I have just finished proof-reading the forthcoming hard copy of the Conservative History Journal and I can tell you that there are lots of good things in it about Wellington, Churchill (several pieces), the First World War, curious nuggets from the party's history and a piece by me about Lady Knightley of Fawsley. (Yes, indeed, you have not heard the end of that subject.)
There is an interesting and entertaining piece by Charles Clarke (yes, that Charles Clarke), entitled 'David Cameron top of the league? You're having a laugh!'. It is based on a talk he gave at a symposium on Conservative Leaders at Queen Mary College in London last December and on work produced in a book he co-edited with Toby James, Tim Bale, Patrick Diamond, British Conservative Leaders.
What Clarke writes about in the article, backed by tables from Rallings and Thrasher's British Electoral Facts 1832 - 2012 is the relative placing of various Conservative Prime Ministers on the basis of how many seats and what proportion of the electoral vote they managed to gain.
So who do you think might be the top three? Well, number one is Sir Robert Peel who fought three elections and who oversaw the acquisition of 192 seats and a cumulative change in 21.5% of the votes in the Conservatives' favour. Number two is the Marquess of Salisbury who fought five elections and acquired 165 seats and 8.3% of the electoral vote for his party. And number three? Ha! I bet you cannot guess who it is. In fact, it is David Cameron with two elections, 133 seats and 4.5% of the vote.
When it comes to electoral changes rather than seats there is a slight confusion as the correlation is not that straightforward. Thatcher, with three elections, comes fourth in the number of seats (99) and in percentage of vote (6.5%) but Baldwin who comes fifth in number of seats (75) comes second in share of votes that changed to the Conservatives (15.8%). So the much despised David Cameron ranks third by seats and fifth by share of votes.
It so happens (she says casually) that I predicted that the Conservative would win the General Election of May 2015 and would be forming a government on their own. So all comments about how surprising the result was leave me cold or, to be precise, cold and disdainful. Not to some of us, it was not. But I had not realized Cameron's achievement as Leader until I read the article and looked at the figures.
Oh and if you are interested, Churchill comes fifteenth in ranking by seats, having cumulatively lost 108 over three elections and twelfth in share of votes, having lost 5.3%. Whatever one may think about him as a politician and a war leader (two very separate things) one thing we can say with certainty: he remained unpopular until he actually retired and was raised to the status of a political demi-god in the ten years between his retirement and his death.
Tomorrow is St Crispin's Day and 600 years ago it was the day upon which the Battle of Agincourt was fought. Here, as you would expect, is the speech made on the eve of the battle in Shakespeare's play by Sir Laurence Olivier:
And here is part of the battle from the same film:
One of the most famous battles in English history, a stupendous achievement by English arms but did it achieve anything? Well, it made the English temporarily victorious in the Hundred Years' War, created a great legend, which, oddly enough was largely true - the English and the Welsh army was considerably smaller than the French, which they defeated - and staved off the war between the House of York and the House of Lancaster.
Here is a useful account and a list of ten reasons why the French were defeated by numerically inferior forces.
Margaret Thatcher was born Margaret Roberts in Grantham on October 13, 1925 in Grantham. As the second volume of Charles Moore's biography is being read (though not yet by me as I am still immersed in Rab Butler who is unlikely to have approved of the Iron Lady) there seems no point in going through her various deeds and achievements here but a brief chronology, as posted on the Margaret Thatcher Foundation site is useful.
Her importance can be measured not through the words and attitudes of her admirers, especially as a number of us have managed to perceive that she was wrong from time to time either because she had to placate and earn the loyalty of all members of her party or because certain measures would not have been passed or because she was simply wrong. It is the fury and hatred that her name excites in so many people of varying ages who do not even know what it is they hate and certainly cannot argue any valid alternative ideas that is the true measure of her greatness.
Here, as ever for this blog, a few pictures of the greatest Prime Minister of the twentieth century, chosen at random.
