The Oliver Observations

If there’s one thing the world needs it’s another new blog

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I haven’t updated this blog in a long time as I’m posting things here

Please do have a look if you’re interesting.
I’ll leave this site up for now given it’s still getting a few views from unwary wanderers of the internet.


Written by oliverobserves

May 9, 2014 at 4:40 pm

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NUS Misérables

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Due to popular demand (that is about three people asking me) I’ve posted the lyrics to the NUS version of Les Mis.

DISCLAIMER: The post will make almost no sense at all to those who don’t have some knowledge of the workings or culture of the National Union of Students.
In fact, it’ll probably only appeal to the small crossover segment of a Venn diagram showing people who have both an interest in NUS and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the musical Les Misérables – which, as I found yesterday, is a surprising number of people.

To give a bit of background for anyone still reading, there’s a nice tradition within NUS that departing officers give leaving speeches, thanking people and reminiscing about particularly important, moving, or often just ridiculous happenings during their time in office.
These are not just your typical office leaving speeches of a few thank-yous in the pub after work, but often great bursts of oratory, carefully crafted beforehand over months or even years, and taking up to 45 minutes each to deliver.

My dear friend Dannie Grufferty, leaving NUS this year after two years as their Vice President for Society and Citizenship (with a remit which essentially covers all societal and global issues), told me she worried such speeches could verge on the self-indulgent – so instead she wanted to write a stage musical. She didn’t add ‘that was a joke by the way’ but I’m sure she was being ironic..

I was initially dubious, but Dannie can be quite insistent in an imperious Elizabeth I sort of way, so eventually I gave in and we hammered something out based around everyone’s favourite nineteen century humanist masterpiece Les Misérables (Which I’ve previously raved about).
Nineteenth century novels are clearly ripe for adaptation, as one Christmas past, Dannie and I also wrote an NUS Christmas production; A JISCmas Carol.

The piece was actually performed at Sheffield City Hall yesterday (very much an off-Broadway production), and met with a rapturous raucous reception – one person tweeting that it was better than the Conference itself. (A comment which can be taken two ways..)

A lot of the lyrics are highly in-joke heavy, for example the age-old accusations in NUS that members of Labour Students are all ‘careerists’, or NUS Chief Executive Matt Hyde’s departure for The Scout Association. A lot of them might also require a good working knowledge of the original English Les Misérables lyrics for full appreciation.
Any deficiencies can of course entirely be blamed on the fact we were adapting a reworking of a translation of a French text based on a novel…

Sadly, given lack of time a few ideas fell by the wayside. I was sorry for example we didn’t do a version of the epic Act I Finale One Day More based around NUS factions – though it may be for the best given the amount of time I spent trying to rhyme FOSIS with something that wasn’t ‘halitosis’.

Left-wing firebrand Michael Chessum being unavailable also robbed Conference of the sight of him in the role of Enjolras – though luckily amiable token Tory Peter Smallwood stepped in at the last minute to sing the rabble rousing lines.
Huge thanks are also due to the rest of the ram-shackle recruited cast, who out of love or possibly fear of Dannie Grufferty had the courage to risk humiliation by taking part – including Rachel Wenstone, Vicki Baars, Jeni-Marie Pittuck, Jo Johnson, Adrianne Peltz, Stacey Devine, Pete Mercer and Liam Burns.
Also to everyone else how helped out; Seeing one member of NUS staff that afternoon I asked enthusiastically ‘Have you heard about the plans for Dannie’s leaving speech?’ ‘Yes.’ they said flatly ‘We had to move a grand piano.’

The main credit should really go to Lewis Coakley (FRSA), the pianist virtuoso who did all the work of fitting the music to Dannie and my lyrics.

Perhaps you had to be there, but I maintain that Dannie’s ‘I schemed a scheme in time gone by’ solo would have brought a tear [of laughter] to the eye of Victor Hugo himself.

[With many apologies to Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg, Jean Marc-Natel, and Herbert Kretzmer]

At the end of the day


At the end of conference you’re another day older
And that’s all you can say for the NUS staff.
It’s a struggle, it’s a faff
And there’s nothing that anyone’s giving
One more day counting ballots. You’re having a laugh
If you think this is living.

At the end of conference you’re another day colder
A campaign T-shirt doesn’t keep out the chill
And delegates hurry past.
They don’t hear the staff members sighing.
And the guillotine’s coming on fast, ready to kill
Well that’s what we’re relying.

At the end of debate there’s new debate dawning
Each morning there’s speakers waiting to rise.
Like the waves crash on the sand
Like a storm that rolls through the ocean.
There’s a hunger in the land
For another procedural motion.
As factions try to get their way
By the end of the day!

At the end of conference you get nothing for nothing
only chatting and profiling will get you ahead.

