I have stood at the very spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were shot by Gavrilo Princip 100 years ago. And the impossible “What If” question occurred to me even then. So when I noticed that eminent historian Ned Lebow had published an examination of the issue, I leapt at it. The assassination was such a fluke, so preventable, so absurd that the yearning for a different outcome of that moment is great. As he says at the start (having summarised some of the counterfactual options),
None of these what-ifs strains our understanding of the world because most royal processions do not stray from their intended routes, and most security details would have rushed the archduke and his wife to safety at the first signs of violence. In this instance, the so-called factual, not the counterfactual, is what strikes us as unrealistic and incredible. (p16) Read more
It has its gainsayers (eg Steven Poole is pretty disparaging, though unfairly in my view) but George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language (the whole essay is online), is prophetic. Of course some of his linguistic concerns are matters of taste and fashion (as Steven Poole rightly notes). But written at the close of the Second World War, this article exposes the sham sincerity and dissembling motivation behind so much political speech and writing. That is the essay’s great virtue. And it has not gone out of date at all. Read more
I have just finished Kofi Annan’s fascinating memoir Interventions. Annan is clearly a man of great stature and influence, who strained every sinew to bring about peace and dialogue during his 10 years as UN Secretary-General but tragically often failed. For all kinds of reasons. But as one might expect (and indeed hope), he has great wisdom to share, even if he cannot claim a string of personal triumphs.
A real gem this week. It’s on display in the painting studio at Chartwell, Churchill’s much-loved home in Kent. I couldn’t resist getting down his points verbatim when we paid a return visit over the summer.
The presenting issue behind the article was the hysteria whipped up against Obama’s healthcare proposals in the US – something which those of us with ‘socialised’, crypto-communist medicine in the UK find hard to understand. I do realise that many on the US right are no fools, that the British NHS is far from perfect, and that there may well be many good grounds for the position(s) they took. But that’s not my point here. My main concern is how politics (left and right) throughout the West now (has to) operates. This was the object of Jill Lepore’s New Yorker investigation a couple of weeks ago, The Lie Factory. Read more
John Smith MP was one of those tragic political should-have-beens. But while Leader of the Opposition riding on Labour’s 23% point lead over the Tories in 1994 and widely assumed to be Prime Minister in waiting, he died 18 years ago tomorrow from a pair of massive heart attacks. He was only 55. For those concerned with public life, it was one of those remember-what-you-were-doing-moments. But the reason for picking up on it here is that I was blown away at the time, and recalled in conversation last week, the piece written by the great Matthew Parris, at the time The Times’ Parliamentary Sketch-writer and oft-quoted by Q. Read more
In the light of recent events, it seems only appropriate to bring this back to the forefront of public attention. You’ve seen the trailer for Hackgate The Movie – now read Hackgate The Poem. Written by Humbert Wolfe in the 1920s, it shows that little has changed over the last century or so… Read more
During the 4 years we worked in Uganda, I would have this conversation with students all too often. They would despairingly deprecate African states for their oh-so predictable corruption, nepotism and despotism. It would be shrugged off and perhaps accompanied by a green-eyed comment about western political systems. And indeed, when chatting with friends back home, they would often enquire whether X or Y countries were doing ‘worse or better these days’ – shorthand for whether their respective rulers were now more, or less, openly corrupt and oppressive. Such is the caricature many outsiders have of Africa – and of course, there’s no smoke without fire, etc etc. Read more
I said last week that I was offering the final instalment of Whitehall Wisdom. Well, I subsequently realised that I had omitted perhaps the most pertinent of the lot – the tangled web that has been weaved in the name of Church and State relations. This is primarily the result of that perfect CofE primer, the episode entitled The Bishop’s Gambit. Read more
One of the acute difficulties of British etiquette is the profound problem of meaning – there can be a huge disparity between the literal/surface meaning of words and the actual intended meaning as all visitors to these shores find to their confusion and even peril. For those wanting a general introduction to the phenomenon, you can do a lot worse than checking this excellent EU translation guide. Read more
Here are some further lessons from Yes Prime Minister. This time, mainly from Sir Humphrey, on the art of managing your department minister, however senior he or she might be. Read more
This week we follow Bernard as he comes to terms with some of the realities of political life, usually as a result of the instructions from his mentor and overlord, Sir Humphrey…
I’m certainly no psephologist (though I do totally and absolutely love the word). But as we approach this referendum on Thursday, I’ve been feeling torn. I think I’ve worked out what I think but am not completely settled yet. And even if I was, I don’t think I would tell you. What I say now is probably (certainly) full of psephological flaws… Read more
There is a word of plural number
A foe to peace and tranquil slumber.
Now any word you chance to take
By adding “S”, you plural make;
But if you add an “s” to this,
How strange the metamorphosis!
Plural is plural then no more
And sweet, what bitter was before.
What is the word?
Can you solve this without googling it?! Read more
Having been a long-term, obsessive devotee of Yes (Prime) Minister, I enjoyed picking up this little dip-in fan’s miscellany about the series, not least because of the Jay & Lynn introduction. Here are a few treats:
The fruits of authenticity
[The] quest for authenticity produced unexpected benefits. We discovered that truth was not just stranger than fiction, it was also funnier. We often found that if an episode wasn’t really working, the answer was to go back to our expert advisors and probe a bit further; time and again this would produce the idea that we needed.
