On the publication day of London's Mayor at 20, Jack Brown tells us why he, Tony Travers and Richard Brown decided to put pen to paper...
The position of Mayor of London, established in 2000, turned twenty this year. So perhaps it is appropriate that the mayoralty is finally moving out of the house it grew up in. The Greater London Authority – which consists of the mayor and the London Assembly – is set to shift from City Hall near London Bridge to the Crystal building in the Royal Docks in 2021. The move is hoped to save £61 million over five years, and help aid regeneration.
The mayor’s parents should be pleased. In fact, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose government created the position, has written the foreword to our review of the mayoralty’s first twenty years. He was one of several who could claim parenthood of London’s mayoralty. He seems a proud father today:
‘Could we imagine not having a Mayor of London today? … Never forget that the position of a London mayor was at the beginning politically controversial – the 1980s had seen the abolition of the Greater London Council – and three terms of government were important in bedding the institution down. Now its abolition would be unthinkable.’
Centre for London and Professor Tony Travers of the LSE are keen observers of London government. At the start of the year, we decided to team up to commemorate and evaluate the first two decades of the London mayoralty. A team of expert, independent contributors were commissioned to evaluate the performance of successive mayors in a range of different policy areas: from transport to culture, economic development to policing. Well-placed practitioners were asked to share their recollections of key moments in the very recent history of London and its government, under all three mayors, in a series of short ‘vignettes’ that help bring the story to life.
After the decision was taken to mark the occasion with a book, the capital was hit by the coronavirus pandemic. The challenges of writing the book suddenly seemed somewhat less significant. The capital’s streets fell silent, particularly in central London. Transport for London’s finances were plunged into crisis, as fares evaporated. London’s future itself seemed bleak and uncertain.
Less significantly, the book’s authors were also locked indoors. This provided time to write, but it did not necessarily help with morale. With a little distance, I can now look back and say I am proud of what we have produced.
The book arrives at a time of great uncertainty for the future of both London and its mayoralty. Relations between central and London-wide government are perhaps at their worst in the mayoralty’s twenty years. London-wide government has been repeatedly established, reformed and abolished by central government in the past. Is there is a chance that this book, published to celebrate a significant anniversary for the mayoralty, could also end up as its obituary?
We hope not. While there are strengths and weaknesses in mayoral power and performance, both across its twenty-year existence and today, the book is broadly positive about the role itself. It has delivered significant major projects for London, from the Olympics to Crossrail (even if the latter has taken a little longer than first hoped). It has driven improvements and innovations in the capital’s infrastructure, and provided important civic leadership for Londoners at times of celebration and crisis. The mayor has been a powerful advocate for the capital, both to central government and around the world, to the betterment of the city and its people.
We hope that the mayoralty’s future will be bright, and that taking a moment to pause and reflect on the last twenty years now will provide some lessons for the next twenty, as well as for city governance elsewhere in the UK and around the world. But on top of that, I assure you it’s a cracking read.
Interest piqued? London's Mayor at 20 is out today: take a look here!
Who was James Callaghan? Ahead of the publication of his book, Kevin Hickson reintroduces us to a man who has been largely forgotten by history...
James Callaghan stood down as leader of the Labour Party forty years ago this year, bringing to an end a long period on the frontbenches stretching back over thirty years. during which he uniquely held all of the top four offices of state.
Critics would contend that his record in each of the top posts was questionable. As Chancellor of the Exchequer he had fought against the inevitable devaluation of the pound, as Home Secretary he had upset many on his own side by imposing what were seen as racist restrictions on Commonwealth immigration and as Foreign Secretary he had appeared to gain very little from the renegotiations over the terms of membership of the EEC. His detractors – from both wings of the party – expected little from him as Prime Minister, and would later claim not to have been surprised by the course of his premiership, still most often associated with having to go ‘cap in hand’ to the IMF, and culminating in the dead going unburied and the rubbish left to pile up in the streets during the ‘Winter of Discontent’.
After the election of Margaret Thatcher there were few defenders of his record. The left accused him and his government of ‘betrayal’ and called for the grassroots activists and the party conference to have more control over a future Labour government’s policies. Those on the right of the party who believed their cause was best secured through the formation of a new party also trashed his record in order to justify their departure. By the time Labour had recovered electorally in the mid-1990s, the leading modernisers of ‘New Labour’ did everything they could to distance themselves from the old party and Callaghan’s era in particular. For New Labour, history began in 1994.
Yet, as many of the essays in this new book show, the record was actually much better than these accounts would allow. The government’s position was precarious, with the absence of a parliamentary majority and bitter internal divisions at every level of the party. But Callaghan was the only person who could have held it all together for as long as he did given his unique political skills and instinctive feel for the mood of the Labour Party. Moreover, the economy recovered from the IMF cuts in the two years that followed before the winter of 1978–79. Callaghan also sought to innovate in certain fields, notably in education policy.