There are students back at home.

And the students have got to be fed.

And you’re lucky to be on a course.
Filling your head.

While we’re counting your ballots.

[RACHEL (grabbing Dannie’s phone)]
And what have we here, little innocent comrade?
Come on Dantine, let’s have all the news!

[Reading the email on her phone]

“Dear Dantine, thanks for joining New Labour…
You must have a safe seat…
There’s no time to lose…”

[They fight over the phone. Valjean (Liam) rushes on to calm things down and put them back in their box.]

What is this heckling all about?
Will DPC tear these two apart
This is a conference not a demo!
Now, come on comrades, why the stress
I run a movement of repute
I’m President of NUS,

[To Stacey]
I look to you to sort this out
Follow due process if you can-

[Liam exits]

Now someone say how this began!

At the end of the day
She’s the one who began it!
There’s a seat that she’s hiding
In some little town.
There’s an MP that she sees
You can guess what she does at the weekend.
You can bet she’s earning her keep
Knocking up…voters.
And the boss wouldn’t like it!

Yes it’s true there’s a seat,
But it isn’t a safe one.
And it isn’t affecting
My work day to day.
Would anyone turn down a seat if they gave one?
I’m not a careerist
So drop that cliché!

At the end of the day
She’ll be nothing but trouble.
And there’s trouble for all
When there’s trouble for one!
While we’re earning our daily votes
She’s the one with her eye on a safe seat.
You must send her away
Or we’re all gonna end on the doorstep!
And it’s us who’ll have to pay
At the end of the day!

I might have known there’d be some seat.
I might have known a VP plots.
You officers always have secrets.
Ah yes, the ethical Dantine,
You think yourself so pure and green.
You’d be the cause I had no doubt
Of any trouble hereabout.
You play a lefty in the light.
But you’re a Blairite on the right.

She’s been laughing at you
Though her Soc and Cit reign!

She’ll be nothing but trouble again and again!

You must Censure her today!

Censure here today!
At the end of the day!

Right you’re no-conned. On your way!

[All Exit. Dannie is left on stage]

I schemed a scheme


There was a time students were kind
When their voices were soft
And their words uniting.
At the time delegates would find
That NUS was a speech
And the speech was exciting.
There was a time
Then it all went wrong.

I schemed a scheme in time gone by
When hopes were high
And votes worth winning.
I dreamed EMA would never die
I found all demos liberating.
Then I was young and unafraid
Placards were made, and used, and wasted.
There were no high fees to be paid
No campaign song unsung, no champagne socialism, untasted.

But the Tories come at last
With spending cuts as hard as thunder.
As they tear our hopes apart
No matter how much we cry ‘Shame!’

He spent ten years by my side.
He filled my days with Blairite wonder.
(But on Iraq some say he lied)
And he was gone when Gordon came.

And still I dream he’ll come to me
That we will lead this land together.
But there are comebacks that cannot be
And some reforms we cannot weather.

I had a dream my life would be
So different from this Coalition.
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.

[The revolutionary students enter]

At the ABC (NCAFC) Cafe

At ULU the feeder march is prepared!

At parliament they’re straining at the leash!

Students, workers, everyone
This demo can run and run.
Like the stage occupation we tried
ULU coming to our side!

The time is near
So near it’s stirring the blood in their veins!
And yet beware,
Don’t let the champagne go to your brains!
For the NUS leadership is a dangerous foe
With the bureaucracy that we never can match.
It is easy to sit here and condemn their lies,
But the Presidency will be harder to snatch.
We need a sign
To rally the people, to send to their phones,
To text them the line.

At ULU we’ve recruited three new members!

At SOAS someone brought a paper!

Twenty flyers good as new!

(JO, as Gavroche, rushes in shouting)


Twenty paper rounds for everyone!

Listen to me!

Double that in Freshers’ Week!

Listen everybody!
The NUS Chief Executive is leaving!
For the Scout Association!

[Everyone gasps. Peter stands transfixed in shocked silence]


Matt Hyde is dead….to us
Matt Hyde! His death is the hour of fate.
Chief Bureaucrat.
He’s gone – it is the sign we await!

At his leaving party they will honour his name.
It’s a rallying cry that will reach every ear!
In the death of Matt Hyde we will kindle the flame.
They will see that the day of salvation is near!
The time is near!
Let us welcome it gladly with courage and cheer
Let us take to the streets with no doubt in our hearts
With a jubilant shout
They will come one and all
They will come when we call!


[DANTINE to Matt]
Take my hand
And lead me to The Scout Association.
Take my votes,
For votes are everlasting.
And remember
The truth that Vic has spoken:
To organise your students is to see the face of god.

[Singing begins quietly and gradually builds as more and more people join in.]

