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!
September 08, 2020 15:26
To celebrate the publication of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's book Ladies Who Punch, take a look at an extract celebrating a pioneering woman: in this case, Victorian author and scientist Beatrix Potter...
Beatrix Potter was a children's writer, scientist, eco-farmer and conservationist.
In 2016, a new 50p coin featuring Peter Rabbit was minted to honour ‘the author of some of the best-loved stories for children that have ever been written’.
It was a tarnished tribute. Beatrix Potter did far more than make up stories about cute farm creatures in bow ties and bonnets. The coin, lovely as it was, diminished and infantilised a woman of many parts. Potter did pen those dear books, which still delight kids today. More than 250 million copies have been sold worldwide. But she was also a serious botanist and conservationist, a farmer, a dedicated keeper of some of the most precious parts of the English countryside, a businesswoman.
The accomplished lady did all that without any formal education, which she regarded as a blessing: ‘Thank goodness I was never sent there [to school] – it would have rubbed off some of the originality.’ She should be made the saint of autodidacticism.
Her father, Rupert, was a distinguished lawyer, and Helen, her mother, the daughter of a wealthy merchant. The couple were definitively upper-middle-class Victorians. In pictures they look rich and dour. Beatrix and her younger brother Bertram were raised by servants, taught by governesses. Customarily, the boy was sent to boarding school. Thus denied contact with children of her own age, Beatrix lived in her own world, making up animal stories. The family had many pets, and visits so the Lake District gave them an enduring love of nature and critters and art. Her parents encouraged the pursuits.
As she grew older, Potter became interested in serious science, botany in particular and fungi most of all. By her early twenties, she was studying specimens under a microscope, making accurate drawings and reading papers. According to her biographer Linda Lear:
Her interest in drawing and painting mushrooms, or fungi, began as a passion for painting beautiful specimens wherever she found them … She was drawn to fungi first by their ephemeral fairy qualities and then by the variety of their shape and colour and the challenge they posed to watercolour techniques.
She produced 350 accurate, delicate pictures of fungi, mosses and spores. Art was leading her to science.
Believing she could make her name as a scientist, Potter began engaging with amateur enthusiasts and learned botanists. Potter’s uncle, Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe, a reputable academic, got Beatrix into Kew Gardens to do proper research, though botanists at Kew were dismissive of the knowledgeable, persistent woman who tried to engage with them.
Her first scientific paper, ‘On the Germination of the Spores of the Agaricineae’, was submitted to the Linnean Society for natural history in 1897. However, ‘as a woman, she wasn’t allowed to be present at the reading of her own paper. It wasn’t published (also due to her gender) although scientists today have confirmed her theories as being correct.’ Some scientists, not all.
Back in the 1890s, Potter was not only a major irritant to egotistical specialists, she was caught up in blistering intellectual disputes about the natural histories of lichens and algae. She apparently admired the work of Swiss botanist Simon Schwendener and was persuaded that his theories had merit. George Murray of the Natural History Museum had his own ideas and was, she noted, ‘high-handedly contemptuous’ of rivals and alternative theories.
Her surviving letters and journal continue to divide opinion, finds Nic Fleming of the BBC: ‘Some have suggested that she was a pioneering scientist whose contributions were suppressed by the patriarchal Victorian scientific establishment. Others have described her as an ambitious, well-connected amateur with an overinflated sense
of her work’s importance – one that fooled later writers into believing she was breaking new ground.’
Nicholas Money of Miami University disdains the idea that such opinions are sexist ‘myths’. To him, the reality is that she was merely ‘an enthusiastic amateur’. He concedes, however, that Potter’s ‘paintings of fungi and their fruit bodies were beautiful and scientifically accurate – and were later used to help identify mushrooms’.
To Lear too, Beatrix Potter was a dabbler, an intelligent but bored woman who sought out interests. She had no ambition to be a mycologist but does deserve credit ‘for her openness to speculation, her careful and thoughtful observation of several species of lichens and algae and her courage as a female to speculate in a professional field’. A little patronising, don’t you think?
Science writer Tom Wakeford takes Potter and the forces against her much more seriously: ‘The soon-to-be-famous children’s illustrator was hounded out of biology by the closed ranks and narrow minds of London’s top scientific institutes,’ he says. Their members refused to accept ‘Beatrix’s evidence that the curious living encrustations, known as lichens, on tree-trunks, seashores and walls, were made up of not one but two organisms in intimate liaison’.
I am inclined to agree with Wakeford. Beatrix’s womanhood was the problem, not her science. She walked away from a subject she loved. Reluctantly, I’m sure. That unconscious bias is still playing out today too in departments across universities and in major science institutions.
In 1891, aged twenty-five, Beatrix Potter noted in her diary: ‘Genius – like murder – will out.’
Not without run-ins and fightbacks. Beatrix’s first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, was turned down by several publishers. She used her own money to print and distribute it. The fine drawings and charming stories were a hit with the public: she had arrived. As early as 1903, she patented a Peter Rabbit doll. Great timing, great business sense.
