The Monarchy Will Not Survive...

  • October 27, 2020 10:00
  • Clive Irving

On the publication day of The Last Queen, read an extract from Clive Irving's book below...

 

Someone was missing from every story written about the Queen: the Queen.

Fleet Street editors in the late 1950s treated coverage of the monarchy as both a daily obligation and, usually, a chore. With Princess Margaret slipping into the background (for the moment), the coverage was usually left to the small core of reporters accredited to the palace. Few reporters wanted the job. Few who had the job had any curiosity beyond the platitudes fed to them. They did get some exotic travel opportunities, though – particularly when the Queen toured the countries of her Commonwealth. The world empire was in the process of being subsumed into this very different arrangement. The newly independent nations were encouraged – but not obliged – to retain a familial feeling towards the ‘mother’ country, and, of course, towards the Queen. Moving from subjection to association (with benefits) was achieved partly because the Queen took the task seriously and because she had absolutely no whiff about her of Victorian racial superiority. She was, it seemed, naturally anodyne. In a tour that lasted for more than five months she gave 102 speeches without causing offence. She had a script, and she read it.

But that quality of inoffensiveness had its drawbacks. At home, without the exotic backdrops, the Queen had fallen into a robotic style of speaking. There was no sense of spontaneity or natural affinity for any setting other than the one place where she really seemed to be engaged with her surroundings: the racetrack. The Queen became more openly excited about horses than she did about people.

In the summer of 1957, I moved from the Daily Sketch to the Daily Express as deputy features editor. Geographically, it was a move of less than a quarter of a mile, to a 1930s architectural classic in black glass fronting Fleet Street itself. Professionally, it was the difference between night and day. Lord Beaverbrook encouraged a profligate newsroom that had permanent correspondents in every major world capital. The paper pioneered popular criticism of the arts. It had the sharpest social eye in the cartoonist Osbert Lancaster, and the best sports writers. But it also had to suffer the daily interventions of its owner, who steered every word of the political coverage and retained an attachment to the idea of the British Empire that was as entertaining as it was nuts. Because of that, the paper saw the monarch in an abstract way, respecting her as the disembodied figurehead of the imperial system, just as she was ensconced on the coinage and postage stamps. Behind her was the medieval figure that Beaverbrook designed as the paper’s icon – a Crusader knight with shield and sword, steadfast in dominating the alien peoples.

Soon after I joined the Express in the summer of 1957, the newsroom responded to a tip and sent out for a copy of the latest issue of a quarterly magazine that no editor had ever heard of – The National and English Review. It was the Friday of a bank holiday weekend, and the office was lightly staffed and somnolent. The magazine’s lead article changed all that, and would also seriously rattle the monarchy.

Among its points was that:

 

The monarchy will not survive, let alone thrive, unless its leading figures exert themselves to the full … When she has lost the bloom of her youth, the Queen’s reputation will depend, far more than it does now, upon her personality … Unfortunately the relatively classless character of George V is not reproduced in his granddaughters … The Queen and Princess Margaret still bear the debutante stamp … The Queen’s style of speaking is a pain in the neck … She comes across in her speeches as a priggish schoolgirl …Like her mother, she appears to be unable to string even a few sentences together without a written text…

 

The author of the article was 33-year-old John Grigg, 2nd Baron Altrincham, an Old Etonian with a habit of attacking his own class. He campaigned for reform of the House of Lords, correctly pointing out that many hereditary peers were ‘not necessarily fitted to serve’. At the Express, we realised that Altrincham expressed a feeling that had been growing since the coronation, that the Queen increasingly lived in and represented a world that seemed insulated from reality. There was no way of knowing how general this feeling was. But it had never been articulated in such a blunt and personal way before.