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song sure to excite
It is the music of the students
Who are fighting for what’s right.
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There’s a demo about to start
When tomorrow comes!

[ALL louder]
Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Then join in the fight
That will give you the right to be educated for free!

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song sure to excite
It is the music of the students
Who are fighting for what’s right.
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a demo about to start
When tomorrow comes!

Will you give all you can give
So that our banners may advance?

Some will slink off to the pub
Will you stand up and take your chance?

The streets of South London
Can mirror the meadows of France!

Do you hear your NEC?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring when tomorrow comes!

UPDATE: To coincide with Matt Hyde’s last day at NUS, the full music video is now available, prior to its release in cinemas.


A couple of bootleg versions have already been circulating, of which the best is this one from Charles Barry (a delegate from Newcastle University Students’ Union rather than the architect of Italinate stately homes and the Palace of Westminster).


Just how bad was the 1983 Election for Labour?

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[Executive Summary: Pretty bad]


One of my colleagues asked me last week if I had anything planned for the Easter weekend.

‘Well’ I replied ‘BBC Parliament are showing a re-run of the 1983 General Election on Monday, so that’s one day sorted.’

She laughed. But I wasn’t joking.

The recent habit of BBC Parliament has adopted of reshowing ‘classic’ election night programmes on bank holidays is I think a master stroke, guaranteeing them small but select audience of politics and history devotees who draw the curtains and devour them with delight.

I’ll certainly be watching the 9th, June 1983 election, thirty years ago this year. My only sadness is that other engagements may keep me from watching the full 10am-9pm programme, though of course I’ll keep checking in to see if Michael Foot becomes Prime Minister.

In honour of the occasion I’ve written a post only slightly shorter than Labour’s 1983 manifesto.

Some general elections were such pivotal events that they succeed in seeping into the collective folk memory and national consciousness.
Ken Loach’s new film, Spirit of ’45, about Labour’s great victory which swept in the transformative Attlee Government and ensured the foundation of a comprehensive Welfare State would be a leading example. (Though Steven Fielding, Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham suggests in The Guardian the film could be more accurately titled Myth of ’45.)

To a lesser extent, the 1979 election which brought Margaret Thatcher to power, is still popularly (or unpopularly) remembered, perhaps as much for the atmosphere of crisis in the ‘Winter of Discontent’ preceding it, and broadcast images of rubbish piling up in the streets, than for the election campaign itself.

Other elections are primarily remembered only by those particularly involved and interested in politics – the sort of minority of people who can, without checking, reel off the years in which General Elections took place (1931, 1935, 1945, 1950, 1951, 1955, 1959, 1964, 1966, 1970, 1974 (twice), 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2010…) as others remember World Cup winners. [Apparently people do this for reasons other than their alleged impact on election results, as in 1966 and 1970.]

These elections all have their own distinct ‘flavour’ and defining images, forming a shared currency amongst political obsessives and anoraks.
As the Labour politician (and of course Honorary Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield) Roy Hattersley noted ‘Election campaigns all have distinct characteristics. For Labour, 1983 was ludicrous, and 1987 desperate. At least 1979 was only dismal.’

The 1983 General Election has a particular place in Labour Party folklore as the party’s most traumatic defeat, and rock-bottom low point, in modern times. The political memoirs and bar room tales of Labour veterans often still seem to vie with each other to describe just how terrible the result was, and how agonisingly inept Labour’s campaign.

The Guardian’s Political Editor Michael White gives a good overview of the campaign here.

More comprehensively, the great documentary ‘Labour; The Wilderness Years’, broadcast in 1995 and covering the party’s then 16 years in opposition, is well worth watching for anyone interested in Labour History.

For those like myself, used to political events being ruthlessly stage managed (with differing degrees of success), the scenes of Labour’s campaign have to be seen to be believed.
Watching this section, you don’t so much question why Labour lost but wonder at how the party managed to win any seats at all.

Labour’s 1983 manifesto has also become the stuff of political legend, being a hugely lengthy compilation of all the party’s diverse and divided policies. As recounted in the above video, no real attempt was made to summarise the document, or make it reader-friendly. Rather, all the policy pronouncements were lumped together, so as to avoid bitter disputes about what to include and what to leave out.

As Roy Hattersley relates, those on the right-wing of the party, such as John Golding (political fixer extraordinaire who called his book about the period Hammer of the Left) knew they didn’t have the votes internally to pass more moderate policies, so decided not to even bother; The manifesto should be as uncompromisingly left-wing as possible, to give left-wingers like Tony Benn ‘enough rope to hang themselves’ so they could then be blamed for the inevitable massive electoral defeat.

