Saturday, April 28, 2012

Book Review : The Time of My Life by Denis Healey (Penguin 1990)

When one thinks of Denis Healey, one tends to remember a rumbustious character who never shied away from a confrontation, and whose troubled Chancellorship included inflation of 27%, interest rates of 15%, industrial strife and an IMF bailout. What is less familiar is the lover of poetry and theatre, the fluent linguist who broadcast on BBC World Service in French, Italian and German,who made deep and lasting friendships with so many people in so many walks of life around the world. In this splendid political autobiography, Healey attempts to put the record straight, and prove that there was more to him than the political bruiser that he was often taken for.

There is an element of self-justification in how he presents his time in office, but in his biggest battles history looks quite favourably on the outcomes he achieved. His first love was International Affairs, and one senses that the fact that the Foreign Secretaryship eluded him was a cause for regret. As defense secretary he oversaw Britain's withdrawal from unsustainable commitments East of Suez, whilst maintaining a nuclear deterrent with a degree of independence from the United States.

As Chancellor, he claims that if treasury PSBR forecasts had been accurate, he needn't have had to go cap in hand to the IMF - and indeed the loan was repaid by the time that Healey left office. After the traumas of 1975 and 1976 the economy had been dramatically turned round. By 1977, the Balance of Payments was positive, the pound was worth more than $2, interest rates had fallen to 5% and both inflation and unemployment were falling.Yet from that unnaturally propitious position, Callaghan's government persisted with an income policy too far, and the result was the Winter of Discontent. Healey is understandably scathing on the asinity and self-interest of  Union chiefs such as  Moss Evans and Clive Jenkins, who failed to show the leadership of their predecessors and whose dogmatism and lack of foresight indirectly led to twelve years of Thatcherism.One of the great pleasures of this book is its incisive pen-portraits - Jack Jones, Hugh Scanlon and Vic Feather are accorded deep respect, but his scorn for those implicated in Labour's implosion following their loss in 1979 is withering.

This great pleasure of this book is to accompany such a warm and engaging companion through his rise from a relatively humble background through Balliol and up through the ranks of the Labour party to the highest offices of state. His perspective from the inside of negotiations with the likes of the Americans on nuclear detterence, is eye-opening, his analysis of the events in which he was involved acute. Yet it is the characters that he has met which make this book special, many names with which one won't be familiar but all described with a warmth when deserved and a brutal dismissal when not. Everyone knows his description of Geoffrey Howe - who he liked and respected- from the House of Commons, yet not nearly as savage as his dismissal of his old foe Tony Benn in this book: "It is ironic that Tony Benn's ministerial career should have left only two monuments behind - the uranium mine in Namibia that he authorised as Energy Secretary which helps to support apartheid...and an aircraft [Concorde] which is used by wealthy people on their expense accounts, whose fairs are subsidised by much poorer taxpayers." Like the man himself, insightful, uncompromising but ultimately fair.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Book Review : Harold Wilson by Ben Pimlott (HarperCollins 1992)

History has not been kind to Harold Wilson. His administrations are remembered primarily for their crises - devaluation, In Place of Strife, rocketing inflation and the turmoil of the seventies. The circumstances of his resignation were strange, the only British Prime Minister last century to leave office at a time of his own choosing, when not forced to do so by political events, illness or electoral defeat. The infamous lavender list left a nasty taste in a country recently rocked by Poulson.

Yet it the achievements of Wilson's governments were significant. They represented a sea-change from the previous administration (13 of Macmillan's cabinet had gone to Eton) which was much more in tune with a rapidly changing society. Wilson's famous words on the "white heat of the technical revolution" stuck a chord with the voters, and Labour was swept to power in 1964 with a mandate to modernise. Whilst the its attempt to direct investment more efficiently through a National Plan created by the new Department of Economic Affairs was a failure, its attempt to create a fairer society through the expansion of university education was undoubtedly of lasting significance. Capital punishment was abolished, abortion and homosexuality were legalised, the Lord Chancellor's censorship of the theatre was swept away. Later events were to show that the ideas behind In Place of Strife were undoubtedly correct, and the subsequent emasculation of the Trade Union movement under Thatcher indicate that the Trade Union movement's opposition to the White Paper was misplaced.