The Express – like other papers, not ready to be complicit in the attack – decided to have it both ways. In the news pages, Altrincham’s words were quoted in detail and treated as a sensational personal assault on the Queen. But the editorial page condemned Altrincham as ‘destructive’ and ‘vulgar’. The Sunday Times went further, sounding preposterously like the membership committee of an Edwardian gentlemen’s club, calling him ‘a cad and a coward’. Following that lead, Altrincham was physically assaulted in the street by a bellicose member of the League of Empire Loyalists. The Archbishop of Canterbury called him ‘a very silly man’.

One of Altrincham’s observations that got less attention was that the Queen had had ‘woefully inadequate training’ to prepare her to be the monarch. This was cleverly shifting the problem from the Queen herself to unnamed people, most obviously the courtiers, of whom Lascelles would be the most culpable. But the problem was really larger than one person: the Queen that we saw and heard, the Queen that we reported on, was the product of a formal framework in which the whole appearance, tone and style thought fit for a monarch was imposed on her from an early age. Had she passively surrendered to this system without resistance? Or was it possible that she had been advised against asserting a tone and identity of her own? If so, who was she when allowed to be herself?

That fundamental question could not be answered, because all of the commentary, whether supporting Altrincham or the Queen, was directed at somebody that nobody really knew. For that matter, it could be argued that the newspapers had colluded in creating the version of the Queen that Altrincham was so harsh about because in many respects we (and the BBC) controlled the monarchy’s public image as much as the palace did, based on a similar concept of its tone. No reporter and certainly no BBC producer had ever dared to say that the Queen’s speaking style was a pain in the neck – although it was. That really made us seem as clueless about how a modern monarch should appear as Lascelles and the others who had nurtured Elizabeth over the years, and this could explain why, on the whole, the newspapers reacted so pompously and peevishly to the criticism. Fleet Street and the palace were locked in a mutually reinforcing delusion of what was right, and the Queen was taking the heat for it.

As it turned out, Altrincham soon heard that the Queen’s first response to his attack was to say that he must be mad. Writing about his experience more than a decade later, Altrincham said that the Queen:

 

had been treated, since her accession, to such a concentrated dose of flattery, not to say worship, that she must indeed have been surprised to find herself the butt of criticism. I was sorry to have hurt her feelings, but a continuation of the infallibility cult would in the long run have inflicted much graver hurt.

 

The Chief Metropolitan Magistrate who dealt with the man who had assaulted Altrincham, letting him off with a modest fine, said that 95 per cent of the public found Altrincham’s critique offensive. That was not true. A public opinion poll showed that 35 per cent of those polled agreed with Altrincham, while 52 per cent disagreed. However, among those in the younger age group of sixteen to thirty-four the result was reversed: 47 per cent supported him and 39 per cent opposed him.

Who could provide a candid and objective view of the woman behind the mask as she then was? Even the most dutiful newspaper editor knew nobody equal to that task. At the Express, with all its expansive newsroom resources, there was not even the wish to try, nor did any other paper apparently feel the absence of an honest contemporary view of the woman at the centre of the royal narratives. In fact, it would take more than sixty years for such a flashback view to surface, and when it did it was hard to imagine a sketch of the Queen written with more lapidary skill – surely the equal in words of Goya’s portrait of Charles IV of Spain and his family, one of the most subtly seditious royal portraits ever.

The difference is that, unlike Goya’s 1800 masterpiece, this was a portrait of the Queen that was never intended to see the light of day. It was written by James Pope-Hennessy as he was gathering material for his biography of Queen Mary and surfaced in Hugo Vickers’s 2018 book The Quest for Queen Mary. In this book, Vickers serves as one royal biographer exposing the technique of another, Pope-Hennessy, by revealing all the notes made by Pope-Hennessy as he worked his way through interviews with every still-living stem of Queen Mary’s extensive European family tree. The published biography, though deftly written, omitted all the choicest of Pope-Hennessy’s notes about these encounters and it is thanks entirely to Vickers that we now have them in possibly the funniest book about the royal family ever written.

Three weeks after Altrincham’s tirade, Pope-Hennessy visited Balmoral while the royal family were at their regular summer retreat. It was his first visit there. He was a very sensitive architectural critic (he gives a devastating assessment of Sandringham, making it sound like a decaying grand hotel in some deserted Alpine resort) but found Balmoral ‘far lighter, whiter, prettier and more spacious than I had imagined’.