Gerald Kaufmann, then Labour’s Shadow Environment Minister (and incidentally the one member of Michael Foot’s Shadow Cabinet still in the House of Commons today), famously called his party’s manifesto ‘the longest suicide-note in history’, a description which unhelpfully become common currency even during the campaign. (As Roy Hattersley remarked to be fair ‘it only seemed interminable’.)

Interviewed in The Wilderness Years Kaufmann was even more forthright;

‘The problem with the document was it was a stupid document. It contained a number of extremist things. It contained also utter nonsenses! During the course of the compilation we only narrowly staved off a proposal that we should have a socialist policy for puppy farms.’

The published version did include sections, on issues which were undoubtedly important but far from voters’ most pressing concerns, such as ‘The Laws of the Sea’.

As Tony Blair, first elected as a Labour MP in 1983, commented ‘I had no doubt at all it would lose us the election. I won my seat in spite of our programme, not because of it.’
Labour’s campaign itself was often as Roy Hattersley, then Shadow Home Secretary, put it ‘ludicrous’.

As Hattersley recalls in his memoirs Who Goes Home?;

“New ground was broken on almost every day of the campaign…The campaign committee raised doubts about Michael’s capacity to lead the Party by passing a resolution confirming its confidence in his leadership qualities – thus giving a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘shooting yourself in the Foot’.
Leader and Deputy Leader [Michael Foot and Denis Healey] confirmed allegations that they disagreed about defence policy by issuing a joint statement which set out their two conflicting positions.

…I was prepared for public disputes about doctrine. But the small inefficiencies were too much to bear. One day, when I spoke at a Transport House press conference about crime, the visual aids were left in the Labour Party’s Walworth Road headquarters. On the following morning, I chaired a press conference on education. The visual aids arrived, but all the lettering slid off the pictures just as the television cameras focused on the graphs of Tory failure.
I telephoned Michael and told him that there was no reason why our sign writing should be as incompetent as our policy formation.”

As The Wilderness Years shows, Michael Foot, then in his 70th year and looking frail and unwell [though he would in fact happily go on to live another 27 years], selflessly embarked on ‘An arduous and poorly organised speaking tour of the country’.

Labour Deputy Leader and Shadow Foreign Secretary, Denis Healey’s memoirs The Time of My Life make clear that the 1983 election certainly wasn’t:

‘Our election campaign was worse organised than any I have ever known…
Michael Foot and I were given ridiculously heavy programmes, and were foolish event to accept them without protest. For almost four weeks we would start the morning at seven, with a meeting of our Campaign Committee in London, followed by a press conference which relieved lazy journalists of the need to follow us around. Then we would leave London for a series of meetings and walkabouts all over the country from ten in the morning until ten at night, returning to London after midnight for a few hours’ sleep before the next day began.

Many of our meetings were a complete waste of time; on one housing estate in the Midlands I was made to visit three old people’s homes in succession, on the grounds that if I visited only one, jealously from the others would cost us votes…
Michael was almost literally thrown to the wolves; the television cameras showed him being torn limb from limb by a pack of hounds at a demonstration in favour of blood sports.

…We lost eight points, or a quarter of our support, during the campaign itself. A modern election is fought essentially on television. Only one voter out of a hundred ever attends an election meeting, and he or she is nearly always already committed to one party or the other. Michael Foot and I never had the slightest idea what was happening in the campaign which mattered, on television; we were speaking every night at public meetings of people whose minds were already made up. We did not monitor our opponents’ activists; they never missed the smallest details of ours. And they were able to orchestrate the bulk of the press to make on concerted attack on one particular theme each day.”

As Tim Bell, who worked on the Conservative’s advertising campaign recalls his abiding memory was being told to cancel all advertising for the last four days of the campaign, given the Tories were so far ahead there was no point wasting money.

John O’Farrell’s book Things Can Only Get Better has become a bit of holy text within the Labour Party, treasured for its hilarious accounts of the often sheer grimness of political activism. His description of disasters of the 1983 election is no exception;

“In 1983 the United States of America went to war against the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada. This, however, was a far more equal battle than the British general election of the same year.
It was said that the Labour campaign started badly and then fell away, but this is being generous. It was the worst campaign in electoral history and it hurt to watch it.

There are various things that can lose a party votes in elections. You might have a leader that doesn’t look like prime ministerial material, you might have a manifesto that alienates many of the electorate, you might have a hostile media, you might appear hopelessly divided as a political party, or your campaign might be poorly organised and unfocused. Or like Labour in 1983 you might manage all of the above.”

