The good burghers of Chesham and Amersham have done an “Orpington” !

Sarah Green’s magnificent win in the Chesham and Amersham by-election prompts thoughts in ageing liberals like me of the Orpington by-election of 1962.

Eric Lubbock wins the Orpington by-election of 1962 for the Liberal Party

I first started taking an interest in politics in 1960 with the US Presidential contest between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. It was glamorous (or JFK was) and played out , for the first time, under the glare of the television lights. The winner was as much “made” like a consumer brand as he was elected. Contrast this with the British General Election of 1959 when my parents and the rest of our conservative and supine electorate elected another Victorian born Tory into Number 10.

But in 1962 things began to change and it happened, of all places, in my home town of Orpington. Now Orpington was, and no doubt still is, a sleepy commuter suburb devoid of any merit except it’s good rail connection to London. My parents only lived there, and I had only been born there as a post war baby boomer, because of its commuter convenience.

In March 1962 Orpington had a by-election which was confidently expected to elect another Conservative MP in this quintessentially middle class West Kent town. But in Harold Macmillan’s government there was a nasty whiff of mendacity and corruption exemplified by the “Profumo Affair” in 1961. “Supermac” was losing his allure and beginning to look what he was – a figure from another age. Born in 1894 he was only a few years younger than my Grandparents. Other factors played a part. Interest rates has been rising and home ownership was becoming a challenge for younger voters.

The first time voters in 1962 had been born in 1940 and many were struggling to get their feet on the property ladder. Their political expectations were more likely to be formed by the youthful John Kennedy than the aging Tory in a three piece suit in Downing Street especially as there was a bit of a nasty smell about him.

The beneficiary of this moment of disgruntlement was the thirty-four year old Eric Lubbock the Liberal Party’s candidate. A likeable sociable man Lubbock was hardly a revolutionary. He was the heir to a peerage and had been educated at Harrow and Balliol. He was the right man in the right place at the right time. The Liberals from the nadir of the 1959 election when they won only six seats (on six percent of the vote) were showing national signs of recovery. Lubbock in a seat where the Labour vote was there to be squeezed did just that, as well as winning over thousands of disgruntled Tory voters.

Lubbock’s win was seen as a first post-war challenge to the two party system – a system which was underpinned by the undemocratic First Past the Post electoral method. To some extent it was a false dawn, though Eric Lubbock held his seat until the 1970 election it was to be a while before any third party revival happened. Stymied as ever by FPTP. But they were heady days back in 1962 and it’s good to remember them.

Taking the knee is not “gesture politics” , it’s a cry for human rights.

In The Times today Trevor Philips argues that in Britain class is a bigger discriminator than race. I don’t want to rank prejudices and for what it’s worth see all too many cultural dividers around. Race, Class, Gender – and a dozen more. But Class is certainly high up this gruesome list.

Shaw rightly said how we speak is a huge divider. Accents are not infallible evidence of social class, but they are pretty good. Factor in dress and manners and you can pretty precisely place someone’s background in a few minutes. Joan Bakewell, from a working class background changed her speech on the train from Liverpool. My employer back in the 1960s unquestionably discriminated and selected white middle class males ahead of any other group.

Let’s not be mealy-mouthed about discrimination. Race is important. You can, like Bakewell, change how you speak. You can educate yourself to smarten your intelligence. You can adopt behaviour that the culture you’re in sees as the norm. But you can’t change your race.

The hair straighteners and skin whiteners don’t work. And race brings a culture with it including, sometimes, religion and family norms. The various anti discrimination movements try to make us believe that those who are different from us matter. They are right, black lives do matter and we need more activism, not less. More “taking the knee” not less. And those at the top, especially those who are themselves from a minority, should be in the front line.

Priti Patel has made her position clear. She is of course of East African Asian heritage. Her family fled discrimination to make a home in Britain. She grew up in a Hindu household so she will be quite aware what being an immigrant and not of the mainstream religion, as well as not of the dominant white middle class, means.

I don’t want to discuss Patel here – I find her Hard Right stance on everything puzzling (given her background) but that’s not the key point about discrimination.

That point is the irrationally of prejudice combined with the fact that it is inculcated into British society. If people are different far too many of us denigrate them. Perhaps it’s idealism but I welcome multiculturalism and believe it enriches our society. And if a group is marginalised because of their colour we should all protest – it’s not “gesture politics” , it’s a cry for human rights.