His introduction to the Queen was disconcerting. After shaking hands, and a banal exchange about where Pope-Hennessy was staying, there was ‘a three-minute silence, during which she looked at the lowering sky out of the window. I thought she hadn’t heard; but as it seemed like a new technique of conversation I remained silent too.’ After a description of the Queen’s clothes – ‘tartan skirt, a little olive-green tweed jacket and a complicated raspberry-coloured blouse’ – he delivers his more personal portrait. I am quoting it at length because there is no equal to it in any contemporary account:

 

By no stretch of the imagination can this Queen be called an historical figure. About the lower part of the face, which juts out more than one expects, she has a slight look of Queen Mary and Queen Charlotte, but that is all. She looks a little careworn, with lines from nose to mouth, and could easily arouse one’s compassion were it not for some element which is hard to define – smugness would be too crude and unkind a word – it is rather that she clearly does not feel inadequate. She is not shy, but she is clearly living at great tension, and does not give an impression of happiness. Her hands are thin and worried-looking. She is extremely animated, gesticulates when telling anecdotes, makes comic or pathetic faces, and simply cannot remain still. One feels that the spring is wound up very tight. She is brisk, jerky and a little ungraceful … She is kind and business-like and somewhat impersonal; her mother is far more feminine and knows how to simulate an interest in whoever she is talking to, whereas the Queen just talks, and sometimes is too busy trying to listen in to what her mother is saying across the table to catch on … On the whole it is clockwork conversation, not at all difficult on either side, but not, on the other hand, memorable, interesting, or worth the paper it could be typed upon.

 

Pope-Hennessy makes no mention of the Altrincham effect, but it surely must have been an influence at the time, like a noxious mist clinging to the Balmoral carpets and tartan rugs. More crucially, it is worth parsing this description for clues to the behaviour of both the past and future monarch: ‘she is living at great tension’ and ‘does not give an impression of happiness’ are, for example, blunt and confident assessments that raise many questions.

Elizabeth was thirty-one years old and had been Queen for five years. Her apprenticeship covered a period that would have been seriously challenging for a far more seasoned monarch. Churchill, her first mentor in affairs of state, had finally stepped down in 1955, replaced by his long-time understudy, Anthony Eden. Eden then led the country into the disastrous military adventure that would turn out to be the terminal spasm of imperial power. General Gamal Abdel Nasser, the new Prime Minister of Egypt, announced that he was going to take over control of the Suez Canal, then jointly owned by France and Britain. The canal was seen as the inviolate property of the two European powers and Britain’s crucial umbilical link to Middle Eastern oil. Eden told colleagues, ‘Nasser must not have his hand on our windpipe.’ The two governments then secretly colluded with Israel: the Israelis would invade the Sinai, and Britain and France would intervene on the pretext of stopping a war.

The plot was concealed from the public and a wartime level of censorship was imposed on the press and on the BBC. Among the military planners there was at least one dissident: the First Sea Lord, Mountbatten. Mountbatten went to the Queen to complain. It was an extraordinary act for a military commander to go directly to the monarch behind the back of a Prime Minister, but Mountbatten, as we have seen, had extraordinary access and influence at the palace. At Mountbatten’s suggestion, the Queen asked Eden if before committing the country to intervening at Suez he would consult Hugh Gaitskell, the leader of the Labour opposition. Eden refused.

Soon after it began, the invasion was halted. America opposed it as a misbegotten relapse into gunboat diplomacy. Eden’s premiership was destroyed. Nevertheless, a large part of the country thought Nasser should have been eliminated. What is forgotten now about the Suez crisis is that it divided the country in the same way and along many of the same inherent fault lines as Brexit. The issue became a crude litmus test of patriotism: opposing Eden was to betray Britain’s world mission. Only two newspapers, the Manchester Guardian (as it then was) and The Observer, opposed the adventure from the start, and both were publicly reviled for it – even The Observer’s relatively liberal readership was divided, according to letters sent to the editor, with 866 supporting Eden and 302 against. As a result of its stand, The Observer suffered a boycott by major advertisers that lasted for years and helped the rise of the rival Sunday Times, which had supported the invasion. But in the wider world it was obvious that Suez was a humiliating debacle for Britain.