The Labour Party did at least have one ‘secret weapon’ – the battle bus;

“This was an open topped double-decker bus, which toured marginal constituencies helping make them into Conservative strongholds. Its route was carefully planned to take it as many tree-lined avenues as possible so that overhanging branches could whiplash across the top of the bus knocking members of the Shadow Cabinet to the deck. The evening news would feature Margaret Thatcher being presented with flowers by rosy-cheeked school children, all waving Union jacks and cheering. Then it would cut to Labour’s campaign and we’d see Jill Foot getting back to her feet and picking a bird’s nest out of her hair with the tannoy booming ‘Vote Labour – for an end to NHS queues’, as the injured headed down to the nearest casualty department to make them even longer.”

The pictures of the battle bus in The Wilderness Years show John O’Farrell was barely exaggerating.

But surely these accounts must be slightly over the top. Was the election really that bad for Labour?

Well, yes.

As the results show Labour actually gained 4 seats, the only problem was that they lost 55 more.
Combined with some seats disappearing in a boundary review, Labour actually ended up with 60 seats less than the 269 won at the previous election in 1979 – itself at the time seen as a low point.

Labour wasn’t helped by the fact in several of these seats, the sitting Labour MPs had left the party to join the break-away Social Democratic Party, founded primarily because the Labour Party was felt to have become too irredeemably left-wing. [Again, a completely different world for those of us who grew up in the Blair years.]
These MPs proceeded to defend their seats for the SDP, in almost all cases, succeeding only in splitting the opposition vote and leading to more conservative gains.

Labour actually came third, or worse, in 292 out of 650 constituencies – a pretty abysmal result for a party hoping to form a Government.

Indeed, one measure of how far from power Labour were, is that of the Michael Foot’s 1983 Shadow Cabinet only one member ever reached the actual Cabinet – Shadow Attorney General John Morris, who would, a mere fourteen years later, get to be the real Attorney General under Tony Blair.

Indeed, another seven members of the twenty-seven Shadow Cabinet were sadly dead by the time Labour finally returned to power.*

The one thing the Labour leadership could console themselves with in 1983 was that the result wasn’t even worse; the party at least managed to retain the status of Official Opposition and the hope of someday returning to power.

As Jack Straw, then a young Labour MP and junior Treasury spokesman, stated confidently ‘Had that election gone on another week we would have come third. There is no doubt about it. Our votes were dissolving like snow in the sunshine.’

Jack Straw’s own Blackburn seat was also one of the few bright, or at least slightly less gloomy, spots of the night – having been one Labour had expected to lose. Straw clung on, with a swing to Labour ‘thanks to the work of scores of people in the Blackburn Labour Party, and no thanks to those who’d drafted our manifesto, nor to those who’d defected to the SDP in the hope of destroying us.’
Straw cheerfully notes that during the campaign ‘We came to the conclusion that the most we could hope for was Labour’s survival’.

As well as Blackburn and other seats that Labour managed to hold by much more slender margins, the Party saw several new, young MPs elected for the first time.

Many of them were on the left of the Party, including a handful of Militant tendency supporters who would cause an added headache for the leadership over the coming years. As Tony Benn noted in his Diary amidst the devastation, including his own defeat in Bristol, “But there are a lot of good new Members now in – Tony Banks, Richard Caborn [These first two going on to eventually serve as Ministers in the Blair Government] Bob Clay, Frank Cook, Jeremy Corbyn, Terry Fields, Bill Michie, Dave Nellist, Bob Wareing.”

There were also other rising stars – including most prominently two future Prime Ministers; Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Future Liberal Democrat leaders Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy, then standing as a Liberal and a Social Democrat respectively, were also first elected in 1983. [Ashdown later boasting that his seizing the formerly safe Tory seat of Yeovil was the one moment of the night when Margaret Thatcher later confessed she worried things might not go to plan.]

With new Conservative MP Michael Howard later going on to serve as Tory leader 20 years later, the 1983 intake of MPs produced perhaps the highest number of future leaders at any election.**

Speaking of future leaders, in Labour party folklore, as The Wilderness Years shows, the 1983 election was also the making of another future leader, Neil Kinnock.

Effectively giving up on the national campaign, Kinnock ‘got myself behind a wheel of the car and went rampaging round the country’, including delivering his famously psalm-like eve of poll warning about life under Thatcher, which many believed turned his succeeding Michael Foot as leader from a likelihood into a certainty.

When I saw him speak recently, Neil Kinnock reminisced that ‘I was very lucky in that I had a constituency party made up of people with good sense. When I arrived there to campaign they said ‘We’ve got a 20,000 majority. What the hell are you doing here? Get out round the country and go and go and kill some Tories (..metaphorically speaking of course)’.

Martin Westlake, in his doorstopper of a biography of Neil Kinnock, has a section simply titled ‘Disaster’ on the 1983 election, but concludes that ‘amidst the wreckage Kinnock had a good war’.

Westlake describes how 1983 for Kinnock ‘quickly came to represent a baseline against which all future campaigns would be judged.’
On making his first speech as leader, Neil Kinnock, told the Labour Conference ‘Remember how each and every one of you felt on that dreadful morning of 10th June and think to yourselves ‘9th June 1983 – never, ever again will we experience that!”

