An interview with Anthony Seldon, author of May at 10

  • April 25, 2020 13:00
  • Anthony Seldon

To carry on our weekend of politics, we're very excited to publish this interview from author of May at 10 and political biographer par excellence, Anthony Seldon...

 

What inspired you to write about May’s time at Number 10?

I have always thought that she was a fascinating politician, and only the second woman out of fifty-four to have become Prime Minister.

You’ve written several other political biographies before. How did writing May at 10 differ to them?

It was the only one of six that I’ve written about serving Prime Ministers, where the entire premiership was overwhelmed and dominated by just one issue, namely Brexit. I worked hard to find other areas that Theresa May was giving attention to, and there were several, including the environment, domestic violence and modern slavery, but her high aspiration of looking after the most vulnerable in society was left incomplete because of the overwhelming focus on Brexit.

So in many ways, it was a tragic story of someone coming into office with such high aspiration and such high-minded beliefs, but unable, in common with so many other premierships, to see their wishes fully realised.

Do you think that overall, the media’s depiction of Theresa May as a hapless PM is unfair?

Premierships are dominated by just one overwhelming issue. If the Prime Minister gets that issue right, then they gain the respect of the media and the public at large. If they don’t, then they have a rough time.

Famously, Anthony Eden failed to take the right decisions over the Suez Crisis in 1956, lied to Parliament, and was swept from power. James Callaghan made a hash of the timing of the general election, which he did not hold in the autumn of 1978, then become embroiled in the Winter of Discontent, and when he did call the election in May 1979, he was swept from power. John Major was the subject of five years of media hostility from Black Wednesday, when Britain was ejected from the Exchange Rate Mechanism of the European Union, until he was swept from power by Tony Blair in May 1997.

Tony Blair himself mishandled his defining issue of Iraq, which he still believes to this day he got right, but which the nation at large and the media thought he had miscalculated. In this broader context, the almost uniformly critical media that Theresa may suffered from is explainable, and in some ways, justified. She had a honeymoon period that lasted from the moment she took over from David Cameron in July 2016, through to her calling a general election in the spring of 2017. The media turned on her during that very long campaign, above all for her volte-face over social care, and then her statement that “nothing had changed” in the election manifesto and in her policy.

With hindsight, the criticism in the press does seem unfair because she had very considerable qualities, albeit perhaps not the qualities most in demand by a Prime Minister at that particular point in history.

What was it like researching the book? Were people (especially politicians) keen to speak to you, or was it hard work?

The book on Theresa May, like the other five, lean far more on civil servants than on ministers and on Special Advisors. Many politicians can be excellent witnesses, who genuinely want to tell you the truth. But too many are not like that, especially those who seek you out and want to speak, so one has to be careful with politicians. But I’ve found, ever since my first book, which was on Churchill as a peacetime Prime Minister, written almost forty years ago, that in fact it is the politicians who are often less revealing, are less objective and have less good memories than the civil servants.

What are the challenges of writing a political biography?

The answer is that there are many, especially those that you don’t foresee. The risk is that if you don’t get close to the subject of the book, and their friends and working colleagues, then you will never get the inside information which is absolutely vital and which makes any biography interesting. But the great risk of getting close to the subject and those around them is that your objectivity is compromised, and you end up losing your perspective. Everybody in politics is in politics for a reason, which may of course often be a good reason and a genuine desire to serve but often is not. Writing political biographies can be enormously hazardous the more controversial and unpopular a figure is. So not easy, but a great deal of fun.

What’s one thing you hope people will take away from reading your book?

I hope very much that they will recognise how extremely difficult it is to be Prime Minster. Few people genuinely understand that, and there are such high expectations of the office holder. But it is a book which is also truly sad, because Theresa May started out with such high hopes: this was the culmination of her entire life. She had devoted her entire life to politics, she had not been able to have any family, and she was a very single-minded politician who’d had some high success as Britain’s longest-serving Home Secretary for many years.

But she struggled from the moment that she went into Number 10 with the all-dominant fact of the requirement to get Britain out of the EU, which in her heart of hearts, was not the issue that brought her into politics. She wasn’t one of those UKIP-tendency, or Eurosceptic, or Ultras in the Tory Party for whom the EU was a terrible thing. She had a balanced view about the EU, and more importantly she had no clear view about what she wanted from the EU or from its departure. And understanding the complexity of life in Number 10 and the maddening complexity of the EU and extricating Britain from it, would be the biggest single thing which I hope people would take away.

What are you working on next?