If she had any acuity at all, the Queen must have been shaken to witness such a serious rupture in the composure of her nation and one wonders what lessons she took away from the experience. It would prove to be one of the most damaging political crises of her reign – the country was nearly bankrupted by it. In this instance, Mountbatten had been a realist while all those around him had been swept up in hubris. One thing she is likely to have resented is Eden’s refusal to consult the Leader of the Opposition. Later, as she grew more assured in her audiences with Prime Ministers, she would surely not have let such a thing pass so readily. By that time the occupants of Downing Street realised that she was always well briefed on their political opponents and their policies and that she preferred consensus to deep divisions. Certainly, Suez had found her too conditioned by a phalanx of courtiers who were mostly lifelong jingoists. Eden was gone by January 1957, replaced by Harold Macmillan, a much more skilled politician whose outward appearance of an Edwardian grandee concealed an astute ability to gauge the public mood – a gift that neither the Queen nor those around her showed any sign of acquiring, even after the impertinence of Altrincham’s critique. Pope-Hennessy’s observation, ‘One feels that the spring is wound up very tight’, could have many causes, both within the family, as in the row about the family name, and in the nation itself.

Altrincham’s assertion that the monarchy might not survive unless the Queen was transformed in voice and attitude rested, in turn, on a basic assertion that the monarchy was ‘out of touch’. It was a charge that would recur for decades, culminating in the way the Queen and the palace reacted to the death of Princess Diana in 1997. But what did ‘out of touch’ actually mean – or, rather, what would it take for them to become ‘in touch’? Was such a transformation ever going to be compatible with sustaining the legend of the monarchy? At this moment in 1957 it could truly be said that to her subjects and the world, the young woman on the throne was an enigma clothed in the garments of a legend, and the legend was dominant.

 

Want to find out more about the woman behind hte legend? The Last Queen is currently £10 on the Biteback website: buy it here.

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GOING FOR BROKE press release

  • October 27, 2020 09:03
  • Biteback

 

GOING FOR BROKE

 

The Rise of Rishi Sunak

by Michael Ashcroft

 

 

Publication date: 12 November 2020

Price: £20 hardback

 

In the middle of 2019, Rishi Sunak was an unknown junior minister in the local government department. Seven months later, at the age of thirty-nine, he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, grappling with the gravest economic crisis in modern history. 

Michael Ashcroft’s new book charts Sunak’s ascent from his parents’ Southampton pharmacy to the University of Oxford, the City of London, Silicon Valley – and the top of British politics. 

It is the tale of a super-bright and hard-grafting son of immigrant parents who marries an Indian heiress and makes a fortune of his own; a polished urban southerner who wins over the voters of rural North Yorkshire – and a cautious, fiscally conservative financier who becomes the biggest-spending Chancellor in history. 

Sunak was unexpectedly promoted to the Treasury’s top job in February 2020, with a brief to spread investment and opportunity as part of Boris Johnson’s levelling-up agenda. Within weeks, the coronavirus had sent Britain into lockdown, with thousands of firms in peril and millions of jobs on the line. As health workers battled to save lives, it was down to Sunak to save livelihoods. This is the story of how he tore up the rulebook and went for broke. 

 

AUTHOR

LORD ASHCROFT KCMG PC is an international businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. He is a former treasurer and deputy chairman of the Conservative Party. He is also honorary chairman and a former treasurer of the International Democratic Union. He is founder and chairman of the board of trustees of Crimestoppers, vice-patron of the Intelligence Corps Museum, chairman of the trustees of Ashcroft Technology Academy, chancellor of Anglia Ruskin University, a senior fellow of the International Strategic Studies Association and a former trustee of Imperial War Museums.