Labour’s long, painful march back to power had begun. It would only two more such dreadful mornings, in 1987 and 1992, before the youngest Labour MP elected in 1983, Tony Blair, would enter Downing Street.

The four years until the anniversary when BBC Parliament will surely reshow the 1997 General Election programme seems a short time to wait in comparison.


*[Afraid, I did actually look this up – they were Brynmor John, John Silkin, John Smith, Norman Buchan, Guy Barnett, Eric Heffer, and Lord Ponsonby. A further two Shadow Cabinet Members, Alec Jones and Frank McElhone, had actually died before the 1983 General election.
In addition to John Morris, Gerald Kaufmann and the late Gwyneth Dunwoody were the only members of the 1983 Shadow Cabinet still in the Commons by the time of Labour’s 1997 victory.]

** [I haven’t looked this up, but thinking about it the 1945 Election must come close, with every Labour leader between 1955-83, Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan and Michael Foot first being elected then.]

Promoting Portillo and his painful puns

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I’m always been vaguely intrigued by the political journey of politician, turned ubiquitous TV talking head, Michael Portillo.

Back in the distant mid-90s past he was an uber-Thatcherite Cabinet Minister, in which capacity he appears in Gyles Brandreth’s entertaining and gossip-drenched political diaries as the coiffured-haired crown prince of the Tory Right.

Following his shock loss of his seat, which defined the 1997 election as entered the political election as the original ‘Portillo moment’, he re-emerged as a Conservative moderniser, before seeming to lose his appetite for politics, after the further humiliation of being denied the Conservative leadership by Iain Duncan-Smith (which has gotta hurt).
Apparently Portillo had become so disillusioned by the final round of the 2001 leadership election he didn’t even vote for himself. He was knocked out by a single vote.

I think, for devotees of political counterfactuals, it’s arguable that had he taken a role on the front-bench, and been willing to do some of the donkey work of opposition he could have made yet another come back. He would have been a good position to take over the leadership when Iain Duncan-Smith imploded in 2003, or indeed to have been the modernisers’ candidate rather than David Cameron in 2005. Instead he withdrew from front-line politics, becoming one more of those former future Prime Ministers, who somehow missed the political train.


I also enjoy his more prosaic journeys around Britain for the TV series Great British Railway Journeys which is a winning mix of genuinely fascinating information, and wonderfully awkward moments as Portillo attempts to engage fellow commuters in conversation.

There’s something very British and Betjemanesque about his ambling about provincial towns, usually sporting some shade of burgundy or lilac, cheerfully repeating his opening gambit ‘I’m travelling around using a nineteenth century guidebook!’ to politely baffled locals.

But the show wouldn’t be what it is without Portillo’s biting wit and dazzling way with words. I was reminded of all this, apropos of nothing, on seeing that Youtube oddities connoisseur, Jon Harvey, has compiled a tribute to his best (worst) puns, which fellow fans of the show might enjoy:


I particularly like how he carefully emphasises each joke, perhaps to signal he hasn’t lost his train of thought or become side-tracked.

It’s good to see he hasn’t run out of steam.

Not his finest hour: Winston Churchill and a free press?

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To the dismay of some of my friends, I’m unashamedly an enormous admirer of Winston Churchill.

Unlike Britain in 1940, I know I don’t stand alone in this, and it’s hardly an original enthusiasm. You could easily fill a library with books glorifying ‘the Greatest Briton’ – only a dozen or so of them written by Churchill himself.

A major part of the man’s appeal is of course his stirring quotations and how, in the words of Edward Murrow [or Beverley Nichols depending on which attribution of the quotation made famous by President Kennedy we favour], ‘he mobilised the English language and sent it into battle’.
In short, I like a good Churchill quote as much as anyone.

However I did find The Sun newspaper’s use of a Churchill quotation on their front page today rather out of place.
The newspaper carried a picture of Churchill and the quotation;

A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other men that free man prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny. Where men have the habit of liberty the Press will continue to be the vigilant guardian of the rights of the ordinary citizen.

The Sun front page

This neatly allowed them to use the headline ‘D-DAY’ referring to the showdown of MPs voting on alternative proposals for press regulation, which didn’t actually take place after the parties reached an agreement in the early hours of the morning, after The Sun went to press.
(At least like the original D-Day the battle was postponed due to unfavourable conditions.)

The quotation was then seized upon and repeated by David Cameron, wishing to portray himself as a Churchillian populist guardian of the free press, in the Commons.