There were three plot ideas in particular that we hit on in this way. There was a crisis meeting in the minister’s sleeping compartment in the overnight train to the party conference. There was the announcement on television of a Christmas benefit for pensioners after the civil service had refused on the grounds of administrative impossibility, and there was the teetotal reception in an Islamic country where the UK delegation set up an emergency communications tent full of bottles of Scotch to top up the chaste orange juice supplied by their hosts. They all happened, but we would never have thought of them ourselves. (p3) Read more
There has been an unseemly rush amongst our former political masters to get their memoirs onto the shelves. But having read Rawnsley’s first book on New Labour some years ago (Servants of the People), I was very keen to get my hands on his follow-up – which continues the story until a few months before their loss of power in 2010.
You may have noticed that I’m now reading Blair’s effort, for a small reading group I’m in to discuss in a month or two. So as not to get the two confused, I feel the need to write up Rawnsley quickly. 100 pages in to Blair’s journey, I can definitely say which one I prefer. Rawnsley’s prose style is readable, concise and even gripping. He’s talked to everyone – or rather everyone seems to have talked to him over the years. So he knows much of what has been said by whom to whom, and why. He’s had the inside story on all the Brown-Blair tensions, the relations with Bush’s White House as well as many others. [A new extended edition is apparently just coming out in paperback bringing the story up to date with the 2010 General Election.]
Above all, he is incredibly lucid, often about very complex things. For example, I felt I began to grasp for the first time what was actually going on to cause the Credit Crunch and how different people responded. (As an endorsement of that, a good friend who is a banker read the relevant chapters, and was very impressed despite his scepticism at a political journalist being able to pull that off). So this is an excellent read and rich in political nous as well as information that at times verges on the gossipy. As a rank amateur, I would have thought that this was the ideal primer for any seeking to understand British politics of the last decade. So it is worth an extended post, not least because I’m in Albania for the next few days.
There are many things to pick out. But inevitably, here are a few. Here’s a moment worthy of satire, from early on in the Brown-Blair feud:
One negotiation [in 1994 around Granita] took place on the evening of John Smith’s funeral in the Edinburgh home of Nick Ryden, a friend of Blair since their schooldays at Fettes. When they turned up, Ryden could see how bad things were between them. ‘Don’t kill each other. You;’ve both got a lot to offer the country’ was his parting advice before he took himself off to the pub. Their arguing was interrupted at one point when Brown disappeared to use the lavatory. When time passed and he didn’t come back, Blair assumed that the other man had stormed off in one of his rages. Then he heard the phone ringing and a familiar Scottish voice growling into Ryden’s answering machine. Brown was calling on his mobile from the lavatory. The door handle had come off, imprisoning him in the loo. Blair picked up the phone: ‘Ill let you out Gordon, but only if you give me certain assurances about the leadership. (p59)
So much ink has been spilt about this relationship. And the grim news is that, according to Rawnsley (who canvassed politicians, party members, and even top civil servants), it was far worse than we ever knew. It’s extraordinary that Blair despite seeming to know what Brown would be like in power, out of guilt or whatever, he felt he couldn’t stop a coronation by insisting on an election for his successor. But those close knew exactly what was be coming.
This is a revealing paragraph about the side of Blair that has only become more noticeable in his post-Downing St years. He always had a concern to grasp the centre ground of politics, and this seems to revolve around his instinctive realisation that in order to gain power, Labour needed to understand middle class aspiration. For he certainly did – and both Blairs knew first hand what it was like to grow up with genuine money worries. It was no wonder that this affected him in later years.
As Prime Minister, he felt impecunious when in the company of the billionocracy. I once asked one of his intimates what lay at the root of the Blairs’ blind spot over money. ‘They spend too much time in the company of very rich people,’ she replied bluntly…
His sojourns with the rich and sometimes infamous did not make Blair happier. He would return from breaks in wealthy men’s villas to moan to his intimates about how it made him feel poor. Here he was, someone with all the responsibilities of leading a G8 nation, and yet he had little money compared with these billionaire businessmen and rock stars. The aides who were exposed to this whinging had a declining tolerance for it, not least because they, like most people, had to pay in full for their holidays. Braver members of his staff like Sally Morgan would respond to these outbursts of self-pity by reminding the Prime Minister that he was better off than most Britons and had gone into politics for public service, not to get rich enough to buy Caribbean hideaways, Tuscan villas and super-yachts. (p127)
As for his successor, life in Downing St under his regime became increasingly strained. The rumours of flying items of office furniture appear to be based on reality…
… Brown was so power-hugging. Geoff Hoon summarises it well: ‘one of the great ironies of Tony and Gordon is that both of them didn’t have any time for ministers. The difference is that Tony broadly let you get on with it. He wasn’t much interested unless something went wrong. In contrast, Gordon wants to interfere with everything. He’s temperamentally incapable of delegating responsibility. So he drives himself demented.’ (p523)
Rawnsley is far too careful a journalist to lambast and rant. And he is quite prepared to give credit where it’s due. To Brown, there is praise for some of the key decisions he took early on during the credit crunch (although there is resounding criticism for some of the things he did later on in the crisis). If that was GB’s high point, Northern Ireland seems to have been TB’s. There are a few interesting comments along the way, but I was very struck by this one: Read more