By which I obviously mean the First World War since neither before or since has our perception of a war been so influenced by literary output, particularly of outstanding poetry. Since most British poets and writers seem to have served on the Western Front, the literature has contributed to the country's obsession with that part of the war, important but not the only one. Even the lavish centenary celebrations last year have not changed that attitude much.
Furthermore, because of the high calibre of the literary output we do think of the First World War as being unparalleled in horror. I have no desire to go into a discussion about the technological developments that had made the war different from many others though the truth is that it was not till the Second World War that more people had died because of enemy action than because of diseases. As Paul Delany points out in his biography of Rupert Brooke, Fatal Glamour,
in the Gallipoli campaign, bloody as it was, two-thirds of he two hundred thousand Allied casualties were caused by disease rather than enemy action.One of those was Rupert Brooke who died of septicemia, caused by a mosquito bite and exacerbated by general weakness and low immunity.
It always seemed to me rather touching that the wonderful memorial to the Camel Corps on the Embankment, commemorates all the dead, whether in battle, of wounds or disease.
Fatal Glamour is an interesting biography and deals with Brooke as he was, warts or feet of clay and all, much of which was hidden for many years by the people who published his poetry, letters and a few biographies. The image of the golden boy (and he really was extraordinarily good looking), the poet (he certainly was talented as several of the best poems show), the warrior (that is more dubious but not for lack of trying) being struck down as he went to war for his country and for Western civilization had to prevail.
There is no question, there were many faults in Brooke and his personality had many problems and episodes of instability. Would he have overcome them, had he survived the war or would he have descended into manic depression, which is one possible explanation for his break-down in 1912 and his behaviour afterwards? None can tell. No more can we tell whether his talent would have developed into something truly magnificent or whether he would have become another second-rate poet like the other Georgian poets? Would his literary talent have stayed with the war like Sassoon's did or moved forward like Graves's did? We can but speculate and, sensibly, Paul Delaney does very little of it. There is so little to go on.
He does make a very interesting point about the role of Brooke and the other poets and writers, people who came from a class that had not, traditionally, sent its sons to war and who, therefore, reacted with greater horror to what they faced.
Rupert's death would have counted for much less if he had been a conscript. As a volunteer, it mattered little that he had died of illness just before his fellow officers were mowed down by the Turks. He had chosen to face death for his country; his country had not chosen for him. And he had volunteered as a poet, who in his war sonnets had expressed the volunteer's creed of self-sacrifice. Nor did all war poetry need to be of that kind: the poets of disillusion - Sassoon, Graves, Owen - had been volunteers, too.Numbers of volunteers went down as the news from the Western front and Gallipoli came in and by 1916 those who maintained that the war could not be fought or won without conscription were politically victorious. The idea that had been proclaimed as un-British for decades became acceptable and by 1939 taken for granted.
The 1914 - 15 generation of volunteers had a unique moral authority, sandwiched between the professionals of the British Expeditionary Force and the conscripts of 1916 - 18. No other belligerent country had met its wartime needs for soldiers in the British way; not coincidentally, none of those countries produced a comparable generation of poets. Whatever the excesses of Rupert's war poems, he still had his place in that lyrical flowering, without precedent before or since.
After Denis Healey's death a few days ago I wondered whether any of the old Labour politicians were still around and came to the conclusion that Healey was the last link with the Labour Party that still had some kind of a vision of the future. As it happens, their vision was all wrong and the Wilson/Callaghan governments were incompetent to an extraordinarily high degree. I hope my readers will not misunderstand me: I have no nostalgic feelings for the Labour Party of those years except that I do miss the personalities and the fact that there were some ideas, however wrong-headed, floating about on the left. What we have now is a party that has absolutely no notion of what it would like to see except for the fact that it does not like the way the world and, particularly, this country has developed in the last few decades and would like to turn the clock back to some mythical socialist or semi-socialist paradise. For that reason, I could not help sighing when I read about Healey's death though I also could not help remembering all the many things he and his colleagues got wrong.