It’s the 300th anniversary of the first Prime Minister, when George I asked Robert Walpole to become his First Minister in 1721. I’m writing two books next year: the first is an illustrated history of Downing Street itself, which is an extraordinary building, and also a book analysing the three hundred years of Prime Ministers, looking at issues such as when did the Head of Government (ie. the Prime Minister) take over from the Head of State (ie. the monarch) as the key figure in British politics; how and why has the office of Prime Minister been the longest continuously-serving office in the Western World; and indeed is it still the same job as Robert Walpole did three hundred years ago.

Thank you, Anthony! 

 

Anthony's book, May at 10, is only £20.00 until 26th April: check it out here!

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Labour in a time of Coronavirus

  • April 25, 2020 09:00
  • Phil Cowley

To kick off our political weekend at the Biteback Book Festival, author Philip Cowley shares his insights on Labour's 2017 election defeat all the way from Hong Kong...

 

Trapped indoors, as many of us are, we need ways to pass the time. There are the delights of a good page-turner. For those with kids, there's the unmitigated joys of home schooling. Perhaps you prefer a film or a good game of Scrabble.

Or, if you are a certain type of Labour Party member, you can choose to refight the 2017 general election.

Having written a book on the 2017 contest, I should be delighted by the current revival of interest in the subject. It may have taken place a mere three years ago, but it now seems so far away from our current predicament that it may as well be something from the late-Cretaceous era.

The current uptick in interest – and, maybe, just maybe, sales? – began with Jeremy Corbyn's claim that he would have become Prime Minister in 2017, but for the attempts to overthrow him a year earlier. Things then really picked up with the leaking of an internal Labour document that documented the extent to which Corbyn's leadership had been resisted by many of the party's staff. John McDonnell described the claims that party staff had undermined the 2017 election campaign as "the most shocking act of treachery against the party, its members and our supporters in Labour’s century-long history".

That report found what it described as "an abnormal intensity of factional opposition to the party leader", which didn't really come as much of a shock to those of us who spoke to anyone in the Labour Party at the time. But in turn, the refighting of the 2017 contest serves an important factional function of its own. For the left, it's what we might call the Scooby Doo defence. Labour would have won the 2017 election, if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids.

The only sensible response to these sort of claims is: maybe.

The central case being made is fairly simple. Labour came close to government in 2017, certainly closer than most people expected when the general campaign began, and closer than I think many people still realise. Had the party pulled together, it would have made it over the line. "This," tweeted Zarah Sultana, "is how close we came, even with their sabotage", linking to a news report headlined "Jeremy Corbyn was just 2,227 votes away from chance to be Prime Minister".

It is certainly true that it would not have required many votes to have changed hands for the 2017 outcome to be different. In the eight most marginal Conservative-held seats after the election, some 944 votes changing hands would have resulted in five seats going Labour, two to the Liberal Democrats, one to the SNP. This would have produced a sufficiently large anti-Conservative block that Theresa May would not have been able to form a majority, even with the support of the DUP.

You will see different versions of these numbers. Some add up the size of the majorities that needed to have changed, some look at the number of people who needed to change their mind (which is half the former); some focus just on the most marginal seats where Labour was challenging, some on the most marginal Conservative-held seats. It doesn't really matter; however you calculate it, it's all small fry in the context of an election in which 30 million voted.

This wouldn't have been enough to give Labour a majority in the Commons– they were a long way from that – but it would almost certainly have been enough to have prevented Mrs May continuing as Prime Minister and it might then have been enough to put Mr Corbyn in as Prime Minister, heading up a minority Labour government. Given the lack of a Commons majority, I doubt it would have turned out to be a government marked by stability or longevity (McDonnell's claim that we would now be in the third year of a Labour government strikes me as a particularly heroic assumption), but it would have been a government nonetheless.

So maybe.

But then again: maybe not.

The first problem with these sorts of claims is that while this might have been enough to create an anti- Conservative block in the Commons, it is not inevitable that this would then have led to Mr Corbyn entering Number 10. The Lib Dems in particular would have been in a particularly painful quandary. Another possible outcome would have been a second general election, the outcome of which would have been anyone's guess.

The second problem is that two can play at this game. For if Labour were under 1000 voters away from blocking the Conservatives, Theresa May was a mere 51 votes away from having a Commons majority of her own. May would end election night in 2017 just seven seats of a Commons majority – and there were four constituencies that the Conservatives lost with majorities of between just 20 and 30 votes. Just 51 people voting differently in those four seats would have been enough to give her a majority.

At best, all these sort of calculations do is show you how close the election was. But there are much bigger problems with the sort of political what-if than just a handful of votes here or there.

