines are left dangling in the air; his wife Eleanor, for example, a key figure in the early part of the book, virtually disappears from the story after 1933.

For the intelligent general reader (ie non-specialist), relevant factual information is often lacking (what, for example, was the “very messy naval drugs and homosexual scandal” of 1919–20?); meanwhile, the student of American history is left bemoaning the absence of definitive, closely argued Jenkinsonian judgements on the New Deal and Allied Grand Strategy during the Second World War.

A further tell-tale sign of a ‘work in progress’ is Jenkins’ observation on page 21 that “the politics of party loyalty from time to time makes monkeys of all who accept it”. Quite possibly true — and Jenkins would know as well as most — but this reader was rather disappointed when Jenkins reuses exactly the same idiom on page 113. Further, for a biographer with such an ability to select the telling phrase or the revealing anecdote, it seems curious that that he should feel the need (page 123) to spell out the punchline to the “savage joke” of Britain’s military superiority in 1940–41. This reader also found the Americanised text — “behavior”, “harbor” and so on — an annoyance.

And yet, as always, there is much to admire in Jenkins’ style — the felicitous phrase, vivid imagery (“mahogany-voiced”) and idiosyncratic choice of vocabulary (“eleemosynary”, which means ‘charitable’) — though, at times, even Jenkins perhaps overreaches slightly (the medal table image on page 4 and the extended dancing metaphor on page 126–27 spring to mind). The confidence with which he draws comparisons between historical personalities is a joy; we can revel in his assessment of the best US presidents, the most effective vice-presidents and the British prime ministers who outstayed their welcome.

His pen-portraits of people (one senses that Jenkins actually knew them: indeed, on occasion, he did) and places are deliciously well drawn; he effortlessly sketches the privileged milieu of America’s New York-based patrician class into which FDR was born. In so doing, he demonstrates that the skilled biographer is at least as well placed to portray an historical time and place as the writer of a general history. The trademark wit and an eye for quirky detail are still evident; his observation that, when staying at FDR’s family home, King George VI would probably have had to traverse the bedroom of the Canadian PM (also a guest) for a midnight pee is quintessential Jenkins.

This book can be recommended in the general sense that anything written by Roy Jenkins is worth reading. But in truth it is something of an anticlimax, an unsatisfactory swansong after two magna opera. It is questionable whether Jenkins has even nailed the case for FDR’s greatness. One is left with a nagging sense of disappointment that the Grand Old Man of the British centre didn’t bequeath to us the definitive story of this liberal internationalist and champion of progressive politics — a man very much like Jenkins himself, in fact.

This review relates to the hardback edition, published by Macmillan in 2004. It was uploaded to Amazon in June 2017. Minor amendments have been made to the original text.

Who was Diogenes?

The flimsier the historical evidence, the more entertaining the characters and stories.

Diogenes (me, not the philosopher)

The above is maybe not a ‘law’ of history as such, but it is a useful rule of thumb nonetheless. Diogenes has bequeathed us nothing in writing. Instead, into the historical vacuum of evidential mystery and uncertainty rushes a combination of myths, tall tales and caricature. In other words, not so much what EP Thompson called the enormous condescension of posterity, more the latter’s insatiable desire for a good story. Hence the modern-day popularity of tabloid newspapers, celebrity gossip and online ‘clickbait’ stories. Who cares if the reality is altogether more down to earth and prosaic?

There is certainly no shortage of good stories relating to Diogenes: the man who lived in a tub; the man who walked round in daylight with a lamp ‘looking for a man’; the man who was lippy to Alexander the Great and lived to tell the tale; the man who masturbated, urinated and defecated in public.

In fact, other than a few scraps, little is known for certain about Diogenes. He was born in the late fifth century BC in Sinope, a bustling seaport on the Black Sea. As a young man, he was caught up in some sort of scandal, possibly involving his father and the local currency, forcing him to leave his home and possessions behind. One story has him consulting the oracle at Delphi and receiving advice to ‘deface the currency’. At face value, a typically enigmatic oracular pronouncement, given that currency defacement may have been at the heart of the earlier scandal. But, if we interpret ‘currency’ to refer to conventional standards and codes of behaviour, then the instruction becomes one of cocking a snook at polite society, of deliberately upsetting the applecart. If so, this puts him somewhere near the head of a long line of contrarians and non-conformists through history — the sort of people AJP Taylor, in a different context, referred to affectionately as ‘troublemakers’.

The story of Diogenes reminds us of the old truism about taking time to dig deeper rather than rushing to judgement. Diogenes and his master Antisthenes are regarded as the original Cynics, founders of the Cynic school of philosophy. Cynicism, an unappealing and unpleasant attribute, well described by HG Wells as “humour in ill health” is defined by the OED as “[b]elieving that people are motivated purely by self-interest; distrustful of human sincerity or integrity” and “[c]oncerned only with one’s own interests and typically disregarding accepted standards in order to achieve them.” But the name ‘cynic’ actually derives from the Greek for ‘dog-like’ and was a reference to the extreme squalor in which Diogenes and others chose to live.

His inspiration was Socrates, who rejected the link between material comforts and happiness, as well as fiercely championing open-mindedness and the right to question authority. It became the basis of his method of teaching (‘Socratic dialogue’) and a supreme virtue in itself. Stories of the lifestyle Diogenes chose — dressing in rags, begging, eschewing the comforts of conventional life — sound remarkably similar to the extreme asceticism practised by religious adherents down the ages. Rejection of crude materialism and of conventional standards and norms of living was their route to freedom — freedom, that is, from human failings such as pride, desire and jealousy. Diogenes’ follower, Crates, supposedly abandoned a rich inheritance to embrace the life of the Cynic. Only with the actions of later followers of Diogenes and the first Cynics — shamelessly living off the largesse of others, relentlessly satirical and sarcastic — did ‘cynicism’ acquire the characteristics we now associate with the word.

As for his more extreme utterances, given that none of his writings survive (if indeed he even wrote anything) who can possibly say whether words and views attributed to him — incest and cannibalism, anyone? — were actually said and, even if they were, whether they were meant literally or just for shock value, another way of upsetting conventional tastes? In reality, the antecedents of many of the values and principles that liberal democracy rightly cherishes — freedom of conscience, universal brotherhood, respect for all life, including that of animals — can be found in the teachings of Socrates and the Cynics who followed. Far from being cynical in its modern usage, they were passionately interested in moral virtue: the representation of Diogenes as the ‘man with a lamp’ actually links to his supposed search for a truly ‘just’ man.

And so we come to the fictional Diogenes Club, first mentioned in Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Containing “the most unsociable and unclubable [sic] men in town”, its members were expected to ignore each other and talking was not permitted under any circumstances. Eccentric, peculiar, unconventional — the name ‘Diogenes’ seems fitting. Yet the word ‘cosmopolitan’ — citizen of the world — possibly originated with Diogenes. In these days of growing intolerance, rampant bigotry and narrow-minded xenophobia, at levels not witnessed since the 1930s, this minor fact, apart from anything else, seems to me to recommend him as a figure of interest.