Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The missing generation of British politics

I’ve had a couple of people query the statistics listed in the Appendix to my e-book Things Can Only Get Bitter.

The point I’m trying to make in the book is that there’s a missing political generation, that startlingly few people born between 1955 and 1964 ever reached the highest ranks in political life. And that this is particularly surprising since it was such a numerous generation, the largest in British history.

But there’s a suggestion that by focusing only on the four big offices of state, I may be distorting the data.

So I’ve tried to make up a list of every cabinet minister since the 1945 election. This may be slightly inaccurate, since some cabinet posts come and go or get merged with other departments. But I’m sure that this is broadly right – certainly I’ve not deliberately cheated.

And this is the statistical breakdown for cabinet ministers, grouped by the decade in which they were born:

1905-14:- 43
1915-24:- 35
1935-34:- 38
1935-44:- 31
1945-54:- 46
1955-64:- 15
1965-74:- 20

I think that supports my argument. There is always going to be some fluctuation, but those of us born in 1955-64 have produced fewer than half the number of cabinet ministers recorded in any previous generation. And we've already been overtaken by the next tranche – the Cameron-Clegg-Miliband generation.

In other words, the phenomenon is as notable as when the four big offices of state are considered.

The point stands: I spent a couple of decades in a country run by politicians older than I was, and then suddenly they were younger than me. At no point did my generation enjoy any pre-eminence.

Which is not intended as a complaint or a whinge. Just an observation.

And Things Can Only Get Bitter is an attempt to explore and explain the curious incident of the dog in the night-time: what happened to the generation that didn’t bark?

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Ziggy Stardust and the Plaque From Mars

Back in 1977 my brother and I went to London for the first time without our parents. And amongst the tourist things that had to be done was a trip to Heddon Street, round the back of Oxford Street, to pay tribute to the site of the cover shot of David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust album.

So I was very pleased to be invited along this morning to the unveiling of a plaque commemorating the shrine. Sadly, the plaque doesn't take the form of a K. West sign, but you can't have everything. What we did have was the two surviving Spiders From Mars, Trevor Bolder and Mick 'Woody' Woodmansey:

Monday, 26 March 2012

Things Can Only Get Bitter - the video

Since this whole e-publishing thing is new to me, I thought I'd take the opportunity to explore other ways of presenting my work in a multi-media, cross-platform kind of way. So I made a 15-minute video, with a soundtrack of me reading an edited extract fom the Prologue to Things Can Only Get Bitter:

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Jocky Wilson Says

Anyone of a certain age must surely feel a slight twinge of sadness at learning of the death of the former world darts champion Jocky Wilson. Back in the 1980s, he was the real face of darts for those of us who weren't proper fans, but enjoyed a bit of unlikely entertainment, especially if it had Sid Waddell commentating.

His death will presumably prompt retellings of the time when Dexys Midnight Runners were on Top of the Pops performing Jackie Wilson Says in front of a massive picture of Jocky. This tale is generally trotted out to prove how ignorant the BBC can be on occasion, so it's worth noting the real story: it was actually a joke on the part of the band, and the Top of the Pops crew went along with it.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Quote for the Week 15

This government is committed to reducing and then abolishing capital gains tax and inheritance tax.
- Kenneth Clarke in his Budget speech in November 1995

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Passing the Tebbit Test

I was reading Norman Tebbit's blog this evening. As you do. And amongst his replies to comments left on a previous post was this paragraph:

There were some pretty silly posts, as from unikey who declared that more people nowadays do not vote than do vote. Of course that is not true and I suspect that he misread a rather good article in the New Statesman of 19th March about the matter.

I assume this is a reference to my article in that issue, since I write about one of Tony Blair's great achievements: he got a government elected with the support of fewer people than there were abstentions. The don't-knows actually won the 2001 election, the first time such a thing had happened since universal suffrage. To prove it wasn't a mere blip, Blair repeated the feat in 2005.

But anyway, my point is this: Norman Tebbit said it was 'a rather good article'. Which is nice.

New Statesman online

The extract from my e-book Things Can Only Get Bitter, which appeared in the New Statesman last week, is now available online.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

University of Chichester

To complete what has been a very fine week, I've just been appointed an Associate Lecturer at the University of Chichester, where I'll be leading a second-year module on post-War British culture in the next academic year.

I'm looking forward to this. As I've said here before, I really like Chichester, both as a city and a university, and I'm very grateful to Dr Hugo Frey, the Head of the History Department, for giving me this opportunity. It's a new and unexpected direction for me.