Wilson's administration redefined the nature of Britain's armed forces, reduced defence spending from 8% to 5% of GDP in keeping with Britain's post-colonial role, whilst withdrawing from traditional commitments "East of Suez". Perhaps his greatest achievement was to keep British troops out of Vietnam despite intense pressure from a United States government on whom Britain was dependent for economic support during recurring balance of payments crises. Only a funambulist with the skill of Wilson could have achieved this balancing act.

Yet Wilson's tragedy came in two electoral shocks - his unexpected defeat in 1970, and his equally unexpected victory in 1974. He was shaken to the core by his loss, and when he regained power in 1974 the drive and attention to detail was no longer there. Pimlott shows conclusively that Wilson was planning his resignation almost as soon as he had taken power, thus dispelling rumours of lurking scandals or MI5 conspiracies to unseat him.

Pimlott's is a classic political biography: comprehensive, detailed, sympathetic but not uncritical. He presents Wilson as a highly capable administrator, whose mercurial brilliance allowed him to paper over the deep divisions between right and left in the labour party. He felt deeply betrayed by his protégée Anthony Wedgwood Benn's swing to the left, and the widening chasm between him and the Jenkinsites of the right contributed to his deepening sense of disillusionment. Wilson was no ideologue, but Pimlott gives a sense that in Wilson's final administration he no longer believed that he was capable of transforming Britain into the fairer, more efficient and better run state that he had worked for all his life.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Book Review : State of Emergency - The Way We Were : Britain, 1970-1974 by Dominic Sandbrook (Allen Lane 2010)

I was born in 1963, so the period covered in this book, 1970-1974, coincides with my first proper memories of a world outside my family. I don't remember the election of 1970, but, being brought up in an SNP-supporting household I do remember Margo McDonald winning Govan in 1973, and the SNP's subsequent successes in the 1974 elections. Decimalisation impacted the sixpence in my pocket directly, and what schoolboy could forget the excitement of having to huddle round candles during the power cuts of the miners' strike and the three-day week.

My perspective was Scottish. The Ibrox disaster (dismissed in this book in a sentence, in one of the few misjudgements of perspective) was traumatic as my father was at the game - waiting with my mother for him to return home from the game as news of fatalities mounted will always stay with me. Jimmy Reid only became a  hero once I was old enough to understand the nature of the UCS work-in, and how it differed from ordinary industrial disputes. However, the horrors unfolding in Northern Ireland were distant, despite Glasgow perching precariously on the edge of the same sectarian precipice.

My memories of the period are patchwork, and necessarily underinformed. I remember Slade and The Goodies, but not Lord Lambton, and I was too young to understand the fuss about Poulson. Yet it made the experience of reading this book different from that of reading its splendid predecessors, Never Had It So Good and White Heat. With respect to  these, the past is definitely a foreign country as one has little context with which to refer except for what one has read in books. However, reading State of Emergency allowed me to affirm my experiences and to better understand the context of the events which had unfolded around me.

When discussing the book with a friend, he said that it was too soon for a proper perspective on the events of the seventies, but I don't agree. What Sandbrook has achieved is a masterly summery of the major movements of the period - political events, social, cultural - and brought it together in a synthesis which is highly engaging. There is something Tragicomic about the Heath administration, and Sandbrook manages to capture Heath's gaucheness and rudeness (of the Leader of an Orchestra who said "if you don't stop being so rude to us, Sir Edward, we might start following your instructions") but is also willing to give him credit for much which is today forgotten.

It is a top down book and despite its length it is of necessity superficial in a lot of ways - his earlier books contrast sharply with David Kynaston's bottom-up surveys of the forties and fifties in Austerity Britain and Family Britain which are largely compiled from dairy observations and Mass Observation. Sandbrook does use such sources (the frequent references to diaries of upper-class reactionary James Lees-Milne are particularly entertaining and illuminating, calling Captain Mark Phillips, for instance, "barely a gentleman") but more of his sources are from a dizzying variety of books, newspapers, government papers, film and television. It is the skill with which he manages this mass of information which impresses. Above all, he achieves a nuance of tone which allows him to switch seamlessly from high political drama to carnage in Ulster to the permissive society and Woman's Lib, whilst maintaining a uniformity of clarity, humour and insight. It is quite brilliantly done, and I look forward to further volumes.