From then until 1913, Beatrix wrote and illustrated her most famous tales and made enough money to become a woman of independent means, free of parental control. There were reasons why this mattered so much to her. In her early twenties, Beatrix’s parents tried to find her a suitable husband. She refused them all. Her mother never forgave her for wanting to be more than a wife.
The person Potter trusted most as an author was Norman Warne, her editor and the brother of her publisher. Over time, ‘their creative synergy, and their respect for each other had deepened into love. Beatrix saw herself as one of Jane Austen’s heroines whose story had “finally come right”.’ In 1905, they got engaged. Her snobby parents were apoplectic. He was in trade and beneath them in every way. They insisted on a six month
Tragically, Norman died just one month before they could marry. Heartbroken, Beatrix moved to Cumbria, where she stayed for the rest of her life. After 1913, there were no more books. She became a sheep breeder and passionate eco-farmer, in today’s parlance.
In that same year she married William Heelis, a ‘gentle, quiet man who shared not her love of fantasy, but her real love of the land’. Having her own money freed her for ever from her controlling parents and Victorian England’s rigid mores.
Potter and Heelis became dedicated custodians of the Lake District. Beatrix owned fourteen working farms. When she died in 1943, she left a legacy of which the books are but a part. Over 4,000 acres went to the National Trust. It is one of the biggest bequests left to the trust, ever.
Now, how about another commemorative Beatrix Potter coin depicting a Lepiota aspera, a beautiful mushroom that she found and painted with scientific accuracy? Or a vintage microscope? So she is memorialised as a serious scientist as well as an artist of loveable woodland creatures.
Yasmin's book, Ladies Who Punch, is out in hardback. Take a look at it here.
September 04, 2020 15:24
From the BBC's recent Rule Britannia controversy to Tim Davies's introductory speech as its Director General, the news has certainly taken centre stage in recent weeks. But what goes on behind the scenes to make it all happen?
Find out in our selection of books on the media: half price until Friday 11 September!
Bad News, by Mark Pack
Bad News is a popular guide that helps you make sense of the news wherever it appears – print, broadcast or online. Peppered with examples from around the world, the book turns a serious subject into an enjoyable read. Learn, and be entertained!
Readers will discover all the tricks and techniques required to work out whether to trust a story based on an anonymous source, when big numbers are really small and when small numbers are really big. But readers will also learn how ill-suited the news is to understanding and interpreting the modern world, even when it comes from honest journalists working for reputable outlets.
Find out more here.
The Noble Liar, by Robin Aitken
To some, it is the voice of the nation, yet to others it has never been clearer that the BBC is in the grip of an ideology that prevents it reporting fairly on the world.
This punchy polemic – now fully updated to cover the Corporation’s tortured relationship with the government and explore the challenges for the new Director-General – asks whether the BBC is a fair arbiter of the news or whether it is a conduit for pervasive and institutional liberal left-wing bias.
Find out more here.
Getting Out Alive, by Roger Mosey
One of the most respected figures in the broadcasting industry, Roger Mosey has taken senior roles at the BBC for more than twenty years.
In Getting Out Alive, Mosey reveals the hidden underbelly of the BBC, lifting the lid on the angry tirades from politicians and spin doctors, the swirling accusations of bias from left and right alike, and the perils of provoking Margaret Thatcher.
Engaging, candid and funny, Getting Out Alive is a true insider account of how the BBC works, why it succeeds and where it falls down.
Find out more here.
Breaking News, by Jeremy Thompson
From his early days covering rows over pet budgies for a local newspaper to reporting on the election of President Trump for Sky News, seasoned journalist Jeremy Thompson has seen it all.
In his sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious, and always entertaining memoir, Thompson examine the cost of war, interspersing this with comic interludes and reflections of his time breaking the news.
Find out more here.
September 01, 2020 12:00
Though we’ve been living with them for centuries, the royal family continue to fascinate us. Whether its their spending habits or the history of the palaces they keep renovating, we always want to know more about what they’re doing- especially as their lives are so different from ours.
If you’re looking for your next royal read, here’s a selection of books you should definitely check out.
Royalty Revealed, by Brian Hoey
Have you ever wondered how much you could earn as a royal chef at Buckingham Palace, what Prince Philip’s favourite tipple is, or what the Queen most likes to receive as a gift?
Wonder no longer! Brian Hoey’s lovely little A-Z covers all the weird and wonderful elements of being a member of the royal family. Featuring quick biographies of key royals, bizarre anecdotes and advice on everything from tipping palace servants to becoming a servant yourself, it’s a light and easy read that’s perfect for a weekend cuppa.
Take a look at it here.
And What Do You Do?, by Norman Baker
Norman Baker is better placed to comment on the royals than most: he’s been a member of the Privy Council and has served as a cabinet minister in the coalition government. In this book, he turns his gaze on the foibles of the royals. Where does their money come from? Why are they exempt from inheritance tax- and just how did Prince Andrew sell his house? It’s an unflinching look at a system that has evolved over the years, and now needs reform.