[Incidentally, although I can find the quotation frequently on the internet, I can’t find a source or citation other than that Churchill said or wrote them, as The Sun says, in 1949. I had thought they might be from a Commons speech responding to the 1940s version of the Leveson Inquiry, the Royal Commission on the press which reported in 1949, but Hansard brings up nothing.
Perhaps it’s a quotation from Their Finest Hour the Second Volume of his history of the Second World War published that year?]

While I can understand why The Sun would want to feature Churchill as an archetypal defender of freedom, and then cast around for a suitable quotation to go with it, he’s an almost comically unsuitable bearer of their anti-press regulation message.
Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, to my mind, had many virtues, but being a staunch defender of a free press is not one of them.

I’m sure others have pointed this out throughout the day, but it’s worth a quick churning though some Churchilliana to show just want a misleading picture of his record The Sun’s front page paints.

Between January 1941 and September 1942 Churchill’s wartime Coalition Government banned the communist newspaper The Daily Worker (the forerunner of The Morning Star), and throughout the war all newspapers were subjected to Government censorship being prevented from covering news, including the bombing of schools or anti-war marches, thought likely to damage morale.

The suppression of The Daily Worker could not have come as a huge surprise given their staunch opposition to the war effort, rather dubiously ditching their previous anti-fascism in favour of attacking an ‘Imperialist War’, following the line from Moscow after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
Even the then Manchester Guardian agreed with the ban, noting in an editorial how The Daily Worker had given ‘extreme provocation’ and concluding that the paper ‘did not believe either in the war or in democracy; its only aim was to confuse and weaken. We can well spare it.’

Churchill remained convinced of the need to censor the press in war time. During the 1956 Suez Crisis, a year after his eventual retirement as Prime Minister, he wrote his successor Anthony Eden a note, in which he identified the key problem that;

“We have a long delay when our intentions are known. The newspapers and foreign correspondents are free to publish what they choose. A censorship should be imposed.”

[This despite both himself and his son Randolph having made their careers as foreign correspondents.
‘Note, Private’ quoted in Martin Gilbert Winston S. Churchill, Volume VIII: Never Despair, 1945-65, London: Heinemann, 1988, pp.1203-4.]

Much less easy to defend are the events of June-July 1953, when a seventy-eight year old Churchill, mid-way through his second term as Prime Minister, was incapacitated by a stroke.

The public were not informed that the Prime Minister was desperately ill, or more seriously that their Government was essentially directed for weeks by Churchill’s staff and his son-in-law Christopher Soames.

As Churchill’s loyal Private Secretary, and dazzling diarist, Jock Colville recalled in his classic Diary account The Fringes of Power;

“I could not obey Churchill’s injunction to tell nobody. The truth would undoubtedly leak to the press unless I took immediate defensive action. So I wrote urgently and in manuscript to three particular friends of Churchill, Lords Camrose [owner of the Allied Newspapers Group], Beaverbrook [owner of The Daily Express & Evening Standard amongst other papers] and Bracken [publisher of The Financial Times & The Economist amongst others. Also thought to be a model for George Orwell’s Big Brother], and sent the letters to London by dispatch rider. All three immediately came to Chartwell and paced the lawn in earnest conversation. They achieved the all but incredible, and in peace-time possibly unique, success of gagging Fleet Street, something they would have done for nobody but Churchill.
Not a word of the Prime Minister’s stroke was published.”

Colville goes on to describe how ‘for the best part of a month’ ‘my colleagues and I had to handle requests for decisions from Ministers and Government departments entirely ignorant of the Prime Minister’s incapacity’…As Parliamentary Private Secretary, Christopher [Soames] was in a curious position…he was not in principles supposed to see Cabinet Papers or secret documents…However, in the unusual circumstances prevailing, it seemed to me that, whatever the rules might be, Christopher should be given access to many papers he was not supposed to see, including Cabinet papers.
Before the end of July the Prime Minister was sufficiently restored to take an intelligent interest in affairs of state and express his own decisive views. Christopher and I then returned to the fringes of power, having for a time been drawn perilously close to the centre.
For the next two years the distance between the fringes and the centre was far shorter than it had once been.”

[See Jock Colville, The Fringes of Power, Downing Street Diaries, Volume II: 1941-55, London: Spectre, 1987, pp.329-30.]

As Churchill’s biographer, the inexhaustible Sir Martin Gilbert, breezily comments how Churchill was helped by “the discretion and skill of three men, his Principal Private Secretaries, Jock Colville and David Pitblado, and his son-in-law Christopher Soames. It was Soames, the only Member of Parliament of the three, who, quite unobtrusively, took a hundred decisions in Churchill’s name, without once breaching the trust which such a heavy responsibility involved”.

[Gilbert, Never Despair, p.859.]

To paraphrase a constitutionally outraged Toby Ziegler, for a month that year there was a coup d’état in this country.