The rise and rise of “Cultural Conservatism”

From the “Sunday Times” today

I cannot recall seeing the descriptor “culturally conservative “ before but it is excellent. There is a very illuminating article in the Sunday Times today by Tim Shipman which shows how the populist appeal to cultural conservatism – the Anti-Woke imperative – is being managed. A shadowy figure called Dougie Smith is the crown Prince of populism – a credo which places popularity of statements and actions not only ahead of truthfulness but ahead of efficacy. The question asked then becomes not “What is the right thing to do?” but “How will this play in Hartlepool?”

Cultural conservatism is something of a throwback and clearly the Right’s response to social liberalism. In the post war years Britain gradually liberalised its attitudes and its laws. It took a while but in key areas like the Death Penalty, the laws on abortion, homosexuality, race and gender discrimination we changed. Membership of the project to unite the previously warring tribes in Europe played a significant part culminating in the four Freedoms of the European Union – especially Freedom of Movement – which changed the cultural aspects of society, considerably in some areas. Substantial immigration from Commonwealth countries, notably from the Caribbean and South Asia, did the same.

The move to a more liberal and pluralist society was never universally accepted of course – those opposing it had mixed reasons for doing so (often religious reasons) but they couldn’t stop the trend, only delay it in some cases. An example is the changing norms and laws on smoking in public. Gradually we changed from allowing smoking everywhere to allowing it nowhere. A social change now enshrined in law, as it had to be. But libertarians have always characterised this as an impingement on personal freedom.

Modern cultural conservatism does not generally argue for the repeal of socially liberal laws (though in some cases they do) but in the main chooses to fight a culture war about the past. They are self-proclaimed patriots defending Empire and, sometimes, excusing slavery. The conservatives do not, to be fair, generally start the fight though they certainly engage in it. To be “Anti-Woke” there has to be a “Woke” to be against. So movements which focus on discrimination like “Black Lives Matter” become a target. Sometimes whilst it is easy to see what the cultural conservatives are against it is harder to see what they are for.

A key element of cultural conservatism is an anti Metropolitan bias. London is too liberal by half , too multicultural, too elitist and too wealthy. But the towns and cities of the Midlands and the north are a rich breeding ground for the campaigners for reaction. The conservatives approach to the BBC is very similar – the Corporation is too politically correct (a cardinal sin) and of course too Woke.

The cultural conservatives are addicted to symbols. The Union Flag, portraits of the Queen, the statue of Winston Churchill and many other symbols become quasi-religious icons. Even statues of highly questionable Victorian entrepreneurs are defended because the Woke warriors are against them.

The binary divide between Woke and anti-Woke is not the same as the conventional divide of Left v Right, though there is some overlap. It is in the DNA of conservatives to oppose change – that’s what the word “conservative” means. However if change reinforces the iconography of cultural conservatism it is, of course, promulgated. The campaign for Brexit was an overwhelmingly cultural conservative and reactionary nationalist movement. The centres of its support were very distanced from the metropolis. It was above all a backlash against multiculturalism. In short “Remain” was “Woke” and “Leave” was culturally conservative and “Anti-Woke”.

The success of the Brexit campaign also fundamentally changed the Conservative Party. It became clear that there were more votes in cultural conservatism and narrow nationalism than there were in the traditional “One Nation” and internationalist positioning. Members of Parliament on the Conservative side have never been so united nor so culturally conservative. For Labour there is a huge dilemma. The very basis of modern democratic socialism was societal liberalism. The driving force for social change in the 75 years of post war Britain was always Labour governments. But now to espouse further improvements in human rights and to argue for improvements in the position of minorities is seen as “Woke” and is not a vote winner. Similarly to argue that the problem of Brexit is not how it is implemented but that it was fundamentally the wrong thing to do won’t play well behind the Red Wall.

Britain is low in the list of priorities for President Biden.

With the US we will be drawing up a new Atlantic Charter, 80 years after Churchill and Roosevelt agreed the first.” Boris Johnson in The Times today

If there’s to be an “Atlantic Charter” it will be between the US and the leaders of a united Europe

A crucial element of the “Atlantic charter” in 1941 was that it marked formally the end of Britain’s historic “Great Power” role. That role had been underpinned by Empire for a century or more but Roosevelt knew, and reluctantly Churchill was forced to accept, that a withdrawal from Empire was essential in the post war world. It was the main bargaining chip the US played in acceding to Britain’s request for help in the war in Europe, and later in the Far East.

When the various tripartite allied summits with the Soviet Union took place Britain was increasingly the junior partner. And in the post war creation of a new world order essentially a duopoly of power emerged. Britain was an ally of the US but not really a significant world player in its own right.