For example, let's assume that disunity in 2015-2017 hurt Labour's poll ratings (which seems a fair assumption). And let's assume that all of the blame for that can be attributed to the factional behaviour of the centre/right of the party and that none of it was the fault of the left (this is more contestable but stick with it for the sake of the argument). Had Labour been more united, it might well then have polled better.

But if it had polled better, there might not have been a 2017 election in the first place. Would Theresa May, who was decidedly sceptical about the arguments for an election when she was 20 or so percentage points ahead in the polls, have been willing to go for it had the gap been smaller? It's doubtful.

And even if there had been an election, it would have been fought in an entirely different context. Had Labour been polling better, the campaign would have been fought on the basis that they were realistic challengers for government rather than the thing being a shoo in for the Tories. This would have had all sorts of consequences. There almost certainly wouldn't have been any risky announcements about social care, for example, which we know badly hurt the Conservatives.

And while Labour did extremely well in the election to fight back to within a few percentage points of the Conservatives, had they been polling better in the first place, it is likely that their campaign fight back would have been less dramatic. Much of Labour's improvement during the campaign came from former Labour supporters who had become disenchanted with the party; these people presumably wouldn't have left Labour to begin with, but for the events of 2015-2017.

It probably won't take you very long to come up with counter-hypotheticals – some plausible, some less so – all focussing on things that could have helped Labour and got Mr Corbyn into Number 10 in 2017. But by now we're a long way from the original claims of Labour being desperately close in 2017.

So maybe. But then again: maybe not.

 

Philip Cowley is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University. His recent books include The British General Election of 2017, Palgrave, 2018 (with Dennis Kavanagh) and Sex, Lies and Politics, Biteback, 2019 (with Robert Ford).

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Reflecting on Trump and the Puritans with Martyn Whittock

  • April 24, 2020 12:00
  • Martyn Whittock

It's Friday and you know what that means: we're turning our attention overseas for our day on foreign affairs! Kicking things off is a blog by Trump and the Puritans author Martyn Whittock who takes us on a tour of Trump in the age of coronavirus...

 

1.Trump and the Puritans came out in January. Have the events of the past few months changed your view of Trump’s presidency at all? If so, how?

Events since Christmas have reinforced the conclusions we came to in the book. The deepening polarization of US politics following the failed impeachment; the continuing loyalty of the Trump base; the Democrats’ difficulties in selecting a candidate with broad appeal but also having energizing engagement with those feeling marginalized, have all continued trends apparent under the Trump presidency. The latter point underscores the dilemma: should a successful opposition candidate just offer a ‘steady pair of hands’ (basically Biden) in contrast to Trump the ‘chaos-candidate’, or should one offer their own brand of opposition-radicalism (like the failed candidature of Sanders). Trump continues to upset the apple cart! But we may be in the middle of a game-changing event in the form of the Covid19 crisis. The ‘chaos candidate’ has met a ‘chaos event’; one with the potential to lay bare the inadequacies of the Trump presidency.

2. What’s the legacy of the Mayflower Pilgrims in modern America? Do you believe Trump carries on that legacy?

November 2020 sees the next US Presidential election and the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival in North America. The survival of Plymouth Colony led the way to a much larger (and even more influential) influx of Puritan colonists a little further north in the 1630s, to form the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The legacy of the Mayflower, and then of Puritan New England, is woven into the cultural DNA of what became the USA. We see it in a deeply-felt sense of ‘national exceptionalism’, of America being a ‘city on a hill’ that others should emulate, of battling the alien ‘other’. Trump’s nativism and slogans like ‘America First’ play well to the nationalistic version of this legacy. And the concept of ‘Make America Great Again’, harks back to a mythical past of pioneering strength, in opposition to many aspects of modernity.

3. Has Trump’s response to coronavirus been influenced by the evangelical movement? How?

There is no unified evangelical response to, or interpretation of Covid19. An online search revealed a well-known and influential evangelical church in California working comfortably within the state lockdown, but another in Louisiana claimed 1,300 in attendance on Easter Sunday – under the slogan "Satan and a virus will not stop us" – in defiance of the state’s governor. Other examples of attempts to defy or work round the regulations can be found at similar churches in California and Texas for example. State restrictions, regarding large gatherings, have met a hostile reaction from some evangelical leaders who argue it constitutes a breach of religious freedom. One can see that this feeds into the current Trump mood-music of an early end to lockdown and attacking those who warn of the dangers, or criticise the administration’s response, as being purveyors of unpatriotic Fake News.

4. In a nutshell, what is Trump’s relationship with the evangelical movement? Are they using each other or does he genuinely believe in their views?