But luckily due to Churchill’s personal friendships with (literal) press barons it was never reported.

In short The Sun should save their gratuitous Churchill references for when they want to praise David Cameron’s vetoing of European Union treaties. I’m sure the man who advocated a United States of Europe would approve.

It’s fair to say Winston Churchill’s attitude towards a free press was at best inconsistent and not his finest hour.

Rony’s Cronies and Sheffield’s Royal Statues

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I’m afraid blogging has been anorexically light over the last couple of weeks, mainly because I’ve been busy with a couple of big projects at work, meaning my evenings feel reminiscent of this classic Simpsons clip.

However given the number of people who’ve kindly taken the time to keep checking back here, I really must make more time to post things, and have a few ideas up my sleeve (along with a watch and some fluff) for the coming weeks.

In the meantime, should anyone be desperately having withdrawal symptoms from tangent historical anecdotes I did appear on Radio Sheffield this morning.
I was on the ‘Rony’s Friends’ section of Rony Robinson’s programme in which a panel discuss the day’s news (I can’t believe they missed a trick in not calling it ‘Rony’s cronies’).

It was the first time I’d been on the show in that capacity, so on being told before hand we’d be discussing the issues of the day, I hastily tried to work out some nuanced opinions on Latin American geo-politics or the state of the vacant Vatican.
I needn’t have worried, as the news Rony focuses on tends to be a bit more light hearted – including favourite anecdotes about queuing, given the queues for tickets ahead of Saturday’s FA match in Barnsley, and the likely sex of the royal baby
However, along with fellow guest Janet Blackburn, who has the rather enviable job of managing Haddon Hall, we managed to shoehorn in various references, only extremely vaguely related to the headlines – ranging from Queen Victoria to Keira Knightley via Gilbert and Sullivan and the histories of Haddon Hall and the University of Sheffield.

Should anyone still be interested, the programme, at least for the moment, can be found here.
We’re on from 35.40 onwards.


For completism I’ll note that I should have taken up Rony’s bet that the statue of Edward VII which stands, usually crowned with pigeons, in Fitzalan Square isn’t Sheffield’s only Royal Statue.

As my colleague Heather reminds me there is a statue of Queen Victoria in Endcliffe Park, which the excellent ‘Public Art in Sheffield’ pages on Sheffield Hallam University’s website tell me is even by the same sculptor, Alfred Drury.

I also now remember, and the Victorianweb site confirms, there’s at least one statue (I think two) of Queen Victoria on the exterior of Sheffield City Hall, along with a rather weary or condescending looking bust inside.
If anyone knows of any more Royal statues or busts in Sheffield – George III, Elizabeth I, King Arthur…do let me know.

Local Press Gems: Lance Armstrong’s performance enhancing shrugs

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Local papers, forever fighting an uphill battle to fill space, do come up with some wonderful stories, which deserved get picked up further afield.

A particular recent favourite [spotted by my friend Jamie Wroe is from The Bournemouth Daily Echo – ‘I’m stuck with 10 000 Lance Armstrong DVD’s to shift‘.

This tells the sad story of a ‘Poole entrepreneur’ who bulk brought 10 000 DVDs of cyclist Lance Armstrong, a man for-ever destined to have the word ‘disgraced’ prefixed to his name – like Neil Hamilton.
The ‘wheeler dealer’ had hoped to resell them at a higher price, but sadly purchased them just before Mr. Armstrong admitted having used performance-enhancing drugs and cheating his way to winning the Tour de France.

As he usually benefits from others’ misfortune, buying up and reselling the stock of bankrupt businesses and says ‘This is one of the few things I’ve managed to buy that has come back to bite me’ it’s hard to find the story anything other than funny, particularly when it includes such choice quotes as:

‘I was hoping the problem would die down and I would be able to find a home for them. Now I don’t think I would get a tenth of the money back.’
‘I could make a tower or build a big dominoes track for my three-year-old.’
‘Armstrong has had a good life for the last 20 years. I just wish he had either kept his mouth shut a bit longer or not done it in the first place.’

I’m sure Lance feels the same.

Of course the readers of the Bournemouth Daily Echo dutifully rally round with typically helpful and sympathetic comments:
“Re-Cycle them!”
“Always sell them off as coasters. Bit risky buying that amount when an investigation was going on.”
“What ever you do Don’t go on dragons den. I’m out.”
“Yeah, I know a couple of blokes who’d take ’em off your hands: Del Boy and Rodney”
“Oh well you have always got 10,000 black DVD cases you could always flog? Be quick though burning DVDs is on the way out”

and such wisdom as

“Fair play to Lance Armstrong for riding a bike on drugs. I tried it once and hit a dog and fell off.”

Written by oliverobserves

February 10, 2013 at 8:03 pm