I'm also grateful to Dr Adam Locks of the Media Studies Department, who first invited me to Chichester to participate in the splendid Avengers conference last year.

I rather wish I'd had the likes of Hugo and Adam around when I was at college, as opposed to the lecturers I did have, who insisted I should be reading Henry James and Edith Wharton rather than Bram Stoker and H.G. Wells. So I'm really pleased to be joining them, in a junior capacity. It should be fun.

Friday, 16 March 2012

The New Statesman (again)

I bought my copy of this week's New Statesman today, complete with seven-page cover-story extract from my e-book Things Can Only Get Bitter.

I'm tremendously pleased with this. I'm on the cover of a magazine that published - amongst many others - three of my greatest literary heroes: George Orwell, H.G. Wells and J.B. Priestley. I'm very grateful to the editor Jason Cowley for his support, and to dozens of others, including the chief sub-editor Nana Yaa Mensah.

The book should be available at the end of next week, but until then, the New Statesman is clearly the place to be.

Dr Rowan Williams

I'm sorry to hear the news that Rowan Williams is stepping down as Archbishop of Canterbury. He's been my favourite incumbent in my lifetime, with a nice line in eccentric dignity and intellectual handwringing.

I don't rate any of the front-runners for the succession very much, but if they go for John Sentamu, I shall look into how one resigns from membership of the Church of England. It might be difficult since I'm not actually a Christian, but that's never held the cause of Anglicanism back in the past.

Meanwhile, let's remember Dr Rowan in his pomp:

Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Unswung Sixties

Sometime last year I recorded an interview with Doubleband Films for a programme about the less fashionable end of the 1960s. I don't remember everything we covered, but I recall Mr Acker Bilk and Engelbert Humperinck turning up in conversation. And I remember it as being great fun.

Anyway, the documentary is titled Cilla's Unswung Sixties and it's on the UKTV Yesterday channel next Monday evening at 9 p.m.

(This photo of Cilla Black was taken by Harry Goodwin and is included in the book My Generation: The Glory Years of British Rock.)

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The New Statesman

This week's issue of the always excellent New Statesman (out tomorrow) carries an extract from my e-book Things Can Only Get Bitter. The book itself will follow in a week's time, but you'll be wanting a preview.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Doctor in the House

As I woke up to hear more doctors complaining about the government's plans for the NHS, I was reminded of the story I included in my book Crisis? What Crisis? about the time in 1975 when hospital doctors staged an overtime ban.

An unexpected consequence of their industrial action was that the death rate in hospitals fell by three per cent.

Monday, 12 March 2012

It was twenty-five years ago today (or thereabouts)

It being my 50th birthday today, I received a gift of a couple of stickers dating back to the late-1980s and the Circle of Shit, the band with whom I used to 'sing'. The other members of the Circle were: Phil Hughes, Millree Hughes, Pete Hewitt and Martin Herring.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Top Ten: Cultural Highlights of 1992

In my forthcoming essay on the lasting legacy of 1992, I shall be discussing at length some all or fewer of the following cultural moments in British life:

1. Men Behaving Badly
The new lad got into his strides on this ITV sitcom, while the BBC was giving women a similar range of role models in Absolutely Fabulous.

2. The Jack Dee Show
The first alternative comedian to reach a mainstream audience without sacrificing his original fan base. Though the John Smith adverts the following year were more influential.

3. Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living
The moment when the yet-to-be-branded Young British Artists convinced the world that making money should be considered one of the fine arts.

4. Suede in the Melody Maker
‘The best new band in Britain’ get their first magazine cover without having released a record yet, and inadvertently give birth to Britpop.

5. ‘Cherubim and Seraphim’, Inspector Morse
Danny Boyle is in the director’s chair as the Venerable Morse attempts to understand this rave and drug culture on which the youth seem so keen.

6. The death of Lymeswold
Invented by committee as an English brie a decade earlier, this tasteless, cultureless monstrosity of a cheese was finally killed off in a major victory for British food.

7. Morrissey waves a Union Flag at Madstock
He got pilloried by a generation for whom the national flag was a right-wing symbol, but within a couple of years the imagery was ubiquitous.

8. Brian Deane scores the first goal in the Premier League
Manchester United came back from their defeat by Deane’s Sheffield United to win the first Premier League title, to the delight of all those who talked about football as a product.

9. Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch
It changed the cultural status of football and changed the face of literature.

10. Charles and Diana announce their separation
Two colliding views on the nature of modern Britain give up their hopeless alliance and declare war on each other.