It started as a ‘marriage of convenience’ – Trump was and is no ‘evangelical’, unlike George W. Bush or Mike Pence. But the evangelical-right adopted him as the most likely political candidate to beat the Democrats and he has repaid them abundantly. Now, I think it’s become a mutual love affair. In some ways they are using each other but their relationship is now deeply interwoven and mutually beneficial.

5. Currently, Joe Biden looks to be the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. What are your predictions for how this year’s election might unfold?

The damage being done by Covid19 has weakened Trump. But never underestimate his remorseless self-promotion; his spinning of events and promulgation of alternative narratives; or his angry shifting of blame onto ‘enemies’ in ways that chime with his base, and with other anxious and angry people. Chaos is his natural environment. Biden is facing an uphill struggle to be noticed. Chaos is not his natural environment. November’s outcome is far from clear.

6. What projects do you have in the pipeline at the moment? Are you working on any new projects?

I am currently researching a book on apocalyptic millenarianism and its impact on radical populist politics, historically and in the modern world. Rather fitting in such unstable times.

7. What are you doing to stay occupied during the lockdown? Have you picked up any new hobbies?

Mostly I have been writing – and gardening. I’ve not started any new hobbies – but I can now work Zoom and upload to YouTube!

8. What are you reading at the moment?

I've just finished ‘In America’, by Caitríona Perry, in which she explores the American heartland of Trump supporters and their outlook and motivations.

 

Thank you, Martyn! If this blog piqued your interest in Trump's America, why not check out Trump and the Puritans: only £15.00 until 26th April!

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Harry and Meghan: from Windsor to LA

  • April 23, 2020 12:00
  • Norman Baker

For the fourth day of the Biteback Book Festival, we're turning our attention to the royal family, and here to offer his insights on Harry and Meghan's recent flight to LA is ...And What Do You Do? author Norman Baker.

 

It was less than two years ago that the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle took place. It was the wedding of the decade. All royal weddings attract a level of interest, but this one was in a class of its own.

Harry was seen as a likeable ordinary bloke, the sort you have a laugh with over a pint, and someone who had undoubtedly shown courage and commitment to his fellow soldiers while on active duty, and indeed after.

He was in fact the first royal since, well, his mother who was from a different mould than the narrow rarefied one that typifies other members of the royal family. He had even been seen boarding an Easy Jet flight to return to Britain from a holiday abroad.

And if Harry was different, multiply that many times for Meghan Markle. Here was an independent woman with an independent mind who had by her own efforts become a successful actor worth millions in her own right. Moreover she was of mixed race parentage, a welcome contrast to the starchy whiteness of the Windsors.

It seemed the royal family was beginning to reinvent itself for the 21st century, and not before time. The Queen, bless her, was already past 90 and clearly could not go on for ever. Charles was regarded as petulant, out of touch, and a bit weird, and William as dull and boring. Of Charles’s siblings, Anne was invisible, Edward the family nerd, and as for Andrew...

Harry and Meghan were the spice that was needed. Yet it did not take long for the magic to wear off. The couple decided that the sprawling apartments allocated for them at Kensington Palace (and upgraded and considerable cost to the taxpayer) were too near to William and Kate, so they opted to move to Frogmore Cottage, another sprawling property, and hardly a cottage (to be upgraded with £2.4 million more from the taxpayer). But that too was unsatisfactory as a solution and they decided to move to the friendly Commonwealth country that is Canada before taking what must surely be the final leg of their journey, to Los Angeles.

Here Meghan at least may feel at home, living in a salubrious and exclusive district among the world’s luvvies. Close by is Elton John, who has stoutly defended Harry and Meghan’s increasing tendency to use private planes – no more Easy Jet for them.

Elton of course famously refashioned Candle In The Wind, originally written about Marilyn Monroe, to refer to Harry’s mother, Princess Diana, at the funeral service held in Westminster Abbey in September 1997. Perhaps Bernie and the Jets could now become Harry and the Jets.

If we are to believe the narrative from the couple, they have escaped across the Atlantic at least partly to escape the intrusions of the tabloid press. They clearly detest the so-called popular press and only this week have announced that henceforth they will adopt a policy of zero co-operation with the Sun, the Mirror, the Mail and the Express, and their Sunday and online offshoots. It is also this week that Meghan Markle’s legal action against the Mail on Sunday comes to court.

But here’s a curious thing. For a couple who want to avoid the press, they seem to be putting in a great deal of effort to attract media attention. There has been the far from anonymous delivering of food parcels to the poor of LA, the podcast praising volunteers for helping those in need, and of course the announcement of their new charity, the curiously named Archewell.