Take a look at it here.
Kensington Palace, by Tom Quinn
They say Buckingham Palace is the seat of the monarchy, but Kensington Palace has seen more than its fair share of royals. In Kensington Palace, Tom Quinn takes a look at its bizarre history. From imprisoned wives to Queen Victoria’s childhood years, Quinn taps into his massive web of royal contacts to show you the palace in a whole new light. If you ever wanted to know what Princess Diana got up to while she lived there, this is the book for you!
Take a look at it here.
Pets by Royal Appointment, by Brian Hoey
Brian Hoey is back and he’s tackling the royal family’s biggest love: pets. The Queen’s famous obsession with corgis is one thing, but did you know about the time Prince Andrew was presented with a baby crocodile, or Princess Anne with a brown bear? If you wanted to know about all the creatures great and small that live inside Buckingham Palace, then Hoey’s handy little guide is the book for you.
Take a look at it here.
The Last Queen, by Clive Irving
Out in October, seasoned journalist Clive Irving pays tribute to the longest living monarch in British history. She's weathered PR disasters, personal tragedies and the fall of the British Empire, but Queen Elizabeth has still managed to maintain an aura of mystery.
But though the monarchy today looks stronger than its ever been, its fragility should not be underestimated. From the Queen's early years to her annus horriblis, Irving takes a look at the storms the royal family has faced and asks: could Elizabeth be the Last Queen?
Take a look at it here.
August 20, 2020 11:00
Ahead of the paperback publication of his book The English Job, take a look at the holiday that inspired Jack Straw to write it...
22 OCTOBER 2015
‘Cross the dual carriageway at that gap,’ Mohammed, our interpreter, shouted to the driver, taking instructions from his phone, ‘and pull up behind that white car.’
In the dark, we (my wife and I and two friends) saw three large men in plain clothes get out of the white car as we braked behind it. One, shorter, was better-dressed than the other two. He was wearing an immaculately pressed suit, buttoned-up shirt, no tie, and had an enamel insignia in his lapel, with the Iranian emblem on it. He was obviously in charge.
He opened our driver’s door and shouted at him in Persian. The blood visibly drained from the driver’s face. He was bundled into the back of the unmarked white car. One of the other men got into our driver’s seat. Mohammed, who had got out to talk to the other officers, had to scramble back into the people carrier as it was about to drive off.
Our driver had quickly worked out who these men were and knew not to argue. I hoped that they were police officers of some kind, and on our side, but this was far from self-evident. Three decades before, there had been a hard stop in north Tehran on a British diplomat, Edward Chaplin, driving with his wife and young child, with Edward bundled handcuffed and hooded into another car and driven off. I decided not to share this information with the rest of our party. They were already fearing that this was a kidnap.
We sped along the Shiraz ring road again. We had been round and round this road system, which circles the great city, at least three times already and were now very familiar with it. Close to the Botanic Gardens, we abruptly turned into a dimly lit side street to pull up behind another people carrier, identical in make and model to ours. The only differences were that this one had different plates and smoked-glass windows. We were told to be very quick, to transfer all our luggage and ourselves into the new vehicle. A third officer joined us in the back seats, this one carrying an unconcealed pistol.
Off we drove again at high speed for yet another scenic tour of Shiraz’s ring road. As we approached one roundabout, a uniformed police motorcyclist, with a plain-clothes pillion passenger carrying a large sub-machine gun that looked like a Heckler & Koch MP5, drew alongside and had a conversation with the senior official.
We finally arrived not at our booked hotel but at the brash, five-star Shiraz Hotel, which commands a high position on the northern hills overlooking the city. We were put into rooms at the end of the ninth floor, told to lock them and open them to no one. It was then that we learnt that the well-dressed man was an official of the Fars province, and that the others were police officers of varying ranks.
By now, I was assuming that these officers were indeed on our side, and that we were not under house arrest. But could I be certain? As for my emotions, I was doing my best not to have any, though in truth I was in a great muddle about them. I’d had 24-hour police protection throughout my thirteen years in Cabinet, and I kept telling myself that these men were not that different from the British police officers who had kept me safe. On the other hand, I knew enough about Iran, and its competing organs of government, to know that it could be dangerous and unpredictable. I also felt a strong sense of responsibility for the anxiety that had so plainly been caused to the other members of the party. It was I who had prompted the trip, and organised it.
Later, we were let out of our rooms for dinner. In the hotel restaurant, the lugubrious owner of the hotel, who spoke perfect American English, introduced himself and told us how happy he was to have us as unexpected guests. On the way back to our rooms, we were told to stay in them until instructed otherwise. We noticed that the complement of police officers had meanwhile grown to eight.
This was day seven of our Iranian holiday.
If you're interested in reading the rest, The English Job: Understanding Iran is out in paperback on 25th July. Take a look here!