 His books include Victoria Cross Heroes: Volumes I and II; Call Me Dave: The Unauthorised Biography of David Cameron; White Flag? An Examination of the UK’s Defence Capability; Jacob’s Ladder: The Unauthorised Biography of Jacob Rees-Mogg; and Unfair Game: An Exposé of South Africa’s Captive-Bred Lion Industry.

 

For more information please contact Suzanne Sangster on suzanne.sangster@bitebackpublishing.com or call 07818 810 173

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The Queen and I

  • October 22, 2020 15:14
  • Clive Irving

My only contact of any kind with the Queen was in 1953. I was a reporter on a local newspaper, the Luton News. The editor assigned me to interview people named in the Coronation Honours list, to mark that glorious June day when Elizabeth II was crowned in Westminster Abbey.

There was a mischievous look on the editor’s face. He waited for me to look over the list. I was startled to find that it included me. I had been awarded the most modest of gongs, the British Empire Medal, at the age of twenty-one.

This was as a result of my two years as a conscript in the Royal Air Force. By pure chance I was posted to Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) led by the future US President, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. I had the lowly rank of senior aircraftman.

I was lucky enough to serve an American army major. SHAPE was in its infancy and we had virtually to invent an international administration from scratch. The major gave me authority way above my rank and, together, we got it sorted. I had no idea he would nominate me for a medal.

The Queen did not pin it on me personally. That was done by the commanding officer of an RAF base, but she did write me a letter of congratulation, with a mimeographed signature.

And so began the long haul of the Queen’s reign and my career in journalism, a kind of Queen and I passage through seven decades. We lived in parallel but very different universes, and it was this that finally provided the context for my book, The Last Queen. In seventy years, the monarchy’s relationship with the media underwent a total sea change, which I followed at first hand.

I also got to know one member of the royal family, Tony Snowdon, as a colleague on two newspapers and as a friend. When Tony married Princess Margaret he was the first royal husband who worked for a living. The marriage didn’t turn out well, but throughout Tony remained true to himself and his prestige as a photographer just grew and grew.

And, despite the collapse of his marriage, the Queen also held him in high esteem because of his public composure and dignity. She gave him £75,000 to buy a villa in Kensington.

And, as is clear from my book, Tony had qualities that marked him out from some of the other men in the royal family, particularly Prince Charles. Tony’s knowledge of and involvement with a new generation of British architects helped to get their work recognised. Charles, in contrast, set himself up as scourge of modern architecture without any knowledge or understanding of it.

That is one reason why I concluded that he is unsuited to be King. His habit is to surround himself with sycophants who reinforce his own cranky prejudices. Asked if, on succeeding his mother, he would give up what he calls his ‘convening power’ he said, ‘Well, you never know.’ Indeed, we don’t.

Tony, meanwhile, was a force for practical innovations that had an impact on people’s lives. For example, he discovered that the average width of a wheelchair was twenty-five inches but that train doors were twenty-two inches wide. He successfully campaigned for wheelchair accessibility.

Charles will, of course, succeed his mother. That’s the constitutional order. She has though, with her remarkable stamina and sense of duty, deferred that moment for a lot longer than we could ever have hoped.

 

Interest piqued by Clive's blog? The Last Queen is out on 27 October and can be pre-ordered here.

 

 

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Henry Milner introduces No Lawyers in Heaven

  • October 09, 2020 16:07
  • Henry Milner

Ahead of the publication of his book, No Lawyers in Heaven, Henry Milner tells us why he decided to write about his memoirs as a criminal lawyer...

 

Well over a year ago, I went to lunch with my super editor, Olivia Beattie, to discuss a crime novel I had written, provisionally entitled The Only Gangster in Heaven (to be published in 2021). The plot centres around a loan shark shot dead in broad daylight outside the very front doors of the Old Bailey. Over lunch I soon discovered I had an avid listener and, warming to my task, I started telling her a few amusing legal anecdotes.