The couple say they are open to criticism by the media, but all the indications are that they want the adulation, the good headlines, but not the less flattering material that they so dislike. But the press is not a public relations machine for them, or for anyone else. It is there to report the news. No more, no less.

While we can empathise with the embarrassment Meghan must have felt when her highly personal letter to her father ended up in the Mail On Sunday, the simple fact is that it was released to the paper by its recipient, namely her father. Most people would regard it as his to keep or release as he wished, and even if Meghan persuades the court that she technically retains copyright over the letter, it will be a hollow victory.

At the moment the Sussexes give the impression that they are more interested in waging war against the British tabloids than recognising that the world is engulfed in a viral crisis that threatens everyone’s way of life. It is not a good look.

In the end, the pair are entitled to renounce their royal lives and settle instead for the world of superficial stardom and garish glitter that is Hollywood. That is their choice. What they are not entitled to do is to hang on to bits of their royal connections while offering nothing in return.

Most pertinently, we need an absolute assurance that they are in no way benefiting from largesse from the British taxpayer. One flashpoint has been the cost of security, already very high when the couple were in England, but much more so if the Metropolitan Police are expected to provide cover abroad. The couple now say they are arranging this privately, but who is delivering this, and who is paying?

There was also a suggestion that Prince Charles, at least for a year, would meet a large proportion of their costs. Based on precedent, this will come from the resources of the Duchy of Cornwall and be classified as a legitimate expense, thereby reducing the tax bill and so representing a loss to the exchequer. If Charles wants to support them financially, then fine, but that must not lead to a loss for the taxpayer.

I wish Harry and Meghan well. I can easily sympathise that the suffocating stuffiness of the British royal family was not for them. But they would now be wise to disappear from the headlines for a while as they bed down in their new lives.

 

Interest piqued? Buy ...And What Do You Do? for only £15.00 until 26th April!

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Coronavirus and the legacy of Chamberlain

  • April 22, 2020 14:00
  • Adrian Phillips

Our second author of the day is historian and author Adrian Phillips, discussing the legacy of the Second World War and Chamberlain's fateful decision-making.

 

The result of December’s general election has rather disappeared from view but it should not be forgotten. It will shape British politics until 2024. Before the Covid crisis, Boris Johnson was giving every sign that he intended to make full use of his hugely reinforced mandate. He has a healthy Commons majority and a – largely – united party behind him, facing a still divided opposition. He can rely on an advisor drawn from outside politics, who practically outranks even the most senior ministers.

It is reminiscent of the domestic political hand that Neville Chamberlain had to play with. Strength in the political machine at home can only go so far though; it does not affect the strength of external challenges. Johnson faces Covid and the EU; Chamberlain faced Hitler. Chamberlain had the political clout to pursue any policy he chose; the one he chose failed utterly.

Reviewers of Fighting Churchill, Appeasing Hitler have taken me to task for arguing that Sir Horace Wilson, Neville Chamberlain’s mighty Civil Service advisor, somehow contributed to the outbreak of World War Two. Certainly, the overwhelming blame lies at the door of Adolf Hitler, but, and it is a big but, Hitler did not operate in a vacuum. His actions were shaped by what he expected others to do and he could read Chamberlain and Wilson like open books. They feared war and they disliked him; Hitler knew that it was the fear that mattered; he did not want to be liked.

The more Hitler dealt with Chamberlain, the more he believed that he feared him. In the Munich crisis of September 1938, Hitler was still unsure whether Britain would go to war if he destroyed Czechoslovakia by force as he truly wanted; this held him. By March 1939 that residue of doubt had almost vanished and Hitler seized the rest of Czechoslovakia.

The catastrophe of the diplomacy pursued by Chamberlain and Wilson was that they failed to convince Hitler that Britain would accept no more. The guarantee to Poland was public and unambiguous, but somehow Chamberlain and Wilson left Hitler thinking that it was meaningless and would not be respected.

The summer of 1939 saw one of the most abject episodes ever in British diplomacy. Chamberlain and Wilson tried to sell Hitler the story that Britain would fight over Poland but still wanted a peaceful, permanent settlement. It was here that Wilson did positive harm.

Hidden from professional diplomats and ministers alike Wilson opened back channels to Germany. The Germans used one to lull Chamberlain into the false belief that Hitler had lost interest in Danzig. Wilson used others to inform the Germans that he would be happy to abandon the guarantee to Poland and sketch out rewards for Germany if it behaved.

When Hitler told his generals that he expected no trouble from the “pathetic worms” of Munich if he invaded Poland, he meant Chamberlain and Wilson.

 

Did this piece pique your interest? Then why not read Adrian's book, Fighting Churchill, Appeasing Hitler: only £15.00 until 26th April!

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