Once Britain lost its Empire – it took much longer than it should have – it began its search for a role. The defeated Axis nations – especially Germany, Japan and Italy – made economically and politically better progress in recovery than Britain. The 1950s saw a Britain struggling still with its imperial fantasies best illustrated by the preposterous delusion of Suez. Dean Acheson, former US Secretary of State, effectively told us in 1962 to stop pretending we were a big player anymore and to turn to Europe.

Any new Atlantic Charter will exclude Britain – President Biden knows that this side of the Atlantic economic and political power is centred in Brussels not London. Cooperation between the United States and Europe is one of the major geopolitical plays of our times. Post Trump the auguries are good. Biden treasures his Irish heritage and today that heritage is a European one as well And Ireland, mostly free of British imperial rule, is a good example of a positive outcome from the 1941 “Atlantic Charter”.

So whilst Boris Johnson can pretend that he can be Churchill to Biden’s Roosevelt the President will be looking at the united nations in the EU rather than the offshore oddity that is the United Kingdom. Europe’s economy is around ten times of that of the U.K. Britain is a legitimate member of the G7 but with the EU an integrated economy and trading entity it will be on the leading EU countries that Biden will be focusing.

Johnson’s blather about a new “Atlantic Charter” is meaningless flimflam. Britain, notwithstanding our historical links and our common language, is low in the list of priorities for President Biden. This side of the Atlantic there are thirty European nations which collectively and in many cases severally are pragmatically and emotionally well ahead of Little England.

The bad guys do win – Nixon, Trump, Johnson – but in the end their faults can catch up with them.

There is a good piece on Sir Keir Starmer by Charlotte Ivers in the Sunday Times today. How can Starmer persuade people to vote for him?

Most our decisions, including how we vote, are driven in part by logic and reason and in part by gut feel and emotion. Both sides of the brain are at work, sometimes in cranial conflict. How often do we hear , or use, an expression that contrasts head and heart?

Rational man would never have voted for Brexit, or for Jeremy Corbyn. We avoided the latter but our emotions regrettably gave us the former. It’s complex. In 1945 the genuine emotional admiration for Churchill surely made him a shoe-in to be elected? But the then rational men and women of Britain thought and voted otherwise.

In 1960 America experienced the first election where a candidate became a brand. The marketing of JFK was so skilled that a deeply conservative nation just chose him, but only just. Brands are most successful when they have emotional appeal. If there’s a “reason to believe” all the better. I agree with Ms Ivers that Keir Starmer is a decent man and a clever and successful one. But in politics today that isn’t enough.

The opposite of a preferred brand is a rejected one. That actually is Keir Starmer’s best chance. The bad guys do win – Nixon, Trump, Johnson – but in the end their faults can catch up with them. Rational man would not buy the Boris brand. But emotional man seems to like the old fraud. But if the British public starts to think again, as it did in 1945 (and, arguably, in 1964, 1979 and 1997) that’s Sir Keir’s best chance.

Understanding the reasons people rose up against an Imperial oppressor in Ireland

You don’t need to look far to find evidence of the evils of imperialism – just across the Irish sea. The Act of Union theoretically uniting Great Britain and Ireland was a sham. Had there from the start been an understanding from the British that John Bull’s other island urgently needed help things might have been different. But there wasn’t. Ireland was a resource to be exploited and the people an irritant to be brutally suppressed.

Joe Biden and before him John Kennedy are symbols of Britain’s losses in Ireland being America’s gain. The depopulation of Ireland in the nineteenth century was an inevitable consequence of Britain’s neglect. But for many leaving their homes for ever by emigrating was not possible, so they chose to try and overthrow their oppressor.

A new book about the Phoenix Park murders, “The Irish Assassins” is reviewed in The Times Today. The revelations are shocking and the story is illustrative of what repression and illiberalism can lead to. The Empire was peppered with protest and Ireland was just the closest to home example of the fact that if you suppress the human rights of a people some of them will rise up against you.

The murders in Phoenix Park in 1882

One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. The consequences of Britain’s total failure to keep the Union together are, of course, still with us. Justifying the violence of Phoenix Park leads us down some very dark byways – but understanding the reasons for it, as this new book seems to do, is another matter.

The eventual triumph of the Irish was real, but partial. The north of the island of Ireland remains a quasi-imperial possession. Whilst the south has become a successful and principled independent European state the north still lingers in sectarianism. The bitter bigotry and the provocative marches remain. The stench of imperialism lives on.