Olivia suggested I should write an autobiography, convincing me that the public had an insatiable appetite for real-life crime stories. She added that, if I did write a memoir, we should publish that first.

True, I had a lot of stories to tell but it had never even crossed my mind to put them in writing rather than recounting one or two here and there at dinner parties. I certainly hadn’t kept all my old files going back some forty years and, frankly, I thought the task would be an impossible one. But I gave it a try and sat at home at night after work, writing the first five chapters at all too leisurely a pace and doubting it would ever be completed. I sent them to my good friend, John Mathew QC, to read. He rang me up and said enthusiastically, ‘Henry, I’ve only got two words to say to you – more please!’ He added that although we have known each other over thirty years, he never had the slightest idea about my background or how I started up in criminal law.

Well, this gave me a new impetus and when the coronavirus pandemic set in, and with no new case in sight, I spent my days ploughing on and on, deep in nostalgia, trying to bring to life the good old days when trials were thrilling, when verballing was rife and when great advocates had a chance to show their true worth cross-examining Flying Squad officers. When judges were larger-than-life characters and would constantly interfere in the proceedings; when many trials were pure theatre – a time now virtually dead and gone due to the advent of mobile telephone printouts, DNA and CCTV cameras everywhere.

Being a beginner, I spent far too much time romanticising over the title options, which ranged from the somewhat academic Presumed Innocent – Assumed Guilty, to the moralistic I Did Not Come to Lose and, finally, to the outrageous Miracles Cost Extra (my editor’s favourite!), before plumping for No Lawyers in Heaven, based on the premise that if prosecutors, judges, police officers and defendants were the gatekeepers to heaven, you would have to look long and hard to find any lawyers there – whatever the verdict someone would have the needle with you.

I have read a fair few legal autobiographies in my time. Many, sadly, go into so much detail on each case that you feel as if you are attending a tutorial, and so at all costs I have striven to avoid boring the reader rigid with facts and figures. Instead I have concentrated on the moments that I hope the reader will find interesting, those which give a real insight into what actually goes on in a trial as a case unfolds.

My story begins with my school and university days and how I stumbled into criminal law and, after a few lucky verdicts, found myself to be a ‘dot on the map’, following right through to recent times and the pros and cons of retirement – perish the thought!

 

No Lawyers in Heaven is out on 3 November. Pre-order your copy here!

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An introduction to Diane Abbott

  • September 25, 2020 11:15
  • Robin Bunce and Samara Linton

Diane Abbott: The Authorised Biography hit the shelves yesterday, and to celebrate we're sharing the introduction from the book. 

 

A winter election is a sure sign of crisis. Like December 1923 and February 1974, December 2019 was a tumultuous time for politics.

The political and constitutional crisis of 2019 was profound: an illegal prorogation of Parliament; a government ruling with no majority; and a constitution bent out of shape by Brexit. Despite this, the feeling in Hackney on election day was optimistic. Situated next to a hipster barbershop populated exclusively by men with monumental beards, and opposite a Lebanese deli, the mood in Diane Abbott’s election office was focused, a little nervous, but definitely upbeat. The view a few hours before the polls closed was that the local campaign had been good, although it was agreed that the result of the national campaign was impossible to gauge.

In one corner a young computer scientist and social media influencer curates Abbott’s Instagram. ‘I usually use Lota Grotesque,’ she explains. ‘It’s Labour’s font, so it’s part of the brand.’ Apparently, while Abbott is routinely vilified on Twitter, her reception on Instagram is altogether warmer – presumably due to the demographic of the platform’s users. Another staffer co-ordinates last-minute leafleting, while Abbott’s agent is out of the office running people to and from polling stations. Electioneering in Hackney has none of the glamour of The West Wing, nor the muted chic of House of Cards. Boxes of campaign material lie here and there, activists come and go, some wearing bright red ‘Vote Labour’ hats provided by UNISON. Between the ‘Vote Labour’ posters, some Labour red tinsel adds a touch of seasonal cheer.