Not all of the authors would agree – and one aim of the book is to encourage diversity of opinion, thus allowing the reader to make up their own mind on Callaghan’s legacy – but the editors certainly believe that Callaghan deserves more credit than he got at the time or subsequently, not least from his own party.
Callaghan personified a certain kind of politics, respectability and common sense, underpinned by a quiet sense of patriotism. Not for him the tendency of the left at different times to rip into Britain’s past, something that is arguably all too prevalent inside and outside the party today. At a time of social, economic and cultural upheaval, Callaghan offered the public reassurance. Note that in spite of everything that had happened during the years of his premiership he was still more popular than Mrs Thatcher in the 1979 election. The more honest of political commentators from across the ideological spectrum recognised his political skills. His own sense of betrayal by the trade union militants and the left-wing ideologues in the Winter of Discontent and after the defeat was palpable, and it was he and not they who were closest to the views of its working-class voters.
Yet those who fail to learn the lessons of history are destined to repeat them, and the re-emergence of the socialist dogmatists under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership combined with the refusal to accept the 2016 referendum outcome led Labour to an even worse electoral defeat in 2019 than that of 1983. The ‘red wall’ came tumbling down and Labour now finds itself in its worst position since 1935. In order to revive its electoral fortunes, the party would be well advised to rediscover Callaghan’s values, which were once mainstream in the party but are now viewed with disdain by many of its own activists.
James Callaghan: An Underrated Prime Minister? by Jasper Miles and Kevin Hickson is out on 3 November. Take a look at it here.
Peter Cardwell's book The Secret Life of Special Advisers is out! To celebrate, we asked Peter a few key questions about his time as a mysterious aide to four government ministers- and what he learned from it...
Why did you want to write The Secret Life of Special Advisers?
It actually wasn’t my idea! My great friend and former Newsnight colleague Michael Crick had been speaking to his editor at Biteback, Olivia Beattie, about an idea for a book written by a SpAd. Michael very kindly put Olivia and me in touch. As I had been ‘reshuffled’ in February (sacked) and was looking for something to do, writing a book about the previous four years of my life sounded like a fun prospect.
What made you want to become a Special Adviser?
I was a journalist for 10 years before becoming a SpAd and I had seen the great work done by a number of SpAds of varying political persuasions. Michael Salter at Number 10, Fiona Hill at the Home Office, Paul Stephenson at Transport and Katie Waring at the Business department are just a few examples of SpAds I found very helpful, straightforward and they are just some of the people who inspired my move from journalism and into politics. Timing is everything, and I was very lucky that Fiona Hill became co-Chief of Staff to Mrs May at 10 Downing Street in the summer of 2016. As I outline in the book, I remember emailing Fiona my CV and thinking I would never hear another word about it. A week later I had been confirmed as special adviser to James Brokenshire, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
How does one become a Special Adviser? What do they do?
It’s an odd process of recruitment -- there’s an entire chapter about it in the book -- but my personal recruitment was via Fiona Hill, then co-Chief of Staff at 10 Downing Street. I had known and worked with Fiona previously when she was special adviser to Theresa May at the Home Office. When Fiona went to Downing Street, I emailed her my CV, was interviewed by James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland Secretary I then became SpAd to, and that was basically it. As I outline in the book, there is a slightly different process now which is a bit more formal. In terms of what SpAds do, it’s an odd combination of adviser, friend, gatekeeper, defender, spokesman or woman and occasional wardrobe consultant and supplier of Snickers bars -- see the book for a whole lot more!
How much influence do they have in government?
It depends on the SpAd and it depends on the government department, but the answer is a lot. The main advantages a SpAd can bring to a Cabinet minister’s life is a good relationship with Number 10 SpAds -- to know how to get things done -- and to be the voice of their minister. If you don’t have these two things, your usefulness as a SpAd is diminished and you may as well be another civil servant. It’s often said that advisers advise and ministers decide, and that is of course true, but your role is also to keep things off the minister’s desk and make their life as simple as possible so they can grapple with the really big issues.
What’s your favourite anecdote from your time as a SpAd?
I think my favourite anecdote is when the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, and I were talking on the 2017 campaign trail as I escorted her to a BBC interview and she wished me a happy birthday. I write about it in the elections chapter of the book. It was such a touching, special moment, and she had so many things on her plate yet still took time to make my 33rd birthday a very memorable one. She then said that I probably didn’t expect to be in a conference centre in Derby with her on my birthday, to which I replied that I wasn’t, and was meant to be in the south of France having a glass of wine, but then that she had ruined that plan! Luckily, she realised I was joking and laughed heartily -- and I kept my job!
What’s the one thing you did during your time as a SpAd that you’re proudest of?
Working closely with James Brokenshire when he was Housing Secretary and a brilliant civil servant, Jeremy Swain, to get the numbers of people who were rough sleeping down -- the first reduction in nine years, which was followed by a much larger drop the following year -- was a very special thing. Helping people who often cannot help themselves is what government should be about.
The Secret Life of Special Advisers is out now. Take a look at it here!
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 the legend? Buy your copy of The Last Queen here.