32 years on from Tiananmen Square my memories of Hong Kong

From my 1989 diary:

Protests in Hong Kong in June 1989 after Tiananmen Square


“In the middle of April 1989 I visited Beijing again and coincidentally was there on April 15th when Hu Yaobang died and set in motion a momentous train of events (Another coincidence of April 15th was that that was the day chosen by Life Magazine to photograph one of their “Day in the Life” books. They had hundreds of photographers throughout China recording just this one day in China’s history. I commend the book to you as a vivid picture of the extraordinary diversity of the country).

I flew back to Hong Kong from Beijing on April 15th and returned a couple of weeks later for another business trip. By then students had begun to mass in Tiananmen Square to mourn the death of Hu but also to demonstrate in favour of democracy. I saw some signs of the protests but not did actually visit the Square.

One evening I was in my hotel room watching CNN (The Cable News network which was received by satellite in many of the top hotels in the city). The newsreader said something like “And now over to CNN news reporter X in Tiananmen Square, Beijing for an update on the Student protest movement …” at this point the screen on my TV went blank. A few minutes later the picture returned but by then, of course, the report on China was over. It was my first experience of censorship in action. What a futile gesture that censorship was, incidentally, as the news reports continued to go to the West over the following weeks – particularly during Gorbachev’s visit.

That visit to Beijing was my last (to date) – you will understand why. After the Tiananmen massacre our business in China was temporarily halted and our people were brought out of Beijing. “My” documentary, although finished, has not been transmitted.

During May we watched the developing situation in China with fascination. Interest in Hong Kong was, of course, intense. Tens of thousands of Hong Kong people took to the streets to march in support of the protesting Students. Actually the protestors in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities were by no means only students. Many of Shell’s business contacts in the Chinese institutions were seen by our Beijing staff taking part in the marches. In Hong Kong most of my staff joined in. There was one extraordinary day towards the end of May when hundreds of thousands took to the streets in Hong Kong with a Typhoon nearby. There was an strange sense of foreboding, tension you could cut with a knife as martial law was declared in Beijing and the troops began to approach the Square, only to be turned back by the peaceful protesters. The news reporting from Beijing was excellent, the Hong Kong media, the American networks and the BBC (Kate Adie) were all very good. The last week in May saw the erection of the Goddess of Democracy statue in Tiananmen Square, a naïve copy of the Statue of Liberty but all the more poignant for its naivete.

On Sunday June 4th Ann and I were due to have a day out on the Shell boat with our friends Jerry and Isabel Wood. At around 7.30 our clock radio woke us with the awful news about the movement of troops and tanks into the centre of Beijing and the terrible carnage that was taking place. Sleeping protestors had been run over by tanks, troops were firing indiscriminately into the crowd. Death and destruction. The radio brought a message of condemnation from President Bush and from the British Government. The Governor of Hong Kong eventually joined in. We joined our friends in a shell shocked state. We went ahead with the boat trip but the mood was sombre as more news came over a portable radio. When we returned to Queens Pier thousands of Hong Kong citizens were massing in the streets. Black armbands had appeared. There was a feeling of disbelief, and of fear. In eight years Hong Kong will be handed over to these murderers!

Our office in Beijing closed and our people managed to get flights out. We welcomed them to the office with relief. One secretary had been staying in the Beijing Hotel which is close to the Square. A bullet came through her window. She spent the rest of the night under her bed! None of our staff was hurt and all managed to get out soon after June 4th.

Ann and I were still deeply under the impression from these events when we started our “Home Leave” holiday later that week. It was impossible not to feel emotionally involved. We had both visited Beijing many times and had met with some young people who we were sure would have been involved in the demonstrations. Only a few months earlier we had entertained a visiting party of CCTV people in Hong Kong, taking them out for the day on the Shell boat. One of the party had been heavily involved in a CCTV programme called “River Elegy”, a partly political fictional tale which dealt honestly with some of the excesses and failures of the Chinese Communist Party. What would happen to him now? What would happen to the young economist that I worked with in one of our projects; he was urbane and western in his outlook – he had been educated for two years at Berkeley California; was he involved in the protests, was he still alive?”

Little England has triumphed over Global Britain – it won’t be rolled back in my lifetime

“ A country controls its borders and should be able to kick out those who govern it. The arrogant European Commission is an affront to democracy.” Iain Martin in The Times today.