Abbott’s arrival at 4 p.m. changes the atmosphere: the focused silence is replaced by a buzz of enthusiasm. It has been a long campaign, the phoney war having started in the summer, and, as far as Abbott is concerned it has been ‘an exceptionally dirty campaign’. Yet Abbott seems energised. At the end of November 2019, the Tories were something like twelve points ahead, but in the final fortnight the lead had narrowed. Six hours before the polls closed, Abbott’s view was that the election was too close to call, a view shared by respected psephologist John Curtice, at least up until polling day. Although Labour was still behind in the polls, there was a chance of a minority government and, with it, Abbott’s promotion to one of the great offices of state.

Abbott’s politics are complex. She embraced socialism while an undergraduate at Cambridge University, studying black history for the first time with Jack Pole and Professor Robert Fogel. On returning to London, she became involved with the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent, an umbrella group of black and Asian women radicals which had grown out of the Black Power movement and embraced anti-imperialism and black womanism. In the 1980s Abbott was a councillor in Westminster where she fought for better housing, the provision of crèches, and honesty with the local population about their prospects in the event of nuclear attack – which led to her being labelled as a member of the ‘loony left’. Since her time at Cambridge she has campaigned on issues of representation. And it was her work with the Labour Party Black Sections campaign that propelled her into Parliament. As an MP she has been a constant critic of unaccountable executive power; of the consequences of privatisation; of draconian immigration laws; and of illiberal measures which compromise civil rights in the name of security.

Abbott’s politics may be complex, but her essential beliefs can be expressed simply. Speaking to a group of young people in Parliament in December 2013, she linked her politics to her background. ‘I came down from Cambridge with my degree,’ she recalls, ‘and I really felt the world was my oyster. As a young undergraduate, I didn’t have the debt, buying a home was perfectly in reach, and getting a decent job was perfectly within reach.’6 Abbott regards herself as being a beneficiary of the ‘enabling state’. She received the best education that money could buy for free. ‘My education was completely free. From start to finish. There were no tuition fees, I got a maintenance grant, and it was very easy to get jobs in the holidays.’ 

Having left university, she bought a house in central London, with the help of a loan from her local council. Due to a buoyant labour market, she was able to gain well-paid work first in the civil service, then the National Council of Civil Liberties, and latterly in the media. In fact, her varied career was a testament to the numerous opportunities for young people in the years after she graduated.

Abbott’s early life was not without difficulties: ‘I had to deal with a lot more overt racism than is around today, but, you know, some things were better.’ However, almost four decades later, ‘young people today face a very grim prospect’.8 Debt, the housing crisis and the dwindling number of secure well-paid jobs mean that ‘Generation Z’ have few of the opportunities of those born before 1980. And while all young people have been disadvantaged by these changes, those who are likely to have been hit worst are young people of colour.

For Abbott, this narrowing of prospects is ‘largely because of decisions made by politicians’. Abbott argues that there’s a simple equation at the heart of politics: ‘What you put into it is what you get out of it. If they [politicians] feel that people who look like you don’t care, don’t ask hard questions, and above all do not vote they will do that they like to you.’

In a country where democracy has become increasingly winner-takes-all, and progressively majoritarian, Abbott offers an important corrective. Minority representation at all levels of politics, and throughout civil society is crucial because it is the best way of defending and advancing minority rights. And democracy without minority rights is no democracy at all.

Election day on Thursday 12 December 2019 did not bring Labour’s hoped-for breakthrough. The Conservatives swept to power with a majority of eighty, while Labour lost sixty seats, many in its traditional heartlands.

Nonetheless, the election may well have been a breakthrough in a different way. The parliament that was elected in 2019 is the most diverse in British history, containing more black, Asian and female MPs than ever before. This achievement is part of Abbott’s legacy. As the first black woman ever elected to the British Parliament, she changed the face of British politics for good.

 

Diane Abbott: The Authorised Biography is out now: grab your copy here!

 

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