Re-reading the second volume of Harold Nicolson's diaries I came across the following for 16th December, 1941, when the author had been pushed out of the government and made one of the BBC's Trustees.

Harry Strauss [Conservative MP for Norwich 1935 - 1945, for Combined English Universities 1946 - 1950 and for Norwich South 1950 - 1955, later 1st Baron Conesford] attacks me on the grounds that the BBC is almost wholly left-wing. The Conservative view is never presented. It is difficult to tell him that most of the right-wing people make bad broadcasters. Let them find their own Priestley. 
To which one could reply that it is the BBC's job to find a right-wing J. B. Priestley, who, one must admit, was outstanding as a broadcaster. However, were there really no possible right-wing broadcasters of talent?

This reminds me of one of the many discussions I took part  in on the bias in the BBC cultural output when somebody said that there was a problem with balance as, after all, there was no right-wing equivalent to David Hare and what can we do about that. Ahem, said a number of participants including me, what of the best living playwright, Sir Tom Stoppard? Collapse of stout party.

And on that note: Happy New Year to all. May 2014 be a year of conservatism.

Not yet time for resolutions so this blog will stick to the traditional greetings: Merry Christmas to one and all.

During an idle and entertaining re-reading of Harold Nicolson's diaries I found the following entry for June 22, 1930:

I talk to Macmillan. He says that the old party machines are worn out and that the modern electorate thinks more of personalities and programmes than of pressure put upon them by electoral agents. He thinks that the economic situation is so serious that it will lead to a breakdown of the whole party system. He foresees that the Tories may return with a majority of 20 and then be swept away on a snap vote. No other single party will form a Government and then there will be a Cabinet of young men. 
Of course, at the moment we cannot envisage the Tories getting a majority of twenty and we already have a Cabinet of young men. We've had one of those for a long time and the talk about the old party system breaking down goes on as before.

As we approach a year that will be full of contentious and paralyzingly dull books, articles, celebrations, analyses and other suchlike events of the First World War (indeed, the process has started already) I feel it appropriate that I have just finished reading Marina Soroka's extraordinarily detailed account of the  last Russian Imperial Ambassador's career in London.

Count Benckendorff was an interesting person and I shall be writing more about him but first some paragraphs about the beginning of the war that was not supposed to happen. This is what Dr Soroka writes (pp. 258 - 259)

No one as yet had blamed the war on "the old diplomacy". In fact, no one had ever blamed diplomats for wars, for it was common knowledge in Europe that governments led nations into wars for various reasons, some honourable and some not, but diplomats patched up the quarrels which governments started and armies fought. Diplomats were the most civilized and pacific representatives of their nations.

In the summer of 1914 they had not done anything different from what they had always done in crises, and their responsibility for what happened was no greater than for the Crimean war or the Franco-Prussian war or the Italo-Turkish war. During the Anglo-Boer war there was a moment, in 1900, when Germany, Russia and France seemed to be on the verge of intervening to make Britain sign peace, But, as a French government official wrote: strategic interests, humanitarian considerations and public opinion sympathetic to the Boers failed to outweigh the three powers' political interests, prudence and expediency. Much as their public opinion sympathized with the Boers, the governments backed away from a confrontation, resigning themselves to the fact that "England will swallow the two poor nations without being disturbed or distracted". [Abel Combareieu] A major conflict was avoided.

In July 1914 the inability to think beyond the status and strategy considerations deprived the European cabinets of real alternatives and diplomacy  was pushed aside while the military advised the heads of governments. When the unforeseen duration and the scope of the war became clear the nations fell on their governments, which sought the most plausible scapegoats and deftly passed the blame on to the diplomats. By 1918 the "old diplomacy", roundly condemned for its undemocratic, secretive and inefficient character, had been demoted to the rank of a handmaiden to the pure-minded monarchs, prime ministers and presidents of the powers whose inherently pacific intentions had been so poorly served by their elitist and hawkish foreign offices.
And another myth was born. I may add that the heavy-handed irony of the last sentence is most uncharacteristic of Dr Soroka.

Oliver Cromwell becomes Lord Protector on December 16, 1653. This was England's only experiment with a republic and a military dictatorship (the two are not necessarily the same). It was not altogether a success though I have always liked Cromwell for two reasons: the well-spoken way in which he got rid of that pesky Rump Parliament in April 1653 ("You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately... Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!") and for abolishing Christmas celebrations. That might not be entirely accurate but I think of the Lord Protector with gritted teeth as I fight my way through crowds with large shopping bags, avoid horrible decorations and try to block out tinny versions of whichever Christmas song has taken the version of the shop I have to enter or, at least, pass.

A hefty tome from Oxford University Press: One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper, which should provide hours of entertainment and enlightenment. On a more serious note, the third issue of West Midlands History. The first two were fascinating and I am sure this one will be as well.

What better way to come back after a slight gap (again) than by two tales of possibly the greatest British Prime Minister of the twentieth century, Margaret Thatcher.

One is a very entertaining account by Nigel Farndale, based on reminiscences, of an event that is not quite as unknown as he seems to make out but not very well known either: a dinner organized by Lord Thomas of Swynnerton (the historian Hugh Thomas) for a large group of litterati and academics to meet the Prime Minister who was not then or later considered to be particularly enamoured of the arts.

It would appear from the accounts that she was fairly knowledgeable about poetry and other literary matters but was not particularly fond of the literary self-regard displayed by several of the guests. Also, she disliked the Arts Council and its various denizens, which was always taken as a sign of philistinism by those who benefited handsomely from its tax-funded largesse.

It would appear, also that the male gathering was smitten by her, which seems to have been true in other male gatherings as well. Anyone who doubts that should listen to some reminiscences by those who fought in the Falklands.

The second tale is of greater political significance. It is a letter, written by the Prime Minister to President de Klerk of South Africa, giving him an outline of the meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government she had just attended where South Africa was discussed at length as well as her ideas on how to proceed with regards to that country and its international standing. The letter is well worth reading for its exceedingly clear-sighted analysis and proposals.

Here are a few excerpts:

My rebuttal of the case for sanctions rested on two main premises: that sanctions do not work, indeed are likely to be counter-productive and damaging to those they are intended to help: and that it was inappropriate to take punitive action against South Africa at the very moment when you are taking steps to get rid of apartheid and to make major changes in the system of government in South Africa. I received a good deal of abuse in response, being accused of preferring British jobs to African lives, of being concerned with pennies rather than principles, of lack of concern for human rights and much more in the same vein. I in turn reminded them of some of the less satisfactory features of their own societies and pointed to the inconsistency of trading with the Soviet Union, with its appalling human rights record, and putting trade sanctions on South Africa.
She continued a little further on:
My other main purpose was to secure Commonwealth backing for dialogue between the South African Government and representatives of the black community in the context of a suspension of violence by all sides. The concept of course comes from your earlier letter to me: and I hope you will agree that it is no small achievement to have persuaded the Commonwealth to put its name to a suspension of violence, though there are several governments who will not wish to see substance given to this commitment if they can avoid it.
She then makes several proposals, including ideas for what President de Klerk might do. This is the key comment, in view of what has happened just a couple of days ago:
I continue to believe, as I have said to you before, that the release of Nelson Mandela would have more impact than almost any single action you could undertake.
There is evidence that Mrs Thatcher's insistence on Nelson Mandela's release played an important part in de Klerk's decision to do so. The whole letter is very well worth reading.

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