While I do not agree with Andrew Roberts (please, nobody tell him that) about Denis Healey being the worst Chancellor Britain has ever had, I do not think he was much good. One cannot deny that Mr Roberts is correct in the following assessment:
The British are famously indulgent when it comes to elderly politicians, turning them into cuddly national treasures regardless of what they did in their prime, especially if they are on the left. It happened to Tony Benn and Michael Foot, is happening to Shirley Williams and is even going to happen to Neil Kinnock. Having reached the splendid age of 98 it was always going to happen to Denis Healey, but that doesn’t excuse the Sunday Times obituary by the novelist Robert Harris which described Healey’s five years at the Treasury in the 1970s as “bruising” when they were in fact catastrophic and humiliating for a western democracy.A couple of days after that article appeared, there was a response by Oliver Kamm who insisted that Denis Healey was not the worst Chancellor this country has ever had. (To be fair, there is hot competition for that title.)
They were the years of going cap in hand to the IMF, of the winter of discontent when the rubbish lay uncollected in the street and the dead went unburied, of the confiscatory 98 percent top rate of income tax when Healey deliberately chose to tax the rich till the pips squeaked (a phrase he unconvincingly afterwards denied using). All of these national humiliations were Healey’s fault, though you wouldn’t have guessed it from the adulatory obits on the BBC and other media.
Let us now turn to the man whose death we are mourning today and whose tenure as Chancellor is usually judged to have been remarkably successful: Geoffrey Howe, who has died at the age of 88.
The BBC gives a general overview of the man and his career, mentioning that he died of a suspected heart attack "after attending a jazz concert with his wife Elspeth". Being acquainted with the redoubtable Lady Howe, the supposed real author of her husband's infamous resignation speech of 1990, I can well believe it.
The Independent gleefully provides a video of that speech in 1990, which is commonly held to be the beginning of the end for Margaret Thatcher's premiership. It also provides an extraordinarily badly written article by someone called Olivia Blair (no relation, I assume). Has the Indy given up hiring hacks who have writing and research skills?
The Telegraph has put up a picture gallery of Lord Howe of Aberavon's life and, one assumes, will have a more balanced obituary tomorrow. It is, perhaps, unfortunate that Geoffrey Howe's life and illustrious political career will be for ever defined by that resignation speech. A few years ago, in the course of some research, I looked up the text in Hansard and was stunned anew by the sheer venom it expressed towards the Prime Minister. It is no wonder she and many others were shocked.
Several points need to be made. The first, a minor one, is that the American journalist who introduces the recording for an American audience, unlike the Indy hack, gets the title right: he was Sir Geoffrey Howe not Sir Howe. Which takes me back to my question about the Indy.
More importantly, Sir Geoffrey's analysis of the history and developments in the European Community (as it then was) is somewhat inaccurate and his predictions are wrong. Then again, many of the same arguments are being used now by the people who want us to vote to stay in the European Union. I suspect Lord Howe was not happy about political developments in this country in the last few years as far as the membership of the European Union is concerned.
Nor could he have been happy with the political development of the man who was sitting next to him and to whom he referred several times as one who was in agreement with him. The Rt Hon. Member for Blaby was Nigel Lawson, also a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, subsequently Lord Lawson of Blaby and most recently President of Conservatives for Britain. He is likely to play a prominent role in the campaign for Brexit.
When I first heard about it from the author, Michael Jago, I told him (by e-mail) that my attitude to Butler was ambivalent. In other words, I am not sure that he is the best Prime Minister we never had as I cannot help thinking that a man who allows the premiership to slip away from him three times had the necessary fire in the belly for the job. Without discussing all that, Mr Jago said that he, too, is ambivalent, despite or because of the biography he has just written. That is a fascinating attitude and I am greatly looking forward to reading the book.