Same old, same old. We are back in the Free trade and tariff debate of the mid 19th Century. The world moved on over the decades, sadly in Europe having to endure two ghastly Wars before Churchill’s maxim that Jaw Jaw was better than War War eventually won.

If you want open borders for trade as, for example, Margaret Thatcher enthusiastically did, those borders have to be open otherwise as well. The greatest triumph of European unity was the negotiation of the Four Freedoms – something that the United Kingdom was very much party to.

To call the European Commission “arrogant” is just ignorant abuse. The Commission is empowered by a democratically elected Parliament. What it does it is authorised by that Parliament to do it. And if a member state objects it generally has a right of veto.

Churchill argued for unity – he had seen twice in his lifetime what raw nationalism could do. International cooperation is infinitely preferable to go-if-alone faux-patriotism with all its dangers of grandiose flag-waving self-regard.

Cooperation requires compromise, and rules. We are in the world of the “greater good” here. Not everything in a Treaty such as Maastricht could be equally beneficial to all its signatories. But overall the benefits for all, jointly and severally, outweighed the downsides for some. And Britain even negotiated opt outs that gave it a preferential position.

The acid test of any proposed action is to compare it with what others in a similar position do. Of the then 28 nations of the European Union Britain was the only nation to leave, indeed the only nation to contemplate it. The world has moved on from closed borders and closed minds. Except in this sceptered isle. Here Little England triumphed over Global Britain and sadly it won’t be rolled back in my lifetime.

The new yacht is just bombast – a childish salute to the past which, it seems, HMQ wants no part of.

Tin-pot regimes always indulge in vulgar and extravagant symbolism. Criticise Idi Amin for his viciousness and genocidal tendencies but you have to admit that he could put on a show. The more extravagant a dictator’s uniform the more vicious his crimes. When the British Empire ruled across the globe we always had lots of events to demonstrate our power. An elephant could have a good career in India just being part of parades.

As we have entered the stage of terminal decline to tin-pottery more and more flags have been unfurled. They even wanted to brand the “Oxford” vaccine with a union flag for a while until it was realised both that its British component was limited – and that it wasn’t as good as the alternatives.

So the new yacht is just bombast – a childish salute to the past which, it seems, HMQ wants no part of. Can’t see Charles fancying it much either. Not his thing at all. Can you imagine a serious nation wanting to preen around on a boat thinking it would “host trade fairs, ministerial summits and diplomatic talks”. They’d hire the function rooms at the nearest Hilton Hotel instead.

This is tax-payers money (there’s no other sort) and could be better spent – not least on overseas aid where the budget has been decimated. Will you tell the African hospital denied funding that if they go to the harbour than can see a British yacht setting out its stall – like Del Boy in Peckham.

In Johnson’s pecking order of influences on decision-making “Will it be popular” is on its own at the top.

“Be clear: we could have saved many lives by effecting a more complete shut-down of the economy while sealing ourselves off from the world but we chose (arguably rightly) not to do that.” Matthew Parris in “The Times” today.

Arguably rightly”? Well that’s an argument I’d like to see. But I won’t, of course, because it’s nonsense. This is not 20/20 hindsight. At the time some other countries were doing just that. Locking down more comprehensively and much earlier. And Britain? Off to Cheltenham races in our tens of thousands.

Arguably rightly ?

The insouciance of Boris Johnson shaking hands and arguing in favour of “taking it on the chin” killed people. Not a few – but in droves. Including nearly him we were told. The mad men and women of the Barmy Right were denying the extent of the threat. And Johnson listened to the Hannans and the Hartley-Brewers and delayed.

What we witnessed was a clash between populism and science. In Johnson’s pecking order of influences on decision-making “Will it be popular” is on its own at the top. “Doing the unpopular thing” is nowhere in his list of options. And if it has to be done he’ll let the experts take the rap. Then there’s the blame culture. If it all goes wrong Macavity wasn’t there.

Cummings in his committee appearance told us nothing we didn’t know or strongly suspect. There was a “If they die, they die” attitude seen at its most venal in the Care Home saga. Was that “arguably right”? I don’t think so. It was mostly the little people and the old who died. Boris was one of the very few of the not yet geriatric rich and famous who suffered. Odd that.

Populism is extraordinarily effective because people believe what they want to believe. It’s like drink or comfort food. We know it’s dodgy but we still do it. That’s why so much snake oil has been sold over the years and why malignant ideologues often survive in power as long as they do. Stalin and Franco died in office, and quietly in bed. And Boris Johnson is still in office. Another Teflon man.