Incidentally, the title of the e-book has changed and will now be known as Things Can Only Get Bitter: The Lost Generation of 1992. It'll probably be available early next month.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Norman St John Stevas

When you hear on the news that someone who used to be well known has died, a standard response is: Good Lord, I hadn't thought about him/her for years.

Curiously that wasn't the case last night when the death was announced of the generously named Norman St John Stevas, or Lord St John of Fawsley as he later styled himself. He had turned up in conversation only last week when I was talking with Giles Radice about the evolution of the parliamentary select committees - a system that had been launched by Stevas back when he was leader of the House.

That was a pretty impressive legacy for such a slight political figure. Because apart from that, he wasn't really to be taken too seriously. This is an extract from my book Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s:

Thatcher’s determination to get her own way, despite the reservations of so many of her senior colleagues, became ever more apparent as 1981 wore on. She started the year by sacking Norman St John-Stevas as leader of the House, much to the horror of the liberal establishment and at the risk of fuelling his own sense of martyrdom.

‘I argued in the cabinet for a human and compassionate Conservatism,’ he pleaded, though in truth her motivation was rooted not so much in ideology as in a desire to reduce the authority of Francis Pym, the most plausible leader of the wets; Thatcher removed Pym from the ministry of defence and, while keeping him in the cabinet, isolated him as leader of the House, with St John-Stevas simply discarded to make room. As the novelist Michael Dobbs, who worked closely with her, noted: ‘She was ruthless when she had to be – and often when she didn’t have to be as well.’

In a way that was to become characteristic of dismissed wets, St John-Stevas was a couple of months later to be found presenting Dizzy: A Man for All Seasons, a BBC2 programme about Benjamin Disraeli, the man who originated the concept of One Nation Conservatism, in what was presumably intended to be a coded signal about where Thatcher was going wrong. And, as was to become equally characteristic, Thatcher ignored him entirely.

Janice Atkinson-Small

I tend to visit the Daily Mail's website to read specific journalists: mainly the ever entertaining Simon Heffer and Peter Hitchens. This morning I wandered a bit further afield and found myself reading Janice Atkinson-Small, of whom I confess I know nothing.

But she's a gem. This is from her piece about the proposal to introduce gay marriages into British law:

'I am a libertarian believing that people should live their lives freely, not hampered by big State but within the law - and sometimes natural law - which I believe is the union between a man and woman as defined by centuries of tradition.'

That's terrific stuff. She writes like John Prescott speaks.

It's not just the language that gets a bit mangled. Facts take a kicking as well: the government's proposed change 'smacks more of the loony days of Margaret Hodge running Islington and Red Ken in Brent and the GLC'. As I recall, Ken Livingstone was an MP for Brent East but had nothing to do with Brent Council at any stage.

But still, as Ms Atkinson-Small warns, 'the extreme gay lobby will win the day on this one. As have the bullies in the animal rights and pro-life lobbies.' The pro-life lobby? Has it really won the day? Apparently so.

Quote for the Week 14

'We're sitting on a demographic timebomb that successive governments have kept kicking into the long grass.'
- Ruth Porter of the Institute of Economic Affairs, on Radio Five Live this morning

Monday, 5 March 2012

All thro' the House..

It's always slightly worrying when one finds oneself agreeing with Charles Moore, but his article in yesterday's Daily Telegraph does have a point: the NHS really isn't very good, is it?

It's not the worst of the public services - the police clearly have that position sewn up - but, despite all the ritual praise from politicians and broadcasters, for whom it can do no wrong, it's not 'fantastic' at all. Given a choice, I'd rather fall ill in Germany or in France than in England.

Whether the government's reforms will make any difference, I have no idea (nor, indeed, much faith). What I do know is that unquestioningly to defend the status quo means accepting a health service that isn't as good as it should be. It is also an act of political cowardice. And it's the position the Labour Party appears to be adopting.

In this case, it's even more cowardly, of course, because it's obvious that, were there a Labour government, it would itself be busily reforming away. So Ed Miliband keeps quiet about his own opinions, and instead spends his time every week at prime minister's questions delivering a list of professional bodies who don't agree with the government.

Those bodies can speak for themselves, and do frequently. It's not Miliband's job to act simply as the mouthpiece for GPs. It is his job, as leader of the Labour Party, to convince the country that he has some thoughts of his own. Preferably Labour ones.

The benefit of silence is that it allows voters to read into your lack of expressed intention whatever they want. At the moment, this means that Miliband sounds like he's shares the public mood: sentimental loyalty to a system that no other country seems to be rushing to copy. But at some point, he needs to come up with something more substantial.

Doesn't seem very likely, though. It's political opportunism gone mad, I tell you.